“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.