My father, a healthy and fit 57 year old man, died unexpectedly on August 20, 2012. My kids and I talked to him on the phone at 8 pm the night before and my brother called me at 6 am on the 20th to tell me he had passed away.
I walk myself through the events of that morning and it still feels like I'm watching someone else's movie. Maybe later I'll share the hairier details (there was flailing, and orange-juice-dropping, and cursing). Today I just want to share a story about my dad, one that defines his character in my eyes.
The summer of 1985 my family lived in Lexington, KY. We had just gotten rid of our blue Chevette (which, okay, I really loved, with its pierced vinyl seats and skin-melting metal seatbelts) and replaced it with another blue Chevrolet -- an Astro minivan with totally removable bench seats and enough room for our beloved English Springer Spaniel *and* a cooler for drinks and snacks! Money, as always, was scarce. My mom worked full time at the UK bookstore and so I spent my days bouncing between the bookstore and being at home or (sometimes) in class with my dad, who was an engineering student. I was nine. My brother stayed with the woman who had been our long-time caregiver in Lexington (and to whom I am still very close) but I got to play semi-adult during the day.
I remember sitting in the front seat while my dad and I were driving around running errands. Remember how the eighties had lots of hitchhikers? My father decided we would pick up a hitchhiker that day. I was sworn to secrecy because my mother would have had a fit (I know how I'd feel if my kids' dad let a stranger ride in the car with them!). Dad had me move to the very back seat of the van, "just in case." The guy got in and told my dad he needed a ride and would appreciate something to eat.
The whole incident was really uneventful. We drove to a KFC and the three of us got something to eat, then we dropped the hitcher off somewhere I don't remember. What's memorable about this is that I remember it at all.
My dad wasn't perfect, and we "had words" quite often. But I always knew his love was unconditional. It was based on his faith, and his belief that God loves us and there's nothing we have done to earn it, and nothing we can do to lose it.
When I was 19, I worked in my university library. My college utilized work-release prisoners for various projects and, as far as I know, never had any issues. The dean of the library called me into his office once and expressed concern that I was being "too kind" (his words exactly) to the work-release guys. Others had observed me being cordial and thought it put me in danger. I listened to what he had to say but already knew that I wasn't going to change my behavior. At dinner, I reported the meeting with the dean to my parents. My dad said to never stop being kind or cordial, especially to those who society deems less deserving of our kindness and cordiality.
And while now I am trying to avoid the trap of looking back on my dad and our relationship with the famed rose-colored glasses, I'm glad I remember these stories. My family can tell you I am not always kind or sweet. But my nature is to be that way, and when I'm not doing it, it's because I'm fighting who I am. My father treated everyone he encountered with kindness and dignity and respect, and I want to do the same, and I want, someday, for my kids to be scolded for being too kind or too friendly to people everyone else has given up on. That will be the best legacy.