You’re never too old to need your Father. I’ve always known this, but never more than in these years that I have been without mine. My Father died in April, 2011. He lived many years on borrowed time, having been diagnosed with a blood cancer in his 30s. He was supposed to live maybe 10 years, but beat the odds, living into his 60s.
I have always been grateful that he was there for all the most important moments of my life. He taught me how to ride a bike, to drive a car, he walked me down the aisle and welcomed my first two children. But the more the years go by, the more I miss the moments I could have shared with him.
He was the smartest guy I know. He was a history buff that spent hours reading biographies every night. He had his Master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin. And he was so proud of his educational achievements. Dad wasn’t a genius or even an expert in any one thing, except maybe the Civil War, but he knew a bit about almost anything. Any question I could come up with, he had some kind of knowledge to share on the subject. He was a well-rounded guy. He was well-read, of course, but also could draw a descent sketch, play a good game of just about any sport, and had a pleasant alto-tenor voice.
Dad was a likeable guy, and he liked himself pretty well. He was a handsome man. He had some killer smirks and could be a real stinker. But in spite of some fairly terrible jokes, he was a gentleman through and through. He treasured the women in his life and treated them with respect. He held every door and pulled out every chair. He always opened my car door for me. He may have been a bit too old-fashioned in his view of women. But it was important to him that his daughters have as much education as they wanted. And he was proud to pay for us to go to any college of our choice. His university days were among the best days of his life and was thrilled to give us the chance to savor those times as well.
Dad was a hard-worker. He worked in banking, money-management and later managed a factory for a multi-national company. He took a chance and helped his best friend open a new factory in a different state, forcing his family of 5 to leave the midwest and all they knew. Now that I’m a small-business owner myself and have my own family, I appreciate much more how brave that was for him.
I often fault both of my parents for being too “inside of the box”, but they have made some pretty “outside of the box” choices and I need to give credit where it’s due. Dad did yoga before it was trendy and nurtured a secret love for the song Funky Town. He was always trying to learn new things. Some things were just too new for him, but he always gave an effort at understanding.
I miss his voice. His slight midwestern accent. The way he’d say “yeah right” or “c’mon” when something irked him. The way he always had an anecdote about everything. The way he made me sing the harmony parts to songs and sing with him in the car. He made me feel brave and capable, and pushed me to get over my insecurities. He was unflinchingly honest about his own insecurities. He hated how sweaty his palms would get on hot days, or how he couldn’t reach the high notes in Handel’s Messiah anymore. But he always tried and delighted in the effort. I miss the sound of him stretching to that high “a”.
All my friends loved him. He really listened. I spent every Friday with him. As I approached adolescence, I would often have friends sleepover on my nights with Dad. He never complained. He’d drive wherever to pick up my buddies and just listen as we giggled in the backseat. I would encourage friends to ask him questions so I could show him off. He delighted in the conversations. Often giving sage advice on matters of primary school relationships. He always showed compassion on issues that affected us. He remembered how it felt to be teased or the shame of an acne flare up. He would try to give us the “boys'” perspective when we were really perplexed by the behaviors of the opposite sex. I felt I could tell him anything and he relished being the expert.
He taught me how to behave in public. A lesson which I try to drill into my kids. I remember his lessons vividly. My parents divorced and my dad couldn’t cook. So my time with him always included a restaurant outing or two. He was always interested in trying the new place. He’d teach me how to hold my silverware properly and place my napkin in my lap. I always felt like a princess on those outings. I’ve learned that so much of playing princess is about acting fancy and proper, and I think he was secretly playing too. We were a proper pair, together.
Other people refer to my Dad as a man of integrity. I agree, but in this current world, I struggle to truly grasp what it means. What I understand is that it is rare. The kind of man he was, is not easily found. He was honest, and kind and true. He wouldn’t indulge the shadow of a lie. He commanded respect, but in a humble, unassuming way. He was fair-minded and tried to see both sides of a story. He always remembered the history of a situation and could understand political nuances better than anyone.
