I did not have a complicated relationship with my Dad. It was simple. I adored him. My first conscious memories are of a black-and-white-checked coat and the smell of Mennen aftershave. Being an annoyingly clever child, I figured out early-on the way to his heart: football. My dad loved his football. High school, college, pro – you name it – my Dad was watching it. And so was I. Asking questions, soaking it in, trying to impress him. I have a distinct memory of laying on the living room floor, pouring over the “F” World Book Encyclopedia (Kids, before the internet we had to look up info in these things called BOOKS), memorizing the hand signals for each football penalty so I could better understand the game. When I was six years old, my Dad was called to be a Mormon bishop. I didn’t understand the hugeness of this at the time, all I knew was he was gone ALL DAY on Sundays. My mom always saved a plate for him and I started asking if I could save my plate too. Those Sunday evenings, eating on those warmed plates, idolizing my Dad coming home from his Big Important Church Job – those memories are my insides, my heart and soul.
He gave me so much but his greatest gift to me came in the spring of 1999 when I showed up for dinner at my parents house with the stunning and much-procrastinated announcement that not only was I leaving my marriage of 11 years, I was also officially leaving the religion they had known me to be a member of my entire life. It was a long, messy, tearful, volatile conversation that my mother did NOT take well at all. When I had exhausted my welcome, my Dad walked me out to my car. I told him, through my torrent of tears, how sorry I was. He said only one thing to me. He said he just wanted me to be happy – that’s all. Whatever that was – he just wanted that for me. I think about that a lot. My Dad didn’t grow up in a nurturing, loving environment. He was never given the benefit of any doubt and his father was much more prone to lend a swift hard hand than a kind loving heart. Yet he had the strength and the courage to tell me to find my own way and be happy. Even though I knew he disagreed with my path. Even though I knew he disagreed with my beliefs. Even though I knew how much he loved my husband. He stood there, with all the power that he knew he had over me, with all the influence that he could have used – and he just told me to be happy. That’s all. Where did he get that from? Where does one learn to give that kind of love if it’s never been given to you? I think about that a lot.
Of course there was that awful awful night in 2007 when I could no longer hold back the darkness and drunken terror that consumed my life. His phone call was immediate. His love was unconditional. His judgment was non-existent. He said just one thing as I sobbed and sobbed and tried to convince him that I was the worst person alive and he should just disown me, “Gal, what do you need?” As I valiantly scream-slurred that I didn’t deserve any of it and I was beyond help he continued to gently say “Gal, what do you need?” Always the voice of love and reason. Even when crazy was LOUD. I picked myself up off the floor (literally) and figured out a way to keep going. His phone calls, his jokes about my beloved Cowboys, his impeccably-timed checks to keep the lights on (literally) were pillars one, two and three in my early recovery. His pride in me, despite me not showing him anything that I would have previously thought would evoke pride, was life-sustaining. His position as my North – my guide – was entrenched. It was just a fact. He was my Dad. He would always show me the way.
So to say I was unprepared for September 4th, 2010 would be a massive cratering understatement.
It was a beautiful, autumn-like Friday afternoon when I boarded a plane bound for SLC to spend Labor Day weekend with my Dad. A recent heart-breaking diagnosis of a rare blood disorder had left my big family reluctantly preparing for a future without our beloved patriarch. That future materialized 6 hours after I walked in the back door of my childhood home that Friday night. It was a shock when it happened. Not the actual death, really, which had been medically expected. The logical, sciency part of my brain knew that death was imminent. The shock came in the realization that I would never again talk or connect with him in any way that I had come to love and expect. That thought was so ridiculous, I almost couldn’t take it in. There would be no more Sunday night phone calls, no more sarcastic one-liners, no more unconditional love , no more gentle wisdom, no more pancakes. Oh it was all perfectly dramatic and terrible as it unfolded: the inevitable nighttime fall, the paramedics, the unstoppable internal bleeding that would claim his life within hours, the tearful promises and goodbyes. The intensity of the love and support people pointed in my direction lifted me up and sustained me. For a minute. The funeral and the people and my Mom’s grief kept me occupied. For a minute. Then the world moved on and the creeping heavy horror began to settle in: I was expected to go on now – just without him – for the rest of my life. That thought was too hollow, too stark, too filled with sadness. It also would not leave me. I was consumed with my grief. With the emptiness – yet the heaviness – of it all. Where to go now? Who would REALLY come through for me now? I mean – actually ALWAYS come through for me? Who? No one – that was who. The man pretending to be in my life at the time wasn’t even a faint carbon copy of my Dad and I had learned to expect nothing from him – and got it – time and time again. I’ll never forget that flight back to PDX, wondering how I could feel like I was brimming with every emotion yet still feel so goddamn empty at the same time. I also couldn’t stop crying. My only solution for many weeks included a bus ride home from work in the dark, a call to Dominoes and the brilliant comfort of consuming an entire pizza in bed with 3 purring souls while numbly staring at a flickering TV. Self care at its finest.
During this time people would say things to me like “you can still talk to him” and the Christiany people would say “Oh you’ll see him again, no worries”. But here’s the thing: people talk about grief how THEY see it; how THEY interpret death. The things they say are what would comfort THEM, which does not necessarily make them comforting things to say. What I believe about whether or not I’ll actually see my Dad again has nothing to do with WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK AM I SUPPOSED TO DO WITHOUT HIM RIGHT NOW now does it?
