Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Happy birthday, Dad

My dad and I
My father passed away in late February of 2015, after battling with cancer for more than 20 years. I miss him every single day. Today is his birthday, so in honor of that, I wanted to post the eulogy that I wrote and read at his memorial service. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. I wrote it in a daze, a single sitting, typing my heart out, two days before the service. The purple words, including these, are not part of the eulogy. 

Some people make such an impact in your life, are such a presence, that they can never be replaced. It doesn’t seem possible for them to ever not be there. My dad was one of those people. 


We were so much alike that sometimes, ok maybe a lot of the time in my teenage years, we drove each other insane. You know, those huge, life changing things "worth" fighting over: like the length of my skirt, or whether or not clear mascara could actually be called makeup, or the siren call that I felt to wear red nail polish. I wanted to understand WHY, concerning (literally) everything. Everything seems like the end of the world when you are young. Everything seems worthy of pushing the boundaries over. Then suddenly you are an adult and you realize that all of those issues were completely ridiculous. I wear a skirt maybe twice a year, ironically, dad would approve of the length. Clear mascara is absolutely not makeup, and I have painted my nails maybe 10 times in 37.5 years. Like I said, ridiculous. 

The similarities in our personalities, his PTSD from Vietnam, the stubbornness of us both, that arguing, it caused walls to be formed between us and I was just too stubborn to acknowledge, or try to remedy it. Honestly, I didn’t know how. (My dad had untreated PTSD from serving three tours in Vietnam, as a helicopter gunner. He volunteered for all three, the first at age 18. This makes him the bravest person I've ever met. It also means that he was very troubled from his experiences there. PTSD means that you can be laughing and having a great time and suddenly, you are incredibly angry. Sullen. Scary. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with that, as a child or as an adult. I didn't understand him. And now, there is nothing that I wish for more than a time machine, so I could go back to being 4 years old, and we could find help for him. Now, I can't imagine how HE must have felt in those moments. How alone, how conflicted. How terrible.)  Some things need time to heal. Smiles and words of encouragement caused cracks in those walls. Hugs and laughter eventually caused them to crumble. Time passes and shows you how important some things and people are, and that they are WORTH fighting for.

Hans Christian Andersen wrote: Where words fail, music speaks. My dad and I loved music. It was a common ground that we could meet on. Classical, big band, 50s, 60s, early 70s, bluegrass, anything with a bagpipe and fiddle, the list goes on. So many of my favorite memories of my dad revolve around music. Singing Have you Ever Seen the Rain and Fortunate Son by CCR in his truck with the windows rolled down on a summer day. Listening to him talk about the genius of Bob Dylan's early songwriting, two in particular that I remember him talking about/singing: Blowing in the Wind and The Times They are A’Changing. The lyrics are poetry- and they touched his heart: Come writers and critics Who prophesize with your pen And keep your eyes wide The chance won’t come again. 

I remember watching his face light up when a song that he heard in Vietnam came on the radio. And then how he'd close his eyes and sing his heart out. As a young man, he had such hope that things would change for the better after Vietnam. Those songwriters were doing their best to make people aware of injustice, aware that people were profiting from war and death, like it was some kind of game. It seemed to my dad, that once people KNEW about these things, the world would HAVE to change. How could it not? People would not allow it to stay this way. When business continued as usual after the war, I don’t think that he could wrap his head around it. The things that he saw over there, the soldiers he knew that died, it mattered to him. I think Vietnam broke his heart- he fought a war, hoping to make the world a better place and at the end of the day, it seemed to him that we all just closed the book, and put it in the history section of the library and it became a story that we told in history class. It saddened him. It should sadden us all. 

