Archive for category Memories of Dad
12 years ago today I lost my dad. To say that it was the worst day, week, month, year of my life is putting it lightly. No one could ever be as important a figure in my life as he was. Every year for the past 12 I have attempted to put into words how his loss has impacted me. Even though I do feel that I am an eloquent writer, under most circumstances, this is the one topic that my words repeatedly have failed me. Maybe one day I’ll be better able to explain what all he meant to me or how I think of him every single day but until then I’ll leave it to this…
I remember once in middle school I raided my dad’s record collection. It was all the beautiful old fashion vinyl. At the time, it was the ending of the era of the cassette tape as CD’s were taking over. While there was something satisfying about the clicking sound a tape made when you put it in the player and closed the little door, it couldn’t even compare to vinyl. There is just something intimate about having to gently handle your musical selection in both hands after undressing it from the album cover and slipping it from its sleeve. It was almost a dance to get it out, set it on its player and then precisely, with great care, place the needle in just the right spot. The pros could complete the whole process with one hand but I will never know why you would want to. I loved how involved you personally had to be to simply get the music from its resting spot to the point that it was filling in the empty spaces of not only the room but also of you. By the time I was old enough to be a listener the art of turning music on was dead. I discovered it for the first time that day and have mourned it ever since.
I sat all afternoon listening to Simon & Garfunkel, Alice Cooper, Queen and Cat Stevens. That day taught me two truths about music that I still hold firmly. First, variety is everything. Second, it has to move you. It has to tell a secret to your heart. But other than that there is no good or bad when it comes to music. It is only a matter of what touches me as opposed to what touches you.
I will never forget when my dad walked into my bedroom to find me sitting on the floor with my little record playing singing along to “Wild World”. In just those few hours I began to understand how delicate old albums were and how deeply personal one’s music collection could be. So I was certain that he was going to be very upset that I took his albums from their, not too well thought out, hiding spot without my dad’s permission. He never was one to yell or scream nor did he hit so I wasn’t worried about any of that but I did expect a stern, “What are you doing?” or “Who told you you could play with these.” At the very least I knew I was going to be told to put them away and never touch them again. I not only expected one of those, I knew I would deserve them. Up until that afternoon I didn’t give much actual thought to music. I didn’t consider what the music I listen to says about me or what I could tell about someone else by scanning through their music likes and dislikes. I hadn’t realized when I took his albums from the cupboard they had been safely stashed in what I was really doing. I was violating his privacy. It was like I was reading his diary or looking through an old yearbook. These albums had been the soundtrack of my dad’s life up until the time that he hid them away. Here I was listening to his personal soundtrack. I thought he was going to feel that violation and I wouldn’t have blamed him. From the time I was born I knew that his life was all about me but until this point it hadn’t occurred to me that he had a very different life before me and that he might just want to keep that one for himself and he would have had every right. I was frozen, starring at him and feeling just awful. I was preparing myself to jump up and carefully, but quickly, gather up all my newly discovered treasure and return it to its rightful owner. I couldn’t read his face and instead of saying anything, for a long time he just stared taking it all in and then finally, he laughed. The one reaction I didn’t know how to take. He surveyed the albums of his youth all around his daughter’s bedroom floor, it must have seemed like time was folding in on itself.
“I haven’t seen these old friends in a lot of years” he smiled. He leaned down picking up Peter, Paul and Mary turning it over in his hands laughing. “You know what Puff the Magic Dragon was really about?” he asked lowering himself into a seated position beside me.
“Oh baby, baby it’s a wild world…” he sang along. “I’ll always remember you like a” he chokes up looking at me and lets Cat Stevens solo for the “like a child, girl.”
