Thursday, June 14, 2012


How can it be that, 2 years and 8 months after losing Dad, missing him can sometimes still take my breath away? When he passed, others who'd also lost a parent told me this would be the case...that as time went on, the pain would consistently change. That the sharpness would decrease...never go away, but become more dull and not as persistent. That there would be times when missing him would grip me quite unexpectedly. They were right. It's odd. There is no pattern. Missing him sometimes hits at times you'd expect - anniversaries, birthdays, when I revisit or recall our experiences together. But it also sometimes hits me when I'm experiencing great joy in the life I've continued to build in his absence...suddenly, I realize he's not here to share that, or for me to report it to. And I stop breathing momentarily for wanting his physical presence in my life. To hear his laughter. See his belly shaking when he's sharing some crazy story with Pete and his other cronies at Rhino's. Stand behind his big easy chair, and rub my hand over his crew cut when I tell him goodbye as I end one of my visits. Even see his eyes rolling yet again as I spew out some liberal opinion that disgusts his Fox-News-conservative-sensibilities. Especially in those moments of joy when the missing him hits me, I want so badly for him to know that I'm fully aware that I wouldn't have the joy I have in my life were it not for the life he, and Mom, helped give me. Even in the midst of these continuing moments of pain, I feel him with me, and his influence on everything I do. Everything I am. I still want to make him proud, and sometimes I ache beyond belief to know if he is... I do know that I'm proud of him. Of the rich and full life he lived, and of how he always sought improvement. To be a better husband. A better friend. A better father. A better supervisor. A better man. And I'm proud of how he's instilled that same desire in me. To always seek to be better. It gives my life amazing richness. In spite of the moments I find it difficult to breathe for missing him.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dad's Chair

I sat in Dad's chair the other night. I wanted to do some reading away from the noise of the tv that Mom was watching in the other room, so went into the family room where his chair is, turned on the light next to it, and snuggled in. It was hard to concentrate on the book I was reading because it was the first time I sat in his chair since he died.

It's a brown leather recliner, nice and soft and cushy, and though it's only a few years old, I think, it's symbolic to me of all the "Dad's chairs" that have come before (like the rocking chair above). He's always had "his" children and as adults, we were allowed to sit in it UNLESS he was in the room. Everyone knew that when you sat in his chair, if he walked into the room, you were to get out of the chair. We knew without a word. Even as pain-in-the-ass teenagers, it never took more than his standing over us for a second or two to get us out.

The first "Dad's chair" I remember was dark green, I think. It was made of some coarse weave, and had mustard yellow leather cloth-napkin-sized pieces of material on the arms and across the top of the back. Sounds weird...must have been the 70s. You know, the days when avocado green was stylish. I can remember napping with Dad in that chair. I would lay on his belly -- perhaps I was 4 or so? -- and his breathing would fall into a regular rhythm as he entered sleep. With my tiny little body lying on his big belly (not yet the pop belly he had in the last years of his life, but he was 5'10" or so, so he was much larger than me, obviously), I would close my eyes, and try to match my breathing to his. Children breathe faster and more shallow than adults, so of course, I was never successful. I would strain to make it happen, though, because I felt so lucky to get to nap on him in that chair. I felt like my non-rhythmic breathing might wake him up and make him push me off his big warm body. And I loved it there.

When I was in elementary school, Dad used to wear black leather slip-on slippers in the evening. He would sit in his chair reading the newspaper or something for work with one leg across the other, his ankle resting on the opposite knee. If I was doing something I wasn't supposed to be doing, all he had to do was call my name, look me in the eye -- even from across the room -- and slowly, ever so slowly, reach down toward the slipper that was resting just past the opposite knee. I knew I better stop what I was doing or he was going to be up and out of his chair in seconds, introducing me to that slipper in a much more intimate way than I'd ever desire. I honestly don't remember him ever swatting me from that chair...but I sure remember the power of that simple movement toward the slipper. From his chair.

His feet are the source of another vivid memory of his chair. While watching tv or napping, he'd often recline all the way back in the chair, with his feet straight out and resting on the extended footrest. As a young child, of course, that just made them a target, right? I just wanted to walk by and touch them...swat 'em a little...tickle them. When I knew he was in a playful mood, his extended feet gave me the opportunity to "try on" some power similar to the power he had over me with those darned slippers. If I even pretended to be about to touch his toes in any way, well, he'd go nuts. "Don't you touch my feet!" he'd yell -- he couldn't STAND to have his feet touched. I'd giggle, and feign another swat, and he'd blow off a little more steam, and then go back to his tv watching, reading, or whatever.

