Friday, September 16, 2016

Memories of My Dad

My dad died on September 8, 2016. I have never known a world without him, so it will take some getting used to. I want to share some of my random memories.

Let's be honest right up front. My dad had a temper, and there were many times as a child that his big booming voice combined with his six-foot height looming over me had me quaking in my shoes. Which was probably the effect he hoped for. We had a tumultuous relationship at times, both of us prone to yelling and anger, while also staunchly stubborn in our belief in our own rightness. But that's not all there was to him, and I think the delightful memories outweigh the difficult ones.

I could tell stories all day long, just like my dad, so it seems apt to tell a few stories. I'll try to be brief.

When I was a kid, I got great delight out of hiding from my dad when he came home from the office and jumping out to scare him. I'm pretty sure he always knew exactly where I was, but he played along, and we'd laugh.

On Sunday afternoons, at least when there was no football or KU sporting event on tv, we would sit cross-legged on the living room floor playing the card game War, which can tend to last for hours, especially with just two players. We had a great time as the game tilted back and forth. He never once looked at his watch.

He used to tease me with a rhyme: "There was a little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very, very good. And when she was bad, she was horrid." It's not very nice, and I don't think it ever made me behave any better. I was not an easy child, and I'm pretty sure that he recited this rhyme the way some people count to ten--as a way of calming himself down instead of lashing out, which no doubt is what he really wanted to do. (I've had those moments as a parent, so I know.) What made me most mad about that rhyme was not the truth that I was horrid when I was bad. I knew that. But it referred to a girl having a curl, and my hair has always been as straight as a pine needle. I always wanted the mess of curls my brother Mike has, and dad knew it. I always got mad and yelled that I didn't have any curls. Good times.

There were other genuinely good times, like walking into his office when I got off the school bus each day, just to say hi and have a moment with him all to myself. Weekends when we'd hop in the pickup truck and head to the ranch. He fixed up a cushioned area for me in the back of the truck and I loved sitting back there as we bounced down the back roads. When he stepped up often to drive me across state for debate tournaments. When we went to Happy Joe's in Rapid City after seeing the movie American Graffiti and we laughed and laughed. He loved to laugh, and he had a great sense of humor. My dad was at every event any of his children ever did--whether it was sports, music, theater, debate. He was so proud of everything we did.

My teenage years were particularly hard for all involved, but he didn't hold that against me. In between all the yelling and crying and slamming of doors on my part, he still showed he loved and cared for me. I remember one time when my mom was in the hospital for surgery--back in those days you stayed in the hospital for several days. As I recall, our kitchen was in the middle of being remodeled, as well. But dad and I made some lame attempts at cooking. I decided to try sweet and sour meatballs, which is not a difficult recipe for an experienced cook, but for a 15 year old who had never done much more than bake cookies, and a middle aged man who could fry an egg, it was a challenge. It would have been easy for the ordeal to turn into another fit of anger and yelling, but it didn't. It turned into one of those moments where you can only laugh at your own absurdity, and boy did we bust a gut laughing that night.

By the time I got married just after college, I was delighted to have my dad walk me down the aisle.
And later when I had my first child Melissa, I have fond memories of him holding her tiny body and singing "Oh My Darling, Clementine."
                 He and my mom stayed at our house waiting for Emily to show up (ten days after her due date), but the death of his own mother called him away, the very day she was born. That was hard and bittersweet. He had no pride when it came to playing with the grandchildren, including tea parties with Peter. My parents visited us frequently--as they did my brothers and their families as well--and gave my children their own sets of memories.

And when we visited the Black Hills, there was the inevitable trip to Flintstones.  And fishing.

We started a family tradition of gathering every five years to celebrate Mom and Dad's anniversaries and their legacy of family. These were always full of fun and laughter, some alcohol for the adults, and my dad at the head of whatever table we were at.

I loved listening to my dad's stories. About his childhood and large extended family. About his Navy days. About his park service adventures. One year for a family reunion celebrating my parents' 50th anniversary, we were in north Idaho and we visited Farragut State Park, which was my dad's naval basic training base in 1944. He walked us around, showed us where he learned to swim, and delighted as his grandchildren found his photo among the many photo albums of sailors who had trained there.
A couple of years ago, when he and mom were here in Boise for a visit, we were at an exhibit on WWII. There was a big map of the Pacific, and dad proudly showed me all the places he had been during the war, answering all my questions happily.

At another anniversary reunion, their 60th, the whole group of us attempted to play Apples to Apples. What a riot that was. Most of us had had quite a few drinks in us, and my dad kept saying "This game is stupid," because he didn't really get the point of it. But he nevertheless kept playing. I hope he realized by the end that the point was to be silly and laugh a whole lot.

As I grew farther and farther into adulthood, my relationship with my dad changed and deepened. As a child, I had been afraid to stand up to him, because he belonged to the authoritarian school in which children were to obey their parents without question. (Something I never really managed to do.) But by the time I was a parent myself, I was brave enough to stand firm on a few things, and he was gracious enough to learn a new way to be my dad. There were even a few times when he humbly acknowledged that I was right and that he had actually learned something from me. The last 10-20 years of his life, my dad was a more mellow fellow, as often happens with age. Heart surgery, I think, gave him a second chance for more time with his family, and he took hold of that opportunity with an open heart.

This past summer, we came for a visit to the Black Hills for the Wind Cave reunion associated with the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, which was my dad's career. It was so fun to reunite with old friends, and I think he especially enjoyed sharing park service stories with old colleagues. I certainly enjoyed listening to his yarns.

When he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and told he did not have long, we stripped away any leftover veneers and had the blessed opportunity to share final weeks with him in utter honesty and love. We had hoped for more time, a few months for final goodbyes and making arrangements for my mom. We didn't get that extra time, but we did have those two weeks of time to make sure we said what we needed to say. I can't say for sure, but I have a sneaky suspicion that, knowing he was dying anyway, he was able to let go quickly and painlessly, knowing that his children would take care of his wife and that going now would lessen our agony in experiencing a protracted ordeal with much emotional pain. He was an independent guy who didn't really like asking for help, and wouldn't have wanted his family to suffer along with him. He made a clean break of it. (Just my theory.)

Before he started chemo, he had his hair shaved off, just because it was going to fall out anyway. He texted us this last photo of himself:
He said, "I haven't had hair this short since I went to boot camp in 1944!" And he laughed. His laugh was so big, boisterous, and frequent. I'll always be able to hear it in my heart.

I can imagine him now setting up a cribbage table with his old buddies Bruce, Bill, and Doug telling stories about the war and the parks, laughing it up, maybe a beer in hand. I hope that's what heaven has in store for him.

Well done, good and faithful servant.