My Dad…Who Art in Heaven

Tiff

I write about my life for two reasons: to remember my story and to help myself understand it. Today, I am remembering a difficult part of my story: my father who died 14 months ago.

One of our biggest blessings during this last year–and one that is especially poignant on Father’s Day–is the memory of the night before he died. Our pastor stopped by to visit late in the evening. Visiting hours were almost over and I could tell he was ready to sleep. We all chatted for a bit, his signature flair for gab still intact. She offered to pray and as we gathered ‘round his bed, I watched him—eyes closed, I believed he’d drifted off to sleep. Then, as she began to say the Lord’s Prayer, he followed. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it prayed with more confidence than he did on that night. An outpouring of faith through labored breaths, it seemed as if he were actually talking to God rather than simply reciting a prayer he’d known since youth. I wondered later if he knew he was in the last hours of his life and if that prayer had taken on a meaning like it never had before. In his life, he taught us how to live in color; in death, he taught us how to die. For all its suddenness, we’re so blessed that he didn’t leave us wondering where he was going.

Even for someone who loves words, I come up short for ones to describe the hole left by his sudden death. The last year or so has been very much a time of remembering his life—the father and the man he was before he had that title—and his legacy. It’s been a journey I believed I wanted to take in order to know him better; I’ve ended up doing just that—and knowing myself better. When a parent dies, a link to the past disappears. No longer are the people who could tell you the stories of their lives; you lose a sense of where you fit into the picture. So, I set out to find it. Not only did I find myself in him, I found fingerprints from the past and people long gone all over my life.

Most people who knew my mom thought that was my closest relationship. And while that was true in my teen years, when I was little, I was nothing but a daddy’s girl. I recall rubbing the sleep from my eyes very early on many Sunday mornings when I’d hear him getting ready to leave for the golf course. “Can I go with you, Daddy?” He’d help me get dressed and we’d always hit Waffle House on our way to Shelby Golf Course, the place he’d played since he was a young child. There, he would tuck a paper-thin napkin into my t-shirt and let me order my orange juice in a coffee cup to be like him. I have no idea what we talked about, but I remember being as happy as I ever was just spending that time with him. When we’d arrive at the course, he’d always let me drive the golf cart and write down his score. Even while I didn’t understand that he and his friends had placed handsome wagers on these games, I sensed that this score-keeping was important—and it made me feel important. The best part of these days, though, was hanging out in the clubhouse with him and his buddies. I loved hearing the stories and watching him be the center of their attention. He commanded the room even when he wasn’t the one talking. This “larger than life” quality is what I remember–and miss–most about him today.

The eldest son, Dad was born in Nashville just after World War II ended, July 1945. He was followed by a brother and two sisters, whom he adored. His father had served as an infantryman in Germany and France during the war; by most accounts, he brought the horrors of war home with him and struggled to handle life. He died when my dad was 16, at age 36. With the help of grandparents and extended family in Nashville and Toledo, Dad essentially declared himself “raised” about this time. Though his younger siblings made a permanent life in Ohio, for a young Donnie, Nashville was home and it’s where he married his teenage sweetheart in 1964. When he received his “Greetings from the President” letter four years later, he raised his right hand, said goodbye to his young wife and “hello” to Vietnam. I relished hearing his humorous stories of his days in Vietnam; he told the same funny ones over and over, in part, I think, so he didn’t have to relive the others. His advice was always short and to the point. When I went off to basic training myself, he had these words: “Keep your mouth shut and you’ll be okay.” That had been hard-learned for him–it wasn’t much easier for me.

He had other advice, too. He thought family was the most important thing and advised us to “never be satisfied.” He displayed a quote on his desk that read: “The greatest risk in life is not taking one.” I now carry this in my wallet. While he was scouted by the Cleveland Indians as a teen, his first love was gold. I think most of what he believed about the world was learned on the links while smacking around that little white ball. He said golf was a lot like life—and I know there were many, many times when he didn’t’ stop at 18 holes, he’d play 36, weather and wife permitting. During our last dinner together a few days before he died, he offered sage golf betting advice, which I think is good life advice—he said, “when you know you’re better than them, you still have to let them win a few times or at least catch up with you at the 11th hole, otherwise, they’ll stop playing with you.”

Makes sense. I’ve applied a tweaked version of this lesson to many situations–and come out ahead as a result.

He always said, “it’s not what time you show up, it’s what you do when you get there.” On this 2nd Father’s Day without you, Dad, we’re remembering the impact you made with what you did when you were here—and you always did it your way.

We love you and miss you very much.

Help us to be willing to stand by and not to play through—for those in genuine need. May we always play with honor. And finally, when we’ve putted out on the 18th green, we pray we will have demonstrated the integrity of our character, so that you will judge us worthy to join your threesome and play eternally on your heavenly course.”

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My House

House

They say “you can’t go home again.”

Ridiculous.

You can ALWAYS go home again. But it might not always be your home. There are painful but hopeful lessons to be learned in this realization.

I grew up in an idyllic neighborhood just minutes from Nashville. It seems closer to the city center now than it did when I lived there. When I lived on Lakeridge Drive, it was quiet. Serene. Firmly middle to upper middle class, but we felt rich. The yards were large, the streets, wide. The lights came on at dark and lit the way for the kids to find their ways home. Everyone was a neighbor, even three streets over.

This house was the one to which I was first introduced when I was 17 months old. I was wearing a pink jump suit and immediately found my way to, and climbed into, the fireplace. Photographs capture an ecstatic toddler covered in soot; no doubt my mother was less thrilled. There, 6 months later, I first held a little creature who would eventually call me “Ticky.” I thought she was just for me, but soon I learned that the word “Sissy” meant I’d never have anything totally to myself again. We grew up together under this roof. We shared birthdays and holidays there; joys and sorrows. We created clubhouses out of bedroom closets and a slip and slide of the main stairwell. We witnessed the miracle of feline birth more times than I can count, learned how to care for life beyond our own and also about death when we buried those beloved pets in that yard.

