Wednesday, December 17, 2008

20 Years Later

This post is not going to be funny. It may be sappy, sad, self-indulgent and downright melancholy, so if you're looking for funny, you should probably just go on to the next blog. As I've done once or twice before, I'm writing this more for me than for you, so don't blame me if you continue reading beyond this point. Quite frankly, I'm sort of glad that no one can see me as I type this.

You see, today is the 20th anniversary of the death of my father. I remember a time when I couldn't name anything in my life that had happened 20 years ago.

Dad was born in 1920 in the hills of north Georgia. He was raised on a small farm that made most of its income from a large apple orchard and a few dairy cows. His parents gave him a very unusual name, which he never really liked, so that in his adult years he went almost exclusively by his initials. Only his close friends knew his middle (preferred) name, and most people had no idea what his first name was. Only my mother could get away with calling him by name, and that was usually an indication that she was peeved with him about something. If she used both names, we knew there was trouble.

He was not a tall man, by most standards, standing about 5'6" ("soaking wet" as he used to say). My brother and I both towered over him. He had wiry dark hair that never went completely gray, and a deep complexion and brown eyes that displayed his Cherokee roots. He had a booming bass voice that lent itself weekly to the church choir.

For my entire lifetime, he was a deacon at the Baptist church in our town, which he literally helped to build with his own hands. He knew his Bible inside and out, as well as being familiar with The Koran, The Book of Mormon, most apocryphal Christian writings, and other religious texts. He encouraged all of his children toward Christianity, but unlike other Southern Baptists I knew at the time, he also encouraged us to think about things, to question things we didn't understand, to struggle with our beliefs. He didn't develop his own opinions or beliefs lightly. I learned early on that if I went to him with a difference of opinion about something religion-related, then I'd better have done my homework. He had come to his beliefs through years of study, questioning, and consultations with elders, and he could instantly point you to any number of (sometimes obscure) references to back up his opinions. I know that he was disappointed when he saw that my study and questioning of beliefs started to lead me in a direction that was pretty much the opposite of the one he would have liked.

Part of his service to his church was teaching Sunday School to 9-year old boys. He was good at it. He would give quizzes that forced them to do research ("Among the 12 apostles, there were three sets of 2 brothers and one set of 3 brothers, who were they?") and he would occasionally put things out there just to make them think, even if there was no "right" answer ("If young David had so much faith in God when going up against Goliath, why does the Bible tell us explicitly that he picked up five smooth stones?"). I no longer know the answers to those questions, although it seems that I did at one time.

In his non-church life, he was a salesman. He travelled around the city all day every day, calling on clients to whom he sold packaging products. His specialty was the moving industry. Anyone who moved in northern Georgia from the late '60s to the early '80s probably had their things packed in cartons sold by my father. He didn't make a great living, and I would classify my family through most of those years as "lower middle class", but he was able to buy a small house, raise 3 children and have the resources to get us all to college. There was enough for an annual vacation to Florida, and for my brother and I to get clunker cars when we were old enough to drive (my sister wasn't all that interested in driving at the time).

He desperately loved my mother for the 44 years or so that they were married. He spoiled her as best he was able. She kept house, cooked and raised us kids as a good '40s and '50s housewife did. For as long as he lived, they would hold hands when walking together. He kissed her as he left every morning and again on returning home. Their wedding anniversary was always one of the high points of the year for them.

He had a rather unusual sense of humor, delighting in plays on words. He would often tease those closest to him, to the point that my mother would say that he had gone too far and never knew when to stop. He knew a little bit about a lot of things. He was able to chat with me about the sciences when I was majoring in them, and at the same time he could tune up the car with my mechanically-inclined brother. He explained to me the wonders of various plants while strolling in the woods. When the pine borers destroyed all the trees in our back yard, Dad made lemonade from those lemons by grinding the stumps down and planting rose beds where all the trees had been.

He was a very patient man, but he had one or two "hot buttons". When I was a little boy, I once complained that there was nothing on the dinner table that I liked. He pulled me right out of my chair and told me that if I didn't like the food, then I didn't have to eat it, but I was not to complain about it either. It was so uncharacteristic of him that it left me in tears. My older brother later explained to me that, during the Great Depression, there were times when my dad's family of 7 simply didn't have enough to eat and therefore all food was to be appreciated. He would also tolerate nothing below "good" conduct in school. "If you aren't interested in learning, then shut up so you don't bother those who are."

Aside from those two occasions, my father rarely showed any emotion other than happiness. In my entire life, I saw him cry twice: once when his father died and once when he took my brother to the Army induction center at the height of the Vietnam War.

He was a lifelong smoker, starting when he was a young man before everyone realized the dangers. In his late 50s, he had a heart attack that was so minor that he didn't even recognize it for what it was until his next checkup when his doctor detected scar tissue. As time went on, he developed a condition in which his blood vessels began to constrict. The immediate and most noticeable result of this was that not enough blood got to his lungs and he would become winded easily. In December of 1988, he developed a case of bronchitis which constricted his lungs, causing him even more breathing difficulty, and he was hospitalized. He was on the road to recovery and was expected to be home for Christmas when he suddenly took a turn for the worse and, on December 17, 1988, he passed away. I find it somewhat sobering when I realize that I am now only 17 years younger than my father was when he died.

