The hospice people had us prepared for much worse. They gave us literature explaining what the process of dying would look like, what my father’s death would most likely look like. The pamphlet talked about labored breathing and gurgling sounds: “the death rattle.” From the language, it sounded like the Grim Reaper would burst in with clanking chains and throw my flailing father over its shoulder. I was steeling myself to witness my father struggle. Yet in that moment when he finally slipped away forever, it was merely a short, faint exhale. It was as if he’d blown out a single birthday candle. It was so quiet and tender, we weren’t even sure that he was really gone.
My father’s name was Henry. He was a big man: 6’2’, large frame, hefty hands. An injury in the service left him with a slightly deformed thumb. Sometimes little children were afraid of it, that is, until they got to know Dad. My father was the guy that every kid wanted to climb on in the swimming pool, and he could always be counted on for the most spectacular, splash-inducing cannonballs. He rode around on a Honda Trail 90, which was, quite frankly, somewhat small for him. He modified his white motorcycle helmet with big black eyes and an orange bill so it looked like he was wearing a duck head. When I was in junior high, I was mortified. I thought he looked like Baby Huey and begged him not to drive past my school on his lunch break. We lived in a small town in Oklahoma. Much to my adolescent chagrin, everyone knew who my father was.
Dad was a fun-loving spirit with a mind that never quit. He loved practical jokes and was especially fond of playing tricks on his children. One year on St. Patrick’s Day, he sent my older brother and two older sisters to school with green bologna in their lunches. If my memory is correct, my sibs were not allowed to eat their sandwiches that day. There was a period of time when Dad seemed to have an endless supply of plastic cockroaches, which he strategically placed anywhere he could get away with: on the table at a restaurant, in a friend’s martini, inside my Converse All-Stars, etc. One of Dad’s most ingenious and infamous pranks came at my expense. I was probably in the third grade or so and had written what I was sure was the next great American novel. It was the story of a dog named Brute, who was nothing short of a super dog. In my long and rambling tale, Brute fought off a cougar, saved a family from a burning building, caught a band of burglars, rescued a drowning child from a raging river and won first prize in the dog show at the county fair. He was a canine hero like no other. Of course, I had poured my 8-year-old heart into this story, which I’d written in longhand. I asked my father to please type it up for me. He took “Brute the Wonder Dog” and went to work. The next morning at the breakfast table, he gave the typewritten copy to me. I was so excited to see my story in print –Times New Roman at that! However, just a few sentences in, I realized that this was not the same Brute that I had written about. The Brute on the pages that my father presented to me was a flea-infested, misbehaving mongrel that knocked over garbage cans, chewed up the garden hose and committed indiscretions on the living room rug. I was despondent and ran sobbing to my room, while my siblings and father laughed hysterically at the kitchen table. Of course, Dad had also typed up my original story as well, and there was no discernible long-term damage to my psyche. This was one of many lessons my father would teach me about not taking myself too seriously.
Dad was a nerd in every sense of the word and wore it like a banner. He was a mechanical engineer and spent most of his career in the R&D division of a major oil company. He was the go-to guy for fixing broken stuff and figuring out how things worked. Christmas mornings found him sitting on the living room floor with a scattering of plastic pieces and a pile of instructions for assembling the various toys and gadgets that Santa had brought. Whenever we went out to eat, Dad used to entertain us by sketching strange contraptions and creatures on cocktail napkins. My favorite was the three- prong blivet. I collected plastic horses and if, by horrible happenstance, one of them broke a leg, my father was ready with an arsenal of epoxy and other adhesives, which he stored in the refrigerator. He would glue the horse’s leg back on and then set it upside down on one of my mother’s candleholders in the dining room, where it would remain until the glue set. Sometimes there would be half a dozen or so horses situated around the room. On numerous occasions, Dad would somehow convince me to “test” a nine- volt battery with my tongue. Of course, a small shock always ensued. I don’t know why I was always so compliant or why he took such a perverse pleasure in getting me to do that. I would think he would be troubled that his youngest child was so dumb that she would not only fall for that trick twice, but often. My father’s humor was slightly sadistic, I suppose.
