Saying Goodbye to the Man Who Used to Be

“Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower, We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.”

William Wordsworth

On a gray, blustery morning a few days back, I whispered a tearful, final farewell to the man I used to call “Daddy.”

At the time of his death, my dad was a frail 73 years old, the victim of years of alcohol abuse and, more recently, dementia.  Even so, his death was not expected.  He had fallen and broken his hip only two days prior, and from that injury an embolism formed and lodged in his lungs.  My brother, sister and I, as well as some of my dad’s siblings, stood helplessly at his bedside as his condition deteriorated from bad to worse to horrible, forcing us to make the agonizing decision to stop the medicines, disconnect the tubes, and let him go.

For the past 20 years my relationship with my dad had been, at best, strained and distant.  I called occasionally and visited even less, but because of his alcoholism, too many harsh words had been spoken, too many unforgivable acts had been committed, and I allowed my battered feelings and stubborn pride to harden my heart against him.

Christmas 2009

And it would have been so easy to continue to dwell on the negativity and pain of the previous years as I stood by his hospital bedside–but it would have also been so wrong.  As I watched him slowly slipping away, I was overcome with sadness for all that had been lost–and I especially mourned the loss of the man he used to be.  When the ice around my heart started to melt, I was amazed by all the beautiful memories I found waiting just below the surface …

I remember summer Saturdays with my dad soaking through his white t-shirt in the sweltering heat, cranking the handle on the ice cream maker for what seemed like forever to the little ponytailed girl waiting so impatiently for that first delicious bowl.  I remember horseshoe-throwing and watermelon seed-spitting contests that he always let me win.  I remember his frying bologna sandwiches and hot dogs in the cast-iron skillet, and I remember his spending hours making homemade hot tamales wrapped in corn husks and letting us eat them right out of the pan.

I remember his loving arms gently carrying me to the emergency room after a swingset accident left a bleeding gash in my chin, and I remember the concern on his face as I wavered in and out of consciousness.

I remember countless nights standing by his side at a poker table in somebody else’s kitchen, where he taught me the intricacies of seven card stud and let me stack his money and occasionally even let me make his bids for him.

I remember his soft heart making him a sucker for a stray animal or a sob story.  Our house was home to a revolving menagerie of mangy mutts and abandoned cats, and customers who owed him money sometimes paid in horses and chickens and rabbits, much to the delight of his three children and the consternation of their mother who could never get the electric company to consider a similar payment arrangement.

Happier times ... with my mom at my sister's wedding, 30 years ago.

I remember him putting family first when he left a high-paying job at McDonnell Douglas for the uncertainties of self-employment, moving us from the suburbs of St. Louis to the gravel roads of Southeast Missouri because he wanted his children to grow up in a place where they could roam and explore, where they could see the stars at night and climb in the trees and dig in the dirt in the day.

And I remember after that move to the country he was often absent from the dinner table because of the long, hard hours he worked to support his family and to “make ends meet.”

I remember his sitting in a lawn chair at my softball games, yelling, “Go, Karen Sue!” every time I hit the ball, ran the bases, or chased after a fly.  I remember being so humiliated and begging him to stop yelling my middle name (which he never did)–and I also remember realizing after a few years of such humiliation that he was one of the few dads who was always there to cheer on his daughter, even if she wasn’t particularly fond of his cheers.

I remember his being so excited when he brought home my first car–a sapphire blue 1971 442 Cutlass convertible muscle car–and then being so disappointed when my spoiled 15-year-old self didn’t share his excitement because I had wanted something small and cute and neon.  I also remember his painstaking attempts to teach me how to drive in that car and his cautionary advice about braking (but never swerving) whenever a deer or other animal ran across my path–and then his frustration one day when his ditzy blonde daughter slammed on the brakes (but didn’t swerve!) in the middle of the gravel road to wait for a turtle to cross from one side to the other.

I remember his love of country music, particularly Charlie Pride, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, and Loretta Lynn, and to this day I can’t hear “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” “A Boy Named Sue,” or “King of the Road” without thinking about my dad.

I remember being shocked one day when I walked into his shop unannounced and overheard him cussing with his buddies.  I was 18 at the time and had never heard my dad use such language.  I also remember the look on his face when he saw me standing there and his quick admonishment to his buddies:  “Shhh!  Watch your language–there’s a lady present.”

My dad's high school graduation picture. Even though he was the top student in his class, college was never an option.

