A day hasn’t gone by in two weeks that I haven’t cried. Two weeks ago today I had to say goodbye to my Dad. I had to tell him one last time that I loved him.
Aliance Hospital, Odessa, TX. We left my Dad’s bedside somewhere after 11 p.m. on the 26th. We followed longtime family friends and residents of Midland, Shirley and Dick to the motel that they and Elise had booked while the family spent time with Dad in the critical care unit.
The place was a dump. I don’t remember the name of the motel and if I did, I wouldn’t make mention. I was in such an emotional daze at that point anyway. I dropped my Mom, sisters and Elise off at the rooms and drove the car back up to the front of the motel and asked the clerk where the best place would be to park the car. It was that bad of a motel. He suggested I park it at the front of the motel, by the lobby window and he offered to keep an eye on the car for the night. I obliged.
My Mom and sisters shared a room with two doubles. Elise, Maly and I shared a room with two doubles. Elise made a cradle of pillows on one bed and tried to comfort me on the other thoughout the night. I stared at the ceiling and found myself sobbing over and over. I tried to close my eyes and sleep. The air conditioner would come on with its buzz. People outside were talking constantly throughout the night and early morning. I couldn’t tell if they were partying, dealing or both. Someone knocked on our door at 5 a.m. Completely willing to stare death in the eye with the possibility of the person behind the door being high, a robber or murderer, I opened the door. There was no way that whoever was behind that door could cause any more harm to my family. He looked at me and mumbled something. He spoke again and it sounded like he said something like, “nevermind.” I stared as he turned and walked off. I shut the door and went back to bed. I might have slept an hour that night.
On Wednesday morning we woke up, rented a mini van and went to the funeral home. That was another dreadful experience and one I would wish upon no one. I cried at the notion of it being the first full day without my Dad alive. It was a new morning without his life. The five of us sat at a table in the back of the funeral home where on display were caskets, urns, flower arrangements, memorials, plaques and pamphlets on how to cope with loss and grieving. We all agreed on a pewter urn for Dad. It was simple and elegant, like him. Then I endured stomach knots as pen hit paper and a figurative price tag is put on the death of my parent. I hate thinking about that moment. Why couldn’t my Dad have died and then suddenly disappeared in a poof of smoke leaving us with fond memories of his life and not having to plan what was to be done with his body?
After urging the funeral director to expedite the signing of the death certificate by the medical examiner so we could leave Odessa as soon as possible, we went to lunch. It was Dick’s birthday and Mom offered to buy him lunch because 1) it was his birthday and 2) he and Shirley had been so supportive over the past two days. Dick chose IHOP. I ate for the first time in a day in a half. My sisters managed to eat before their flight to Odessa. The hospital made sure Mom ate here and there while she was at Dad’s bedside.
We stayed at a much nicer hotel on Wednesday evening. We checked in at 1 p.m. and setup base camp in Elise’s and my room. I made the mistake of pulling out my laptop and finding photos and a video of Dad. My Mom, sisters, Elise and I cried and laughed and shared stories as we looked at those photos.
Later that afternoon we started calling family and friends. I divvied up the list from Mom and Dad’s address book and my sisters and I called people. Elise used Mom’s laptop to check off those who were called, who we left messages for and who we needed to email. It was actually a very congruent system we managed to find ourselves falling into.
The first few calls were hard for me as I called Dad’s close friends. Calling my uncle was hard too. He is my Mom’s half brother but looked up to my Dad so much that it made the call hard for me. I became numb after a while. I then became calloused because of the influx of sympathy. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. Everyone was shocked by the news and it was difficult news to deliver. Mom sat on the bed in the other room and talked to Shirley on the phone until my sisters and I had finished calling those who needed to know.
Terri and I walked to the hotel bar that evening. This hotel was so much better that they offer a free happy hour from 6-9 for all of its guests. Tempting but hard to muster up the desire to partake and get zonked the day after my Dad died. Terri had a vodka cranberry. I had a scotch. My Dad drinks scotch. Yes, present tense. He’s in heaven, right now, having a scotch and water.