There were ditches that created what seemed like enormous hills and we’d roll down them in the summertime. The rich-green grass felt so cool beneath the sweltering Tennessee sun. There were tree lines that made for the best “clubhouses” in the summers and turned into “haunted trails” in the fall.

If my backyard could talk, it would tell of swimming in a plastic pool with my first little boyfriend. It would tell of catching lightning bugs and pick-up games of catch and batting practice with my dad. When I picture it now, I can still see my dad hitting balls there and my mom yelling for him to come in for dinner. There, my sister and I would travel back in time to reenact historic battles; on the same ground, my best friend, Jennifer, would join me in imagining other worlds in the skits that we created for our own entertainment. (Remember, there wasn’t that much on TV; we had to use our imaginations….and we did it well.) Birthday parties and softball team celebrations and hoops in the driveway. When I got the itch to climb a tree, we dubbed it the Mother Nature Tree and I relished climbing it as high as its limbs would hold me. The first time I kissed my only serious boyfriend, we were sitting on the picnic table beneath two maple trees and a late-August moon.

It was in the front yard we’d scrape up snow for “snow cream” in the winters and took Easter pictures in the Spring. We took prom pictures there, too, and when I’d come home from college, I could see the Yucca plants lining the street as I rounded the curve; they’d fill me with a sense of immediate peace and well-being—the feeling of being “home.” It was also on its porch that I first learned my mom had cancer and the place I gave her an oldest child’s permission to quit receiving life-draining treatments.

The neighborhood kids became my first friends. There were the Partlows: their daughter Amy, was one we’d play in her backyard treehouse. It was petrified of this contraption, of course, because it seemed to be infested with wasps. I preferred it when she came to play with us at my house; her mom’s giant bell would beckon her home at dusk. There were, the Taylors, with oldest child Bart, my first little boyfriend, now a decorated combat veteran and Army Major, and youngest, Katherine, a great pal of my sister’s. There were the Harvey’s right next door who loved their animals and whose house smelled of sweet cigars and honey. We prayed for their son when he went off to serve in Desert Storm, and again when Mr. Harvey lost his battle to lung cancer. I learned about dog rescue from the neighbors on the other side who saved a gorgeous Dalmation whose name was Tasha. There were others: The Burgesses. The Moores. The Barnes. The Hoods. The Cunninghams. The Ledbetters. The Bernhardys. The Pattersons. The Canfields and the Nippers. The Ghees, Bairds, Kinzers and Mascaris. And, of course, the Gardners. These people became family to us—and they still are. So many of them, we rolled their houses at Halloween and they bandaged our bruises and kicked our butts the rest of the year.

This neighborhood was where I learned to ride a bike and to drive a car. Those were the streets we pounded searching for the trampolines and pools our parents wouldn’t install in our own yards. It was around its block that I walked a million miles after my mother died, trying to make sense of being a 24 year old motherless daughter. Inside the house is where we watched her slowly fade away. She died in the living room in 2002. Soon after that, my dad let the memories and the house go in favor of condo life. I couldn’t be there at the last goodbye. It was the only house I’d ever known, and after saying farewell to my mother, I couldn’t bear to say goodbye to the brick and mortar that had been one of the last strongholds of my young life.

I have deliberately avoided driving by my old house for a decade. I just couldn’t bear the idea of someone else living in my house.

This week, I went home again.

As we pulled into the driveway, my first thought was figuring out how to ask for a tour without seeming like a lunatic. Everything seemed smaller than I remembered: except for the trees. The trees….I remember my dad planting most of them. In my childhood pictures, they’re more like little twigs; now they seem like redwoods. When did THAT happen? The exterior of the house looks roughly the same: a three-bedroom split-level built in 1969. The interior, though, has changed.

I confirmed for the lady who answered the door that they didn’t know me.

They didn’t know that those boulders they appeared to be trying to dig up where the ones we sat on as kids and watched Dad mow the yard. It’s where we had our “sprinkler showers” when the 8 hours of pool water we’d had hadn’t been quite enough. They didn’t know that the kitchen-living room space was where I learned to play piano and to appreciate great music. They didn’t know that the room they had made work-out space had been my childhood bedroom, the place I spent hours singing gospel tunes with my grandmother and where I started my first book at age 8. They didn’t know that the back bedroom was where my mom and I had our best talks in the still of the night when everyone else was asleep. They didn’t know that that pesky treeline had been mine and my sister’s childhood dream—and that it was the final resting place of our most treasured. They didn’t know that this was the last place I ever spoke to my mother, that this doorway they were standing in, telling me about layout of the property I’d known my whole life, was the last place I ever saw her alive.

This was a house to them…they didn’t know that this was the place my heart had been most of my life—even when I hadn’t lived there.

They didn’t want us to walk through the house itself, as it was “messy,” but agreed to let us wander the yard. As I walked from one memory to the next, I thought of how different things are now. And the tears came.

I realized for the first time in 10 years that it’s not the house I miss; it’s the people that lived it in and the memories we made there. We went across the street to visit the Gardners. I love these people. We watched old home movies and remembered people who are not here anymore and those who are fading to the grips of memory-robbing disease. I left knowing that, perhaps, you cannot go home again in the way you want to….but you can go home to the love and affection of the people who built you as long as they are here.

And that’s home.

I don’t live there anymore—but my handprints will always be there and a part of my heart will always consider it home.