Marveling at his ability to identify every type of tree on a walk, doing our best Louis Armstrong impersonations together, (which must of been horrifying to anyone who had the unfortunate luck to witness it), digging through boxes of rusty junk at auctions in search of treasure, our shared love of fried chicken gizzards, (WHO EATS those?!)... I was a total tomboy, his son, as my mom likes to joke. It is true. I wouldn’t trade any of that for a closet of frilly dresses or red nail polish. He sat through so many viewings of Anne of Green Gables and Annie that he deserved a medal. His love of New Mexico: the food, the turquoise, the natural beauty of the mesas, it was so infectious that you couldn’t help falling in love with it all, too. His appreciation of our Native American heritage: going to pow-wows and instilling an appreciation for the history and culture that was ours to share in. He knew every constellation and the stories behind them. He was so smart. He never stopped educating himself. Books were everywhere in our house. Classics, philosophy, history, astronomy; he had an insatiable appetite for books. I wanted to be smart, just like him when I grew up. I’m so thankful that his love of reading rubbed off on me. Books are great, but the best days of my teenage life were when my dad would grant me the privilege of wearing his Vietnam flight jacket to school. I knew exactly how much he cherished it, so getting to wear it- was monumental. It meant he trusted me. And he beamed like the Sun over the fact that I WANTED to wear it.  

My dad was a warrior. I didn't realize until our very last conversation that his entire mission in life, the role he took on and was prepared to die fulfilling, was to protect me. Protecting my sisters. My mom. His grandsons and granddaughter. His entire mission in life was to be our knight in shining armor. As a young man, he enlisted and was sent to Vietnam. He came home, tried to figure out where he belonged, and found a faith in God that gave him direction throughout his life. He met my mother: the treasure of his quest for meaning and purpose. Romanticized? Maybe, but isn’t that what young love is? My mom and dad built a life together, piece by piece, and they loved each other. But, how do you even begin to leave something like war behind? You just can’t. It becomes a part of who you are. I think that is where his knight instincts developed. The things he saw in Vietnam, the things that he lived through, they stayed with him. He tried to protect us from that world. He did an amazing job. 

We have so many happy memories. So many great photographs to share. I look at both of my sisters, all grown up and beautiful- inside and out. I am just awed by how amazing they both are. My parents did a really, really good job. No matter how long we would have had with our dad, it wouldn’t have been long enough. There is always more to say. More laughter to be shared. My heart is broken and I still cannot grasp the idea that I will never again hear him calling me Sis, or hear him laughing, or have the chance to hug him again.

I’ll close with a verse from a song that perfectly encompasses what I want to say: 

I think about you nearly all of the time,
Sometimes your presence is so defined
Whether you're near or far away
Makes no difference in my heart you'll stay.

***

My dad always gravitated towards Vietnam veterans. Always stopped to chat with them. Always asked where they were stationed, how they were, if they had found God, if they had eaten recently. His faith was the most important thing in his life. It helped him to heal after the war. It also gave his life meaning. When we arrived at the memorial service, an entire group of Patriot Guard Riders was already there, hours beforehand, waiting for my dad's ashes to arrive. They saluted us as we walked towards them, and asked where the hero was. My dad, the hero. They said that they were here to serve with him on his final mission. It would have made my dad SO damn proud. His tribe was there, without being asked. I can't even put into words how touching their presence was. When we exited the church after the service, they saluted again, and asked to transport my dad's ashes to his final resting place. By motorcycle. I had the honor of holding my dad's ashes, so I handed them to this gentleman for safekeeping. It was freezing. Winter. I was wearing a dress and boots. No coat. I took about 5 steps, and then something made me walk back to this stranger and ask him if I could ride with him. I told him that I didn't want to leave my dad. He didn't even hesitate. He said that no one had ever requested that before, but if that's what I wanted, they'd find me a helmet. I asked my mom if that was ok with her, she smiled and said "Well, you always were his son. He would have loved this." 

That 20 minute motorcycle ride to the cemetery will never leave my memory. We drove through the town where I grew up. Past the hospital where his father had passed away. Past the surveying office where he worked. Past many houses and businesses that he had done the masonry on. Past my school, past the neighborhood where we went trick or treating. Past the place where my grandfather (his father) had lived. Over Sailboat Bridge. Past our fishing spots. Down the road where I caught the school bus. Past the dirt road leading to our childhood home. It was horrible. And wonderful. I haven't lived near this place for decades, so it was cathartic. A beautiful way to end this terrible, sad day. All the way through town, even on the highway, cars stopped, in respect. Men saw the motorcycles and flags coming, and stood outside of their vehicles and saluted my dad as we made way to his gravesite.  More of my dad's tribe. He would have been so proud. I'm sure that he was. 

Happy birthday, Dad. I love you.