Sean McNeil

Happy 95th Birthday Dad . . . A Tribute to You and Your Razor

It was one of his prized possessions. He won it in a poker game while he was in the Army, stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia during World War II. The razor was nearly stolen one night when he was off base sleeping in the back seat of his car. A would-be thief was rummaging through the glove compartment. Dad heard some commotion. The thief was startled when Dad sat up and demanded to know what he was doing. The would-be felon dropped the razor and ran. This razor had a harrowing beginning and I'm certain I would have never been told this story if the thief would have made off with his booty.

From the time I was a little boy Dad told me, "One day I'm going to leave my razor to you." "Where are you going? I asked. He meant that when he died he was going to leave me the razor. "You're going to die?" The thought terrified me.

One day while in elementary school I had a science project that had to be completed. My problem was I needed to cut a cardboard box. Unable to find a knife, box cutter, or other sharp object, I grabbed Dad’s razor, unscrewed the top, and removed the blade. After I performed this clandestine act, I returned the blade to its rightful place. My two sisters would occasionally pilfer his razor to shave their legs. They would likely be accused of this dastardly deed. The next morning Dad came out of the bathroom with tiny little red dots of toilet paper stuck all over his face. In a voice of calm he began the grand jury investigation to get to the bottom of this crime. Both sisters claimed their rightful innocence. However, their testimony was not deemed to be credible because they had been tried and found guilty in prior investigations. The question he raised was, "Who shaved a pig with my razor?" I thought this was uproariously funny, for one reason, we didn't own any pigs. I couldn't get out of my head the image of someone putting shaving cream on a pig and I wondered if this was where the word "razorbacks" came from. Laughter disarmed me and I confessed to the crime. In my mind and at that time I didn't understand that razor blades became dull. I just thought they always remained sharp. In my defense I reasoned that it shouldn't really matter because the razor was going to be mine one day so I should at least be able to use it now.

Dad loved that razor. He would have nothing to do with electric razors. He said they didn't shave close enough. When "Trac Two" blades came out he would have nothing to do with them. Neither would he have anything to do with the three, four, or five bladed razors. How many blades do you really need?

It was one of the few constants in his life. His first wife, my Mom, died from lung cancer a few weeks after she turned 60. He was devastated and conflicted with grief by her death. The devastation didn’t last long. She died in November. He remarried the following July. Dad and Amy were married for 20 years. She stood up from the breakfast table, fainted, hit her chin on the way down, and broke three vertebrae in her neck. After neck surgery, a halo, and attempts at rehab, she was dead in six weeks. Dad was again conflicted with grief. He blamed himself for not being able to catch her before her chin hit the table and her neck snapped.

We moved him in with us primarily so we could get him to much needed medical attention. He had Paget's Disease which meant his bone marrow was hardening and he had fractures in his back. His stomach was distended up into his chest through a Hiatal hernia. His stomach wouldn't empty and it caused nausea and vomiting. When Brenda tried to help him with prep for a colonoscopy he literally became like a rabid raccoon and thought she was trying to kill him. He was on pain patches for his back pain and he was higher than a kite until he would crash. He became mean when the drugs started to wear off. We had to take his car away. He was enraged. He ran away twice and we had to call the police. He wanted to move back to Jacksonville. My sister found an assisted living facility that was just blocks away from where he grew up in Five Points near Riverside.

He adjusted to his new environment but it took months. He slept a lot and stayed in his room. He was depressed. He quit bathing. Other residents complained that he smelled. Dad had to be moved to a different section of the facility so he could receive care with his ADL’s, medical nomenclature for activities of daily living, such as bathing, grooming, etc. With pinpoint accuracy he could tell detailed stories of events that happened eight decades earlier but have no clue what he had for lunch. He told me a story about a cousin of his that had been convicted of murder and had been sent to the electric chair at Raiford. I thought he had made it up but I researched the story and it was true. I always knew Dad possessed many secrets. I’ve always wondered about all of the others that died with him.