I took Maly for a walk around the hotel and the “FUNDome“. I had to escape with her every once in a while so I could clear my mind.Â Later that night we decided to order in from the hotel restaurant. My sisters both had country fried pork chops, Elise had a salisbury steak. I had the hottest buffalo strips known to man. So hot I couldn’t eat them. I forgot what Mom had. The most important person in the room and I forgot what she ate for dinner.
My sisters went to sleep in their room and Mom stayed in Elise’s and my room for an hour. The three of us sat on the bed and talked for a while. Mom eventually sat in front of her laptop and checked her email. I sat on one bed and stared blankly at the wall. Mom started laughing. She was watching some comical video someone had emailed her. I looked at Mom. I sat there and watched her. I fought back tears as I sat there and watched her laugh. It was the first time I had seen or heard that laugh in too long. It was a beautiful sound.
I managed to get a little sleep on Wednesday night. Lisa came to our room Thursday morning to wake us up for the free breakfast buffet. We all sat for breakfast and almost sounded like a normal family. We laughed and smiled. No tears yet for the day. At least none that I could detect. Barely two days into finding out that heart disease runs in our family I load up my plate with bacon and sausage. Die happy, right? I’ve never much cared for breakfast anyway.
We were having to stay in Odessa while Dad was being cremated and necessary documentation was made. Texas law prohibits cremating any dead human body within 48 hours after death. The County Medical Examiner or a Justice of the Peace may waive this time requirement. We had the funeral director get the County Medical Examiner to waive the time requirement.
I decided to divide and conquer. I offered Mom a choice. We could all leave together or some of us could stay back and get Dad from the funeral home and bring him home versus have him shipped to the funeral home in Bellville. We all teared up as Mom decided she was wasn’t going to leave Dad behind.
Elise and I left Odessa at 1 p.m. My sisters stayed with Mom. I drove the whole way. We stopped at a rest stop somewhere in west Texas. I had Elise take a photo of me with Maly. I just felt compelled. I want tons of photos with daughter. I hate to think that one day she will have to experience this same pain. I want her to have photos and fond memories.
We stopped at Coopers Barbecue in Llano. Friends have spoken great things of Coopers. The restaurant has a great small town feel. So great and reminiscent that I lost my appetite and my eyes swelled as I thought of all the times when my parents and I would go out to eat barbecue on Friday nights at Provisions just outside Bellville in my junior high and high school days.
I watched my daughter while we sat at that picnic table and took stock. I thought about what a family means to me. I thought about Dad. I thought about how Maly will only know her Grandfather through stories and photos.
We left Llano as dusk began. The country sky and hill country while driving on Hwy 71 made me think of being in the car with my parents. I felt like Dad was in the van with us. Sitting quietly and taking in the scenery.
We continued on 71 and passed Hwy 281, the road to Marble Falls. A route I traveled everyday for three years. I thought about the phone call I made to my Dad on Wednesday a month ago. I had composed an email to my then boss to tell him off and how unfair it was that I would be losing my job because the company was being sold. To tell him that I was going to quit and the company would be screwed if I didn’t get some form of compensation. I couldn’t bring myself to sending the note. I couldn’t figure out why. I called my Dad and he put things into perspective for me. It was hard for me to hide my sniffles and maintain a normal sounding voice with my Dad on the other end of the phone. I was at a low point in my life because I was soon going to be out of a job. I am the provider for my wife and daughter and was having a difficult time handling my employment situation. I needed his advice at that point and he helped me. He made clear that the company being sold and my losing a job was just business. It happens every day and it happened to him after over 30 years of service. He knew that my pride was hurt. He told me so. In so many words he told me to suck it up and find another job. He patted me on the back from afar and with great confidence in his voice assured me that I would find something good – something that will provide for my family. He said, “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.”
I didn’t send the email. Dad would say that’s having integrity.
We arrived home around 8 p.m. that night. Elise repacked our bags and handled phone calls. I struggled internally with the notion of my Dad’s eulogy. I sat in front of my computer and made visible photos of my Dad to invoke some profound emotion that would allow me to summarize my Dad in words. The computer itself was distracting and I couldn’t turn thoughts and memories into words. I sat in the dining room with lights dimmed and tried pen and paper. I became tired. Elise was on the deck talking on the phone with her parents. I tried to sleep in our bed but could hear Elise talking. I took the notebook and pen and with them on my chest I fell asleep on top of the comforter on the guest bed. I woke up throughout the night and jotted down ideas and memories of Dad as they came to me in my half lucid state. When I woke up in the morning I had nothing near compelling or honoring.