As I grew older, I had a lot of serious talks with Dad while he was sitting in his chair. It might be over dinner, his plate on his lap, mine on a tv tray parked in front of the rocking chair I'd sit in near him, or while the tv was playing in the background. Mom was always nearby, either in a rocking loveseat just a few feet away from him or putzing around in the kitchen. He wasn't afraid to tell me what he really thought, and as I grew older, I became less and less afraid to share my real thoughts, too. It was never easy to disagree with him, but even when he completely pissed me off from that chair, I knew deep down that he respected my honesty and courage in speaking my mind.

He sometimes sat back in his chair and watched the goings-on of the rest of the family from afar. On holidays, for instance, he often left the dinner table first, and would park himself in his chair while the rest of us sat laughing and talking at the table long after the food was all cleared. For an extroverted man, he spent a lot of solitary time in his own home, and it was often from his chair. He read for pleasure there, read for work, watched tv, and wrote his speeches for the squad room, the classroom, and the board room, depending on which decade of his life it was. When I sat in his chair the other night, in fact, I noticed that the speech he gave in support of the Bridgeport Indian Colony at his last board meeting, the day before he died, is sitting on a tv tray next to his chair still. In his big, clear, handwriting. Right there. Just as though he just finished writing it. How I wish he would be adding to that pad. From his chair.

Many memories from the last 9 years are of Dad sitting in his chair enjoying his grandchildren. Whether they were in his lap, playing on the floor in front of him, or running around the dining room nearby, I can still see his eye rolls, smiles, surprise, and laughter at the various escapades of Abbey, Alyssa, Emma, and Lacey. Sometimes he was playful, but whether just watching or interacting, he was clearly proud of the family that he and Mom had grown together. I think he was often filled with awe and wonder that he gave us all he had -- and I'm so thankful my nieces were able to play on and near his chair as long as they did.

I last saw my dad on a Sunday just about two weeks before he died. I had come home for the weekend for a Mini Fishin' Mission. On my way out of town on Sunday, I stopped by Mom and Dad's to eat lunch with them and say goodbye. When I typically arrived at the house, I could almost always find Dad in his chair, napping, reading, or watching tv. He'd hear me come in, would holler "Who's there?," knowing darned well it was me, and I'd come around the corner from the kitchen and greet him with, "Hey, Pooper." I don't know exactly how I ended up calling him that through the years upon our greeting, but think it evolved from "Pops."

On this Sunday, though, I greeted Dad and Mom outside; they were spreading wood chips at the side of the house to keep the weeds down. They were both dirty and tired, and seemed happy for an excuse to take a break and go inside with me to eat lunch.

Dad sat in his chair. Mom sat on her rocking love seat. I sat on the rocking chair with my lunch on a tv tray in front of me. We talked about a variety of topics, including the fact that the Bridgeport Indian Colony had recently come to him in his role as county supervisor, asking for his support in helping them get land back that had been taken from them years before by the BLM. He said he was still studying the situation, but was fairly confident at that point that they had a right to that land. And he thought he would try to help them get it back. Like countless other times when I sat talking to him while he sat in that chair, that made me proud that he was my dad.

When I left, I went to him, as I always did, bent over him, kissed his forehead, gave him a hug, and told him I love him. He asked me when I'd be home again, told me to drive carefully, and told me he loved me, too.

My last memory of him living...sitting in his chair, watching me leave. And loving me.

I hope he saw me loving him, too...from his chair.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dad's Hair

My dad had great hair.

While I don't remember this far back, pictures tell me that he had a crewcut when he and Mom were first starting our family...he was a cop, after all, and that's the traditional cut, correct?

His hair was dark and really, really thick, and I think that by his early 40s, he was almost completely grey. But, a beautiful luxurious grey.

I can remember my dad taking good care of his hair. When I was pretty little, probably around 6 or 7, I remember sneaking into his and Mom's bedroom, and peaking around the corner to watch him get ready for work in the bathroom. He'd be wearing his CHP uniform without any of the fixin's that went on last -- the belt, the leather of which I can still hear as he put it on, and the gun, for instance -- and first he'd shave. I can still hear the scrape of the razor along his chin, see him dip it into sink water, swish it quickly back and forth to get the shaving cream off, and then flick the water off to go in for another stroke. I can still smell the shaving cream -- the kind that came in the red and white metal can and was so fluffy and white you wanted to eat it. But I digress...I want to get back to his hair.

