What woke me was a bad dream, metallic form tumbling end over end, driven by provoking gusts, tumbling away from me even as I chase after it. I close the distance, sparks bursting out like fireworks, flames spraying towards me as I walk towards it unharmed, attempting to reach its precious cargo before it's immolated. But in my dream, there is nothing left but ash, and I stand there in a halo of fire that smells of burning flesh, slapping at the small and blooming holes of fire that are erupting on my shirt like crimson flowers sprung from my heart. There's no going back to sleep after that. Days like this you need the extra big bowl of Corn Pops. But it's just a dream, and now I have to go, as I have my own things to protect
I look out the window, the landscape is flat, the shadowed forms of the city in the distance rising out of the dawn. There are no mountains, and no more of the thick cloud cover that has been the sky for the last several months, clouds hanging like sodden towels on the peaks of buildings, making distance and form deceptive. I'm either in Texas or Oz, one of the two.
I won't be out West again for a few more weeks, another trip to see Dad and Big Bro and my youngest stepBro if there are enough days. But I still talk to him almost every day (except Saturday which is Sports Marathon, a happy man, a beer and a remote). It doesn't matter how old I get, I'm his little girl and he worries about me out in the world. He worries about me even more lately, wanting to make sure before he leaves, that I'm happy and safe. My guys. Barkley is 10 in July, getting white white around the muzzle and tiring out after his play now. Dad is still going as hard as he can, despite cancer, and a small stroke. Hard to believe he turns 93 tomorrow.
Dad and Barkley at a family barbecue for his 89th birthday.
I give my Dad a lot of credit. He's not a big man but he's an imposing figure. But he's incredibly strong, still working out with weights several days a week. A golden glove boxer, a veteran of WWII, retired as a Lt. Colonel. He and my Mom lost their first child, a little girl, born too early, only surviving days. After that, with complications from the birth, they remained childless for over 15 years, watching their friends have kids, then grand kids. Mom said "foster parenting? adoption?"
I imagine his first words were "but I'm retired?!" But he soon took up the monumental task of filling out all the paperwork, with hope and joy and adopted more than one child that came into their healing home, including Big Bro and I, who came with our own baggage, even at such a tender age.
It can't have been easy but they did it, without complaint, without help, not caring that we weren't their offspring by DNA. Being a parent, a family, isn't about blood lines or age or paternity, it's simply a love beyond feeling that resonates in the heart as you look on your child. It's making tough sacrificial decisions, decisions that say without words what is important to you. It's remembering the lessons your father passed on to you, for a father with a sense of honor wants to be even more than he is and to pass something good and hopeful into the hands of his child.
I remember coming home crying when I was about 10, wrapped in angst because some boy I liked had said something very cruel to me, crueler in that I thought he was my friend. So I went to my Dad, for he was that approachable, golden authority on everything from dugouts to Daisy rifles in whom I held total faith and trust. I told him what the boy said and asked "is that true? " He looked e in the eye and said, "I once caught a steelhead as big as a cow." HUH? I thought". He repeated "maybe it was as big as a Buick" and I started to giggle knowing that wasn't true. Then my Dad said "Just because someone says something, doesn't make it true."and then he added under his breath "remember that when you're old enough to vote" and chuckled. And in that simple moment, spoken with humor, Dad showed me the importance of honesty. I went back to school, whacked the snot out of the kid that said it, and felt immensely better.
When I was a teen, I was a volunteer at a nursing home. The elderly people thoroughly enjoyed the visits, and often would keep me in their room for what seemed like hours to someone my age, as I brought juice and some blessed company. But for a teenager it was not a fun way to spend the afternoon and one time when Dad was dropping me off, I said "You know, I don't really want to do this". The silence echoed in the car like a question. Then Dad quietly said, "Did you tell them you would do it?" I said, "Yes." That was that. I knew exactly what he meant. They were counting on me. I missed an afternoon at the mall with friends and felt right for doing so.