And I remember that it was always understood–never even discussed–that I would be the first in his family to go to college.  Fortunately, scholarships and grants and a work study program paid most of my way, but my hard-working dad still managed to scrape up $10 every week to help pay for my living expenses.

It was comforting to me to finally realize how many good memories I have of my dad, and on the night of his visitation I discovered that so many others have fond memories of him as well.  Old friends filed in, most of them people he had lost contact with over the years but who were still eager to remember and pay tribute to the kind and gentle man he used to be before his illnesses took him away from us long before his death did.

One thing that remained constant, even when dementia robbed my dad of almost every other memory, was his love of fishing.  Until his very last days, he was still ready to grab his fishing pole, his tackle box and a carton of worms and head down to the nearest creek with whoever would take him, his mind already manufacturing a whopper of a tale about his latest catch.  For his sake, I really hope there’s a fishin’ hole in Heaven; I can imagine him dozing lazily there in the sunshine of that creek bank, ball cap pulled down over his eyes and fishing pole in hand, waiting for the tug that will rouse him from his slumber as it pulls his red and white bobber below the water’s surface, letting him know that the next big one is ready to be reeled in.

And I can imagine him, at last, at peace.

Before the fishing trips became imaginary ...

About icedteawithlemon

I have recently retired from a 30-year career in education in one of the best school districts in the world. I hope to spend my second life reading, writing, photographing, traveling, biking, cheering on my favorite baseball team (the St. Louis Cardinals), and soaking up glorious sunshine. In my spare time I enjoy playing with my pet tarantulas, trying out new flavors of chewing gum, and knitting socks for prison inmates. I'm almost positive that in a past life I was one of the Seven Dwarfs (most likely "Grumpy"), and in my next life I'm going to be either a taste tester for Hershey's or a model for Victoria's Secret's new line, "Bloomers for Boomers." I want to travel country back roads, singing Vanilla Ice songs at every karaoke bar and rating bathroom cleanliness at every truckstop. And someday I plan to own a private beach where skinny girls aren't allowed. I want to be a writer when I grow up. "Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."--Henry David Thoreau
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21 Responses to Saying Goodbye to the Man Who Used to Be

  1. SUE says:

    Oh, Karen – This is so beautiful. He was always very very proud of you.You can keep these wonderful memories tucked away in your heart and when you feel sad, take them out one by one and smile with him again & again.

    • Thank you, Sue–yet another daughter who has lost her dad, so I know you can appreciate my feelings right now. I’m glad I was finally able to bring those memories to the surface, and I know they will sustain me in the weeks (and years) ahead.

  2. You dug down deep… and found this treasure buried underneath years of painful words and memories. Thank you. This is how we should all strive to remember those who caused us pain, yet are called ‘family’.

  3. This was so beautiful, and so heartfelt. You will touch and inspire many by sharing your grief and how your loving memories of your Dad bubbled up to comfort you. My sympathies for your loss and for all that transpired in recent times,
    Hugs, MJ

  4. bronxboy55 says:

    So many people grow up with a one-dimensional image of their parents. Either they put them on a pedestal and worship them from far below or they dwell only on how disappointing their childhoods were and how their parents had let them down. You have accomplished the difficult task of seeing your father as a human being, complete with countless strengths and his share of flaws, too. You’ve also managed to look back past the difficult later years to see the man he was, and the man you will always remember. Beautifully done, Karen.

    • Thank you for your kind observations. I wish I could have prevented the alcoholism and dementia that took him away from me so many years ago, but I am grateful I was able to stand at his bedside and see the man and father he used to be and to be reminded that despite all his faults–and all mine as well–there was still genuine love between a father and his daughter. I think in many ways the difficulties in our relationship made me a better parent to my own children, and the lessons I learned at his bedside will (I hope) make me a kinder, gentler (and less stubborn) person from here onward. Thank you again–I always value your insight.

  5. Rhonda Newton says:

    Just read your touching memories of your dad. Our fathers were much alike, Karen. Each struggled with demons, yet managed to teach us what matters. Happy Thanksgiving!

  6. Gail says:

    I read this with tears streaming down my face. This was so touching and you expressed your thoughts and feelings so beautifully. Please accept my sincerest sympathy on your loss. God Bless.

    • Thank you so much, Gail. It has been three weeks already, which doesn’t seem possible, and with each passing day the pain becomes less and the memories become more precious–which is as it should be.