We loaded the Expedition and Elise and I met at the Hertz rental store off Slaughter and 35 to return the van we rented in Odessa. We then headed towards Mom and Dad’s house in Cat Spring 100 miles away. We stopped in Bastrop for breakfast tacos at Taco Cabana. A potato and egg and a chorizo and egg for Elise. A bacon and egg and a chorizo and egg for me. As we were heading out again Terri called. She wanted us to stop in La Grange at Weikel’s and get kolaches. We bought four dozen kolaches for the family who would be arriving at Mom and Dad’s on Saturday.
A lemon kolache from Weikel’s was the last thing my Dad ate. They stopped there on their way out before calling their first day of a road trip vacation in Ft. Stockton, TX.
While on the phone with my sister I asked how Mom was and where they stayed the night. The three girls and Dad in his urn stayed in Boerne, a few miles northwest of San Antonio. They had dinner at Chili’s and were giddy enough to garner banter from their waiter. It was good to hear my sister tell me that Mom had fun and laughed.
We pulled into the driveway before noon. I unpacked the truck as Elise started cleaning Mom’s house. I vacuumed the mud room of all the kitty litter. We had brought our cats to my parents’ place since we were going to be there an extended amount of time while they were on vacation. Five cats total makes for regular kitty litter vacuuming.
I had the truck unpacked and cat litter vacuumed. I picked Maly up and we started up the driveway to get the mail. My Mom lives on 35 beautiful acres out in the country in a house that my parents love. It’s nestled back 1/10 of a mile from the farm market road under huge oaks, hickories, crape myrtles and an enormous magnolia. The driveway from the highway is gravel and then concrete before the garage.
1/10 of a mile. Dad walked it every morning to pick up the paper which he would read cover to cover throughout the course of every day. He would walk it every day to pick up the mail in the early afternoon.
On the morning of September 26, I made that walk. I woke up and was waiting for a phone call from my Mom to tell me that Dad was beginning to recover from his stroke. I held my daughter in my left arm, snugly against my body and together we made that walk. I cried that whole 1/10 of a mile walk to pick up the paper. I cried the whole way back to the house. I pressed my teary face against Maly’s and swore to her that things would be okay. Halfway back to the house I had an idea. Choked up I asked Maly if she thought we should ask God to help my Dad survive and make a full recovery. Maly was baptized just last month and I thought perhaps her innocence could sway God’s decision to not take my Dad.
Still barely able to speak behind my tears, Maly and I sat down on the swing that backs up to the front of the garage. With her still in my arms I prayed with my daughter. I begged for my Dad’s life.
My Mom called shortly after we walked back into the house. She said he wasn’t going to make it and that we needed to make arrangements to come to him to say goodbye.
I made that walk again with Maly on Friday afternoon to get the mail. It was just as difficult to make that walk as it was on Tuesday morning. This time there was no chance that Dad would ever walk that 1/10 of a mile again. We had already said goodbye.
Almost to the mailbox my Mom and sisters turn onto the driveway from the last leg of their trip. I immediately composed myself and smiled and waved Maly’s hand at her Grandma and aunts. Mom was driving and I was afraid of how she might react to coming home without her husband for the first time. She rolled down the window and cheerfully acknowledged Maly. I think it was divine intervention. Maly was a good distraction at that point. She is a symbol of life at its best and that was the first thing Mom saw as she turned onto the driveway of the house that she and Dad made.
That afternoon my sisters and I went to the funeral home in Bellville to make arrangements for my Dad’s memorial service and to proof his memorial folder. Afterward we went to Brookshire Brothers for ice, lemons and tea bags and then drove home.