Dad showed me dependability.
Later I had a chance to work and go to college far from my hometown. The first leap into independence is hard for anyone, the time when you know who you are but not what you may be. Hesitant to take the step, to move so far from home, I did what I still do, I called my Dad."What if I don't make it" I asked. Dad told me about leaving Montana behind as a young man and going to England on the Queen Mary to be an Army Air Corp area police officer during WWII. How hard that trip was to make.
After listening to him I realized a simple trip across a state border was nothing and packed my things. I harnessed my dream because Dad showed me the important thing is to be able, at any moment, to sacrifice what we are for what we could become. Dad showed me courage even as things change. Dad probably doesn't remember these conversations, but I do. The things that leave the biggest impression on a child may not be obvious to them until they are grown. They are not money given, or cars bought or video games provided. It's being a pillar of strength and support, patience and compassion. What will make you memorable to your children will be the things you don't think they see, and perhaps they don't now, but when they get older and step back from you, leaving for their own life—then they will measure the greatness of your example and fully appreciate it.
Did I always follow his example? In a word. NO. Over the years I've been headstrong and stubborn and foolish and more than once selfish and thoughtless. But he has always stood by me, even if in the vagrancy of foolish dreams and adrenalin, I have disappointed him. Still, I tried to learn from his examples. I still do.
One thing he was particularly proud of was their newspaper recycling fund-raising program, which provided income for these programs but not without a lot of hard, volunteer work. The shining marker of that program was a Newspaper Recycling Building built to further expand on that community project. The members constructed it themselves, husbands and fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers, laboring in cold and rain, hot and sun, often at the expense of their own sleep. In November 2000, newly constructed, vandals burned it to the ground,
There was nothing left, but a few support timbers, lined up in stark order like gravestones at a military service. The men, my father, simply stood there stunned, as water dripped from the remains, strips of clouds like bayonets against the sky. A lot of work went into it, all volunteer and many of them in their 60's and 70's. You would have expected my Dad to storm and rage against a senseless act of destruction. But he didn't, though I was not so naive that I didn't miss the simmering outrage within which lives a betrayal too intense and inert to ever be articulated.
I read somewhere that heartache is to a noble what cold water is to burning metal; it strengthens, tempers, intensifies, but never destroys it. So true and words my Dad lived by. From him I have learned that whatever terrible things may happen to us, there is only one thing that allows them to permanently damage our core self, and that is continued belief in them. Dad's lived these beliefs.
He's survived cance and a small stroke, buried two beloved wives, married to them over 60 years. He held my hand during 34 hours in natural childbirth, when her father abandoned me, and swept me away to our cabin after I handed her over to her adoptive parents, listening to me cry myself to sleep for months. I was a teen, barely out of high school and he never judged, never said he was disappointed in me, never said I told you so, for a choice in first loves that he had warned was going to be a bad one.
He taught me forgiveness and compassion
I've watched him sit a vigil at his wife's bedside that lasted days, sleeping only in naps in a chair, never letting go of her hand. He was simply there, a constant presence next to her slender, silent form, from which weariness and exertion had yet to depart, holding her, never doubting the actuality of his faith, guarding with sharp and unremitting alertness those minutes that he knows are fleeting.
I watched him as she left us. He touched the streak of white in her hair as lightning cleaved clear air and a gentle rain fell from cloudless skies, as if their moments together, as brief as they may have been, lingered there in a flash of light and tears, though breath itself had ceased.
That new recycling building still stands proudly today, a testament to the faith of children and the loving example of fathers.
It will soon be time to give my Dad another call. For he too will be waking up in a lonely bed, on his birthday, perhaps wondering where he is. I can picture him sitting in his recliner in the family room, Bible and coffee mug close at hand, his small frame illuminated by the early morning light, framed by ancient glass that bore light and witness to many a happy memory.
We will pour ourselves a bowl of Corn Pops and have our daily chat, while I tell him how very proud I am, that he chose to be my Father, through it all