Tuesday morning, I never thought I’d finish the day in Fort Worth.
My family was asleep in our Marina del Rey townhome when the phone rang at 5 a.m. That’s never a good sign, especially when you have an elderly father in bad health. Still, we have sometimes gotten calls from fax machines in the middle of the night, and as I raced for the phone, I thought that maybe that’s all it was.
I wish it had been. Instead, we were all on a plane to Fort Worth later that day — to make sure we got into town before the ice storm hit. So that we’d be there for Dad’s funeral.
They tell me that Dad died peacefully, in his sleep. He had been in poor health for years, though he seemed to get worse in the latter part of this year. Earlier in the year, he and Mom traveled to Chicago to meet up with my family, which was vacationing there. We visited the home where I spent the first four years of my life. Here are Mom and Dad in front of that house:
Also this year, we celebrated his 80th birthday. We put a crown on him in honor of the occasion:
It’s good to be the king.
When I saw him at Thanksgiving, he hadn’t been doing well, though he had been doing better at the end of the week. And since then, he had been feeling stronger still — or so it seemed. The last time I talked to him, he said he felt a little weak, but had been doing much better in general.
So getting the call was a bit of a shock. For years, the family had been prepared for this, sort of — but I guess you’re never really prepared when it actually happens.
On Thanksgiving, we had a huge family get-together at my brother Kerry’s house. There were so many children and grandchildren you couldn’t count them. Kerry sang songs on the guitar, and I played a couple myself. Dad made a point of telling all of us children how proud he was of us, and how much he loved us. That’s how he was. He never let us forget how he felt about us.
The service was Saturday. My brother, brothers-in-law, nephew, and I each wore one of Dad’s bow ties. I said that with our dark suits and bow ties, we were going to look like Minister Farrakhan’s messengers. They let me pick out the bow tie I wanted to wear, and the choice was obvious: Dad’s Shamrock bow tie. He was born on St. Patrick’s Day, and when I was a little boy, I also got presents on Dad’s birthday, because my name is Patrick.
I kept the bow tie. I’m not a bow tie guy, but each year on March 17, I will be, for one day.
My family put pictures of Dad on a table in the parish hall. There was a large framed close-up of a young Dad wearing his Navy cap. He was very handsome. There were pictures of him making faces at the camera. Seeing grandchildren for the first time. Holding them. Feeding them. Reading to them.
Playing with them.
Smiling with them.
You could see the love for his children and grandchildren radiating from his face in those pictures. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone whose love for his family was so obvious and genuine.
Dad retired from the Navy as a Commander, and he was entitled to full military honors. Mom decided that Dad would have wanted that, and I know she was right. Just before the gun salute, the silence was broken by the cries of my niece Julia, coming from the nursery. She is famous for her lungs, and it provided some needed comic relief. I was standing right next to Mom when the flag was presented to her along with the traditional statement of presentation:
On behalf of the President of the United States and the Chief of Naval Operations, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your husband’s service to this Country and a grateful Navy. God bless you and this family, and God bless the United States of America.
I could hear Dad’s voice in my head, saying: “That was beautiful.” You could tell he would have loved it. He was very proud of his service.
Afterwards, back at home, we sat around and told stories about him. I hadn’t heard a lot of them. My brother-in-law Johnny said that the day he married my sister Susan, Dad came up to him and welcomed him to the family. He said that he was very happy for Susan, and personally thrilled to have Johnny in the family. Then he told Johnny: “There’s something very important I want you to remember. No refunds, no returns.”
My Dad was a faithful reader of the blog, at least until the end, when it got hard for him to do anything. He never commented, even once, but he read the site every day. It was a big deal to him for me to wish him a Happy Birthday on the site, so I always did. And I know it would have pleased him that I’m writing about him now.
I came home yesterday and sat down and wrote a long post that spilled out all my feelings from the past week. It was too much. You’re reading a severely edited version. I saved the whole thing as a private file. Some day I may want to be able to go back and read it, to remember what I was thinking now.
There’s so much more I want to say, but I can’t now. I want to write something about the kind of man he was. I don’t know if I’m up to it. I know I’m not, yet. And I don’t know if there’s anything I can write that could do him justice.
Dad, if you’re reading this on some computer up there in the sky, you know I love you. You know that I always looked up to you. And we in the family all know that you loved us. You never hid that.
I’ve always said that we should look at every day as Thanksgiving. It’s hard to do that now, but maybe that makes it even more important. So today, Dad, I’m thankful for the time I had to spend with you.