Then he began rummaging through the huge stack of records asking if I’d heard this one yet and “Oh, you’ll like that, put that one on.” For the next couple of weeks every night after work my dad and I sat on my bedroom floor going through every album. He told me the stories from his life about when he bought this record or that and what songs he liked the most and which songs reminded him of someone from his past or something that had happened. He was completely opening his old life to me. I was grateful. We made our own little jokes about “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Mansions in the Sky”. I listened intently when he told me for the first time about his past with drugs, mostly just marijuana, and when and why he decided to stop and put all that away. It wasn’t a drug lecture, I’m not even sure he ever told me not to try them; he just told me how it was for him, no judgments. By opening up so honestly like that with me I knew that if I ever needed, I could do the same. I loved all that old music and found myself listening more to it than anything else. What I didn’t really understand until after he was gone was the real significance of that experience. I never properly thanked him for not only giving so much of himself to me then, but also for opening up my own world. Through that music his youth and mine became intertwined in spite of being so far removed from each other by time and circumstance. It showed me that he not only wanted to be a part of my life but he equally wanted me to be a part of his, something I doubt a lot of parents think about with their kids. He wanted me to know him as much as he wanted to know me. It worked.
That year for Christmas unknowingly, we both bought each other the same gift, Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman on CD. I think the fact that we both wanted the same thing at the same time meant more to him than the CD itself, I know it did to me. Still when I listen to certain songs I see us sitting there on my pink shag carpet singing and laughing and having a whole world open up in front of me with the most amazing guide to show me the way. I fell so deeply in love with his music that now, some 17 years later, looking through my iPod it is hard not to notice that it has actually become the soundtrack of my life as well. I am so much like him and I do believe he would enjoy that fact.
“Oh baby, baby what a wild world. I’ll always remember you…” I choke up.
I felt comfortable talking to my dad about anything and was never shy in doing exactly that. He always listened well and offered advice as a friend without ever missing an opportunity to teach a lesson. I would like to claim that he always did this intentionally but I am doubtful that is the case. I was not a typical teenage girl. I never shut myself away from my parents. They always knew what was going on in my life and the lives of my friends. This was because I knew there was no judgment there. Certainly, if I told a story of something I had done that he didn’t feel was appropriate he would tell me but never in a scolding manner. He didn’t want me to just do what was right. He wanted me to want to do what was right. This may seem like a subtle distinction, but it is not. It makes all the difference in the world. He would not just tell me something was wrong he would logically lay out for me how and why it was wrong. Always in a manner that would make me see why I should want to always do the right thing instead of simply fearing to do wrong.
I remember talking to him one day after school about a girl in my class that didn’t have a lot of friends. I was usually the type of girl that would talk to anyone and didn’t care much what other people thought. I hated to see people lonely so I was always willing to strike up a conversation and try to draw them into my group, if even for just one class period. But this girl was not just alone because people looked down on the way she dressed or her personal interests it was because she was flat out mean. She didn’t want to talk to any of us so we were happy not talking to her. Because of this, I felt completely justified in not only not reaching out to her but to bad mouth her as well. I fully expected that hearing all her personality flaws my dad would back me up in this. As my rant ended I noticed my dad was clearly in deep thought as though I had presented him with a puzzle rather than a bit of teen angst.
“How well do you know her?” he asked gently.
“Enough.” I snarled back.
“Apparently not.” He shot back calmly. “There must be some reason she acts that way.”
I was thinking to myself, yeah because she’s a bitch. But I could tell that wasn’t the time.
“I don’t know. I guess she is just a mean person.” I said without much thought.
“Has she always been that way?”
“As long as I’ve known her. I’m not sure. But that is her reputation so that has to have come from somewhere.” I reasoned.
He shook his head with a sad sort of grin. His face was no longer searching. He had figured something out. I knew he was seeing my point of view, there was no arguing that some people are just mean and should be left alone. There was no reason for me to put myself into the line of fire to try to be nice to someone who couldn’t be nice themselves. I was about to receive his absolution.
“That must be hard.”
I knew he would see it my way.
“It is but we just try to ignore her.” He went on as if he hadn’t heard me.
“To have everyone assume that you are always going to act a certain way that they automatically treat you in accordance to that preconceived notion of who you are.” I could see where he was going with this but I was going to fight back.
“It isn’t just a preconceived notion, that is just who she is. She would act that way no matter how we treat her.” I defended myself.
“Look Squirt, I’m not saying that if you are nice to her she is going to be nice right back. But not being nice to her certainly isn’t working either. Throughout your life you are going to have to deal with people different from you with their own issues. You aren’t going to get along with everyone and that’s fine. But I do expect you to at least be kind to everyone. You have no idea what they may be going through.”
