Memory Stream

~ How my thoughts are running these days ~

Dad’s explosive sneezes would scare the shit out of all of us. They came out of nowhere and were unspeakably loud. Even the pets would jump.

When I was little, he called me Tiger Lily. As I grew up, he switched to Kelly-My-Darlin’. He’d wanted to name me Sioux, but my maternal grandfather put the kibash on that.

Years ago, on what was meant to be a catch-and-release fishing excursion, dozens of enormous barracuda surrounded Dad’s boat as soon as we anchored. Each time I hooked a fish, a barracuda struck. After I pulled in my third or fourth fish head, Dad – who knew how horrified I was to be an accomplice to this slaughter – glanced at me with a mischievous half-smile and grumbled, “Kelly, stop getting blood in my boat.”

His oft-repeated lessons:

  • Do your best at all times in all things.
  • If you say you’re going to do something, do it. You’re only as good as your word.
  • Don’t hate. It takes too much energy.

He would calm fussy babies by placing them on his chest. We have so many photos of him like that – on the couch, eyes closed, with a tiny, sleeping bundle nestled right below his chin.

During a family road trip, after my sister, mom and I had played the alphabet game, I Packed My Grandmother’s Trunk, and who knows what else to pass the time, Dad suggested, “How about we play a game that’s absolutely silent?”

Last fall, he asked my husband and me to grab buckets and get in the car. Mom gave us a wide-eyed look like: Oh, just you wait and see! He drove us to the lot where his boat and trailer were parked. The boat cover had been weighted down by a recent rainstorm, and in the resultant pool were thousands of tiny tadpoles. Dad explained that he’d come by earlier to dump out the water, but when he saw the tadpoles, he had to change plans. Mom, Dad, JR and I spent the next half hour gathering tadpoles in buckets and relocating them to a nearby lake. Our little field trip didn’t surprise me at all. There’s no way in hell Dad would’ve dumped all those tadpoles onto the asphalt to die. He never would’ve even considered such a thing.

Dad once told me, “Life may be shit, but death is nothing.” I’m usually grateful to have been raised without religion or afterlife ideas, but not now. I wish I could believe we’d be reunited one day. Sometimes, when I remember he’s dead, it’s hard to breathe. I have to sit down. The pain roars through me like my blood is on fire.

He loved to dance. He used to take me to the father-daughter square dances when I was in Brownies. I adored those events. He loved Elvis, oldies, jukeboxes, and sharing the story of my grandfather telling him, after they’d traveled together in the car for a few hours, “Your music makes me puke.”

He was a brutal editor of my first book. “Why is everyone in this book always smirking and exiting? Why can’t they just smile and leave?” I was appreciative for the candid critique, but not so much for all the times he’d describe a critically-acclaimed book he’d disliked, proclaiming, “It was even worse than yours.” Each time, Mom would implore him to stop saying that, and he’d reply, “What? I’m saying this guy’s published and got all these great reviews, and his book is even worse than hers. So there’s hope!”

When I was in high school, he’d leave work early to come watch my tennis matches. There were all these people around the court in athletic clothing and this one tall, intimidating guy in a suit. His presence made me feel nervous and important at the same time.

On my dresser, there’s a photo of him from his Merchant Marine days. Hanging off the side of the frame is a slingshot he made when he was a boy. When I first set that up, I realized it would be a memorial someday. Now it is. I hate that.

He got to teach his grandson to ride a bike last summer. He was so thrilled. Mom has a video of him whooping with excitement as the new bicyclist goes whizzing by.

I hear his voice. I see his shimmering fingers as he explains something he’s excited about. I feel his hand holding mine. As a child, I would lay on his chest and listen to his heart – that stupid, broken heart that quit and stole my father from me. From all of us.

Sometimes I think I might get through a whole day without crying, then I cry at the very thought. It would’ve hurt Dad so much to see me this way. He wanted his loved ones to be happy. He would want us to be laughing.

