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.

The Journey of Heroines and the Return of the Bionic Woman

Ed Asner I’d heard about. Lindsay Wagner was the real news. Lindsay “The Bionic Woman” Wagner. That’s how she signs her checks. Coming to my town to film a made-for-tv movie of fluff.

Once upon a time, I was not so bold as I am now. I was even shier, hiding under bangs, braces, and glasses. In 1994, my family moved from a rural Ohio town, where I’d lived with my siblings, rode my bike to see friends, and discovered my own “secret” spots by the creek near dumped tires and toilets, to an even more rural Ohio town. My minister father had landed his dream appointment, which landed me sans siblings or friends in a ranch house surrounded by cornfields on 3 sides. I started 7th grade with my Looney Tunes Sylvester t-shirt, Chuck Taylor All Stars, and Jansport backpack full of loneliness. Do you ask other 13 year-olds if you can sit beside them at lunch or do you sidle onto a bench unnoticed? Can you wrestle a sports bra on in the locker room without anyone seeing your boobs? How do you stay discrete with feminine hygiene? It’s hard to socialize when you work so hard to remain unseen. I was a phantom.

My mom kept this in her dresser. My sister and I 20 years ago. Phew.

My mom kept this in her dresser. My sister and I 20 years ago. Phew.

By 8th grade, I’d settled in and had the world by the tail! I cut my hair into a trapezoidal topiary and put drumsticks up my nose when the math teacher wasn’t looking. I found gal pals for sleepovers and bitchy-teen plotting. We were snarky at best. Yet, lining another girl’s locker in maximum absorbency pads didn’t create the bonding experience I desired. Friendships felt tenuous. The doctor told my mom I had an ulcer, though I now know that my stomach pain was caused by an aversion to defecating in public facilities. I missed more days than was permitted by the school district. Should have been held back. There was discussion. Administrators and my mom. But even the Man couldn’t deny my name on the honor roll. And Darlene Wallace wouldn’t hear any more about it. Straight A’s and staying home to watch my stories=winning. The school counselor asked me why I missed so much, if something was wrong. Nothing an obsession with 1970s reruns couldn’t fix.

Charlie’s Angels was the gateway drug of 1970s camp. It was on during the day, around 11am on a Turner channel. During my “sick days,” I watched it right after quality time in my precious turquoise and green lavatory. We didn’t connect though, Charlie’s Angels and me. Another challenge to my trust. There was too much flat-chested sexiness and personality conflict amongst the Angels. A man from a talking box bossed them around, and they packed the tiniest heat possible. Feminine heat. Excessive lip gloss. Guest appearance by Sammy Davis, Jr., and so many different Angels. Not my scene. No disrespect, Angel’s fans. And then, one afternoon on the Sci-Fi channel, The Bionic Woman and I found each other. Jaime Sommers wasn’t just another gangly lady with baby-sized pistols. She was the product of love, hope, and scientific badassery. Neither completely woman nor completely machine. A medical breakthrough and 5’9” of tough stuff. In her life before working for OSI, Jaime played professional tennis. She lost her parents in a tragic car crash only to survive a sky-diving accident herself years later. To survive it with the scientific improvements that enabled her to mop the floor with anti-‘mericans and meanies. She taught middle-schoolers on the side. Tall, smiley, and a little awkward. Smart, kind, and semi-reluctant to beat the spit out of baddies.

Strong and sexy. And then there's Steve, too.

Strong and sexy. And then there’s Steve, too.