I want to say that moment changed me forever, that the proverbial light bulb went off in my teenage head that I happily agreed with him and we hugged it out. However, I’m certain that in reality I probably just mumbled “fine” and changed the subject sure that he just didn’t understand. He didn’t push it with me. He said his peace and let it go. What I didn’t realize was that he wasn’t just trying to be the 27 minute Cosby version of a dad. He knew lessons had to be taught slowly over time. He wasn’t going to convince me then and there to go up to the girl and ask her to a slumber party. I wasn’t going to have a meaningful conversation with her to find out some tragedy had befallen her family and she was just misunderstood. We weren’t going to become best friends. But that was all okay. He made his point and he knew that it was there in the back of my head for the next time a similar situation would arise and he would make the same point until slowly, without me noticing it would work its way into my subconscious. He could be a tricky genius like that.
A story was told at his funeral about a time he was driving down the road and someone who had been trailing him for some time finally passed him on a double yellow line and drove off like mad. My aunt made a nasty remark about that person being an idiot. My dad smiled at her and said, “Maybe his wife is in the hospital and he’s in a rush to get to her.” That was the man he was. He was always able to see the other side of the coin.
He made a habit out of insisting that whenever we discussed politics or religion no matter if we agreed, one of us always had to give the opposing view point. He never allowed for the conversation to just be a bitch fest for our own vanity. Someone had to present the other argument. This was so hard for me at first. I thought it was so crazy to give the other side’s case when they weren’t even there. But he insisted that you can’t really stand where you think you stand if you haven’t first fully considered all possible points of view. The best way to do that was to present it yourself, it forced you to understand the feelings and experiences that other people had behind the things they believed. It also helped you to identify the common ground. Common ground was an important idea to him. “Squirt, you can never imagine how many other people in the world think the things you think, love the things you love, fear the things you fear. The only thing any of them wants is to know that they aren’t the only ones. They aren’t. You aren’t.”
This was never meant to be a tool to use against them but to be used to force yourself to consider more carefully where you stand. He had very strong opinions and loved that I grew into a person that did as well. But he felt it was important to be able to back up your beliefs equally with knowledge and compassion. To consider where others were coming from and what was motivating them. I always thought of this as our secret little devilish plan but I know now that he was trying to teach me to suspend judgment and instead try to see it from their point of view. He wanted his daughter to know empathy.
This is the story of the greatest man in the history of the world. At least he is the greatest man in the history of my world. He was a free thinker and taught the same to me. He loved easily and laughed often. He was touched by things most others would overlook or find mundane. He came to life with the births of his children. He died strong and proud and well. But this isn’t the story of his death; this is the story of his life.
I never called him Daddy or Father, one he thought was childish and only used for manipulation the other was too disciplinarian. He was my teacher, my friend and my dad. He was the only person in the world that could laugh with me, spar with me and make me think. He was a smartass and very stubborn. He had very strong beliefs and ideas about the world and didn’t care what anyone else thought. He was compassionate and caring. He was tough and gentle. He was a hippie at heart and even though I never noticed it at the time he raised me with a great deal of care and thought. It was important to him that I be a strong, independent woman who could find her place in this very big world. He wanted me to see that life was tough and short but not to focus on either. Instead, I was to know it was filled with amazing wonders and happy times and that those things should be what I relish. He also wanted me to be the type of person that would stand up for myself and even more importantly for others. He wanted me to have a great deal of passion and conviction but also laughter and pleasure. He wanted me to explore and study anything that I enjoyed to the fullest. He was generous with his pride for me and made it well known. He loved me beyond anything I would have ever thought possible and he desperately wanted to show me the world and everything wonderful it had to offer. He never suspected he would only have 25 years to do so. But in that short time he worked in an awful lot of teaching.
I believe that everything I am and everything I know about how to be a worthwhile person in this world I learned from him. He truly taught by example, always practicing what he preached. I now believe what he tried in vain to explain to me when I was younger; everyone is an ever changing work in progress. We never actually become anything. We are constantly learning, growing and shifting. But I do know that every change, every new version of myself that I have already become and am still yet to discover will forever be deeply rooted in him and all that he showed me.
(This is the Preface for a series of forthcoming essays on my life with my dad.)
