I went to go visit my father today. One of those absurdly sunny, clear April days full of green and warmth and lies. In January, when he had gone up to my sister Meg’s place outside Boston until we could get his care sorted out, it hadn’t been bad for a winter day. The whole winter hadn’t been, except for that morning when I had gotten a call at 6 a.m. from the Chatham Police that they had brought Dad home, having gone out in 26 degree weather, walking towards town. A first and only time.
He was still in good shape at 93. Two decades ago, in January, on a bone-cold day, we’d learned of his heart attack. A day before he had gotten the mower attachment on his Gravely, cleaned the carburetor, and was clearing the garden while all the weeds and saplings were dry and brittle. He had explained to me that the job was easier in the winter because everything cuts cleanly in the cold.
Dad had started to feel a little heartburn while mowing. So he went inside and had a little Pepto-Bismol, but still felt bad.
Not so bad that he didn’t head out to finish the job for another couple hours.
Then he came in, read the paper, had dinner, watched some TV, and went to bed.
Finally at midnight he decided it might make sense to go get checked out at the ER. He dressed, got in his Ford LTD station wagon, and drove himself to Cape Cod Hospital.
Anyone caught behind my father on the road knows he earned the name “Slow Joe.” It drove us kids crazy because he rarely went over 25 on local roads. In his landscaping trucks, he would even just pull out into traffic onto Route 28 from the dirt driveway in West Chatham, knowing people would have to stop. In the summer. “If we wait for an opening, we will never get to the job.” And then we’d go a snail’s pace. There might be honking behind us, but that just assured us those people were from out of town.
And he’d always take Route 28 all the way to Hyannis. An hour. That’s what it took when he was a kid growing up here in the '30s and '40s. But this time, as a change, late at night, he took the Mid-Cape Highway.
He told me that he thought he was OK after getting there. Up until they did an X-ray and put him up against a cold metal plate. Then all the pain of cardiac arrest hit him.
When his car was retrieved the next morning, the gas gauge was below empty. But he was fine. As he was when he had a stroke six years ago. In and out of the hospital and nursing home, and after two months no one would have guessed. He was back to pushing a lawn mower at the Chase Cottages on Water Street and Griscom’s on Sears Point by May. It was only a sore knee that finally slowed him down enough to stop mowing at 89.
At the end of February he was going to head back down here to the Cape, to Rosewood in Harwich, but had a minor stroke. He may have had one in November that everyone missed. So instead he went to Newton-Wellesley Hospital, onward to their rehab unit, and then their nursing home pending transfer down here. COVID-19, though, shut down those plans a month ago and we waited for the all clear.
The tough thing is not being able to talk to him easily. Not like he had a cell phone. Dad never needed one for us reach him when he was working. Monday through Friday he left the house by 8 a.m. with his crew. At 10 he was taking a break at Chatham Bakery, getting a coffee and a cinnamon doughnut. He was home for lunch, noon to 1 p.m., then back to work until break at 3 p.m., which was usually Cumbies.
Unless it was Friday, which meant he was getting ice cream at Short ‘n’ Sweet. At five, the trucks would pull in the yard, everyone covered with grass and dust from a day of mowing Union or Seaside Cemetery, and wait for him to go in the house and write checks.
He was Chatham’s employer of last resort for decades. My mother said she never knew of my father firing someone. That could go as well for the cottages out back. A lot of local people down on their luck got through it by a paycheck or a roof from my dad.
That extended to his seven elected terms as the town’s tree warden. There’s hardly a shade tree in town, paid for by Friends of Trees, that he didn’t plant. After Dutch Elm disease took down so many downtown trees, he made a point of finding suitable replacement species. That flower garden he had been clearing became a nursery for white pines, oaks, ash and beech.
A Sunday like today would have been the kind where Dad took me down to the Cape Cod Canal bike path and wrapped it up with an ice cream nearby. I was in Bourne, after all, to visit him and might have returned the gesture. But the virus had gotten into his ward, and although asymptomatic for over a week, he’d been tired on Monday and took a nap. That was it. In his sleep. Just as he had wanted.
Cut down at 93½. Half a century working outdoors will do that for your heart.
Clearly, no symptoms does not mean no danger.
While we expect to have a service when circumstances allow—in a cemetery he probably spent more time in alive than many of its current occupants have dead—I took my chance to say goodbye today. He was in the Nickerson Funeral Home, looking like he had so many times when I came into the house and found him on the couch. Ball cap, flannel shirt, resting. He’d told me he didn’t want any fuss. He just wanted to be sure to leave what he had to us kids.
And every one of us kids has a story about having a problem, calling him and his coming along with truck and tools and help, time and again. That’s something I’ve picked up. That and his sweet tooth.
Everyone has a story about Joe Buckley. Some amusing, some frustrating. But he was unique to Chatham. Whether in the trees he planted or the family, friends and employees he helped, his legacy is broad, and certainly more than he would ever think to acknowledge.
He will be with the trees soon.