Today is my dad’s birthday – God rest his soul – he was born in 1903 and died in 1972 just two weeks shy of his 70th birthday. I have written many things about my father on my blog: trips with him in the old pick-up to feed the cows; his killing a copperhead with his boot while I stood nearby, barefooted; his dancing jigs in the kitchen when he was happy and shedding unselfconscious tears when he was sad. I have also written of our last conversation before he died – me, at 19, heading back to UT Austin after coming home for a weekend visit – and him, having the grace and good sense to bring up the fact that he was dying.
In Texas “good old boy” fashion, my dad said, “This old dog ain’t gonna hunt much longer” and even writing those words brings immediate tears to my eyes. I, in a typical can’t-lose-my-daddy reaction, shook my head and said, “No, Papa, that’s not true.” It was, and I had only been back in Austin two days when I got the call from my brother Jim that Daddy had lapsed into a coma. Upon receiving that call, I burst into sobs and could barely make it through the rest of the conversation. There was no thought involved, simply a spontaneous outpouring of sorrow that welled up and out, like a geyser erupting.
My father died the next day.
When I came home, Daddy’s body was laid out in an open coffin on the dining room table. This was not common in our little town and I have no idea how that decision was made. I suppose my mother decided she would rather have people come to visit us rather than our family greeting people at a funeral home. Besides, our house was big and lovely and perfect for this coming and going of friends and family. And my father would have liked that choice since he always had an open-door policy at 602 East 9th Street. Anyone was welcome, day or night.
When our beloved housekeeper Lorene hugged me in the kitchen, she said, “Now, go on in and see your daddy.
I shook my head. “I want to remember him alive, not dead.”
“You sure, honey?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’m sure.”
And I was. No death images for me. I can still vividly see my dad lying in bed during our last talk, warm, loving and kind.
My father has been gone for a very long time now, but the years melt away when I revisit those times with him. I realize only now what my dad’s greatest gift to me was. Most of the time we were together, he was completely present in that moment. Tuned in and listening. Saying what needed to be said even if I didn’t want to hear it. Giving me the chance to hear one more time that he loved me. Aware on some deep level that he didn’t have all the time in the world to spend with me. He was right. We had 19 short years. But they were good ones and for that, I will be forever grateful.
Happy birthday, Papa.