  7. Johnnie Rotten of the North says:

    My dear Ms. Iced Tea…with lemon to boot…

    First and foremost, my sincere and heartfelt condolences to you ovewr the loss of your Father. I am sorry that during his incarnation with you that there were obstacles and challenges. As a past life/life between life regression therapist, I can more than assure you that the only death in regards to your Father was his physical body…his shell, if you will. My study of reincarnation and soul survival has nothing to do with any earth plane organized religious dogma or doctrines; the realm of spirit has its own, unique and universal laws and principles.

    The soul entity which was your dear Dad is crossed over, and I can assure you he is very much still alive “over there”. As a matter of fact, he’s more alive there than he was whilst here, as is the case with all of us. All I can tell you is that your Dad’s challenges and persona while here were lessons and challenges his soul elected to take on prior to his birth. And chances are quite high that you and he have been together in many past incarnations…families do have a way of sticling together…through thick and thin re relationship obstacles.

    This I can tell you with the utmost certainty: your Dad is still around, and his love for you has only strengthened now that he is in spirit. I know this all sounds so Shirley Maclaine, but I am a devotee after years of being a card carrying naysayer/skeptic.

    Two books you should look out for: the first is Michael Newton’s “Journey of Souls” and “Destiny of Souls”. Mr. Newton is a former psychologist who, years ago, accidentally stumbled upon past life and life between life reality whilst performing a routine hypnosis session with a client. Scientifically trained, he too was a hard line skeptic until countless subsequent sessions drove home the fact that, YES, life is eternal and our souls DO survive death of the body. Also, love is eternal.

    Also, look for “Hello From Heaven”…a rather cheesy title, granted, but a book filled with a plethora of accounts from those who have had contact from “dead” family members and friends. A fascinating read. It’s written by Bill and Judy Guggenheim. Those who have crossed over do in fact attempt communication with their loved ones numerous times…it’s happened to me on several occasions with both my “deceased” parents and a good friend.

    Your Dad is fine and most likely is sending you messages and love, and quite possibly feels remorse for his actions (or non-actions) towards you and your family when his soul inhabited his human host body. To reiterate, many find this all too spaced out; I did too, once, until I opened my heart, turned on my brain and intuitive skills full blast, honed those skills, and became aware.

    This aint preachin’, honey….merely conveying hope and love to you. Your Dad loves you, and believe me, believe me, you shall see him again…NO doubt there whatsoever!

    Peace and love,
    J.R (not Ewing)

    • Wow … first of all, J.R., thank you for your words of comfort; they are greatly appreciated. You have given me much to think about, and thank you for the book recommendations–I am always looking for something new and intriguing to download to my Kindle. My philosopy on life/afterlife/reincarnation/etc. is very simple–I believe that anything is possible. Therefore, I don’t find your observations “spaced out” at all. And the middle-aged hippie chick has spoken …

      • Johnnie Rotten of the North says:

        We all, each and every one of us, are our parents children all of our lives…for better or for worse. As we get older, and our moms and dads eventually cross over, a private collection of 60’s and 70’s deep, rich coloured Kodachrome home movies and vignettes are placed on the old time projectors and played in our minds. Silent films they are; familiar, familial voices from long ago which are forever hushed on our mind’s “movie screen”. As a late and dear British female pal of mine often said – in relation to childhood and family – “memories that bless and burn.”

        My biggest fear is that I will forget the sound of my parents voices; I strain at times to recall their inflection and tone. God, how I wish I had recorded my parents voices on my 70’s tape recorder.

        Warm and sincere regards from the north.

      • You have a way with words, J.R. Do you write a blog as well? (If not, I would encourage you to do so–or to find another suitable venue for written expression!) I can still hear my parents’ voices in my head–for now.

  8. Johnnie Rotten of the North says:

    Merci for the compliment…right back at you. I thoroughly enjoy perusing your blog, as your writing talent is without a doubt superb.
    I am always drawn to exceedingly intelligent and thought-provoking prose. Your site has it in spades.

    Yes, I will be launching my own blog soon. It will be a veritable tableau of thoughts and ideas, both metaphysical and those more earthbound. Throw some paranormal shtuff in (just call me Fox Mulder), add two heaping tablespoons of humour, a dash of sarcasm, and a half cup of empathy, and…presto!

    Hmmm…presto…Italian espresso…time to French press my morning java. I take it two ways – in a cup or an IV drip.

    Top o’ the mornin’ to ya, Miss American Pie!

  9. Rufina says:

    2012, Come Meet Your Master was the first post I read of yours, and the second was this beautiful tribute to your Dad. Your descriptions are so vivid that we feel what you feel. Your love of prose comes out immediately in your own writing, and you certainly have a gift in creating it. My sympathy on your recent loss.

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