Written September 19, 2016
He was a handsome and charming man, my father…Tall and slender with wavy hair and a quiet, mischievous grin. He had a twinkle in his eye that seemed to say “I know more than you think I know, but you will never know just how much that is.” He was a stoic man whose childhood had had a rocky start.
His father was an abusive alcoholic. I don’t know much more about him than that because my father refused to speak of him other than to say “He’s dead and I don’t miss him.” His mother was sweet and naive and my father was the apple of her eye.
They left Oklahoma when he was just a young boy because the dust bowl had rolled though, taking all of the top soil with it, ruining all chances of growing anything for farmers, which is what his parents were. They arrived in California when he was 5, I think, but they were so poor the only place they could afford was a shack underneath a water tower. The floor boards were so far apart that if you were not careful you could easily get your toe caught in them and trip. Things were constantly falling between them and down into the dirt below. It was his and and his younger brother’s job to put a piece of gum on a string and lower it down to retrieve any of the coins that may have fallen out of sight. They did not get to keep their earnings.
Eventually, they were able to move to more of an actual dwelling, but it became clear to him that his father was not someone on whom he could rely. He developed an overly mature air about him, taking on the role of the man of the house. He worked odd jobs in the neighborhood to help support his family, and somehow suffered through his growing up years, in part by taking on the role of being his mother’s protector.
I am not sure what age he was when he enrolled in the US Navy, but he was stationed in Hawaii in 1954 and was on his way to completing his term when he met my mother who was studying at the University of Hawaii for some summer study and fun. Their worlds and backgrounds could not have differed more greatly, but by the end of their time in Hawaii, being together was all that mattered to them both.
According to reports, before they were married, my mother’s father asked my father what his plans for the future were. “Marry Libba” was his only response, as if that was the answer to everything and the rest would just work itself out. Things turned out to be more complicated than that.
My mother worked as a school teacher and supported him as he went to business school at North Texas State University, in Denton. I believe they truly loved each other, but they got pregnant before they were ready and with minimal emotional skills between them, life got complicated in short order.
There were two more pregnancies before the one that brought me into the world, and a lot of chaos, so I hear. Although they both did their best with what they knew at the time, a lot of hurtful things were said and done during those 14 years. By the time I was about 15 months old, my mother had kicked him out of the house and he had moved in with the love of his life, the woman who would then become my step-mother.
Eventually, after my father had had some success in the high end furniture industry, they made their home in Highland Park, Texas, one of the most desirable zip codes in the nation. Even though that was less than 20 minutes from my our house, I only saw him about once or twice a year, for lunch or dinner, usually around a holiday, and always with my siblings. He owned a sailboat when I was in elementary school and he took us out with him a few times. I loved those trips, but his love for sailing was short lived, after having got the mast stuck in the mud one too many times. When we were not with him, there was rarely any mention of him because we all understood that our mother would have been been quite happy to never hear his name again. I spent many hours in my room fantasizing about him as a child. I had many curiosities…How did he spend his time? Did he like to ride a bicycle? Did he like to play games? Climb trees? Why didn’t he come visit more often? If I ran away, would he let me live with him?
The question that I never felt the need to ask though, was “Did he love me?” Because somehow, during those brief, infrequent visits, he managed to convey a sense of deep and abiding love for me. He conveyed an appreciation for who I was, much more than for what I did. While he was obviously proud of my musical accomplishments, I got the feeling that he couldn’t care less if I quit. I don’t know if it was that impish grin, his imposing stature, or his delightfully charming energy, but he managed to successfully radiate an unconditional love for me, and I never doubted it.
When I turned 18, and went off to college, I vowed to try to spend more time with him, partially to satisfy my curiosity, and partially because I wanted to rebel against my mother. When my mother’s father was dying and she did not want to leave his side, my father made the drive to pick me up after my second year of college. It was an unprecedented move.
The trip was awkward for me, for I had never spent more than a short amount of time with him, and never without my siblings creating a good bit of distraction. Some part of me, the child part, I guess, felt seen for the first time in my life. Suddenly, I had a father. He was driving up to Ohio to pick me up, load my stuff into a U-haul, and drive me (and my roommate) back to Texas, because, well, he was my father and that is what father’s do! It was a new experience for both of us.
I remember staying in a hotel room somewhere in Arkansas during the drive home. He stayed in one room, and my roommate and I stayed in the one next door. I had a very hard time sleeping that night… I kept thinking “I am sleeping under the same roof as my father… there is a wall between us, but we are actually sleeping under the same roof, for the first time in my conscious memory.”
