This Sunday is Father’s Day, a tender day for my tender heart. I miss my father. Truth is …. I have missed him nearly my entire life. And I miss him still.
Daddy was only 21 and serving in Japan with the U.S. Army the day I was born in Southern Idaho. He was an aircraft mechanic, servicing the “Gooney birds” that carried out tons upon tons of troops and cargo and military equipment as America mopped up after our efforts in Asia during the Korean Conflict. Gooney birds were technically a modified version of the civilian Douglas DC-3 aircraft that was specially fitted with a cargo door and strengthened floor to carry heavy transport.
It was overseas that my daddy learned to love Pall Mall cigarettes with no filter, readily provided to U.S. military personnel as one of the perks of their enlistment. It was a love affair that would last a lifetime for my daddy … in the most literal sense.
When he returned to us after his enlistment, he wasn’t home for long. To this day I don’t know all the places he called home during the next 10 years, but I do know he smoked a LOT of Pall Malls, played music here and there, and came back fluent in Cajun. He didn’t come home of his own accord, but that’s a longer story. At age 10, I had my daddy back. For a while.
The ensuing decades hold hundreds of stories to be told. Highs, lows, adventures, troubles, elation, anguish … and all things in between. The constant during it all was those beloved Pall Malls. Bless my daddy’s heart. And the near constant was my missing him, for one reason or another.
I spoke face-to-face with daddy for the last time in October 2000. He visited to say good-bye, relating terrifying premonitions of an impending medical crisis. Daddy was declining quickly from a combination of COPD, chronic bronchitis and some stage of lung cancer that the VA didn’t seem to be able to put a number on. The visit was brief, focused, earnest. Daddy begged me to promise I would come to remove him from life support if he was ever hooked up to machines with no hope of recovery. There was nothing he feared more. I agreed. And, of course, I thought these were merely the fears of a very sick man whose remaining lung capacity was measurable at a frightening 38 percent.
“The call” came mere weeks later, on November 4, 2000. My stepmom told me that daddy had coded again (respiratory arrest was happening more frequently due to diminished lung capacity from that love affair with Pall Malls); this time resuscitation hadn’t succeeded. He was in ICU with a respirator breathing for him. Pupils fixed and dilated. Unresponsive to stimuli. Soaring body temperature reflecting frantic activity by his hypothalamus to garner signs of life, feedback, from the regulatory centers of his brain. I got in my car and drove straight through.
Results from three days of neurological testing catalyzed the most heartbreaking … yet to this day the most holy … experience of my life. I kept my word to my father.
We had the hospital remove all needles, tubes and machinery and move daddy to a private hospice room. With the radio tuned to his favorite “oldies” station, I pulled a chair close. I talked to him, held his hand. His autonomic functions wound down quickly. Exactly an hour after disconnection he took one last shallow breath, turned his face straight ahead and—with eyes still closed—smiled a smile that went ear-to-ear. I had the blissful experience of cradling this man who had given me my first wee spark of life as he crossed over to life beyond.
In the days and months that followed, people witnessed my tears but also heard me tell stories of my dad that brought smiles and snickers. Power that was mine for a specific window of time to be used for a specific, consecrated purpose. That power was love.
Was my father a perfect dad? Nope. But I know that he did the very best he could, given the abilities he could muster during those passages of his life that he was with me – and when he was away. He taught me that real love is a choice, not a feeling. A get-up-every-morning-and-choose-to-love-again kind of choice. None of us is perfect. Authentic love seeks to focus on the goodness in the other.
Happy, happy Father’s Day to my dad. This year and every year as long as I draw breath. Another year of me missing you has come and gone! And I love and miss you still.
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