In memoriam

My father died after a long hospitalization. He was 91, and up until the end of 2013, had led an active, independent life, enjoying the fruits of retirement after a 30+ year stint in the US Army.

To say he will be missed is an understatement, particularly for me. When Mom died (in 1975), he and my stepmother Carolyn took over the chore of raising and guiding me through adolescence.

I was an unexpected challenge. When I was born, the youngest of four kids, he was already 41. In fact, I’ve never seen him without gray hair.

He was not a perfect man, and he knew it. Sometimes he could be painfully blunt and tactless, but he always meant what he said and said what he meant. For example, I asked him why he and Mom decided to have me so late. His answer: “You were a mistake, son. A slipped diaphragm.” I quickly learned only to ask questions for which I truly wanted an honest answer.

Usually stoic and unperturbed, I only saw Dad cry once, and that was when he came to tell me that Mom had died. I remember wrapping my 11-year-old body around him; he was my anchor against the emotions that rippled through me.

Yet, for years I resented that he wasn’t what I expected in a father. It took a while, but I finally realized he wouldn’t change and that I needed to get over myself. After that, I began to appreciate him for who he was.

He was a storyteller with a fine voice for spinning a yarn, providing enough detail to keep you enthralled but with a sufficient lack of clarity to make you wonder how much of what he said was completely accurate. Not that it mattered; he was always entertaining.

Being a true Miller, he had a high boiling point and was very slow to anger, but when he did blow a fuse, he could be frightening.

As a father, he tended to be standoffish, delegating parenting to my mother. I’m not sure if he meant for it to be that way, but with his poor hearing, engaging in conversation sometimes left both parties confused about what was said and why.

He was a silent enigma for most of my childhood, working all day, every workday, smoking his pipe, and tinkering all weekend. He was also the disciplinarian, not because he had rules and expected us to follow them, but because that was what Mom required of him. So it was that when he came home, one of his first chores was to beat his children for all the crimes they had committed (real or imagined) that my mom had meticulously documented during the day. His approach was very matter-of-fact and usually punctuated with an attitude of “let’s get this over with.” Even so, I came to fear him and cringe whenever I heard his car come up the driveway.

He had little use for religion, no doubt influenced by watching the KKK have rallies on the steps of the Baptist churches in St. Albans. The irony in this is that, in the Army, he was considered a Baptist, but only because he had to pick a denomination, and Baptist was at the top of the list. Overall, he cared little for church, though he did tolerate it when he had to. Without spirituality, he cultivated a philosophy based on pragmatism and interest. If something had no tangible use nor held his interest, he simply didn’t think about or worry about it.

One interest he had was sailing. He loved being on the water, though not necessarily in the water, as he had almost no interest in swimming. But, plying the water with a sailboat was true love. He was never happier than sitting at the rudder, listening (I would presume if he wore his hearing aids) to the wind rippling through the sails. I always wondered how this hillbilly son of West Virginia ended up with a love of sailing. It never quite made sense to me, but it didn’t have to; it made sense to Dad.

His opinions were solidly formed and, for the most part, unchanging, but Dad never felt so chained to a moral hitching post that, if circumstances dictated, he couldn’t break away from it.

He was a veteran but a quiet one. Sometimes I could weasel a story out of him based on his experiences, but more often than not, he simply couldn’t or wouldn’t remember. I know he had seen things that bothered him, and dredging up the past, particularly as he got older, did not interest him, even for sentimental reasons. He once hinted at the difficulty of leaving experiences behind, how when he came back from Europe after WWII, all he wanted to do was sit on a mountain with a rifle and be left alone.

He was a self-admitted hillbilly, an ex-patriot of West Virginia, and loved the mountain state. He often visited his sister Lillian and brother George in St. Albans. But when they passed away, he lost interest in traveling.

When I moved away to live my own life, I tried to stay in touch, but time and the elements worked against us. Family and work demands left me with no time or money to travel. Dad’s hands curled, making writing and typing too much of a chore, and his hearing, always bad, got worse, and his refusal to consistently wear or use a complete set of hearing aids made for tiresome shouting over the phone. He’d occasionally write about something that caught his eye, usually on an index card or scribbled onto a newspaper clipping. He also sent cards in celebration of Wyatt Earp’s birthday. Why? Who knows…?

During our years apart, he remained healthy and active. But old age catches up with everyone, and my father was no exception. He collapsed Dec 31 and went to the hospital. Had Thrombocytopenia been the only problem he had to deal with, he might have recovered, but he also contracted MRSA and a skin fungus which caused him severe pain and ultimately made surgery impossible. Even so, he was 91, and, as it was, the margin of error for health-related issues was extremely limited.