I can also see loads of different hair products on the sink. Paul Mitchel comes to mind...he was always coming home from a new haircut with some new styling product or brush to try. Then he'd blow dry his hair. Yes, blow dry. He didn't have a crew cut by this time, so he had a lot of thick, coarse hair, and he'd spot me peeking around the corner, but act like he didn't see me. When he picked up the blow dryer to start drying, he'd also start singing, "I'm so pretty, oh, so pretty, and witty, and wise..." Really, he'd sing that. And I'd giggle. And eventually he'd acknowledge my presence, give his by-now-dry-and-perfectly-coiffed hair a bit of a spray to hold it in place, finish putting on all the leather and hardware, and be on his way.

And my dad was typically fairly stylin'. In an understated way more often than not. In the 70s or 80s -- I'm not sure exactly when -- he even used to get perms. And they actually looked good. He got them in town from Rene. I'm sure she could tell LOTS of stories about my dad coming into her shop, but she told me one a few weeks after Dad died that I had forgotten about. I was in her shop (now a gift and floral more hair stylin') picking out some balloons for Missy's birthday, and spotted a picture of Dad on her wall. He was sitting in her old shop in the barber's chair wearing one of those apron-things they put on you when you have your hair done, complete with a towel around his neck to catch the drips. When I first glanced, I expected that it would be of him in curlers, getting a perm; someone somewhere must have pictures of that. But instead, his hair was curler-free....and pink. PINK. Apparently, Rene had told him she wanted to try a new product on him, and since he was always up for that, he didn't think anything of it and let her work on his hair facing away from the mirror. She worked in some non-permanent color -- pink -- and then let him see the results. My dad was all about style, but this, she said, royally pissed him off. He began yelling at her, and insisted that she wash it out immediately. She did...after some giggling and picture taking, and it took an hour or so, she said. My guess is that she got a little nervous in the process. After all, Dad was a guy who loved a practical joke, but he was pretty darned serious about his hair.

I hadn't ever noticed this picture in Rene's shop, though I'd been there a few times before, so I asked her if it had been put up recently. She got kind of quiet, and said she had put it up shortly after Dad died. She had to put together a lot of flower arrangements ordered for our family when Dad passed, and she said she found it incredibly difficult to make them. She put the picture up to give her something to smile about.

At some point, Dad stopped getting perms, and went back to wearing a crewcut. When he died, he had worn it that way for so long that I honestly can't remember when he switched to that style. More often than not, he kept it cropped pretty close to his head, and at first glance after a fresh cut, it could look like he'd shaved his hair completely off.

By the time I got home to Bridgeport the morning he died, his body had already been transported to a mortuary in Bishop. Though the family hadn't had a chance to talk about it yet, on my drive over -- amidst all the agonizing and crazy thoughts and feelings going through me -- I panicked and called my brother to make sure they wouldn't cremate Dad before I got home. I needed to see him and say goodbye. Jim assured me that a decision to cremate him hadn't been made yet, and even if it had, they would wait.

Dad died on Wednesday, and on Thursday morning, all of us went down to Bishop to make all the arrangements with the mortuary. Mom, Bill, Cathy, Jim, Missy, Lacey, and I piled into Bill and Cathy's family van (they didn't bring their girls to Bridgeport until right before the service) for the 90-mile drive. We alternately laughed, cried, and sat in stunned silence looking out the windows, but the trip went quickly, and I was surprised and grateful for how comforting it felt to be in that confined space with my family on a trip with such a devastating purpose.

After we sat with the mortician and made all the arrangements for the cremation, Jim let him know that I wanted to see Dad. No one else wanted to. But I had to. Part of me was terrified to see him dead; after all, though I'd lost people close to me starting when I was 12, I'd only once attended an open-casket service, and that was by accident (a friend in high school was propped up in his casket, and I hadn't known that was going to be the case, or I might have chosen not to go). But a much bigger part of me knew I had to see Dad, let him know I love him, and kiss him goodbye.

