On August 22, my father died.
He did not die in a usual way. He was not sick. He was not old. To my father, sickness and old age were things that he wanted to avoid.
Instead, my father died doing what he loved to do — climbing in the mountains of Montana. He had climbed the route he was on before, and he had visited Glacier many times. When we heard he was going to climb in Glacier, we didn’t worry too much. He was an experienced climber, and he was in good company. My brother was climbing with him and said they were having a great day.
But at one point on the trail, something caused my father to fall. He fell 300 feet and he died instantly. For that small blessing, I am grateful. I am glad he didn’t suffer and I pray he didn’t have a moment of terror or knowledge of what was coming. I hope it simply happened so fast that he never knew what happened and woke up to find himself with God.
For those of us who are left behind, we are simply numb and in shock. He left us so abruptly and unexpectedly that it is difficult to believe that he is gone. My father had a memorable personality. He stood out in a crowd. He was fun to be around. He had a keen mind. He had enthusiasm and zest for life. He didn’t do things halfway.
I owe my father so much. He was responsible for making me the person I am today, and I am eternally grateful for all the gifts he bestowed on me.
One gift was a love for reading. One of my clearest childhood memories of my father is reading T.H. Whites’ The Once and Future King. We would sit together in the living room and he would read aloud to me. I can hear him reading about Sir Pellinore and his search for the Questing Beast even now. My father was an avid reader — he read obsessively his entire life. Every conversation I had with him ended with the question “So what are you reading now?” I know he was working his way through some of the classic books he had missed at the time he died. He had recently read Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe. He felt that I needed to read Treasure Island — that I would really enjoy it. This love of reading made him so easy to buy presents for. I would just call him up and say “Add some books to your Amazon wish list” and the next day, he would have added at least 10 different books on a wide variety of topics.
Another gift he gave me was an appreciation for music. When I was a young girl, I had appalling taste in music. My very first record was Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls.” I thought the Bay City Rollers were wonderful. My father let this slide, but when I came home from seeing Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band — the movie version starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton — he had had enough. It was time for my musical education to begin. He explained to me about the Beatles — the true geniuses behind Sgt Pepper — and from there he introduced me to the Rolling Stones, Leadbelly, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and other pioneers of rock and roll. I remember him waking me up in the morning to tell me that John Lennon had been murdered. We both cried together at that loss. One of “our” movies was The Last Waltz — the documentary film about the last concert of The Band. It was a film we saw together when I was about 12 years old and again when it was rereleased 20 years later. We danced to one of the songs from the Last Waltz soundtrack at my wedding. But it wasn’t just classic rock and roll that we discussed. He loved classical music as well. Every year on the first day of spring, he would call me to remind me to play Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. He would play it too. It was our own rite of spring.
My dad was passionate about movies too. He often took me to see movies that were probably too “old” for me … but he made me feel important and grown-up when he discussed them with me. I remember going with him to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was blown away by that movie. I remember discussing it with him on the way home — trying to decide if we would travel to outer space and visit other dimensions if given the opportunity. We decided we both would. Other important films in our “father-daughter” canon of films were Spinal Tap and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. For years, we would call each other after every Oscar broadcast to discuss the show and whether we thought the right films and actors had won.
There are so many things I want to tell you about my dad but I know it isn’t possible to capture everything about him. But here are just a few things that make me smile when I think about him.
- He never did anything in a small way. If he was going to do something, he did it whole hog. Even sneezing. He didn’t just sneeze once, he would sneeze 15 times in a row.
- He loved to eat and wasn’t shy about it. Whenever he visited us back East, he would provide me with his list of foodstuffs that he wanted on hand: Taylor pork roll, Habbersett Scrapple, Drakes Coffee Cakes. I remember one time at a wedding, he was seated at Table 10. (Every table was to go up to the buffet in numerical order.) As the bride and groom and the wedding party approached the table — the first to eat — my father disappeared. We looked all over for him — only to find him up at the buffet right behind the bride!
- My father had horrible handwriting. Whenever he sent me a letter, it would take hours to translate. I saved every letter he ever wrote me in college as it was like receiving a coded message and it took time to decode to discover what he wanted to say to me. This made even the most banal letter seem precious.
- My father had rather large bushy eyebrows and often had a mustache. In an airport once, a lady asked him for his autograph — thinking he was Gene Shalit, the movie critic.
- The only person who could partner with my dad in Pictionary was my mom. You had to understand the weird way his mind would work to understand his clues. Plus his drawings were abstract in the extreme.
- My dad was a bit of a pack rat — both for his things and the rest of the family. Every time he would visit me, he would bring along some relic from my past — my autographed Larry Bowa baseball, an old ball I had left at the house, a photo book I’d created in grade school. It was always fun to see what treasure he would unearth for me next.
My heart is heavy to think that my dad is gone. It is difficult for me to comprehend a world without him in it. He was a wonderful father and I know he touched the lives of many people — from the patients he treated as a physician to his fellow climbers who shared his fierce love of the outdoors. He cherished my mother and I know he would have fallen apart completely if she had been the first to go. I seem to remember a saying along the lines of “The greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother.” In this aspect, he succeeded wonderfully.
One thing I know is that he knew I loved him. I always ended my conversations with my dad the same way. “Love you, Dad.” “Love you too, Jen,” he would reply. This was our “sign-off” since I was a small girl. (I make my mom say it too.) So I have no regrets in that regard.
I’ll miss you Dad. I love you.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s greatest flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by the waters.”