March 29, 2017
Today is my dad’s 80th birthday. Rather, it would have been. Technically, it still is, but we stop counting birthdays when people die, although we don’t forget. He died in 2007.
This picture was taken in 1993 shortly after my mom had died. My dad and I drove to visit my mom’s family in Minnesota and stopped in Las Vegas on our way back to California. My dad and I had never taken a silly picture like this together, but I took advantage of his grief and talked him into it while we were at Excalibur. I do not regret it.
My dad and I were close. My sister had gotten married and moved away a couple of years before my mom died, so we were alone. My family has never been exceptionally affectionate, so we use a lot of sarcasm and humor to get through pain. That’s definitely how my dad and I adjusted to this new and empty life. A lot of laughs and a lot of silence.
I wonder what I’d be doing today if my dad were still alive. If he were healthy. We’d have lunch and end up at a bar somewhere, I’m sure. If we were still living in Port Hueneme, I’m sure we’d be grabbing a cup of coffee at the snack bar down by the pier at Hueneme Beach. Nothing would be planned. We’d spend the day going to his regular haunts and visiting with his friends. So many of them are gone now, too.
I don’t remember a whole lot of my childhood, but there are certain memories that really stand out quite vividly. I think my earliest memory of my dad was when I was around 3 years old. We had gone to see the Rose Parade floats with my grandparents after the parade. I don’t remember any of the floats, but I do remember that there were miniature monkeys on the wheels of some of the floats designed to look like they were operating them. I remember my dad holding me up because it was wicked crowded. Later, when he would talk about this day, he would grumble about those crowds and how he’d had to walk back to the car using drainage ditches. Good times!
Another happy memory was my dad getting a bike of his own, and on Saturdays, for awhile, my sister and I would ride to the beach with him. I don’t know how many Saturdays we did that, or why we stopped, but I do remember that it was fun. My dad insisted on wearing his cowboy boots.
I have a lot of sad memories, too. I remember my dad had a friend called Hoppy who lived in an apartment in the same building as the Top Deck bar. Hoppy had been sick for a long, long time, and he lived alone. My dad would go keep him company and make sure he had whatever he needed. I don’t recall ever meeting Hoppy, but he often sent little things home with my dad for me and my sister. Now that I think about it, I never even saw a picture of him, but I know that I still have his dogtags somewhere.
I don’t know what Hoppy was sick with, but I knew that he was in a lot of pain. My dad went to visit him one day and found him slumped over in his apartment. Hoppy had shot himself, and my dad was the one who got to find him.
I don’t remember how I found out about it. When I think back to that time, I mostly remember how it felt. I remember that my dad was not okay, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I do remember that I was trying to mow the lawn and couldn’t get the lawnmower started, so I was frustrated that my dad wasn’t helping me. I remember my mom telling me to back off because Dad was hurting, and I remember being confused by it all. These days, I feel ashamed for how I behaved that day. I would love to say that I was only a kid (was I 10? 11?), but the truth is that I was a bit of a spoiled brat who only thought of herself. I wish I had known better how to comfort him.
Regret is something I learned after my mom died. I suddenly realized that I really and truly could not fix past mistakes. There were no more apologies I could make. Shortly after my mom died, I was flooded with these memories of everything I had ever done wrong to anyone. Is that a normal part of grieving? I don’t know, but those memories, like the one above, have stayed with me longer than most.
Today is my dad’s birthday. I will make a nice dinner. I will listen to ABBA. My dad mostly listened to country/western… Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams… In my twenties, I got him hooked on ABBA somehow. He loved their song, “I Believe in Angels,” and instructed us to play that when he died. That’s the song we played the day we scattered his ashes in the Pacific. So, dinner, ABBA, and maybe a quiet walk.
Mostly, I need to be gentle with myself. Grief is not a process with an end. It stays for life.