A quality of time


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A quality of time

By Bobby Neal Winters

When a loved-one dies and you are there time takes on a different quality. An eternity passes between each click of the second hand. Actions that used to be done as second nature now require a focus and concentration that you are no longer capable.

Jim Pittman, my father-in-law passed away during the afternoon on October 11, 2007. He’d eaten his favorite lunch and laid down for a nap with a book. When his wife went in to wake him, his finger was still marking the page, but his body was cold.

Time became different.

I first met Jim over Christmas break in 1984. At the time he was semi-retired. Indeed, his pickup sported the bumper sticker “Semi-Retired, Semi-Impossible.” He’d retired from running an orchard for Gerber’s Baby Food and had bought twelve acres of sandy land near the Spiro mound site just a mile south of the Arkansas River.

His plan was to have a Christmas tree farm and to do a little experimentation with sustainable agriculture. He was interested in how a family could feed itself on a small holding of land. I spent some of the first visit along with Jean, then my girlfriend, planting Christmas trees out on the acreage.
Jim had suffered a heart attack shortly after his semi-retirement—and had a couple more after that—but it never stopped him longer than his time to recover. He was always planning, and he always had a project in the offing. It is instructive that many of his projects never got beyond the planning stage, but, what he did do, he did well.

Jim had a puckish sense of humor. He loved practical jokes, and April Fool’s Day was always a time of nervousness for the rest of the family. What has Jim got up his sleeve? Although, I must say, the family gave as good as it got. One year my computer skills were drawn upon to create an official-looking fake document implicating him in a money laundering scheme with former business partners in Central America. He was completely taken in, reading the letter and muttering curses about former colleagues, until he saw the name of the typist: April Fool.

Jim was also interested in politics. I quickly learned not to praise Harry Truman, who’d fired Jim’s favorite general, or Lyndon Johnson, who Jim thought should be dug-up from his grave and hanged. In his later years, Jim had a similar lack of affection for George W. Bush, which we need not go into here.

Jim loved children and animals and played with one as readily as the other, depending upon availability. He and his wife Janet moved to Pittsburg to live near my wife and our family upon the birth of their second granddaughter, Sarah.

Having been in the Korean War and lived in Japan for a time, Jim had developed a taste for foreign travel which was reinforced as a buyer for Gerber’s Baby Food in South America. While he wasn’t able to indulge this in retirement, he did scratch his itchy feet by camping on extended road trips in such locations as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan during the summer and south Texas during the winter. Sometimes, for shorter outings, he would go ahead and scout out a camping location for the rest of us, and we would go and join him for a weekend camp. These trips were invariably restful and enjoyable.

These last few years, Jim’s health was more of a struggle, but he remained the man he was.

A couple of years ago he bought the vacant rent house next door to Jean’s and my home and began converting it to an experiment station for small-scale sustainable agriculture. He bartered some hunting vests he found there for 50-gallon plastic barrels which had been used to hold vegetable oil and used the barrels to catch rain-water to use for irrigation.

He built a lean-to greenhouse on the southern exposure of the house to grow spinach during the winter.

This past summer, while Jean’s and my house has been being renovated, he allowed our dogs, Buttercup and Obadiah, the run of his back yard and spoiled them in doing so.

The Sunday before he died, we celebrated Lydia, the youngest grandchild’s birthday. He and Janet brought a big cardboard box which was filled with smaller, handsomely wrapped gifts.

Lydia chose the smallest first, desiring to work her way up. She struggled with tap for several minute before revealing a pack of gum from which all the sticks had been removed. Other presents were a well-wrapped rock and a lump of coal. There was also, much to the dread of everyone else in the family, a practical joke kit.

When Jean and I were called over to Jim and Janet’s house, the paramedics had already left. I went into the room and saw him lying there with the maps on every wall and the book on the bed in front of him. The sparkle that had always shone from his eyes was gone.

With cooler weather coming on, we can imagine he has headed south to Texas. Or maybe he’s gone on to a new camping spot he’s heard about to get the campsite set up for the rest of us. Someone else said something like that.

