Life is the Blessing: For my Father

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.

My Own ‘Merica

Shine on, you crazy diamond. From Putinspiration.

Shine on, you crazy diamond. From Putinspiration.

Yeah, the pole bearing a rebel flag and an American flag on my way to work makes me mad. No, I don’t accept Vladimir Putin as my personal lord and savior, but I don’t think of myself as a patriot, either. I’m not even sure what it means. My sense of entitlement to all good things, contempt for politicians, and dedication to Mountain Dew remind me that I’m all American all the time. As September 11 has rolled around again and the internet is ablaze with ‘merican pride, I started thinking about who I am as a part of this vast landscape and complex culture. What does make me a patriot? What does run in my veins and quickens my pulse?

Love trickled down at least. My older bro and sis.

Love trickled down at least. My older bro and sis.

–I’m a child of Reaganomics. A child of poverty, of parents with mental illness, of Jesus. A child of the hills, of love and bewilderment, of crisis and peace. A child of the 1980s. My mom said my name meant, “Child of our hearts.” I still believe in that.

–My generation went from wandering the halls at school to practicing lockdowns. In high school during a locker clean out, someone threw a piece of fruit at an English teacher’s cleavage and exclaimed, “Bank shot!” I remember that teacher saying that in 30 years she’d never been so maliciously assaulted. Columbine happened my junior year. We didn’t know what it meant at that age. I was afraid of the chaos. Adults were afraid of me as some part of a discontented and isolated youth culture. It made a person miss the simpler days of tornado and fire drills. Natural disasters instead of human disasters.

I have only just realized his eyes were blue. Mom's were brown.

I have only just realized his eyes were blue. Mom’s were brown.

–I didn’t understand why my mother walked out of the theater during Forest Gump. I didn’t understand why she hated anti-war protestors as much as she hated war. But I suppose when all that returns from Vietnam is the body of your brother, the whole world looks different. We didn’t talk about war, and we didn’t talk about Louis. My mom’s mind was bonded to the pieces of shrapnel that tore into his flesh. The memories we don’t have can take precedence over the ones we do have.

–Quiet and bashful, my paternal grandfather was rejected from the draft for being “gouty.” His brother went and returned. Stationed in North Africa. Elmer couldn’t believe in any kind of god after the things he saw, my dad said. I can only see my grandpa in his garden with a milk carton bill stapled to his hat, bending over vegetables to assess the bunny damage, inspecting tomato stalks for signs of the dreaded tomato worm, large gloves on his medium hands. He was a man who touched life gently. There are many humans who are so gentle but have not been as fortunate in the state of their gout.

–My maternal grandfather was a Marine. You’d have known it by his mouth. Filled with four-letter words, empty of teeth. He never wanted to tell me much about the Marines. My mom said the dentists there hadn’t used Novocain.

Playing balloons with my two biggest fans.

Playing balloons with my two biggest fans.

–I went on a mission trip to Russia at 17. Having never crossed a major border, I wanted to travel away from Ohio to see everything else. I had friends whose families visited Europe or the Caribbean for vacation. That wasn’t a possibility for my family. In Russia, I stayed in an orphanage with my all-adult group. To the kids there, I was like a shooting star that had landed in their palms. Nerdy, shy, uncertain me. I was fashion and opportunity and freedom and family to them. When we use the term privilege to deride others in the United States, I think we have failed to see the rest of humanity. Because everyone has a privilege of some variety. Privilege isn’t a dirty word. It’s an obligation to share your own resources as best you can with the world. It took infant-sized 8 year-olds living each day in cribs to help me see. It took tiny arms reaching up to me at a time in my life when I didn’t know how to hold anyone. It took two 13 year-old girls pressing my hands to their cheeks and petting my hair and asking if I had parents. It took the knowledge that one girl’s family likely dumped her because of a misaligned eye that could have been operated on when she was a baby. If she had been here, it could have been repaired. There are more privileges in our lives than we will ever understand. I came back from that trip a lost girl. A rich human, but a lost girl.

–Sometimes I hope the story of Tecumseh will be different. I hope that he will succeed in uniting Native Americans and holding the land. I hope he will succeed where Blue Jacket did not. Blue Jacket signed the Greenville Treaty that gave eastern Ohio to the United States. Tecumseh did not sign. Tecumseh fought on and was killed. We learned about Blue Jacket in Ohio history, and Columbus’s hockey team is the Blue Jackets. And I don’t know if Ohio remembers Blue Jacket to celebrate his effort at peace or his unwitting aide to genocide. Everyone here wants to claim their 1/8 Native American blood regardless of history. Why didn’t we learn more about Tecumseh?

Crisis or no, Tootsie wrestles her bra on one arm at a time like everyone else.

Crisis or no, Tootsie wrestles her bra on one arm at a time like everyone else.

–We all have our own tale of 9/11. My favorite is my friend’s lisping film professor who said something like, “Apparently, there’s some kind of national emergency. Here’s Tootsie!” What collapsed for me that day was my sense of existing in an impregnable nation. That day did shatter the existence of so many humans, not just Americans. I can’t pretend that it was the most meaningful day of my life. The truth is that it’s only a single heartbeat that separates living from dying. But it’s an entire lifetime of forces and impacts and privileges and moments that lead to the choices that lead to the living or the dying. Compelled by occurrences on that day some went to war, some to Canada. I finished college in Kentucky as my heart kept beating. I turned to those things most precious to me and ignored the rest for about a decade. We all have our “here’s Tootsie” moments.

Life should be a frolic, damn it.

Life should be a frolic, damn it.

I am a person who doesn’t understand. But I try. Gender, sexuality, religion, race, avocados. I try to hear the voices of many and to find my own. On Facebook, that land of platitudes and messy quotes superimposed on sunrises, a friend posted this from Elie Wiezel: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” I’ve never been much inclined toward speaking, and I’ve ridden many a fence. But I think of it now, the utility of my words and the weight of them. I consider what I return to a world where I absorb so much. My American ideal is finding the balance between speaking loud enough and learning when to listen. My American ideal is a commitment to life—not pro-choice, life-at-all-costs—just quality and equality in that opportunity. Not stuff and money. Not flags and guns. Pulses and leaves and toads and thunder. Oxygen for us all. Enough security and enough love to make each of us the lord of our own heart. Enough security and love to share, to toss into the wind with the thistle down and let take root where it falls. Consider that my unfurling flag and act of patriotism for this day. For each day.