I got the call that no one ever wants to get four years ago at 2:52 on a gorgeous Tuesday afternoon in early September. Writing a news release on deadline, I didn’t appreciate the interruption but I answered the phone anyway.
In the next few seconds my mother quietly told me that my father had just died of a massive heart attack. The idea that my 74-year-old father, a strong and vibrant man, had died was beyond shocking.
I called my husband and son and immediately started packing. I dashed off an email to clients to let them know I’d be out for a week. The importance of everything I was working on had evaporated in the flash of a moment, and despite looming deadlines there wasn’t a thing in the world that could have kept me here. It was a four hour drive to Kankakee, IL, so we had to get moving. Driving there, in the gathering darkness, I felt compelled to start composing what would become his eulogy.
Anyone who has lost a parent understands the seismic and unfathomable loss … nothing will ever be the same. But there were moments during that week, despite the pain and piercing grief, that sparkled like the brightest stars in the universe. The kindness of people, an endless procession of friends bearing baked goods, expressions of heartfelt sympathy, the odd appearance of hummingbirds at the window while my niece talked about her beloved Grandpa. Our family brought together, supporting each other, the deep bonds of love and affection rekindled Together, like it or not, we were starting on the next chapter, Life Without Dad.
In the midst of all this, my brother found an old newspaper clipping tucked in a cubby in my dad’s roll top desk. I hadn’t seen it for years; it was a column I’d written for Father’s Day 1989, headline: Thanks Dad for everything. I hardly remember giving it to him. But here it was after all those years, laminated and precision cut on a bright blue background. Reading it, I was overcome with emotion. It seems fitting to revisit it in memory of his passing, a tribute to the wonderful man he was and will forever remain in our hearts.
Sorry Dad that this letter is long overdue. Somehow we never get around to saying the things that are really important, so here it is, in black and white.
We’ve had some rough times, you and I. Remember the agony of my adolescence, when I was a jerk and didn’t even know it? When you grounded me for two years and caved in after six weeks of my moping around the house? Or how about the time you caught me smoking, and my punishment was to smoke several Salem cigarettes in front of you while you glowered, “Still taste like a breath of springtime?”
Fifteen years ago I thought you were the most insufferable ogre in the world. At the dinner table, scene of some of our most heated family arguments, you would tell me, “I wish I were 18 years old. Because when you’re 18 you know everything. It’s when you get a little older that you realize you’re not so smart.”
I used to hate it when you said that. Fifteen years later (and dumber, according to your prediction) I smile at the memory. Of course, you were right. You were right about a lot of things.
One of the things I regret most about our relationship over the years is that for many of them I didn’t realize what a terrific father I really had. You were always there, never ducking out on your responsibility to me or Mom, our family, your job or friends. You taught me things about character and responsibility, things I hope I will impart to my children.
In honor of Father’s Day, a trip down Memory Lane:
I remember when you took me fishing, long before you had a son with whom to share such things. To this day I take most of my vacations in northern Wisconsin because of you, Dad, and all the good times we had on that lake. I’ll never forget how excited you got the day I caught a 12-inch northern pike on the Couderay River.
I remember when you used to take us for walks in the woods to look for Indian arrowheads and fossils. Or when we had to cover ourselves in mosquito netting to explore an old logging camp site. That was right after you bought the metal detector, talk about grown boys and their toys!
I remember when I starred in our school play, “The Wizard of Oz,” in fifth grade and came home to find a big wooden star with my name in glitter tacked to my door. Like everything you made, and you made a lot of stuff, it was perfect. I still have it.
I remember when I was in high school you used to put the ironing board under the covers in my bed if I forgot to put it away. One time I found the broom in there. My best friend Debbie thought you were pretty funny.
Most of all I remember when you met Mom, and you didn’t care that she had an obnoxious 5-year-old daughter (me) who needed a father because hers had gone away. You never blinked at accepting a responsibility that would have sent many men running for the nearest exit. You adopted me and gave me your name. You always hated the word “stepchild” and never, ever treated me any differently than your other children.
I remember the day your mother died, when you didn’t look so strong any more, and I was afraid. A few days later, you pulled me away from the dinner table to tell me that your father had been diagnosed with cancer. I’m sure it was the most wretched time in your life; yet in the midst of my great sadness I felt honored that you shared your grief with me.
So these are the reflections of a grown daughter on Father’s Day. Some are happy, others sad. Together they form the wonderful mosaic of our lives together. Happy Father’s Day. I love you.