My father died 22 years ago this week. Here is a piece I wrote about him a couple of years ago:
My father looked up from the paper and said, “OK. If you’re careful, I don’t see why not.”
What a surprising answer.
So surprising that I didn’t know how to reply.
Had he said “No way!”
I had an answer ready and waiting.
But “OK?” Totally unprepared for that one.
I shouldn’t have been surprised.
My father had said surprising (to me anyway) things before.
He was like that.
Quiet. Even unassuming.
Hard working. He grew up poor in Alabama, Georgia.
Served in the Navy in WWII.
Was determined things would be different for his family.
My mom, brother and me.
He never told me that. But I see it now.
Eight years old, I think. My first flight, courtesy of an airline pass.
His job at TACA Airlines.
He said I should dress neatly, be courteous.
We were guests on this Braniff flight.
Polite, Courteous. A southern gentleman.
In that unassuming way.
The stewardess came by.
She was a stewardess. Flight attendants wouldn’t be invented for decades yet.
Chiclets. Standard fare for the un-pressurized DC3.
I just thought, “Hey, a treat!”
If we felt the need for oxygen, we should let her know.
Climbing into the clouds for the first time.
Could I have been any more excited?
Then, a strange sensation in my ears.
I’d not felt that before. Maybe I should be worried?
Don’t let it show, though. Let dad see you nervous.
But, I had to ask. Did I need oxygen?
Dad said it was OK. Chew the gum. Yawn.
He knew all the tricks. I felt better.
My ears, too.
Looking back, it was a humorous situation.
But he didn’t chuckle, tease me. Or tell me to sit still, keep quiet.
He said it was OK. He knew what to do.
That’s what he was there for.
My father taught me that grownups could be shaken.
Men might even cry.
A terrible plane crash. Managua, Nicaragua.
A new TACA Vickers Viscount. A flock of buzzards.
Two friends, the pilot and co-pilot, gone in an instant.
My father’s face. Hard to describe. Impossible to forget.
Grownups can be shaken. Men can cry.
Both are OK.
I learned that from him, though you’d not have known it until a few years ago.
I asked him one day, “Why?”
The football coach was on my case all through practice.
I was doing OK. Not what coach Harris thought, apparently.
I unloaded this on my father as he drove me home.
He’d back me up, mouth a few complaints about this unwarranted criticism.
“You should feel good about that,” is what he said.
“I should WHAT?”
He explained in his quiet way.
“Coach Harris cares. He thinks you are good. He knows you can be better. He’s helping you. When he stops being on your case, it means he has given up on you. You should be feeling good.”
Just like that.
Driving home from football practice.
Wisdom, in his quiet way.
My father would scold me, as fathers do.
For good reason. Except once.
Sick in bed, I was kept awake by the sawing, hammering.
I called out, “When will you be done?”
He came in and said to be quiet.
He’d gotten a few friends to help him put in a new stairway into the crawl space under our house.
They were doing us a favor. We shouldn’t seem unappreciative.
I was sick. I only asked a question.
The memory of those few moments is fresh; whatever hurt long since gone, though.
He was human. As are we all. Another lesson.
My father got sick.
A simple skin cancer. But then a small tumor in his neck.
Radiation. Disfiguring surgery.
We’d visit. “I’m OK. Doctor says things are going well,” he’d say.
Always positive. Encouraging me.
December. Back in Atlanta only a few weeks since our Thanksgiving visit.
Six months, the doctor said. What was I going to do during that time?
How often could I visit?
He was confused, the cancer now in his brain.
A sneak attack. The doctors watching the shrinking tumor in his neck.
Now, nothing to do but wait.
He died two days after I arrived.
It was OK. He knew what to do.
Our last summer before we headed off to college.
Larry, Morris and I had a plan.
We’d go to the islands! Nassau. Fly from Miami.
How to get to Miami, though?
I could fly for free, but not Larry or Morris.
We’d drive. But look at our cars!
The three of them together wouldn’t be able to get us there.
But we’d just gotten a brand new, 1966 Volkswagen.
Now that’s the car we needed.
Larry and I worked at the same engineering firm during the summer.
For a month we considered all of the possible ways that my father could say “no” to our request.
And we came up with the perfect counter-argument for each.
Finally it was time to ask.
“Dad. You know it would be a lot safer and cheaper if we could use the Volkswagen to drive down to Miami.”
This was it. All of my well thought out responses were ready and waiting. Which one would I need the only thing left to decide.
“OK,” he said. “If you’re careful, I don’t see why not.”
Knowing what to do.
Teaching me in this surprising response, the only one I hadn’t considered in planning my comebacks.
Teaching me responsibility. And that sometimes you need to take risks.
He was willing to do that.
Even now he is here, in the lessons taught.
In his calm, quiet way.