Grief is messy. I once heard it described as a giant, super slick monster that jumps on you when you least expect it. You try and wrestle it to the ground and get it under control, but it always slips out when you least expect it. You can be bouncin along humming “Lost in Your Eyes” by Debbie Gibson and then BAM – a dark weight materializes and settles in on your chest. You have no idea why you’re crying – you just are. Again. And no amount of telling yourself you “should be over it” or “why the hell are you feeling like this?” makes any difference whatsoever.
What does make a difference? I still talk to my Dad. I talk to him all the time. I may not believe the spirit floaty after-life things other people believe about heaven and all that stuff but I believe in what my Dad represented. I believe in love. I believe in his energy. I believe in loving unconditionally. I absolutely believe he still finds a way to communicate with me. And clearly. One such amazing experience happened last month on my 54th birthday.
As 2020 and COVID has crippled everything good and decent about – well – EVERYTHING, I canceled all my cool birthday plans for one night in Newport, Oregon. I am currently struggling very much with unemployment and what to do next and am I going to be OK and blah blah blah. But – as any true Leo does – I still wanted to celebrate every true part of my day. So, I set off on an absolutely gorgeous, sunny August 4th to explore the central Oregon coast. I couldn’t wait to take in my beloved Pacific Ocean while exploring the Heceta Head Lighthouse State Park. Many americanos and several donuts later, I arrived and discovered the park to be closed to auto traffic but open to pedestrians. I took my time, wandering up and down the lighthouse paths, soaking in the sun and relishing my complete isolation – not another person in sight. As I decided to make my way back to the car, I noticed a parking lot that extended off to my right – hugging the overlook. I thought there might be a cool viewpoint at the end so I veered off the path and followed the lot down to where I could see a single bench at the edge of the concrete – facing west. Cool, I thought, I can hang on that bench for a while.
As the bench came into view, I could see that there was something inscribed on a plaque attached to the seat-back. I thought about the million inscriptions I had read over my hiking travels that summer and thought it was probably some romantic dribble about George and how he couldn’t live without some chick Elizabeth and she was the light of his world yada yada yada. You know – like the bench in Notting Hill.
As I pulled up in front of the bench and the words on the plaque came into focus, my breath slowed, my stomach rolled and every goose bump I had slammed into full attention. Years ago, I framed two photos together – one of me and my Dad and the other of a photo taken on the night he died superimposed with a poem that vividly described the way I feel about him. That framed photo and poem had been sitting on my desk at home for 9 years.
The same poem that I was now reading. On a plaque. On a bench. At the end of a random parking lot. In the middle of a state park, for no explicable reason. On the central Oregon Coast. On my birthday.
“Some people come into our lives and quickly go,
Some people move our souls to dance.
They awaken us to a new understanding
With the passing whisper of their wisdom.
Some people make the sky and the ocean
More beautiful to gaze upon
They stay in our lives for a while, leave footprints
on our hearts and we are never ever the same”.
I stood rooted to that spot for a minute, staring at those words, tears flowing freely. And because I’m a cynical creature (of which my Dad also shares some responsibility), I turned around, sat heavily on the bench, relaxed against the very words that had so moved me, and said out loud sarcastically, “Really, Dad, you call THAT a sign?” while laughing sheepishly, cuz, um it was TOTALLY a sign.
What happened next – well – it thrilled and amazed and actually scared me a little. Not 5 seconds after I uttered my sarcastic challenge to my Dad and the universe, 2 squirrels burst out of the line of bushes about 10 feet in front of me. There was no sound announcing their arrival – just a sudden small explosion of brownish gray chirping, a whir of fur and sweet happy playful sounds. They were playing. They seemed to freeze in time for the briefest of seconds, both acknowledging the stunned human and the new concrete path in front of them, before they ran down the sidewalk, mischievously chasing each other, oblivious to their participation in such a soul-stirring moment.
I did the only thing that came naturally then. I laughed. And laughed. And cried. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I thought about the poem I was sitting on and the squirrels and my Dad and how I was just going to have to admit that – yes – I was going to be OK. I am going to be OK. Dammit, I AM OK.
I cannot believe it’s been 10 years. I miss you, Dad. But I believe you’re still here. You’re everywhere. You’re in the kid I heard say “Now we’re cookin with gas” last week. You’re in the peanut butter I have with my oatmeal and in the disgusted swear words I say when I toss aside a useless fork that’s become a “piece of tin”. You’re in the old NFL films I watch. You’re in every MASH rerun. You are the reason I’ve always refused to wear lifting gloves. You’re in the pride I feel when I strap up my kayak with extra cords with no help whatsoever. You’re in the Mountain Dew I chug when I just have to have a little extra buzz. You’re in the nagging persistence to get somewhere ON TIME. You are the reason I believe in unconditional love. You are the reason I believe in second chances. And third. And fourth. I believe you’re in the wind and the sky and the squirrels. Definitely the squirrels.
Thanks for checking on me, Dad. No worries, I’m doing OK. I’ll see you out there and …go Cowboys!