Dad had an infinite interest in people and the world around him. He read voraciously. He made friends. He asked questions. He loved flying and sailing and took great pleasure, especially in his retirement, in taking people out on his sailboat on the nearby lake. Dad would take up causes and frequently engaged in hellfire letter writing campaigns. One memorable one involved an air show pilot named Bob Hoover, who, in my father’s opinion, had his medical certificate unfairly revoked by the FAA, thus rendering him unable to legally fly. Dad wrote countless letters on Mr. Hoover’s behalf. Mr. Hoover’s certificate was ultimately reinstated, but I don’t know if my father’s efforts had anything to do with it. My sister reminded me that Dad actually met Bob Hoover at an air show sometime in the nineties. “Daddy was thrilled,” she recalled.
Although I never heard him articulate it as such, my father had a strong sense of community. He was forever volunteering; he was a deacon at his church, a scoutmaster and, at one time, the president of the local Camp Fire chapter. He truly seemed to want to help. If someone needed a ride to a doctor’s appointment, he was there. If someone was going through something difficult, Dad thought nothing of smoking a brisket roast and delivering it to his door. If some committee needed minutes typed up, Dad would do it. I guess in some ways, my father was the human version of Brute the Wonder Dog. (My version.) Everyone loved him.
Dad’s disposition was generally fairly upbeat, but he could retreat into a quiet stoicism from time to time. Although he was always gentle with us, I had a gnawing fear of getting sideways with him and incurring the risk of his disapproval. He used to tell me that I was not to call him if I ever got arrested. I would be on my own. Yet when I was ultimately arrested for a DUI in college, he was the one who drove two hours to come bail me out. (I didn’t call him. A friend did.) I remember walking across the lawn of the county jailhouse and seeing him leaning up against his car. His only words were to ask me where my car had been impounded. I have never felt as small as I did that morning. The only time I ever saw my father cry was when my infant son died. He buried his head in my shoulder and sobbed.
During Dad’s last summer, my siblings and I made multiple trips back to our parents’ rural home, which was just outside of the town that we grew up in. In his final couple of weeks, we camped out and held vigil. It was a surreal time. After years of living apart, my adult siblings and I were under the same roof again, each with our own politics, religions, temperaments and viewpoints. We laughed. We argued. We grieved. And we waited. Our tiny mother quietly held the helm while her brokenhearted family navigated a bewildering and sad landscape. There was a constant flow of people coming through the house: co-workers from Dad’s engineering days, sailing buddies, church members and even old friends of my siblings and mine. Some of my father’s friends wept as they stood on the front porch. These were men that I had known since I was a child. So many people came to bring covered dishes and to say good-bye. We were bleary-eyed and exhausted. We were propped up with love and swirling in grief.
My father died of pancreatic cancer on September 4, 2000, one day after my mother’s birthday. It was early in the morning, when Mom came and woke up my sisters and me. She softly said, “I think it’s time.” My brother was out running. My mother, my sisters, my brother’s wife and I gathered around Dad. The shades were drawn, yet little slivers of light streamed into the dark room. It was very quiet. No one said anything. Dad simply exhaled.
Sometimes I see parts of my father in myself: the way I yell at the television when I’m watching the news, my playfulness with my own children, my dubious fashion sensibility. I like to think that I carry some part of him forward. The greatest lessons I learned from my father did not come from anything he said, but instead, from simply watching how he lived. His life was full of generosity, curiosity, fun and fearlessness. And the last lesson my father taught me was how to die without fear. In one of our last conversations, I asked him how he felt about his impending death. He looked at me and smiled. With a twinkle in his eye, he said, “I’m about to get some questions answered.”