Of course he wasn’t perfect, or truly a saint. But he was my Dad. I can choose to remember him however I want to. I can cancel the debts between us if I want to. And I can forgive myself for times I caused him pain. I know he knew how much I loved him. I didn’t hold that back. I wrote him many letters expressing my admiration for him. He often struggled with words. But he had a look he would give me that said “I am so proud of you, and you are my beloved daughter”. It was not easily handed out, which made it all the more special. I have no regrets when it comes to unsaid words.
On the night he died, he was finally told that the only option left for him was hospice care. On my way out the door, Dad had drifted off into a morphine induced sleep. I opted to let him rest. Blessedly, my Sister said “aren’t you going to say goodbye?” I felt guilty at the time, but I roused him and said “dad, I love you, I’ll see you tomorrow”. He squeezed my hand and nodded. He may have said I love you too, honestly I’m ok either way. He died that night. I believe that he would have kept fighting his losing battle had he not been given permission to let go.
In his final weeks he was cantankerous. He was fighting his own private battle. I wish I had had the guts to ask him directly what was going through his head. But he was choosing to keep it to himself and I respected that. He didn’t want to die. I think he was mad about it. He requested a copy of C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”, but I’m not sure he ever had the chance to crack it open. I am certain he was relying on his faith as best he could. The man I had once spoken with so easily was gone. It broke my heart that I couldn’t be his confidant when he needed someone most. I fussed about him, trying to meet his practical needs whenever I could. He couldn’t eat much or keep it down, so food brought him only frustration. He donned sweatpants for the first time in his life. Even on a casual day, my dad had always worn pants with a zipper with his shirt tucked in. He was giving in, but not without substantial resistance.
As his kids, I don’t know how much we accepted what was happening as it happened. Looking back, of course he was dying. It was abundantly clear. But as bad as I knew it was, I’m not sure my heart had accepted the outcome would be death. When it happened, it was not quite a shock, but an abrupt inevitability.
It was not that hard to see him in death. He was not the man I had loved for years. This weakened, tortured man had not been my father. My father was strong and capable in mind and body. I think that is something so gracious about illness. It gives the loved ones plenty of opportunity to let go, slowly. But for the one suffering, I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine standing on the precipice of death for months. I take comfort in knowing that he chose to let go, when he did. He was done fighting. Whatever fears he held at the end, he was finally finished with the battle.
As the years go by, I miss him more, not less. I feel his loss more. I miss his advice. I mourn for my children. He would have been an incredible grandfather to them. I would have had to be the one to make all the arrangements for quality time to occur. The family he comes from is famous for loving from a distance. He, like his siblings, doesn’t need to clock time to be fond of someone. I would have forced him to take the boys to a baseball game. To take Avynlea out to eat to play “princess”. I would have forced him to take them all to Gettysburg and drag them around the battlegrounds just like he did me. They would have held sweaty hands and walked around Washington, DC. He would have treated them to a harpsichord concert at Williamsburg, VA. And he would have taught them, about everything he could think of. They would be schooled in the Beatles and Chicago. They would have been forced to appreciate the History Channel and National Lampoons’ Christmas Vacation.
In his absence, I will pass these things along as best I can. I’ve already forced my husband to sing harmony with me on road trips. We went to a Messiah sing along last year and it was glorious. Our kids regularly go to the Smithsonian museums. A family vacation isn’t truly a vacation without a touch of history. My kids know that they’ve lost a great man. A man they never really knew, and never will. I will do all I can to present his memory to them and to leave his impression on who they become. Those who have gone before us, carve a path for us in more ways than we can ever appreciate. I don’t want them to grow up without knowing that he is a part of them, whether they realize it or not. I hope they teach their kids that we sing “High Hopes” as a family or value our educations because of their Great Grandpa. My father is worthy of a legacy that lives for generations.