My dad suffered all of my life with Crohn’s Disease it is a very misunderstood and painful disease. If you know anything about Crohn’s you know that suffered it the most appropriate word for it. I couldn’t even venture to guess the number of times my dad was in the hospital during my childhood. But I can remember one thing about every visit clearly; they were funny. I know this sounds completely insane but nothing in my family has ever been off limits to teasing, joking or just plain laughing at; not even severe pain and hospitalization. Maybe we were just masking our fear by acting out inappropriately, I’m not sure but I don’t really care because that was just the family we were. The four of us were as close as could be and we took everything in stride, together. If dad was lying in a hospital bed with tubes all around, we were beside him blowing up the rubber gloves or laughing at the absurdity of our lives. It was how we bonded and coped together. At one point my family was being hit from all sides, my mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer at a very young age and my dad’s Crohn’s was flaring up so badly that they decided it was time for an ileostomy while my mom was in the hospital having a mastectomy and chemotherapy. I was in middle school and my brother was a senior in high school. My dad was at the Cleveland Clinic while my mom as at Aultman Hospital in Canton. We shuttled back and forth between the two until they both were able to come home. I do remember being scared but I mostly remember all the silliness. I recall one night waking up to hear some sort of a racket coming from the living room, by this point every little noise my parents made had my on my feet, just in case. As I walked down the hallway I could hear that they were laughing. I peered around the corner to see my dad lying on the couch with my mom hunched over him changing his bandages; clearly her wig had fallen off in the process as it was now on his face. Instead of getting upset or tossing it aside, he had simply made a part in the hair big enough to stick his tongue out and make silly faces at her. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you if he was just trying to make her more at ease of if he was just being a goof, either one is entirely possible. Looking back on it now it seems that the worse the situation, the funnier we managed to make it. Like when my dad was struck by lightning. Oh, you heard me right; my dad was struck by lightning. He was golfing with friends and a storm hit so they all ran to the shelter. There wasn’t enough room for everyone to fit in so my dad stepped out in order to make room for his friends. That’s when it happened. I would like to stop and point something out here in case you missed it. He stepped out of the shelter for a friend, this could be the only line I ever would have to write about him for someone to fully understand the type of heart my dad had and the type of love he gave constantly to everyone. Well, if you know much of anything about lightning or lightning strikes you understand that an incredible amount of electricity runs through your body. By the time I got to the hospital it had been a couple of hours since the strike and they assured us that he was going to be fine but nothing prepared me for what was going to happen when I walked in the door to his room. But I still blame my reaction to it on the amazing sense of humor my dad instilled in me. So, I’m terrified and just want to see him to know that he’s alright. My mom warned me not to laugh (because of our well-known history) the hair on his head had been singed from the electricity and he kind of looked like something out of a bad movie with his hair standing straight up and smoking. I was prepared for that but I wasn’t prepared, and neither was she, for what we did see. The exact moment we walked into his room, as if on cue, his legs lifted straight up and his arms shot straight out lifting his back off the bed. It looked like he was trying to touch his toes. I could tell that he was asleep and had no idea this was going on. I have no doubt that it was my laughter that snapped him awake. He just looked at us for a minute and started laughing too. Then he motioned for me to come closer and hugged me and told me he was fine but that something in his room smelled like burnt hair and he wished they would clean it up already. Now that I have his disease I find myself treating it the same way he always taught me; laughter is the best medicine.