His behavior became more bizarre. The administrator called me one day and was dumbfounded when she learned he had defecated in his bathroom sink. During our monthly visits for haircuts, supplies, and an off campus trip for a meal, we’d bring wipes with us because there were always telltale smears of feces on his walker. No matter how many times his clothes were washed he always smelled "old," a peculiar and pungent smell that penetrates the nostrils like a knife stabbing through sinus cavities into the brain. I felt both love and disgust for this man, the emotional equivalent of trying to juggle both fire and ice. The kids nicknamed him Yoda, because he began to look like him. As Yoda would say, “Difficult these emotions to feel, they are. . . .”

Although his body and his mind betrayed him, his sense of humor did not. He was an endless reservoir of corny jokes, puns, and one-liners that caused more groans and eye rolls than the number of hits of those registering for ObamaCare on the website. He wanted you to laugh because he wanted you to like him. Laughter communicates acceptance, something he craved. The humor was at time offensive and inappropriate which was also consistent with his character. At other times, it was unintended. Of all of the prose and poetry he had committed to memory the Gettysburg Address was an integral selection in his repertoire. The last time I took him off campus for lunch (he ordered salmon every time, something he had never eaten before) and out of “The Nut House,” the name he ascribed to his place of residency, he launched into a usual and predictable recitation of “Four score and seven years ago.” Upon completion, he looked at me with a deadpan expression on his face and he was as serious as a heart attack, “Did I write that?,” he asked. I said, “Yes, Dad, you and Abraham Lincoln!” His confusion was understandable since he repeatedly plagiarized the poetry of Edgar A. Guest and in his recitations he claimed them as his own.

Apart from his humor, the one constant, the one thing that he cohered around that created normalcy, consistency, and predictability, was the routine of shaving. Long gone was reading the paper, working the crossword puzzle, going bowling, and frequent gambling trips to Las Vegas. He was such a regular at the Four Queens his lodging and meals were usually free. The last ritual and routine he hung on to with desperation was the daily ritual of shaving. Since the onset of the double-barreled blast he suffered from age and stage senility he literally had forgotten about his lifelong dedication to his blade razor. During one visit he gave it to me so I could “enjoy it” prior to his death or otherwise further demise. He now wanted and demanded an electric razor. The problem was he went through them like most of us go through disposables. He sat in his reclining chair in his room and fouled them up as readily as he did his remote control on his television set. His face was always raw. He shaved constantly. He applied lubricants to his face, such as Vaseline, that further gummed up the works of his electric razors. When they stopped working he would dismantle them and then demand a replacement. After fouling more than a few expensive varieties we then resorted to buying the BOGO’s at Walgreens or CVS. During his four years at the Riverside Presbyterian House our best estimates are that he went through twenty five electric razors, about one every two months. The list was small for Dad’s supplies. “Dad, we are coming up Saturday. Do you need anything?” “Bring Cokes, shampoo, soap, toilet paper, and . . . a new electric razor.”

Today would have been Dad’s 95th birthday. I’ve only ever had one electric razor. It was one of the early casualties when I gifted it to him. I don’t like electric razors. Never have. Never will. If I ask you one day, my children, Sean or Rebekah, to bring me an electric razor please bring me instead at least 30 Ambien or a 9mm pistol. If I ask you for an electric razor you will know that I have officially and totally lost my mind just like your Granddaddy did. I don’t want you to everhave to go through the juggling act of holding those God awful emotions of love and disgust. As you know, I am in my sixth decade. I don't think I fear so much about growing old as much as I fear beingold.

Happy Birthday, Dad. In honor of this day I’m going to offer you a toast, of sorts. Today I will raise my mug . . . and lather up my brush. Today Dad, I will shave with your razor. And I will remember the Dad who shaved with this same razor before the effects of aging and time and dementia hit you with a haymaker and knocked you down for the count long before you were carried out of the ring.