When it became obvious he was not going home, he decided (being the pragmatist he was) to “check out.” I visited him one last time before he went; he looked at me and said, “I love you.” He also winked at me just before I left as if to say, “You’ll be fine, sport.”
So now he is gone, and despite the long lead-up to his passing, the loss still hurts terribly. But maybe that is as it should be, as hinted at by none other than Nanny McPhee:

There is something you should understand about the way I work. When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go. It’s rather sad, really, but there it is.

Teacher Girl

I love my teacher girl. For me she is the embodiment of selfless courage, heroism, and unbounded love. She gets up before the break of dawn, to spend time with other people’s children, opening their eyes up to the possibilities that lay before them. Poor pay, long hours, overwhelming duties, arbitrary directives to comply with, bureaucratic obstacles to navigate, papers to grade — rarely is there time to rest, reflect, and prepare, before the cycle begins again. No time to eat or exercise, she is chastised for the crimes of others, blamed for the poor home life of her students. They come to her, broken and neglected, emotionally crippled, intellectual underachievers, pandered to, and falsely encouraged to embrace mediocrity. Despite the resistance, from co-workers, students, parents and administrators, she performs her Promethean task, of rolling academic rigor against ignorance and sloth. These efforts find success, in the margins, with those who embrace challenge, see hope, who don’t accept the status-quo. The cost is great, the hours long, the satisfaction fleeting, for those who carry lamps into the world to peel back the darkness of ignorance. At the end of the day, she leaves the arena of the academic coliseum, a momentary victor on some days, over the forces of illiteracy and superficiality. Some days are worse than others, as those who spew hate and false promises, chip away at her efforts. Yet, even as she collapses, exhausted and spent, with the regret unique to working mothers, of having to spend so much time with other people’s children, and not enough with her own, her thoughts eventually drift to challenge of the next day. My love – my hero – my teacher girl. How I love thee, and I wish the rest of the world did too.

The Last Goodbye

Last Goodbye

I wanted to tell him before he left, now I may never get the chance. The thought kept replaying itself in my mind. So the trip had been to say goodbye to Dad, now ninety years old, and no longer in good health. Since my exit from that hell-hole of a town he lived in, I had allowed time and distance to erode our relationship. Slowly, age took away our means of communication — aches and pains made Dad turn away from typing or writing, hearing loss made phone conversations repetitious shouting matches, my job and kids took all my available free time. Before I knew it, months turned into years, and years into decades. Suddenly I realized we hadn’t seen each other for twenty years, and that at age ninety, he didn’t have the luxury of another couple of decades.

But sitting there, in his living room, looking at the crinkled old face, worn down by a lifetime of decisions, I wasn’t sure what to do. Instead, I could only manage, “Happy birthday dad.”

He glanced up from his paper and flashed me a brief smile.

I stood up and turned to face the door. I had every intention of making my exit, but instead walked over and knelt in front of him. He laid the paper down, looking at me with curiosity. I stared into his wizened gray eyes. “Dad,” I said with some urgency, “I am saying goodbye. I do not ever intend to come back here, except, perhaps, to bury you.”

His expression blurred before my eyes, moving between surprise and consternation. After all, it had been my idea to come back, perhaps my statement had taken him off guard.

But instead, his hand touched my forearm as his gaze bore into me. “I understand,” he said without further explanation.

Tact was never a valued commodity in my family, nor was sincerity or nostalgia, so my response felt tepid and somewhat unnatural. “I love you dad.  I just wanted you to know.”

A tear formed in the corner of his eye, “I understand,” he repeated with a small nod.

He sat quietly staring straight ahead, but when I moved to step away, he motioned for me to help him up. Slowly he rose off the sofa until we stood facing each other. What now? My mind spun in circles, but ultimately I pulled his bony shoulders to mine and hugged him.

He raised his hand to my face, “Take care of yourself.” The gentle admonishment washed over me as I let go. But as I turned, his hand caught my shoulder and I looked at him. His eyes stared into mine, as he gently squeezed my shoulder. Suddenly a smile crossed his features, “I’ve had a great life.”  Slowly, he drifted back into his chair, the ghost of a smile still on his face.

Tears appeared in my eyes, as I tried to reply but could not. I turned away, and walked out the door. Looking skyward, the sun bathed my face in warmth. My heart thumped in my chest. Closing my eyes I whispered, “Goodbye dad.”