I had meant to take Jim aside earlier in the day and ask him if he'd at least go in with me, as I didn't want to go in alone. I forgot, though, and when it came time, though Mom and Bill both offered, we could all tell they didn't really want to go in, so Cathy offered. And when it came time to go in, without our speaking any words to each other, she was with me in exactly the way I needed her to be. She stood behind me, put her hands on my shoulders, and then walked me down the hallway that led to the room where Dad was. I felt a little like "Dead Man Walking," as all my senses were heightened and it was entirely surreal moving down that hallway. As we neared the open door that led into the room, I stopped short and felt all the breath leave my body as my eyes landed on my dad across the room. He was laying on his back with thick sheets pulled up to his shoulders. I was instantly grateful that he was still my dad...he was still my dad. He looked like himself, eyes closed and peaceful, but it took me a few moments to gather myself for the final walk across the room to him. And without a word, Cathy knew to let me go that final distance alone. I'll be forever thankful to her for that.

I made my way across the room, and stood even with my dad's chest, and looked down at him with my arms by my side. All I could do initially was lay my head on his stomach, my face toward his, but eyes closed, and cry. I told him I loved him...that I missed him....that I didn't want him to be gone. I eventually opened my eyes, lifted my head, and straightened up. And knew that I needed to stroke his face, tell him I love him, and kiss him. But I knew he'd be cold, and that scared me.

Then I became aware of his hair. That hair. And what was I thinking?...I was thinking that I was so. Incredibly. Thankful. That he needed a haircut.

That's what I was thinking. He had let his crewcut grow out -- I'm sure it was only because he'd been too busy to get it cut -- and I was so thankful. Because I knew that I could touch his hair first, and it was long enough that I wouldn't intially feel the cold. I reached out with my left hand, and gently ran it across the top of his hair...and smiled. Because I was right. It wasn't cold. And I then had the courage to stroke his hair full on. Now I could feel the cold of his recent passing. But I wasn't inhibited anymore. I was able to move to stroke his cheek. With tears streaming down my face, shaking now out of grief rather than fear, I told him how much I loved him, and bent down to kiss him goodbye.

It's weird all the things that go through your head. After I kissed him goodbye, I stayed with him, and thought of my Hmong students back in Fresno. Of how, in traditional Hmong culture, relatives of the deceased stay with the body around the clock for three (or maybe it's five) days. And I understood in that instant why they are driven to do that. I didn't want to leave my dad's side. Though I was faintly aware that Cathy was at the door and the rest of my family was waiting outside for me, I was tempted to just stay there. Forever. To just be with him.

I don't know how many minutes I stayed, but after stroking that hair one more time, then his cheek, and telling him I love him, I walked back to Cathy, who helped me back out to my family.

And after I sobbed in each of their arms in turn, and finally composed myself to some extent,

I told them how thankful I was that Dad needed a haircut.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy Birthday, Dad

It's New Year's Eve. And it would have been Dad's 75th birthday. I like to think it still is.

Last year, I started spending New Year's Eve in the desert, camping with Jim, Missy, Lacey and a bunch of their/our friends. Lotsa sand, quads, sand rails, illegal fireworks, bonfires, rib-sticking food, ginormous marshmellows for roasting, and beer. This year, the plan was to do the same. But the closer it came, the more we realized we didn't want to leave Mom home alone on Dad's birthday. So Jim and I decided to take a break from the desert -- we all got there Tuesday -- to drive home today to spend the afternoon, evening, and tomorrow morning with her before returning to New Year's Camp until Sunday. Mom didn't want us to interrupt our trip, of course, but we wanted to.

Having your birthday on New Year's Eve has to be kinda like having it on gets overshadowed by its proximity to Santa's big day and Baby New Year's gig. Last year for the very first time, I FINALLY remembered to buy Dad two gifts when I went Christmas shopping. Usually, I would get everyone's Christmas presents, hit the road to Bridgeport, and halfway there, realize, "Shit! I forgot to get Dad a birthday present!" No malls in Bridgeport, you know, and with only a week separating the holidays, this was a problem. Figures he'd be gone this year when my brain finally had it dialed in.

Mom and Dad never went out on New Year's...Dad always said it was "amateur night." Mom typically made a ham dinner with all the fixin's, and then they would call it an early evening, and the rest of us would go out to ring it in with all the other non-pros.

It's surreal this year, no doubt, without him here. Jim and I rolled in at 12:30, met Mom at Hay's Street for lunch, and have just been relaxing the rest of the afternoon. We'll head down to Rhino's at 7:00 to eat dinner and Mom has agreed to hang out with us there to hear a bit of "The Band" at 9:00. That's a local band that includes Jason, one of Dad's fave bartenders, and Gordon, one of Dad's golfing buddies, and I think we might have even been able to talk Dad into coming down for a few sets. If he were here. In person. I believe he's here in spirit, and will likely be listening to "The Band's" debut with us....and will be mumbling about amateurs.

Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you.