My dad passed away last Friday, May 6. I wanted to write something for him, wanted to stand at his service and give some account of his life as I knew it from my own perspective. After almost 3 hours of calling hours, I wrote this for the service. The reinforcement from a very close friend that life is what matters helped me to find my words. My dad was sick for a long time and was the reason I moved home after college 12 years ago. Still, his death was sudden and left me hurt. It is not refined or particularly well edited. It also is not about my ego as a writer. Family and friends asked that I share it because it’s hard to hear all the words when you are mourning someone, and it’s hard to hear my words, which are spoken softly. I miss my old man. Who else is going to call me 3 consecutive times and leave a 1 minute 45 second message to tell me that, “Ice cream sure would go good on a day like this…bring the dog.”
My father was a United Methodist minister for over 30 years, father to 4, and husband to a woman who his parishioners repeatedly told him he needed to shut the mouth of. They celebrated their 45 wedding anniversary in April of 2014, and my mom died in January of 2015. To be honest, they were hot messes the scale of which few can comprehend. My dad ran over his own teeth with a mobility scooter multiple times; my mom kingpinned a black-market elastic bracelet trade in the nursing home. I really miss them. Tom and Darlene.
Life is the blessing. People say, “Live like you are dying,” but I disagree. Live like you are living, like the air is free and days are long. Live like the universe is expanding into infinity. Live like you will sweep over the event horizon like a leaf in cascades. Live like you are loved and give love. You must live.
When my mom died a year ago January, the meaning of everything clouded over. And now I miss my dad. If she had been my moon, that bright body to pull my tides, my father was the stars, the steady guide to help me chart a course. What can I do without my compass? Where do I go and what does it mean?
Months passed by after mom’s death. I found myself standing in the tiny spring beauties of a wide open field. I saw my feet at the tops of rocks and tucked myself under trees. Days when my house felt too vacant and quiet for rest, I drove. Just drove. What I realized as the days rolled past was that I am here to live and had continued to do that in spite of myself. It is what both of my parents wanted.
You may be tempted to say of my father’s life is, “Well, he struggled for a long time.” The truth of it is painful, a briar hooked into my heart. But what I want to tell you is that, for 66 years, my father lived. The unplanned 3rd child of Dorothy and Emerson burst into the world from the backseat of a Ford. Little Tommy stuffed his face with the farmhand’s chewing tobacco, and it was his secret with grandma, who rubbed his belly. Latin-flunking teenaged-Tom blazed through Carrollton, and his mother finally told the cop to mind his own business. A few years later, his fast and furious VW Beetle forced other cars off the road trying to pass them uphill. And yeah, my mom liked to point out their high school parking spot anytime we drove cross-country in Carroll County.
The man I knew was a caregiver, lover, friend, and general mischief maker. My dad slept in the car under a full moon waiting for me to be born, and his was the first face I saw as I settled into my place on Earth. When mom was too weak with arthritis to lift me from a crib, dad slapped me in the car seat for auto parts runs. Lots of days when she went to see the Dr., dad and I shared honeybuns and chocolate milk in the Parkersburg hospital cafeteria. He bounced toddler me on his knee, always yanking me back right before I fell off. Every night, he read me stories, skipped as many pages as he could before I noticed, and snapped my nose in the book as he tucked me in. He cooked and cleaned and did laundry for the household of 6 while he held multiple point charges and almost always had a side gig as an autobody man. He flipped cars before flipping was a thing. Each of his kids had some cobbled together vehicle and the only requirements were that it had the capacity for speed or he could paint it. My father’s thumb was green, tomatoes his specialty. He was as annoyed as anyone when church ran long because he had a pot roast and nap waiting at home. Don’t touch the mixer…mashed potatoes were his thing.
When I was in high school, I didn’t know that I should be sneaking away to make out with boys behind the bleachers. My parents and I, we went to matinees at least once a week. My dad and I laughed at our own inventions of silly while my mom pouted at our genius. I spent afternoons helping him sand the ’84 Cougar he bought at a rummage sale for me, and we blew out rust boogers all night from the dust. For years, I argued from under an engine that my clockwise and his clockwise were not the same thing…only one of us got angry. And I still think clockwise is stupid. When nights stayed clear, my dad and I climbed the hill to watch the stars shifting, and we both felt tiny and scared at the space over our heads and the openness of our own hearts. We ate ice cream and chocolate cake together, but in truth, he ate 75% of it. We talked about all the things. All of them. When no one else could help me, when no one else could say, “hold steady, girl,” my dad could find a way. He did that for me from beginning to end. He loved me from the start, and I loved him to the end.
You know my father in many different ways. And what I ask you to remember is who he was when he lived. And who are we? Are we yet alive and see each other’s face? Wherever you find your faith—in the ancient words, in the roots of trees, in the old hymnsong or the open seas—realize that one day you will live like you are dying but it is not this day. Find the sunset and melt to the sky. Plunge your nose into a lilac clump. Hug someone. Hug a cat or 10. Sing, not because no one is listening but because there is music everywhere. Can’t you see what is special in your heart and in each heart around you? Living is not a matter of time. Perhaps it is a matter of grace. My father would tell you to seek the divine, and I tell you also to unlock the chambers of your quick-beating heart because there is grace within you, too—the grace to extend to every life around you. Then, go and eat the M&Ms. Eat all of them. And don’t hide the evidence because you’ve found grace and life is the blessing. Go away from here and live.