Before long it was time for dinner. When company is in town on a Friday night, we always eat fried catfish at Crossroads. It’s a tradition. Only this time, Dad wasn’t with us. It was very hard being there without Dad. I had visions of him in front of Mom and me and pulling out his money clip to pay for our buffet dinners at the cash register. Thankfully Maly was there to entertain us by being a source of coos from the locals.
While we were eating a grand thunderstorm passed over. Just as fast it came it disappeared. We left Crossroads and were walking to the car when Lisa pointed out a rainbow behind us in the east. We could all see both ends of the rainbow. Lisa said, “That’s Dad!” She put her arm around Mom and said, “Daddy did that for you!” The girls cried.
It was that evening when I decided I could no longer carry the burden of attempting to prepare my Dad’s eulogy. It was a very difficult decision to make. I was already emotionally drained and I wanted to remember my Dad in my own personal way; not the in the way or in words I would memorialize him publicly.
On Saturday I woke up and washed Mom’s car and Dad’s truck. Mom’s car was dirty from having been on a road trip across Texas. Dad’s truck was dirty from having driven out to his friend’s house in Hallettsville to dove hunt just a week prior. I needed to keep my mind distracted and Dad’s vehicles are always kept clean.
Elise left early that afternoon to pick up her parents at the airport in Houston. They flew in from Des Moines for Dad’s memorial service. Elise got a speeding ticket on the way to the airport. For the record, she’s received more tickets than me. It’s an ongoing debate.
I then decided to go out and clear fallen limbs in the pasture. Terri came with me. I used the chain saw to cut the big pieces for firewood. The rest we loaded onto the back of the truck and hauled to the burn pile. Dad, Mom and I spent countless days over the course of 20 years clearing those 35 acres. I kept a list of things that I was going to do while my parents were on vacation. One of those things was to clean up fallen limbs. I was going to do it to help my Dad – to have a surprise him when he got back. I wish he would’ve come back.
Terri and I drove back to the house. She went inside to Mom, Lisa and Elise. I stayed outside and picked up seed pods that fall from the magnolia tree. My brother in law, Craig, two nephews, Grant and Adam, and Lisa’s boyfriend, Ron and my other nephew, Jason pulled into the driveway. They had all flown in from San Diego to Houston to attend the memorial service. The house went from solemn to very busy and borderline chaotic.
My nephews wanted to play basketball. Uncle Josh had to find the basketball. The basketball needed to be inflated with air. Ron, Craig, the boys and I walked over to the barn to use Dad’s air compressor to fill the basketball with air. Mom walked into the barn shortly after us and she broke down. It was her first time being in that barn since Dad died. The barn is filled with all of Dad’s tools, tractors, lawn mowers — everything in there is Dad’s.
Ron beat me at a game of Horse. I played 3 on 1 against my nephews. Everyone soon retreated indoors. I went outside and sat on the swing under the big oak tree in the front yard. I needed to be alone for a while. Elise and her parents pulled into the driveway shortly after and had made it home just in time for us all to eat together. The guys brought food from Maggiano’s in Houston for dinner.
I sat in the dining room that night and finished working on a slideshow full of photos of Dad for his service on Sunday. We all stayed up and had a nice time being together and talking.
Elise’s parents stayed at a hotel in Bellville and were back at Mom’s house early Sunday morning. Everybody woke up and we all ate kolaches for breakfast. Mom, my sisters, Elise and I went to the funeral home at 12:30. Flowers from friends and relatives had already arrived and the florist was arranging them in the front of the chapel. We put Dad’s urn in the center of the floral wreath we got for him. We put a beautiful picture of Mom and Dad along with Dad’s glasses next to the wreath. I put my computer on a credenza at the back of the chapel to display the slideshow I put together. Also on the credenza was a photo of the family in Cabo San Lucas from this past June, a photo of Mom and Dad on their honeymoon in New Orleans and a photo of Elise and me in the exact spot in New Orleans on our honeymoon 30 years later.
