Today would have been my Dad’s 75th birthday. Father’s Day isn’t as hard a day as today is for me, Dad’s Day. And this one has me thinking more about him than any other in the past 7 years he has been gone. Maybe it’s because tomorrow I celebrate my birthday, one I feel (and hope) is the halfway point to my life, and wish he was here so I can share it with him. I haven’t written about Dad since he passed away on December 26, 2004. Even though I always wished I had told him so many things that went unsaid, I always felt like he knew it, so the regret isn’t as deep as it could be. Something I learned though is to never, ever assume. Don’t take anyone in your life for granted – tell them how you feel, remind them each time you see them, because you don’t know when the last time will be. Today I have decided it’s about time I talked about Dad.
Dad was a grumpy old man his whole life. I’m sure that isn’t true, but as a child, you don’t know who our parents really are, and by the time I got to know him, that’s who he was. He had a sharp word for nearly everyone around him. He’d talk back to the TV with words not repeatable here. He was opinionated and not at all ‘politically correct’ in his views. He was a hard worker, gone each morning before the kids were up, and back late in the evening just in time for dinner. He had his routines, and they never varied, and that may have annoyed the heck out of us then, but those routines are the things that matter most to me now.
Dad never went to any of my concerts, never attended a banquet, an awards ceremony, a graduation. He didn’t attend the symphony with us, didn’t go to concerts, didn’t go to the theatre, didn’t go to the movies. He didn’t go to amusement parks, or picnics, or dances, or parties. He didn’t give you a birthday card, or write letters after you moved away. He didn’t sit for portraits, and there are very few snapshots of him. He didn’t talk on the phone, and he certainly didn’t send emails or text messages. I was over 20 years old the first time I remember giving him a hug or telling him I loved him.
He wore the same deodorant and aftershave his whole life – a combination I can still smell traces of occasionally when visiting my childhood home. He wore a straw cowboy hat in the summer, and a felt one in the winter. And a ball cap when working. He’d come in from work, whistling the tune that was playing on the radio (always tuned to classic country), lunch box and thermos onto the table, hat hung on the gun rack. At the couch in the living room, he’d have a glass of ice water or iced tea, and read the evening newspaper, every page of it, while smoking a hand-rolled cigarette or pipe – cherry and half-and-half blend, with a hint of the fresh apple slice kept in the tin for moisture. After the paper, the evening news on the TV, he’s play a few rounds of solitaire. On weekends, it was yard work, and working on the house he built from the ground up. He did all the auto maintenance himself, too. I can not remember a single thing from my entire childhood, or early adult life, that varied from this routine.
After work, he’d stop at the truck stop and have coffee with the other men who probably had much the same routine lives he had. They’d talk about the news, and maybe vent about work, but they never did that while I was around. When I got older and was still living in the same city, I started to meet him there when I could. It became a routine of our own, if I wasn’t working, I’d stop at the truck stop and join him for coffee, where we’d share pages of the newspaper and make random, unimportant comments about the news. He never let me pay for the coffee. And that time spent with him is when I first got to know my Dad.
Even though he didn’t take part in any of the activities I was in, I never, ever wanted to let Dad down. I didn’t want to disappoint him, because early on I knew, deep inside KNEW, what was important to him was doing right and meeting your obligations and responsibilities. No ‘half-assed’ work would do. Many years ago, I felt like I hadn’t met his expectation. I was ashamed of the point my life had reached, and when I realized I needed to finally give up and start over, I felt the need to apologize to him for it. I wrote him a letter, I couldn’t bring myself to telling him in person, letting him know I was sorry, but I had failed, and was getting a divorce. Dad had never set that expectation for me, I set it for myself. I got married, for better or worse, and that was a lifetime obligation, and I was taking the ‘easy’ way out with a divorce. I was a quitter, couldn’t do what it took to stick to it. That line of thinking was completely out of line with what he wanted for me, but that’s how I saw it at the time. I was working 3 jobs, with 2 young children at home, and a husband who didn’t work, didn’t take care of the kids, had a mean streak a mile wide, and was slowly but steadily becoming addicted to whatever substance he could get his hands on. But I still saw MYSELF as the failure. The next time I saw dad, I was divorced, trying to raise my girls on my own, and he never once brought that letter up. When I first saw him, he didn’t smile, he didn’t say anything except “You’re doing good, baby”. I nodded, and we went about the rest of the visit with nothing being said. When I could, I slipped outside, and cried, and those words come back to me anytime I set the bar too high for myself and start putting myself down for not reach it – “You’re doing good, baby”.
I know he was proud of me, for stepping up and doing what had to be done then, and for every single thing after that. He didn’t have to say it, I knew it, I saw it in his eyes. I heard it in his voice, and when he was sick towards the end, and in the hospital, we visited as often as we could. I always thought he’d come home, and the week before Christmas in 2004 while visiting him in the hospital, he knew it would be the last time we saw each other, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to see it, to acknowledge it, so when the time came for us to leave, I told him we’d be back after Christmas (by that time I had remarried a wonderful man with 4 girls of his own, so we had 6 girls at home, and Christmas would be spent in our town, but I planned on coming back for New year’s with him). I told him I’d see him in just a couple of weeks. And he looked me in the eye and said “no, baby, you won’t”. I waved the comment away, kissed his forehead, told him I loved him, and when we got outside, I started crying uncontrollably and didn’t know why. My husband told me I knew, that I refused to acknowledge it, but my heart knew, and grieved before my mind caught up with what was going on.
So today, here I am, grateful for the person he helped me become. From his routines, I learned how important the little things are. Work hard, take pride in your work, from the littlest things you do each day, to the big projects that can make or break your career. I miss him, and wish I had just one more day with him, maybe we could sit at the truck stop, have coffee, set the newspaper aside, and I could tell him how very much I love him, and thank him for always being that rock in my life, unchanging, unwavering, sticking to his guns, and teaching me that it isn’t what you do that matters, it’s HOW you do it. Your attitude and effort in a job well done.
Do you whistle a tune even after a long day?
Do you take joy in the small things like a cup of coffee on a Saturday morning?
Do you try to fix what’s broke before even considering throwing it away?
Thanks to Dad, I do.