My father died on July 16th at 2:27 in the afternoon. He died with his wife and four children gathered around him, each of us huddled close with a hand holding on to him, gathering him to us. He held us close as he always had, even in the still moments before breath left his weakened body, even with his eyes closed as they had been for nearly a week. He held us close as a husband, a father, a strong man, even unconscious. Without words or expression, he drew us in and held us together, even as he left us.
My dad was always uncommonly strong and healthy, intelligent and funny, with a quick whit and easy laugh, but an intense look that at first made all of my friends scared. He was a big man with large, strong hands that felt as if they could crush you in a moment’s flash of anger, but I remember how gentle those big hands were as he picked me up and held me close when I had fallen off my bicycle and scraped my knees bloody.
I remember the night when he sang his song to my brother and me before bed, a lullaby he had learned from his father, and then he sang it for the last time when we had grown too old to appreciate it any longer. He looked at us after that and asked us if we didn’t want him to sing us a song anymore since we were getting so big. I still hear his voice singing it now in my mind even though it’s been nearly forty years.
After Dad had passed, my Mom, sisters and brother and I, went through all of our old pictures. My mother and sisters put together collages of so many good times. Vacations, holidays, family get-togethers, all those remembered times with him. One thing that always stuck out in those pictures was Dad’s big, toothy grin, his big arms and hands always wrapped around a child or grandchild. His joy in his family was so clear to everyone. Even in his later stages of illness, he would boast to anyone who would care to listen about all the achievements of his children and grandchildren, often as we stood there with embarrassed smiles.
Dad was like that. He was the rock, the foundation, of our family. Through his long illness, over several years, the family seemed to drift a bit, unfocused, as if we were unsure of how to do things without his guidance. His illness left him without the strength and the energy we were used to. The family gatherings were fewer and shorter as his health declined and he was unable to handle the noise and excitement.
As we waited by his bedside for those last moments, we reminisced about all the old times, all the funny things Dad had said or done. A passerby might have been shocked at all of the laughter coming from his room. At times, it seemed as if Dad wasn’t going anywhere, as if he had been there all along, just as he had always been throughout my life, with his sarcastic one-liners that left us rolling on the floor, his encyclopedic knowledge of sports, history, and music.
I believe my Dad had more native talent than any person I’ve ever met. He could pick up a half dozen different musical instruments and play a tune on them out of the blue. I remember bringing home a new trumpet from school and Dad pulled it out and showed me how it worked, pointing out the parts and then taking a deep breath before playing a song on it. Another time he picked up a little plastic guitar my sister had gotten for her birthday, spent a few minutes tuning it by ear and then strummed out a funny little Hawaiian song while singing all the words. He could play any sport like a natural, picking up a football or baseball and throwing it straight as an arrow for what seemed like a country mile. He’d pull out an ancient baseball glove from the closet and we’d play toss in the yard.
My Dad loved boats. He had a couple of motor boats at one time or another in my youth and also a small sailboat. He never looked so happy as when he was behind the wheel of one of his boats, motoring across the short, choppy waves of Burt Lake, Michigan, up near the straits.
Dad could fix anything. He owned so many old cars, I couldn’t even count them. Among their number were six or eight Volkswagon beetles. I remember working with him, watching by his elbow, rather, as he pointed out the components in the engine and under the car, telling me what they were and what they did. There were so many times he fixed his cars with a paper clip or a piece of wire and duct tape. He kept them running even through the lean times of the 1970’s.
We went through many ups and downs as everyone does. Dad held us together through all of it with Mom always by his side. Through money troubles to job changes to moves across the state to his children’s troubles with health issues, money, and marriages, Dad was always there. He might not have known the exact words to say, but he was always a solid, powerful force for good in our lives. He and Mom kept us safe while we were growing up and kept parenting as we grew into adults and made our own mistakes and our own successes. They never stopped being our Dad and Mom and imprinted this strongly on all of their children.
I could write volumes on all of the little things Dad taught me. How to ride a bike, hammer nails, drive a car, change a flat tire, throw a ball, throw a punch, so many things that a man needs to know and that I work hard to pass on to my own sons. I’m sure I would finish up and then come back a day later with a fresh list of memories.
Besides all the little things he taught me that help me to get by all the little twists and turns of daily life, Dad left me some big lessons that I use to guide my life. I learned to never give up, never surrender to circumstance, and to always keep dreaming. I learned to always show my children how I feel about them and to tell them I love them as well. I learned to be strong, but kind when it matters. I learned that sometimes it’s better not to speak, but that sometimes you have to speak for those who cannot.
My Dad suffered so much in those last few years. That wasn’t who he was, though, and I never forgot that. He was a strong man and lived a long, full life. That’s exactly the way I remember him and always will.