One of Dad’s closest friends and his family, friends of our family, were first to arrive. I was numb but almost in a good mood as I greeted them and the people that began to fill the chapel before the service. I was somewhat excited to get to see all of the people who love Dad and who I’ve known for my entire life. Friends and family filled the chapel and it made me proud that Dad is loved so much. I sat next to my Mom with my arm around her and fought back tears as Elise’s Dad shared his thoughts and memories of my Dad. Dad’s longtime coworker and namesake of the company at which he spent the majority of his working career spoke and recounted Dad’s penchant for fun. Dad’s cousin spoke of Dad being very admirable. The service was short and sweet but certainly honored Dad. I think Dad would have liked it that way. It was a nice service but to me it felt something like a formality. I said goodbye to my Dad the night that he died. This was the time for others to say goodbye to him.
Afterward we had a reception at the house. The house was filled with food, laughter, and some tears. I couldn’t spread myself thin enough to thank and visit with everyone that was there. That house had never seen so many people at one time.
Slowly the conversations grew quieter as people said goodbye and headed to their homes. Before long it was the family again with the Metcalfs – long-time family friends who used to live across the street from us when we lived in Houston. The twin daughters, Kathy and Sharron are my sisters by love. It felt good having them all in the house.
I promised my sister that I would show Jason, my oldest nephew, how to shoot a gun. That was something his Grandpa would have ordinarily shown him how to do but now that responsibility had become mine. I took all of my nephews and sisters, Ron and Don to the back of the pasture with Dad’s .22 and a plastic bag full of soda cans. I showed the boys how to shoot the rifle and let them lay waste to a row of cans for an hour.
Friends left and the house was back down to Mom, Elise, her parents, my sisters and their families and me. We all went out to the backyard and Steve took some great family portraits of us. We had fun as a family then. It was good for all of us to be together at that moment.
We retreated to the living room and kitchen to graze and watch TV.
On Monday morning Elise and Maly took Steve and Joanne to the airport so they could get back to their lives in Des Moines. My sisters and their families went to the meat market in Bellville. When everyone got back we went to Texas Star Cafe in New Ulm for hamburgers. Dad really liked those hamburgers. Like Crossroads, it was hard being there without Dad.
After lunch we went back to the house and Elise took photos of my sisters and their families. Then it was time for my sisters to leave. They headed back to Houston to spend their last night in Texas with their aunt (my sisters are half sisters from my Dad’s first marriage).
And then the house was quiet.
Elise, Maly and I stayed with Mom for the rest of the week. Elise helped around the house and I did yard work. We all went to HEB and WalMart on Wednesday. Saturday came quickly. We stayed until the end of the UT football game and then it was time for us to leave. Dad would’ve been watching that game with us.
It was hard saying bye to Mom. While backing out of the driveway my Mom and I caught each other’s eye. It was was a look of reassurance. It was also a look as if to say, “It’s just you and me.” It was so hard to leave. She stood on the driveway just like she and Dad would do every time we would leave to head back to our house. She was alone this time.
We drove back to Austin in time to go to a housewarming party. We stopped at our house so we could change clothes. Elise went inside and changed first while I stayed in the truck with sleeping Maly. We traded turns when she came out to sit with Maly. I went into my own house to change and soon found myself sobbing. A flurry of emotions overwhelmed me. I was in my home. I was back. I had left my Mom alone in her and Dad’s house. My Dad had been in our house many times. He helped me build the deck in the backyard just last summer. There is a lot of my Dad in my house. It was hard being back. It was a sad reminder that normal life had to press on without Dad.
I tried to compose myself as I changed into something appropriate to wear for the party. Red eyed I walked back out to the driveway to find Elise talking to our next door neighbor. He expressed his condolences and told me about the last conversation he had with my Dad. My parents drove up to Austin at 2 a.m. the night Maly was born. They stayed at our house while Elise and I were in the hospital. Dad was in my front yard the day after Maly was born bragging to my neighbors about his new granddaughter. I wish his granddaughter had the chance to know the flesh and blood man who loves her so much.
I cry at least once every day. I’ve probably shed half a gallon’s worth of tears just while writing this.
I like to take Maly outside in the evenings and just as we’re walking out of the house I’ll whisper into her ear, “Let’s go say ‘Hi’ to Grandpa.” And we both look up at the sky and I say for Maly, “Hi Grandpa! I miss you. I love you!” and for myself, “Hi Dad. I miss you, too. I love you. I will always love you.”