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.”