Jaime Sommers is who I wanted to be. Her boss Oscar’s repeated use of the nickname, “Babe,” makes me regurgitate now. When I was 13-14? Jaime was solid enough to carry casual sexism, knowing all the while that she could crush Oscar’s manhood in her one bionic hand at any moment. Look out, Oscar! Here comes a Fembot. What is the greatest threat to the world? Strong, unthinking a-holes. What totally undermines a lady’s right to have rights? Physically strong and intellectually/emotionally weak Fembots. No one was fooled by your mechanical vaginas, Fembots. Least of all Jaime. My bionic hero fused force, strength, emotion, humanity, progression, thoughtfulness, intelligence, and audacity into one woman. This would be my evolution, I decided. A force of good and blondness flinging myself at life because I could handle any situation, save any basket of kittens, and reject any man so I might stay home and needlepoint Shakespeare quotes. Strong enough to be single while also getting nasty occasionally with Ken-doll Steve Austin; it’s my prerogative.

In three short seasons of reruns, Jaime and I had a kinship. Maybe this part of my life was the meaningless meandering of a growing kid brain and weird hormones. Who remembers puberty being described as blossoming? Ah, the gift of menstruation! I think that it was more. Lindsay Wagner as Jaime Sommers was the intellectual and emotional being I saw in my own mother. But my mom’s body stayed broken. By the time my mom passed away last January, she had two femurs held by metal rods, plates, pins, and screws. Her knee, hip, and elbow had been replaced. Toes fused. Fingers curled around joint deformities. She walked with a cane as long as I remember and didn’t walk at all for the last 5 years of her life. That is reality. Medicine and science don’t make ordinary people into superhumans. Diseases like rheumatoid arthritis can make a vital woman full of love, brass, and her own kind of grace feel subhuman. Instead of recognizing the grit it took for my mom to get out of bed in the morning, I looked to Jaime Sommers to teach me how to be a phenomenal woman.

Square glasses, mirthless smile, jowls. Everything about my mom said,

Square glasses, mirthless smile, jowls. Everything about my mom said, “dictator.” I miss her, you know?

No one’s mom is cool when you are 13. Maybe there’s some well-adjusted, homeschooled, breastfed, genius uncontaminated by teenagerdom who thinks her mom is the bomb. Unnatural. It’s a mom’s duty to suck sometimes, and honestly, mine seemed to relish her tyrannical rule. Yeah, she was a fucking trooper trapped in a rapidly decaying body and struggling with the complications of tragedy, a whole lotta holy rolling, and narcotics in her brain. But when I was 13, she was a dictator turned master humiliater. It was like living out Kim Jong-Il’s blooper reel. She threw all 5’ of roundness at whatever she loved. She went to college when I was in kindergarten. Took on tiny, rural, woman-hating churches as pastor. I watched her, in the last weeks of her life, extend loving kindness to more nurses, aides, and random strangers than I can count. And in the ICU, I overheard her telling more than one person that I was hiding a pregnancy when she knew this oven to be militantly patrolled against buns. When I had ovarian cysts at 18, she notified the church community that 1)I had lady issues 2)I was still a virgin. Why did I confide in this woman? Because I trusted her above all others. Her kids were her proudest achievement, and, as youngest of 4, I was unable to escape the domicile before she’d worked her mommy magic. As the bond with a fictional late-70s crime fighting cyborg cannot be broken, neither can the bonds between my mom and me.

Who didn't want to be this lady at one point in life?

Who didn’t want to be this lady at one point in life?

From this vantage point, my life is a prairie. I see so much while wondering what is yet unexplored. Past, present, and future. The Bionic Woman was not who I expected to come back into my life to seduce me with her smile and incredible listening skills. But here she is! Or rather the actual human, Lindsay Wagner. Can she get me a deal on a Sleep Number Bed? Probably. I’d be a fool not to ask. Who do I want to share it with most? My evil but completely accepting and supportive mom. I have to do this for her. I have to honor the woman who watched me run through a screen door more than once, whistled from the audience when I played last-chair-position percussion instruments at band concerts, and allowed me to explore the chasms of quirkiness that make my personality. If I can’t track down and at least stand silently and awkwardly before Lindsay Wagner (and this tv movie production company says I can’t), then I hope she frequents the Dollar General, IGA,and Marathon station while in town. I must see her from afar, at least. You can’t break a self-made bionic spirit. I’m cross-stitching a pillowcase that says so.