[Above: This is the first photo of my Dad that ever hit the internet and the only one that I'm aware of prior to this week's obituary. He loved playing horseshoes. He was 74.]
Like an artist’s canvas.
Shades of pink, orange and yellow splashed across the sky.
The silhouette of a man sitting down in the foreground of the spectacular scene.
A most memorable dusk and one of my earliest memories, one that captures life in its greatest beauty but also in its most painful of realities. A symbol of the challenges that I faced growing up, challenges that shaped me into the man that I am today.
My mother filed for divorce from my father shortly after I turned two and this moment takes place quite some time after that. The three of us are at his house. She is there to pick me up and take me back home where I live with her. She is standing to my back at the front door and he is sitting in his favorite spot at the dinner table in front of the window bay. He had a frontrow seat to a vast wilderness and it seemed like he rarely left it in all the years that I knew him. He had left the door unlocked as long as I can remember. Company could just come right in as they pleased and he wouldn’t even move from his seat…as it was in this instance.
Before my mother and I leave, I walk up to my father.
He gives me a kiss on the forehead. “I love you, dear.”
“Love you, too, Dad.”
At age 4 or 5, you don’t understand the gravity of words.
At age 27, you do.
On Memorial Day of this year, I visited my father and my stepmother. Towards the end of the afternoon, I sit there with him in the bedroom as he lay in bed and we are just watching television. We make light conversation for a bit as the rain falls outside. What started as a sunny day has taken quite the turn. The power goes out thanks to a tree branch falling on a power line down the road. I’m still not sure whether that tree was struck by lightning. The generator kicks on but, as luck would have it, what is now the bedroom was formerly the dining room and it was never wired.
I guess weather can frustrate just as much as it can delight.
I turn to him. “I suppose this means you are ready to take a nap.”
Over the past few years, I had got very used to him being in a wheelchair so I usually just patted him on the shoulder when saying goodbye. And I did so again here.
“Alright then, Dad. I’ll talk to you soon.”
It would be our last moment together.
As I sat there, I had wondered whether it would be though I hoped it would not. I did not want to signal to him that I was thinking this either. So I kept to the script. The “usual” as they say.
At some point close to the end, I did want to have a heart-to-heart talk with him. To talk about life and not just the usual. To ask him questions like, “What would you want me to tell your grandson? You know, if I have one some day.” I missed that chance. If nothing else, I would have liked to have given him a real hug and just said a few simple words like…
“I love you, Dad.”
Indeed, the gravity of words.
Still, I gladly trade in the opportunity to say those words knowing that he passed on quickly and free of any pain.
In between the colorful hues that decorated the first memory of my father and the rainy sadness that tinged my final one, he and I cheated each other of our presence on more than one occasion.
Presence requires something more than small chit-chat like, “‘How is school?,’ ‘What’s new?,’ ‘Did you watch the game?’” Presence, to me, is achieved when people are real with each other about how they are feeling and about what they are thinking. Presence leads to storytelling, reminiscing about the past, sharing future goals, coming clean, hypothesizing over life’s most perplexing questions. Most importantly, moments of presence, the way I define it, build trust. They build love.
It is a common fault in all of us, I think. No, not just Dad and I.
We are all victims of routine.
As sappy as it sounds, I think my father shared such a presence with nature. He devoted much of his life to it and was an outdoorsman in every sense of the word. He even made his home in the middle of the forest. Though I wasn’t much of a fisherman (I went once with him) and am not much of a hunter (I went…well, I never went with him), I, too, have a thing for nature. I took up hiking toward the tail end of high school and grew a love for the view of the mountains above the tree line. I recall one cool summer night atop Cadillac Mountain, gazing at the stars. To me, that is living.
But it has been a while since I have gone on a hike or stood and looked at the stars.
Again, victims of routine.
I am not sure whether it is the fact that we share DNA or all those visits growing up to Chalk Pond Farm, the place my Dad called home, but I do know I learned to love nature, at least in some small fraction of the way that he did, because of the time I spent with him there. The variety of birds (and wildlife) that visit the backyard. The soft rain that comes down on the pond. The way a full moon shines through the bedroom window.
The occasional vanilla sky.
An appreciation for these things, for life really, flows through my veins like a trickling stream, but only because it flowed through my father’s veins like a river.
At times, we sat at the table together and said few, if any, words to each other. I have to admit- it was easy to just look out that window bay for a while and let my mind escape me. I would forget that my father was even there. When I snapped back to reality and looked over to him, I would sometimes find his eyes fixated on the birds. The water. The trees.
And then on me.
Maybe presence doesn’t require words after all.
I wrote this late on Tuesday night. It’s now Thursday afternoon. When I re-read it, I think what I was looking to do (in my emotional state) was just to express that I had a very complicated relationship with Dad but it was pretty simple on its surface. There was some kind of unspoken connection there though that is difficult to put into words.
I guess I’d just encourage you to look at the relationships in your life and be more ‘present’ in them, both in ones that seem perfectly fine and the ones that need fixing. Especially the ones that need fixing. [Note: Admittedly, I read a blog post that inspired this idea a while back but no way to trace back it.]
In any case, I love you, Dad, and I will really miss you.