Moment of silence
Sunday afternoon, I found myself in a camp chair in the yard, book neglected in my lap, listening to the silence.
I looked out at the grass, wondering how much longer it would be green. A single dandelion stood above the blades, its head gray and woolly, gone to seed. A few bees hovered in the flowers by the lilac bush.
I could hear the phone ringing from the house and braced myself for the loss of silence. Sure enough, a moment later, my son came out holding the phone.
Mom was on the line.
She had gone to her Uncle Phillip's funeral the day before in New Brunswick and wanted to tell me about it. People tell stories about you at funerals, and his was one I had never heard.
Phillip Leon Antworth was 90 years old when he died Sept. 25, just a few months shy of 91.
When I was growing up, I always thought of him as a cute little old man, mild-mannered, quiet. I saw him once or twice a year when we would drive up to the farm country where Mom was born. He was a farmer all his life.
He was born in 1922. When he was 11 years old in 1933 he had to quit school and go to work to help support his family.
"That's what people did during the Depression," Mom said.
It sounds tough, and it was in many ways, but the farmers fared better than those living in the cities. Nobody had any money, but they were able to grow their own food. No one in the community went hungry, the way my grandmother tells it.
The real hardship for Phillip was that he lost his chance at an education. Well into his adult years, he was virtually illiterate.
Having grown up in Hampden, Maine in the 1970s and '80s, it's hard for me to imagine what that's like. My generation took school for granted and even had the audacity to complain about it.
Phillip married the neighbor girl, who happened to be my preacher grandfather's sister, Glenna. Of course this was back before Papa became a preacher. He was a farmer like everyone else.
Glenna had gotten her education and worked as a school teacher. Mom said people on that side of the family were all either teachers or preachers or both. They took in boarders or did whatever they had to do to make that work financially because they valued education.
Glenna and Phillip had two children, Howard and Naida.
When Glenna would read to the children at night, Phillip would sit and listen and follow along. More often than not, they were reading Bible stories, Mom said.
Slowly, he was picking up how to read, learning along with his kids. Each week he got the local newspaper and would read through it, letting Glenna help him with the tough words and phrases.
Naida told people at the funeral that when she was growing up, she thought this was a terribly slow way to learn to read, but Phillip was patient. Naida, herself, would grow up to be a school principal and later a Christian missionary.
Phillip and Glenna were married nearly 68 years. In the last 10 years, her eyes got so bad that she couldn't read anymore.
But it was OK, because by now, Phillip could read to her. Every night, she would sit and listen to his voice telling the stories.
Mom was starting to cry as she told me this.
In the end, Phillip was doing pretty well for a 90-year-old. He was up and around, able to drive, and his thinking was clear right up to the day he died.
On that day, a nurse, who regularly came to visit Phillip and Glenna, told him someone needed to take him to the hospital. He said he didn't want to trouble anyone, so he drove himself, Glenna by his side.
Doctors did tests on both Phillip and Glenna. Phillip apparently wasn't too worried about it, wandering the hospital to pass the time while he waited for Glenna.
After a little while, he said he wasn't feeling too good. His heart was speeding up.
They told Phillip he needed to stay, but Glenna could go home. Right up to the last minute, he worried about practical concerns, just like any other day. Someone needed to put the car in the garage. He had just filled it with gas, so that should be OK. He sounded like any other husband on any regular day.
Someone gave Glenna a ride home. She had just gotten through the door, when the phone rang. Phillip was gone.
I think about how hard it must have been over all those years, learning to read. It might have been embarrassing too, wondering if his kids could see his weakness. And yet, he didn't give up and he didn't try to hide.
Sometimes it doesn't matter how slow you're going — that your steps are wobbly and far between — as long as you're moving in the right direction.
Mom and I talked about other things for a while and then said our goodbyes.
I was left there in the silence, looking at a lawn soon to be covered in snow, thinking about Phillip's story.
Couldn't help but wonder if he ever read one like it in his newspaper.
Daniel Dunkle is editor of The Courier-Gazette. He lives in Rockland with his wife and two children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 594-4401 ext. 122.