Despite his stature, the minister referred to my father as a "giant" in his eulogy. He was a charter member of the church, a lifelong supporter both financially and personally, well respected, scrupulously honest, highly knowledgeable, and well liked. There were hundreds of church members, coworkers, customers, neighbors, family and friends at his funeral.

In the few years after his death, I began to realize that I had placed my dad on a pretty high pedestal. As I began to notice a bit of tarnish on the image I had constructed in my mind, it made me somewhat uncomfortable. He made mistakes. He was wrong about some things. He could have done some things much better than he did. I struggled with this for some time, until I realized that it was me who wasn't being fair here. I had to allow my father to be the human being that he was, warts and all. He wasn't superhuman. He was a good man, and that's all anyone should really expect of a man. Finally recognizing that fact doesn't mean that I love him any less.

It's been 20 years since I got the phone call. That's almost 40% of my life that I've spent without my father. After 20 years I still think about Dad often.

And it has taken me 20 years to finally arrive at the realization that I will miss him for the rest of my life.


Bilbo said...

Well said. "He was a good man" is the sort of epitaph we should all hope for, but too few will earn.

Gilahi said...

Bilbo - Thanks. I hope I can live up to such an epitaph.

Scott said...

A very moving tribute...I am almost in tears reading it. Thank you for sharing your father with us.

bozoette said...

What a touching post. I'm sorry you lost him so soon.

fiona said...

Scott has said it all.

Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike said...

Parents will always have that special place in you life.

(comment not deleted, typos fixed)

D.C. Confidential said...

And it has taken me 20 years to finally arrive at the realization that I will miss him for the rest of my life.

My mother says this all the time about her mom and now her dad. This was a really beautiful tribute, G. Made me cry. Your dad sounds like he was an extraordinary human.

Gilahi said...

Scott - Thank you. As I mentioned, I'm glad no one could see me while I was writing it.

bozoette - Thank you. Me too. My wife never met him and my daughter has only haze recollections. I wish there could have been more.

fiona - Thank you.

Mike - Yes. Looking back, it does get easier, but it never gets easy.

Gilahi said...

D.C. - (I know who you really are). Thank you, too. Big shoes for me to try to fill, indeed.

Dixie said...


As I was only 3 when he passed away, and we never talked about him much growing up, this has given me an insight into your father that I never knew. All I can say is thank you. You've just made me miss him for the first time in my life, and I now really regret that I never had the chance to know him through anything other than a 3-year-old's eyes. You've made me cry as well. I love you, and I think you've lived up to your dad, from what I know. I miss him, too.

Herb of DC said...

I am blessed to still have a happy, healthy 78 year old father that I call upon for advice, counsel and a good laugh now and then. I can't say he is my best friend; I have friends and can always make new friends but I only have one Dad.

Thank you for writing this beautiful tribute to your father and reminding the rest of us not to take ours for granted.

Gilahi said...

Dixie - Thank you. Since both of my maternal grandparents died before I was born, I never knew what it was like to have two sets. I'm glad you at least got 1 1/2. I love you too.

Herb - It's good that you cherish and respect your father. So many people don't have the privilege of doing that, for whatever reason. And you're welcome.

Sean said...

Thanks for sharing. I know that you wrote that this post was more for you than for everyone else, but it was still very nice to read.

Gilahi said...

Sean - Glad you thought so. Thanks.

LiLu said...

Oh, I'm misty... glad I'm read this at home. This is a beautiful tribute to a great man. After all, no one can ever really measure up to one's father, can they?

And this:

"For as long as he lived, they would hold hands when walking together. He kissed her as he left every morning and again on returning home. Their wedding anniversary was always one of the high points of the year for them."

is all any of us could ever hope for. I'm glad he had such a rich and full life.

Gilahi said...

Thanks, LiLu. I'm glad he had a good life too. I'm sorry it was cut short.

Kate said...

So touching and so sobering. I was kind of hoping the missing him for the rest of my life would pass, but you've proven that it doesn't. And somehow, I have to reach the place you are. It's a long road, isn't it?

Glad you had such a good guide.

Gilahi said...

Well Kate, I can only say that's the way it is for me. Yes, it's a long road. 20 years so far. It gets easier, but so far it hasn't gone away. Thank you.

Katherine said...

People like your father? They are the ones who make the world a great place simply by living a full life and showing those around them what real love looks like. Thanks for posting something so heartfelt.

Gilahi said...

Thanks, Katherine. I agree that the best that most of us can hope for out of our lives is to leave the world a little better place than it was when you arrived.

Cyndy said...

What a beautiful and moving tribute to your father. He was lucky to have had such an appreciative son.

Gilahi said...

Thanks, Cyndy. I hope he knew how much he was appreciated.

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