My dad died on Father’s Day, very suddenly and without warning, of a massive heart attack. He was 65, and I wish with every bit of my being that he’d been able to live longer. He was a good man, a kind man, a funny man, a difficult man. It seems incredibly cruel that he’s gone, and I don’t know when I’ll come to terms with it. But remembering him helps.
Here’s a bit of what I’m remembering today.
Animals. My dad loved animals. He majored in zoology at Michigan State University and considered becoming a veterinarian. Though he never did so, he used his knowledge and compassion to maintain an evolving menagerie of animals at home. It wasn’t unusual for us to have half a dozen dogs, a handful of cats, some goldfish, and even a convalescing finch or two around the house at a given time. Sometimes I think we had more dog, cat, and bird food in the pantry than anything fit for human consumption.
Away from home, he was always on the lookout for new creatures to show my sister and me… even while behind the wheel of a car. I was in not one, but two, animal-related accidents with my dad. Once he stopped to let a flock of geese cross the road and a guy in a sports car rear-ended us. The geese were safe, but my dad went to the hospital and the car was totaled. Another time we were on the way to have lunch with my grandma, driving along a road set atop a gentle rise carved out during Michigan’s glacial past. My dad saw a hawk out his window and pointed for my sister and I to look. So intent was he on the bird that he drove us right off the road and down the hill. We missed lunch while waiting for a tow truck, but I definitely remember the hawk.
Storytelling. My dad was not the most gregarious guy, but he had a set of stories he loved to tell – even if only he remembered them in the way he told them. Most of them featured anecdotes about my sister and me as kids, or something weird the dogs had done, or stuff he’d read online that he found too good to be true. In one, I didn’t want to eat my vegetables as a toddler, so I stood up in my highchair and shouted, “Damn you, Dad!” In another, he turned his back on my then-two-year-old sister while at the playground for just one second and looked back to see her at the top of the climbing dome (the same one he swore I was afraid to climb even though I was two years older). Slightly exaggerated? Perhaps. But absolutely true to him.
He’d read to us as kids, too, even after we’d reached the age when many parents gave up on the practice. He was just that good at telling a story. The series I remember the best were Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock books, about a man from an advanced society whose technology causes him to be mistaken as a magic user when his spaceship crash-lands on a medieval planet (thankfully he doesn’t try to colonize it). The real magic was the feeling my dad brought to the pages, making characters come to life for us. I’ve never read the books myself, but I know the story of Rod Gallowglass and his adventures on Gramarye, can picture him riding his robot horse, as though I’d seen it in real life.
Reading. Speaking of reading, my dad had a heroic appetite for books. He read everything that came in at our local library, then read it again when he couldn’t find a new book. His true passion was science fiction and fantasy. Our walls were lined with shelves full of Ace and DAW paperbacks – some of which now live in my Chicago apartment because my dad wanted to clear out some space but couldn’t bear to get rid of them completely. My dad’s books are dog-eared, with corners folded over, bindings broken, tossed in a jumble, loved completely.
One of the last things my dad did before he died was visit the library. He was scheduled to have surgery on his right rotator cuff last Wednesday and had prepared for his recovery by checking out a whole stack of new books. It breaks my heart he never got to read them, but my dad wouldn’t want to be in a world where he’d read everything anyway.
Genuine Love. One last thing, and I’ll start it with an animal story. We had one dog growing up that my dad loved more than any other: Toby, a Labrador-Bouvier mix, a big friendly dog who went everywhere with us as kids. When my dad retired, he decided he wanted a new dog, so he and my mom drove over to Last Chance Rescue. At one point, my mom saw my dad looking at one of the dogs with tears in his eyes.
“She looks just like Toby,” he said.
They got the dog, his last dog. Her name’s Gabby. She’s entertaining as hell, and she went everywhere with him until the day he died.
My dad kept a lot to himself – my uncle recently described him as “stoic” – but when he cared about something it was plain as day. His love was as clear and unadorned as his facial expressions often were inscrutable. He may not always have known how to express love, but there was no mistaking it for anything but what it was. My dad would do anything for my mom, my sister, and me – and that included spending most of his life working on the line at General Motors so we had enough money for food, health care, and education. He told me at my wedding that seeing me have a happy life, doing a job I care about and marrying someone I love, made all the hard times he went through worth it.
That was my dad. He had a hard time loving himself. He fought with anxiety and depression his entire life. Sometimes he won, but just as often he lost. But he loved his dogs, his stories, his books, and his family.
I miss him so very much.
Love you Dad.