Thursday, June 18, 1992
|Dad and "the boys" in front of our summer home in Ocean City, New Jersey. It was here, 44 years later, that he would die peacefully in his sleep. I'm on the left. My older brother, Stan, is on the right.|
"So long, Dad...and thanks"
© 1992 John Dallas Bowers
If it had been any other morning but Tuesday, I’d have picked up the call myself when it came at 7:45. As it was, I had left the house early for a Bible study at church, and had gone straight from there to drop off my car for service. More out of habit than expectation, I called from the dealership to check my voice mailbox.
The familiar words of the Bell Atlantic operator: "You have one new message in your mailbox. To listen to your messages, press one." Beep. "First message." It was sound of raw panic and aching sadness. I felt myself being drawn into the receiver.
"Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, this is Mom." Pause. "I’m in Ocean City and I went upstairs and Dad is dead." Pause. "I don’t know what to do." A choked sob. "I don’t know what to do." Click.
In stunned disbelief, I listened to the message again, saved it in the system, and hung up. Suddenly, the air conditioning in that small office seemed very cold and I was shaking uncontrollably.
I pictured my mother, two hours away, alone with what remained of her husband of fifty-nine years. And, with a finality unique to such moments, it started to sink in. My father was dead.
That was May 26th and now it’s nearly Father’s Day. The past three weeks have been confused, busy, anxious, and sad. Even when time and new obligations have permitted, my success in concentrating on work has proved elusive. It’s as though I can’t seem to restart the rhythm of my life until I process the reality of his death.
Of course, there are other realities, like paying the bills, so I’ve decided to do what Dad would have done in these same circumstances: acknowledge and accept the obvious, grieve honestly but privately, and get on with it. Which I will -- very soon.
But for right now, I’m willing to let my mind simply wander over the years I shared with this man, particularly the last fifteen, when he and I became father and son in a way I hadn’t anticipated and will always treasure.
At his funeral, I said he wasn’t a perfect dad. Following patterns common to his generation and consistent with his own upbringing, he made certain choices which shaped my view of myself and my world. I used to think I’d avoid such parental pitfalls when my turn came, but my daughter knows the truth of the matter.
The fact is, however, he was a faithful provider who doted on his wife, loved his two sons, and set a remarkable example for cheerful, unselfish service to others. And when personal disaster struck, in the form of two bouts (forty years apart) of the rare but devastating Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), he maintained a resolve and courage that I still find incredible.
It was during his second siege of GBS, just before he turned eighty, that I had the opportunity to deepen what had already become a very close relationship. During most of his time in the hospital, talking was nearly impossible for him, so after I would tell him the news, I would simply sit quietly while he drifted in and out of consciousness.
I don’t know what he derived from my being there (he later remembered very little from those dark days), but I know I felt closer to him than I ever had before.
Often, while he slept fitfully, I reflected on the way he had reached out to me as an adult son, inviting me to share many of his social and civic activities. It was a rare week when we didn’t sit side-by-side at some table, either at The Union League for lunch, or at one of several periodic board meetings. Inevitably, I would savor those times, realizing they were finite, focusing on the moment. I was pleased just to be near him, enjoying his interaction with friends, seeing clearly the love and respect they felt for him.
After his recovery, I made it a point to go back and revisit some unresolved issues from my childhood and the more recent past. I felt I needed to talk to him about these things, getting his perspective, asking his forgiveness, and, when appropriate, offering mine.
It was a general housecleaning, and while it couldn’t have been easy for him, he loved me enough to be patient, open, and honest. Those were rich moments, and they left me at peace.
And so here we are, at the time designated by our culture to remember our fathers. As close as I was to my dad, Father’s Day has always seemed a bit contrived to me. Inevitably, we would be in Ocean City that weekend, and Sunday morning around the breakfast table would always be the time for official celebration of "his day."
But no gift or irreverent greeting card ever came close to mirroring what he meant to me. And in the later years, I think we both realized that this retailer-driven recognition was almost irrelevant to what we shared week after week. After all, how could any tie or shirt substitute for the experience of wheeling a cart through the supermarket, with him at the helm, dodging the other weekend food shoppers and baiting each other good-naturedly over this or that.
Actually, that was one of the last things I did with him the day before he died. We spent Memorial Day weekend at the shore, giving me a chance once again to simply relax in his company and in his love. And while at eighty-four, he no longer took the stairs two-at-a-time, I saw no hint that a few hours later, while he slept in the third floor beach-front bedroom he loved so much, his heart would simply stop.
As I look back on that final day and forward to this Sunday, I am so grateful I took the opportunities to love him as they came by. I will miss my dad on Father’s Day, but that loss will be softened by two certainties: that he is now in heaven, in the presence of the Living God, and that he knew unequivocally before he left us, just how much I loved and appreciated him.
So long, Dad...and thanks.
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