My grandfather died just a few days after we arrived back home. He had always been the consistent father figure in my life, so at that point, it seemed appropriate to turn to my actual father, seeing as how he had extended himself like that. However, at this point in my life, I did not really need a “father.” So, this man, who I called “Dad” was almost more like a friend.
Even though he was a man of few words, he was truly charming, my father. Everyone enjoyed being around him. He was just pleasant, somehow…even when he was opinionated and insensitive, which happened now and then. We would go out to eat and the wait staff always smiled sincerely when they saw him coming, happy to have the opportunity to connect with him. He would take me shopping sometimes and I remember one time in a shoe store, a beautiful young woman in her late 20’s tried to hand him her card with a flirtatious smile (he was in his late 50’s). (Speaking of shoes, I got a kick out of the fact that whenever he found a pair of shoes he liked he would buy 4-5 of the same pair just so he would not have to go shoe shopping again in the next few years. ”I have better things to do with my time than shop,” he had said.), He was not a hunter, but he would take me to the gun range, where we would shoot skeet (he was a skilled and recognized champion skeet shooter) or engage in some target practice. Everyone there had the utmost respect for him. A few times he hosted me for a visit at their lake house in East Texas, where we would sit in the boat and not talk much. But that didn’t matter. He just had good energy.
He called me every Sunday evening for a long time. It took me a while to figure out that the main reason for this was that he called his mother every Sunday night. Given his lack of conversational skills, he had to have some news to report to her. When she died, in 2004, I think part of him died too. So much of his life had been tied up in caring for her, trying to make up for his father’s behavior, and he lost part of his purpose when he lost her. After her death, which occurred in a terrible accident, he stopped calling so I started calling him instead. I wasn’t as consistent as he had been, but I had my hands full of babies during that time, and he seemed to understand.
He found me fascinating…up to a point. Because my interests were ones that he had never really explored, we talked about things he hadn’t discussed much with anyone else: spirituality, nutrition, psychology, alternative medicine, communication, and sometimes even death. (He hated that subject, but he would go there, now and then.) He would listen, quite intrigued for maybe 10 minutes, and then abruptly announce that he had to go. It was like a timer would go off and he and was no longer allowed to be curious. It was back to work he went.
Or… back to drink. My father loved his martinis, which he had every day at 5:30 sharp, but never before, because he was, unlike his father, quite disciplined. He also loved his red wine which he drank with dinner…and… after dinner. My father worked hard and tried his best, but he never learned the skills to deal with the complex emotions that come with life. So, he just buried them and kept working hard. He was a responsible person, an accomplished and successful businessman, and an an enjoyable companion, but I soon learned that if I called after 8:30 or so, he might not make much sense.
A few years ago, he started making even less sense… even before he had had, ahem, his dinner. Four years in a row, he called me in January to wish me Happy Birthday. He had gotten the day of the month correct, but my birthday is in February. I took it as a compliment that I was on his mind at all, and I was grateful that he still knew who I was. This year he did not call me at all. This year, on the day he normally would have called (a month early) to wish me a happy birthday, he had fallen and broken his hip.
When I visited him after his hip surgery, he was just a ghost of the man I once had known. He was in agonizing pain, pretty much everywhere, not just in his hip. He asked me to give him a neck massage. I don’t think he had ever had a massage in his life, and it did not go very well… but he had asked. It was the first time he had ever asked me for anything even remotely intimate. Instead of the massage, we just held hands and were quiet together, him looking into my eyes and I looking into his. We sat like that about 10 minutes and it was clear to me that he was saying “Goodbye.” After a while, he picked up my hand and brought it to his lips, planting a kiss on the back of it and held my hand against his face… ever so tenderly. I cried a silent tear, and wordlessly, as was his style, he wiped it gently away.
His hip healed up alright, but he was tired and he had lost all will to live. He endured numerous health complications after that and the next 8 months brought infections, pneumonia, more infections, edema, several more falls and then finally, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. When I saw him last, he had been moved back home for Hospice care.
He was sleeping and I did not want to disturb him. I whispered, almost silently, in a voice he would not have been able to hear, even if he had been awake, “I love you, Dad.” He must have felt it though, because he opened his eyes, looked at me and reached his hand out to mine. I held it and watched his labored breathing, the pauses between breaths lasting an uncomfortable duration of time. I felt no need for any last minute confessions, apologies or expressions of regrets. I was simply THERE… A loving witness to his existence.
Do I wish I had been able to experience a more typical father/daughter relationship? Sometimes, yes. I have no doubt that his absence in my youth played a big role in the way my life unfolded. But sometimes, now and then -more and more as time went on- I felt like he was my father. Without a doubt, he was generous and he was helpful and he was kind. Furthermore, I know with every fiber of my being that he loved me, like no one else ever has or ever will. And, for that, and for him, I am grateful.