The past few weeks have been hard. Harder than I imagined. From the moment of my sister’s call—”Daddy’s gone“—I feel like I’ve been swimming through a dense fog, searching for islands of peace in an ocean of grief and uncertainty. This is not how my dad would want me to feel. He would be lovingly encouraging me to find my way back to happiness. So, Dad, this is for you…and for me.
Lucky In The Dad Lottery
I told my father that in the lottery of life, I don’t know how I got so lucky to win him as my dad. He was a unique combination of strength and gentleness, compassionate toward all living beings, always ready to lend a hand, and with a deep, unwavering love for family and friends.
All of that would have been enough. But he was also fun to be around. His zest for life, his hilarious story-telling wit, his charming Southern manners, and his genuine interest in everyone he encountered made everyone fall in love with him.
I’m not gonna lie. For the past couple of years, my dad was also a major source of stress in my life. His sunny, positive “can-do” outlook masked an underlying stubbornness that made him difficult to reason with. For example, the time he climbed up on the roof—at age 88—to trim a few trees with a chainsaw. He assured me there was no reason to worry, but did acknowledge, “Those acorns are like rollerskates!” Or his refusal to wear a hearing aid, forcing the rest of us to shout. Or his insistence that he didn’t need to use a cane or walker for support, even after several frightening falls. “Everyone falls, honey!” he told me, while I patched him up with giant bandaids after yet another disaster.
He was the most loveably stubborn person you can imagine. I miss him terribly.
“Enjoy Every Moment”
Born during the Great Depression, my dad spent the first few years of his life in Apalachicola. This small fishing town in the panhandle of Florida was imprinted on his soul, and it’s where he felt most at home. He and my mom retired here in their 50s to build their home on the bay across from Apalachicola, and they lived here happily for 36 years. (It’s here, in their home, that Eric and I now find ourselves riding out the pandemic. But that’s a tale for another blog post.)
My folks met in high school in Miami, had their first date on Valentine’s Day in 1948, and were married the following year. They loved each other fiercely for 71 years and were uniquely well suited to sharing life together. “Enjoy every moment,” they told my sister and me, “life goes by quickly.” I feel the painful truth of that, especially now.
Whatever they wanted to do, they figured out a way to do it. They wanted a boat, so my dad built our first boat.
They wanted to see the country, so they strapped a footlocker loaded with camping gear to the top of our Volkswagon Bug and drove across the country, stopping at national parks all along the way and loading and unloading an enormous canvas tent, sleeping bags, and a Coleman stove and lantern every night for five weeks. For our next cross-country journey, my dad built a camping trailer to haul our gear.
When my sister and I left home for college, our folks bought an Airstream and then a fifth-wheel, continuing their travels well into their 80s. For many years, Eric and I met up with them somewhere between Florida and Oregon for adventures on the road.
My dad was successful in his work life—he started his career loading steel onto a flatbed truck, and worked his way up to vice-president of the company. One of his proudest work accomplishments was his company’s role at the Kennedy Space Center, where they built various structures, including the rocket launch pad. But work was never the most important thing in his life. We were.
What my dad enjoyed most was being with family and the simple pleasures in life—fishing, boating, camping, and working on projects at home. Among many other life skills, he taught my sister and me how to drive a boat, how to waterski and snorkel, and how to fish. And he always baited our hooks.
Even these past several years, despite the challenges of growing older—including caring for my mother, who has dementia—my dad was a happy person. “I wake up every morning looking forward to what the day will bring,” he told me a couple of years ago. I knew his world had shrunk to the circumference of household tasks, doctors’ appointments, and his role as my mother’s personal servant (“Where’s my tea, I want a treat, get me a kleenex, I’m hungry…”). He would laugh, roll his eyes, and get her whatever she wanted while asking, “Is there anything else I can do for you, Mrs. Queen?” My mother would grin wickedly and shoot him a bird.
There were many times that I thought, “How can he be happy? What in the world does he have to look forward to?” But on a deeper level, I understood. One of my dad’s great gifts to me has been the knowledge that happiness comes from focusing on the small pleasures in life and the uplifting practice of expressing gratitude out loud, and often. He was delighted to see daybreak over the bay each morning, and he never failed to celebrate the beautiful sunsets from the back porch. And he loved having family and friends around. It was enough.
I did not get to see my dad before he died. Although he did not have the coronavirus, we were not allowed to visit him, either in the assisted living facility or in the hospital. My mother continues to be quarantined in the assisted living facility, with little understanding that my father is gone.
It was painful not being able to see my dad, and painful not being able to gather with loved ones to celebrate his life and to mourn his passing. I set up an altar for my dad the night he died, surrounding him with the people he loved and who loved him. It’s a big altar, spanning the length of the buffet in the dining room. Just in the past few days, I’m noticing that some of my sadness is lifting. I’m able now to stop by and chat with my dad, looking at the photos and smiling as I recall the good times.
I find comfort in the knowledge that my dad and mom had long lives together, and that most of those years were truly wonderful. And I find solace in knowing that I never held back from telling my dad that I loved him, just as he never held back in expressing his love for us. Thanks, Dad, for your fine example of a life well-lived. You were the best. ♥️