(Updated: August 2, 2019)
As I sit here today reflecting on Father's Day, I find myself thinking of the men in my life who held that role. I was very blessed to have my father until 1984 and then later, my stepfather. Both men were strong, faithful men who loved their family and their country. They weren't without flaws, of course, none of us are, but they were both loving and steadfast in their devotion to God, country and family.
I wrote the story below several years ago for inclusion in an anthology for a writers group I belong to. It's rather long but then, it needed to be.
Life is a series of choices. Each choice made presents a different set to choose from. Some are made routinely without any particular thought such as grabbing your favorite mug out of the cabinet or the route to you take to work.
Others require more consideration; do I want chicken or fish for dinner? Can I really afford a new outfit? Sometimes we put off making a choice because we either lack information to choose wisely, or the options are unpleasant or deemed not important enough to warrant a quick resolution.
Procrastination is most prevalent when it comes to connecting with family on a regular basis. Our daily lives are filled with children, jobs, clubs, and friends so extended family gets placed on the back burner. My parents and siblings live an hour and half away so, despite my best intentions, trips were few and far between. When I did go, more often than not, it was a rushed trip as I tried to see as many as I could in the time I had. August 18, 1984 was such a visit.
My father was an alcoholic and my parents divorced when I was twelve. They remained friends and always lived close to each other. Daddy taught us all to drive, brought us deer meat and quail, took us camping and fishing, and fixed things around the house that broke. We never felt deprived of his company. As the proverbial Daddy's Girl, I lived for those visits.
Unless he was drinking. I hated those times because that was not the man I knew and loved, and it was very difficult for me, even as an adult, to comprehend why he could not stop.
That fateful day in August, I planned a quick hello-goodbye trip. I got off to a late start and needed to be home early so knew it would be a rushed trip. My maternal grandmother had recently passed away so I wanted to check on my mother first. Our visit was short but pleasant and as I headed for the door, she said, “Make sure you go by your Dad’s. He will be happy to see you.” I left with a non-committal “I’ll try”. While I wanted to see him, our last visit was not a pleasant one because he was drinking.
As I reached the cross roads, I literally stopped in the middle of the road, hands gripping the steering wheel. Home or Daddy’s? I knew he would be hurt when he discovered I was so close and didn’t stop but I was already going to be late getting home. Plus, the thought of seeing him drinking or worse, drunk, made my stomach churn. The second of seven children, I was the proverbial daddy's-girl. I learned to love reading by sitting in his lap as he read his Zane Grey westerns to me. He taught me to respect myself and others, to camp, fish and hunt. I loved him…and I hated what he became when he drank. I couldn’t bear seeing him that way again.
With a troubled heart, I turned left toward his house, vowing it would be a quick stop.
If he was drinking, I would say hello and leave, but either way, not stay long. As I pulled into the drive, he came out the front door. I can still see him to this day. Six-three, ruddy complexion, faded overalls, one strap hanging down his back, legs tucked inside rubber farm boots stained with paint, white shirt on top, unbuttoned, and a slightly askew baseball cap on top of thinning russet hair. The smile on his face said how happy he was to see me but my first thought was “Is he sober?”
He met me as I exited the car, grabbed me up in a bear hug as only a father can do and said “Sugar, it's so good to see you.”
I nearly cried right then and there. He was sober. My Daddy was here.
He asked me to help him feed his animals (he had pigs and chickens) then we could chat. Once inside, he sat in his worn easy chair and I sat in the rocker beside him. With a fresh pot of coffee between us, and the usual what’s-new talk to start off, we began reminiscing about ‘the good ole days’. We laughed and talked about favorite outdoor trips and growing up in general. He mentioned the time we were stranded on Lake Sam Rayburn when a sudden summer squall popped up. The motor on the boat quit and I was scared to death because I never learned to swim. He calmly told me everything would be alright and fussed with the motor till he got it going and we made a bumpy, wet trip to shore.
“Do you remember the time I tried to teach you to fly fish at Papa Johnson’s pond?” He laughed, a raspy, smoker’s laugh that made his belly jump. “I didn’t think you would ever get the hang of it.”
“But I did” I replied brightly, “Caught a seven pound bass.”
“Yes, you did and I was proud as punch.” He pushed the horn-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose, his smile soft and loving. “But you know what my favorite time was?”
I shook my head, not trusting myself to speak.
“The time we went fishing down at the creek. You was maybe six or seven. Said you were gonna catch Hercules.” (That was the name we gave this big fish in the creek he never caught). “You were making so much noise, I knew there was no way you were going to catch anything so I went up a ways where I could fish.”
I laughed. “I forgot about that one.”
I splashed around the bank a bit and finally got a line in the water. Then something big took the bait. I remember pulling on the rod and screaming for Daddy to come quick. Just as he came rushing around the bend, the fish came off the hook at the edge of the bank and started flapping around to get back to deeper water. That was the biggest fish I ever saw and I was not about to lose him so I waded in and kept flipping him until I tossed him up on the bank!
He chuckled and shook his head. “I’ll never forget seeing you standing there, soaking wet, mud up to your knees, splashing that damn fish up on the bank. I laughed so hard I could barely stand.”
It was some kind of boney ‘trash fish’ not really good to eat unless you take a lot of trouble to prepare it right. Daddy did and we ate it that night.
There were other memories, too, like the first time I tried to make biscuits. They were so hard you could have roofed the house with them but he tried to eat them anyway. And when I was twenty-two and called him because there was a spider in my bedroom. And he came.
Before I realized it, darkness was falling. I hated to leave but knew I must. I gave him a hug, told him how much I loved and missed him and how much I enjoyed the day.
He hugged me back and smiled. “I am so glad you stopped by. I sure have missed you.” Then he did something he rarely did. He said, “I love you, Sugar.”
All the way home, I had such a warm feeling inside, something I can’t possibly put into words.
He called the next day to make sure I made it home safely and told me again how much he enjoyed our visit. With assurances of ‘doing that more often’ we hung up.
That was the last time I spoke with him. He died quietly in his sleep a week later.
Overwhelmed at his sudden death, the only thing that got me through the traumatic days that followed was the memory of that last afternoon with him. I clung to that day for a long time and still fall back on it when I need to feel him close. I shudder to think how I would have handled it had I not had such a pleasant memory for comfort. Losing a loved one is never easy; but it's even harder when all you have to look back on are a bunch of I wish I had’s and I meant to’s.
Every day we have the opportunity to make the right choice, to make a difference. Whether we heed those opportunities or choose to ignore them, is up to us.
God, in His infinite wisdom, knew Daddy’s time grew short and how his death would affect me. He presented me the opportunity to do the right thing, for both of us, but did not make me take it. The choice was mine. I am so glad I made the right one.