My father died on Saturday, April 8. He lived 97 years. Until struck with COVID, he had never had to stay in a hospital. In the last three months, he mustered all his strength to overcome the virus’ results: internal bleeding, then post-COVID pneumonia, then the side-effects of medication, and finally one more case of pneumonia. I curse the disease and all it does. He passed on peacefully last night after we — his entire family, the five of us — had the blessing of spending his last day with him, affirming our love.
I am writing this only for myself. I’m not writing it for him; he outlived everyone he knew. Neither am I writing it for you; I don’t expect you to read this, for you did not know him. I find such memorials for loved ones, including pets, in social media understandable but difficult, for I never know how to react. I do not expect you to. I simply want to memorialize my father, to leave a trace of his life connected with mine here. As an old newspaperman, I understand the value of the obituary more than the grave.
Darrell V. Jarvis was born in the tiny house on his grandfather’s rocky, dirt-poor farm up the holler behind the Methodist church in Weston, West Virginia. His parents were not much educated, Buck finishing the seventh grade, Vera not a lot more. They worked hard and moved often, following drilling crews to gas fields in West Virginia, Kentucky, and southern Illinois, my father attending eight schools along the way. His parents insisted that he and his brother — my late Uncle Richard, a church musician — attend college. My father graduated from the University of Illinois after completing a first stint of service in the Navy at the end of World War II. At U of I, he met my mother, Joan Welch, the daughter of a country doctor and a nurse in Lewistown, Illinois. They had two children: me and my sister, Cynthia, a Presbyterian minister. We lost our mother almost six years ago.
Darrell studied engineering but didn’t much like it. He preferred people. So, after serving in the Navy again in the Korean War, as a lieutenant on the destroyer USS Renshaw, he moved up as a “peddler” — his word — in the electronic and electrical industries, rising to be a VP of sales. He was on the road constantly, “with an airplane strapped to my backside,” and we moved constantly, from Illinois to Iowa to New Jersey to New York to Illinois and then — after Cindy graduated and I, having also attended eight schools, left the nest — to Seattle, California, and Illinois, then back to New Jersey, and finally to three or four places in Florida. They bought many window treatments.
Our mother was quite shy. Our father was the opposite. They did attract. The joke in the family was that by the time he reached the box office at the movie theater, Darrell would be lifelong friends with whoever was behind and in front of him in line, sharing their stories. Meanwhile, we hid. If they ever make a Mad Men about nice people, my father would be the model: the handsome and charming guy in the gray suit with hat and briefcase, for years puffing a pipe, tending to our suburban lawns, playing golf at every opportunity, going to church, sipping bourbon and later martinis at cocktail parties, voting Republican until Trump. Darrell was middle America.
At age 62, Darrell became the model or cliché of the retired American. He and Joan moved to a town in Florida where you must be 55 years old to live (I so want to write that sitcom). He could golf constantly until he needed to stay near Joan because of the type-1 diabetes he nursed her through for more than 50 years. And his knees gave out.
My parents were wonderful grandparents to our children, Jake and Julia. Oh, how they love their PopPop and Mimi. And oh, how my parents adored my wife, Tammy.
I learned much from my father. He so wanted to teach me golf so we could bond on the course, but after I once hit him in the shin with a driver and he hit me in the head with a stray ball, we gave up. He tried to teach me the handy skills, but while watching me try to build a case for the amplifier for my eighth-grade science-fair project (electronic bongos), he shook his head and declared: “You’re so clumsy you couldn’t stick your finger up your ass with two hands.” He said it with love and laughter as well as exasperation. We gave up that ambition, too.
What I did learn from my father more than anything else was ethics. I saw how he did business. I watched how he treated the staff who worked for him. I listened to him teach me how to deal with office politics: Never lower yourself to their level. I will always be proud of him that when he found himself in a meeting that turned out to be about price-fixing, he got up, protested, and left, risking his career. I tried to learn charm from him — even at the end, his smile and warmth would win over every nurse and aide. I yet wish I could learn to be the father he was.
We tried for years to get him and my mother — then him alone — to move up to be near my sister and us. In the summer of 2021 — fully vaccinated — he caught COVID for the first time in his retirement community and spent 11 days in the hospital and a month in rehab before moving to assisted living. Finally, he agreed to move. Tammy asked him: Why not before? “I’m just stupid,” he said. He came to an assisted living community five miles from our home and said he was living where he should. Thus the perverse blessing of COVID was that it brought him to us for a magnificent year and a half we otherwise would not have had — until it stole him from us. We saw him every day. Sister Cindy would come up with her Scottie, Phoebe, to sit in his lap. My dear Tammy took away all his worries of finance and life; he heeded her. She insisted that we have him over to our house three nights a week, culminating in thrill rides on a ramp after his knees finally gave out and he resorted to a wheelchair. He asked me one day to find him an electric wheelchair and that was a wonder to behold, him hot-rodding to meals and bingo and happy hour, balancing a martini in one hand, steering the wheelchair in the other, miraculously managing not to hit any old ladies.
We love you, Pa.