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.

An Open Letter to Jim of Dominion Gas

Dear Jim,

Truthfully, I’ve never been a champion of mankind. The furred and feathered are more my kind. I could say that a lot of disappointments and heartbreaks have tarnished my spirit and dulled my soul. But if we’re being honest, and I feel like you and I can be honest, Jim, I’ve been stuffing my pockets with catfood and waiting out the feral furries since I was a child. And I’ve spent a lifetime dodging human conversation or skillfully making others feel awkward enough that they back away slowly. Bit of a feral creature myself.

I don’t know who you thought you saw when you came to restore my new house’s gas today, but she must have been wild with desperation.

You rolled up in that house like a guy who turns on gas for a living. And you said, “Did you get the gas leaks fixed?” And my eyeballs bulged, and I said, “What gas leaks?” And you said, “The ones we came out and shut the gas off for in August of 2014.” And I said, “I just bought the house this August. No one told me about gas leaks.” And in my head I said, “Son of a bitch,” but my eyes said, “Help!” And you said, “Enh, let’s go take a look.”

“Whoa, you got some stuff going on.” I should have warned you about the bathroom vanity in the living room. “You gonna sand those wood floors?” I’m no stranger to the male-female dynamic, Jim. I am as handy as I need to be, and I need for you to know that. “Yes, sir.” I also need for you to know that I don’t know how to fix my gas leaks. “Honestly, I’ve never had gas before. What do I need to do?” You didn’t even laugh. You’re no stranger to gas jokes, but I wasn’t kidding.

I confessed to the clusterfuck of plumbing. Although fixable sometime in the future and much improved courtesy of my brother, the issues have caused me to finesse my squatting position within the confines of the bathtub as I urinate into a foam cup from my gas station Mountain Dew. I didn’t tell you about that because, frankly, it’s too soon in our relationship for bathroom habits to be aired during daylight hours. You eyeballed the moldy corner of my basement as I said that pretty much everything had burst last winter. And you nodded. I told you that the house must have been a do-it-yourselfer special, but I plan to do it better. Because I know how to look stuff up on google and I have man-hands. Two fingers already smashed. Then, I took it all back because I owe that little house love. “I’m still happy. I’m still excited.” You nodded and replied, “Good little brick house.”

Jim, when you squeezed your flashlight in the notch between neck and shoulder, when you leveraged one giant wrench and a smaller one apart to untwist the meter in a clear display of mechanical prowess, I knew that you were no stranger to toil. I am a head taller, but you’re the one with the pipes. Still leaking, so you looked over my small maze of black iron. Valves and joints and compounds and fractional sizes of stuff that I tried to log into my brain while you spoke. 3/4” valve, I repeated. I asked who to call, a plumber? But I was walking through hardware stores in my imagination, wondering where I could find the valves and how I could figure this out. Fractions and dollar signs performed a tiny jig behind my eyes. I said to you, “Okay, I’ll call a plumber. It would be good to have heat this winter. That would be ideal.” In my head I said, “Wait until this guy leaves to wallow in your bewilderment.” You were standing by the corpse of the water heater killed by old man winter, and you mumbled, “Ah, let me go check in my truck.”

I didn’t know what to do or where to go, so I followed you out. With spare parts in hand and a flashlight shining out of your pants pocket, you strutted back into the house. “You are about to make my day,” I said to your back. “I’m trying,” you replied.

I’ll be damned if you didn’t do it! Superman powers leveraged against 70-year-old furnace pipes, and it was a ridiculous thing to watch. For 15 minutes I stood swelling with the kind of thankfulness that rises when a stranger does you a solid. When you tried the lines again and proclaimed, “No leak!” I mini-clapped and gave a “yay!” You wanted more than a squeak, you said. And I asked your name and told you with the kind of earnestness that I’ve refined to cross into uncomfortable territory that I was so grateful. You mumbled, “I’d just rather see you spend your money somewhere else.”

You saw a crazy kid tumbling headlong into life, maybe misjudging just how many other tumbles she’s had, but accurately judging her direction.

This is a paper towel artist's rendering of Jim, who looked nothing like this.

This is a paper towel artist’s rendering of Jim, who looked nothing like this.

And so, Jim, hero for this day, thanks for being a kind person. Thanks for helping me to remember that people, with labyrinths of heart and nerves in their own beings, are kind. Thanks for investing your time into my vision. Thanks for giving me gas.

Sincerely,

Little Brick House Lady