Not everything was as funny in the moment it was happening even though I can now look back on most of it with humor. For instance, my dad was in charge of teaching me how to drive. My mom made one attempt at teaching me how to use a stick shift but by the time it was over she refused to have any part of teaching me anything car related. He had the belief that you shouldn’t drive a car if you don’t understand the inner workings. So before I was allowed to get behind the wheel we had to go through a whole class on how an engine works. Apart from that, I had to be able to fix a flat tire, change my own oil, test the air pressure in the tires, replace all the spark plugs and top off all the fluids. When I questioned him about the need to be able to do all this stuff myself his only reply was, “You’re a strong person, you’re going to be a strong woman who doesn’t need a man to get by.” At first, I thought it was maybe just a cute little delusion every father has for his teen aged daughter when he already feels like he has to use a chair and whip to keep another male from taking his baby away, but now, I don’t think that was it. My whole life he taught me the importance of thinking for myself and being as independent as possible even though he knew it would mean I would take up my independence from him one day. I’m sure teaching me how to drive was a striking reminder of that fact. When it came to the actual driving I was a natural and took to it with ease. That is until it came time for maneuverability. That was when the fun really started. When I say “fun” I really mean “torturous horror”. I have no doubt that it was mutual. We went to my high school parking lot and practiced four or five times in the weeks before my test and one last time the morning of my test. Honestly, every attempt went pretty much the same way so they all run together as one very long, very stressful session. He placed four cones on the corners of the parking space and stood in front of the car as the fifth cone, until now it has never occurred to me just how brave that move was on his part. I’d love to go into a more detailed telling of all that occurred but it is mostly just a blur of him flailing around in front of me yelling, “cut the wheel” and me yelling “what does that mean?” This was usually followed by the sound of a cone being run over and a look of horror on his face like I just killed a very close and dear friend. He was so sure that I couldn’t possibly pass my test that when I walked into the building where the parents waited for their kids, he had his best sympathy face on and saying, “Most people fail at least once”. When I showed him that I passed he was shocked and terrified at the same time but tried hard to feign pride. I actually think that once the shock wore off he was just relieved that it meant the lessons were over. Now at age 31, I have still never had to change a flat or my own oil or anything else he taught me but I do take great comfort in knowing that not only do I have the knowledge but that my dad thought enough to make sure that I wouldn’t ever have to feel helpless when it came to anything. That was something that he taught me over and over throughout my life; self-reliance.
For some time both my parents and I all worked at the same nursing home. My mom was the social service director, my dad worked in maintenance and I worked at the front desk and in the activity department. It was a small charming independently owned place that had been a part of my life since I was young. Everyone knew everyone else and the three of us were well loved by the residents and staff alike. We randomly ran into each other often throughout our day and enjoyed many dinners discussing some of the craziness that tends to occur when working in such a place. Most of the residents were either suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia and weren’t always able to make the connection that I was Chuck and Sue’s daughter. One particularly adorable old man was completely enamored by me and was always asking me to run away with him. I laughed it off and politely told him that I wasn’t that kind of girl. One day he declared that,
“I’ve been thinking it over and while I’m still pretty young and have lots of oats to sew and all. I think you’re well worth it. I’m going to make an honest woman out of you. Marry me, if you won’t run off with me.”
So I have this 5 foot tall octogenarian asking for my 20 something hand in marriage and he’s very serious about it.
I thought fast and said, “I am an old fashioned girl so you’ll have to get my dad’s permission before I could even consider such a thing.”
I was sure that this would be the end of it because he certainly was one of those residents that weren’t able to recall who my father was. About two weeks later and he still hadn’t mentioned a word to me about running away or getting married instead, he just kept saying that he was “working things out” and that I was “the most amazing person he’d ever known.” I just smiled and thanked him for the compliments but quickly changed the subject as we walked to whatever activity I had charmed him into attending. Next thing I know this man who never walked any faster than a snail’s paced shuffle with his walker was quickly picking up speed down the hall. I noticed my dad was coming the other direction but thought nothing of it.
Well, my little admirer walked straight up to my dad and said, “Sir, I’d like to formally request your daughter’s hand in marriage. I have a lot to offer a precious gem like her. I will always be faithful and kind to her.”
My dad stood for a moment in silence as a smile slowly crept across his face I knew I was in trouble. “Well, George, you know that would make you my son-in-law, right?”
“Yes, sir and I’d be honored, you’re a fine man.”
I looked at my dad begging him not to say what I knew he was about to say, “Then you have my blessing son.”
My dad confirmed patting him on the shoulder working very hard to suppress a laugh. George, turned back to me beaming as my dad took off like a flash leaving me there to fend for myself on this one. George walked back to me slipping his arm around mine and starting discussing our wedding. As I tried to collect my thoughts I noticed that people were popping their heads out from behind the kitchen door snickering. At least I knew which direction my traitor had gone. For about a week afterward I was still having rice and bridal magazines put in my box at work and I still don’t know how many of those were from my dad.