Years ago, I told my sister that when our parents died, I would never get over it. I know that’s true. Losing Dad will be a lifelong sorrow. Still, I look forward to a time when memories of him bring comfort rather than pain. That’s what people say, right? Find comfort in your memories. So I have to believe that time will come. For now, though, I just remember, and cry, and remember, and cry, and remember.

[While I still can’t believe the words “obituary” or “funeral home” have anything to do with my father, Mom did write a beautiful obituary for him that is now posted on the funeral home’s website. You can find it here.]

Dad Talks

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My parents celebrate their 50th anniversary today. When they got married in the summer of ’68, Dad was 25, and Mom was 3 days shy of her 20th birthday, which means this year brings other milestones as well: Dad’s 75th and Mom’s 70th. To honor their awesomeness, I’m going to write something about each of them. Dad was born first, so he gets Post of Honor #1.

Because I’ve been in the counseling field for almost 20 years, I tend to avoid things like talk radio, podcasts, and Ted Talks. The last thing I want to do outside of work is spend more time listening to people talking. But Dad’s talks are different. Like precious gems, they are both rare and valuable. The ones that stick out most in my memory are those that came during times of transition, usually right before a big move.

Dad Talk #1: On the night before I headed to college, Dad told me we needed to talk. He took me aside and said this: “At the place you’re going, there will be a lot of kids who are smarter than you and a lot who have more money than you. And I don’t want you to forget who you are.” His warning stuck with me, and each time my identity got derailed throughout the college years, his words helped me find the way back to myself.

Dad Talk #2: Six years later, when I made the decision to move from the East Coast to California, Dad sat me down for another talk. “All right, there’s something important I need you to know,” he began. Tears sprang to my eyes as I prepared for a heart-wrenching farewell speech, but what came next was this: “If you’re attacked by a mountain lion, you need to fight. You can’t play dead. It’s the same with black bears. Playing dead only works with grizzlies. Black bears and mountain lions will kill you, so you’ve got to fight.” I said, “Okay, Dad,” but what I thought was, If it comes down to hand-to-paw combat between me and a mountain lion, I will not win. I will be cat food. He did get a little more emotional after that. Once I’d agreed to fight off mountain lion attacks, he added, “I hope you don’t like it out there. But I know you’re going to love it.”

Dad Talk #3: Fast-forward fourteen years. When Dad caught wind of the fact that I was planning to move from Oregon to San Diego, I received a voicemail: “It’s your father. Call me.” Since his usual message was: “Kelly, call your mother,” I figured it was serious and called back right away. “Your sister tells me you’re thinking of moving back to California,” he said. Before I had a chance to respond, he continued, “Your nephew is moving to North Carolina, and he’ll need his aunt and uncle. It’s time for you to move back east. Your mother misses you.” The way I figure, if someone I love and respect gives me one stern directive every couple decades or so, I should probably follow it, so my husband and I packed up and moved across the country. That was five years ago. Now we have two little nephews, and it’s awesome to be a part of their lives.

Of course, Dad has taught me way more than what I gleaned from those three talks. He taught me to fish, shoot, play sports, face fears, be true to my word, appreciate the outdoors, keep an open mind, hold myself to a high standard, treat people with respect, and be an honest and genuine friend. He also taught me that vanity is stupid, which is an invaluable lesson. He once dreamt that he had a bald spot on the back of his head. Upon waking, he decided it was true, then retained the belief for an indeterminate period of time (weeks? months?) until he happened to mention his bald spot to Mom, who informed him that it didn’t exist. I just love the fact that he never checked.

DSC_0021.jpgSpeaking of hair, that hairy beast is ’90s me, fishing off the seawall with Dad

Many years ago, back in my mountain-lion-battling California days, I gave a training to a group of child advocates. At the end of the session, one of the trainees stayed behind to ask me some follow-up questions. He let me know he was a single dad raising two teenagers, and we chatted for a while about kids, families, and child rearing practices. Before he left, he asked if I was raised by both of my parents, and I told him I was. “Were you close to your dad?” he asked. I said I was and still am. “It shows,” he said with a smile. That was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.

Love you, Dad. Happy anniversary. ❤️