But now the ticks of the second hand resound like a drum and an eternity passes between each one.

(Bobby Winters is Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University. He pastors the Opolis Methodist Chruch.)
Hi Bobby,

What a loving tribute to your father-in-law. My heartfelt prayers are with you and your family at this time which may seem a bit like it is in warp right now. But perhaps this is God's way of letting us know that time, like death, are not quite what they appear to be to us. Lifting you up in Love. I do know that feeling.

South Texas, huh? I used to love to visit there, especially down around the coast. My daughter was nine when her dad passed on, and then our best friend followed a couple of years later. He had taught my husband how to whittle out of the driftwood there on the beach. When the former was very sick, he started a project which never got finished. Before he died, he asked me if I would ask our friend to finish it if he didn't have enough time. Our friend did, and he signed it with my husband's initials. It still hangs on my wall. Anyway, after the friend died, my daughter made a sort of illustrated storybook, which showed her idea of what the two might be doing wherever they may be. In her mind, they were walking along the beach, maybe in Padre, finding the perfect piece of wood for a beautiful project. I'm not sure exactly how all that works, but I can hardly help but picture them around the campfire, chatting and carving away....


Hi Okie...

Very sorry to hear of your family's loss, and the passing of a gentleman that lived a life that bespeaks every bit of our most fundamental calling as human beings... to be curious, creative, and constructive in how we live our lives.

What an interesting guy he must have been to get to know as you did. What you have written has surely been a balm for you and your family. I know that when my dad died a little over a year ago, writing about it and sharing his life with others did so very much to ease our pain.

Mom's going to be 91 in January and she just got back from a solo trip to the UK and is doing well. So life does go on, and with great joy when there is someone around like Jim was for you to smooth out the bumpy places with his impish humor. That's the way my Dad was also. Even though it's always so hard to deal with the times of passing from one reality to another, we always know that life goes on.

I offer you and your family my humblest of condolences (along with a :kitty: or two) for your loss. I picture your father-in-law and my dad together with at least a couple of fishing rods, two complete tackle boxes and several worms/minnows, chatting about the ones that got away here (but not where they are now) and about their children and grandchildren.

Phyllis Sidhe_Uaine
I'm sorry to hear of your loss Bobby. My brother died June 18 of this year. It was my first real loss. I repair cabinets. I worked today and yesterday at a home where the wife's dad had just passed. Yesterday, when I for the very first time met them, they were headed out to the funeral. They had a glazed look reminiscent of how I felt dressing for Mark's funeral. I'm grateful for how friends and family seemed to know how to support us, me. I feel forever indebted for the kindness expressed to me by friends and strangers alike. Internet people sent me real cards in the (gasp) mail. It helped a lot. It's been a few months and I'm nowhere near the end of my grief. Maybe I never will be. But I learned a lot from the experience. One must learn to deal with death if one wishes to grow pleasantly old. I'm not nearly as afraid of it as I was because I know now what taking the hit feels like. It hurts like hell! But I'm still alive!

sorry to hear of your loss okie. It was a scary time for me when my Dad passed away. He was my rock. he was always there. then, he wasnt. We used to joke because of my terrible memory that he would have to die on a date that I could remember, I couldnt remember otther dates. I'd usually get a guess close to dates (but thats another story). Dad was ill for a long time but he recovered (off and on) as well. So each time he was hospitalized I really didnt worry too much, (bad daughter) He actually had the Last Rites read to him in the intensive care ward 8 months before he passed away. (see what I mean bout always recovering) Then he did die, ephysema, I think and a bad heart, all that. Its feels still very fresh (the emotions) he died on 9/3/93. (very considerate of him, i think) Your father in law seemed to be a close friend of yours too. Thats special. I reckon my dad, will probably be fishing with the rest of those retirees/expert fishermen, up there. I miss him. Love theGrey
Oh G-d...my Dad lived to fish on his days off. Seined his own minnows too...and taught me how to do the same. How we all miss him and his wonderful attitude of humor !

Thank you all for my memories...again. It's only been 16 months since he left me and Mom. We miss him, his jokes, his music, his cooking so much !