This is, I believe, the last photo taken of my father. Alzheimer’s had claimed all but sparse fragments of his wonderful mind and he had recently been admitted to a full-time care facility. With each visit, I sought for anything that he might find familiar so that we could have a “conversation” for at least a sentence or two. On this day, I rode over on my newly acquired Harley Springer and I was anxious to see how Dad would react to an object he knew so well. Dad had gone through 37 Harleys over the years; from a flat-head “eighty” he purchased as he mustered out of WWII to his beloved “Big Red” Electra Glide Sport that he rode well into his late seventies.
As children, we pestered Dad to tell of his two-wheeled adventures riding hard and fast with college buddies Bunkie Ramey, Gene Clampet, and “Cheeseburger” Smith and we all knew the stories well. We showed our friends the 1st place trophy Dad won at a hill climb competition in Arkansas, (he won it using the stock motorcycle that he rode to the event). We stared wide-eyed, (and frequently laughed to tears), at his tales of rides with Bob Hunt, a larger-than-life character and a lifelong friend who rode with Dad for over 50 years.
We took particular delight in hearing how, sometime in the 1950’s Dad’s blue Harley Duo Glide blasted past a car driven by a young secretary who, upon arriving at work and spotting the motorcycle parked nearby, commented to her boss “The maniac on that motorcycle is going to get himself killed!”
Her boss smiled and replied, “That would be Jim Stephenson and you may be right; he might get killed on that motorsickle but I’ll bet he won’t be getting hit from behind!”
My dad married that secretary and Mom and Dad rode that motorcycle all over the U.S. and Mexico long before I was born.
Some of my earliest memories, (pre-kindergarten), include seeing the world through the windshield of a Harley as Dad sat me on the tank in front of him and tucked my feet behind his knees. I was ten years old when he put me on the back of his ’68 model for a ride from Kansas City, Missouri to Cape Canaveral, Florida. I was only fourteen when he and I rented two motorcycles in Athens, Greece, and toured the countryside, inadvertently getting ourselves into the middle of a Grand Prix car race (riding the wrong way on their circuit) and dealing with troubles from the local authorities. And I was sixteen, with a freshly-minted motorcycle license, when Dad and I took two motorcycles plus my two younger brothers on a 7,000 mile tour of the United States. We camped next to our bikes and made memories that remain vivid even now, forty years later.
The intervening years had been full of new adventures with countless cross-country rides with Dad. We rode identical Electra Glides and viewed the world we encountered with matching lenses shaped by convictions and sensibilities harmonized in chats around a campfire and in laughter that echoed off the overpasses as we sheltered to don our rain suits.
On the day this picture was taken, I entered his room and reintroduced myself; “Good morning, Dad; it’s your favorite son, Wes; how are you doing?” (all of my siblings employed their own version of this salutation). His eyes studied me with a guarded look as he protected himself from the strangers who seemed to fill his daily life. On most visits, after ten minutes or so of conversation, he would begin to use my name and become aware of our connection, though I was sometimes his son and at other times his brother.
“Hey, Dad; let’s find your shoes. I’ve got something outside that you’re going to love.”
I put his shoes on for him and guided him down the hall, repeatedly reminding him that we were going outside because I had a surprise for him. As we shuffled out onto the driveway, his eyes widened upon spotting the big silver Harley.
I wish that I could report that Dad smiled when he saw the bike but that facial expression was no longer part of his inventory by that time. Still, his eyes surveyed the hawg from stem to stern, accompanied with what appeared to me to be slight nods of approval.
I encouraged him to swing a leg over the bike then I helped him to do so. His hands went immediately to the controls and I could sense familiarity creeping in. I asked him what he thought of the motorcycle and he mumbled, “She’s a beaut.” His head swiveled left and right to take everything in but he didn’t say anything more.
A nurse stepped out and I asked her if she would shoot a photo of the two of us. I helped Dad dismount and we both leaned back on the Harley for one last picture from the saddle.
We then started the slow walk back across the driveway. Ten feet from the motorcycle Dad came to a halt and looked over to me, his brow furrowed in thought. “Do you really like that motorcycle, Wes?” he asked. I told him that it was a real crackerjack. He looked back at the Harley and shook his head as he bit on his bottom lip. When he looked back to me tears welled in his eyes. “Then I want you to have it,” he said, taking me by the arm and looking deep into my eyes. My mouth opened but I didn’t know how to respond. He again offered, but with increased resolution about the rightness of his decision; “She’s yours… I want you to have it.”
My father was “giving” me my own motorcycle and, for a fraction of a second, I thought this was humorous. But his eyes held me and I could see that Dad truly believed that this was his motorcycle and, if it had ever been true that “it is the thought that counts”, it could never have been more true than at that moment; when thoughts were precious to begin with and time was running out on their continued exchange.
I gazed in awe into his watering eyes and I knew that my dad loved me. He was a man who was aware of nothing remaining in his life to give but this motorcycle and so his gift was one of totality; his offering was entire, whole, and complete. I simply thanked him for his most generous gift and, for the first time in quite a while, he seemed satisfied with the state of things around him.
It was a slow ride home that morning. The Harley pulled strong but I kept the reigns slack, more interested in contemplation than in exhilaration. I realized that I was experiencing a gift that was not just a figment of a confused imagination. The joy of riding was a gift from my father. The appreciation of things mechanical was a gift from my father. The ability to partake of the world as I passed through it was a gift from my father. The things that I have come to love; the faith that I have embraced; the values that guide my life are all gifts bestowed upon me, in large measure, by my wonderful father.
I pulled the Harley into my garage and shut it down. The motor ticked and popped as parts began to cool. Before entering the house I looked back at the shiny silver steed.
My father’s final gift?
No. It was one of his first and it renews itself every day.