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Monday, March 18, 2013

19 Years Ago Today

I've been thinking crazy thoughts lately.  I mean, nothing dark or horrible or wrong.  But about life.  And about death.  My own mortality, actually.  How at age 51 that my life is more than half over.  And about the fact that no men in my family have lived past 70.  And about my most recent health issues which I hope are under control.  And that brings me to my own amazing father.  My Dad.  Tomorrow will mark the 19th anniversary of his passing way back on March 19, 1994.  It wasn't pretty.  But he sure was.  You'll find this link to Part 3 (or you can simply read it below) of the three-part series I wrote about him a number of years ago.  In this particular link, you can find Part 1 and Part 2 links if you care to recount it along with me.  I will read through the whole series as I always do on March 19.  I've said it before, I think I miss him more now that I'm an adult than I did in my younger years.  Some days, you just need a father around. 

Part 3 -- It was March 19, 1994.…13 years ago today….and my alarm went off at 6:45am. I was in Liverpool, England, directly on the cold, dark Irish Sea, and beginning day three of our Rehearsal Camp for the British Continentals,a group that I was going to be directing on a musical tour through England, Scotland, The Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany. As I lay there trying to get every minute of sleep possible, there was a knock at my door. A telephone message had been received during the night by the camp operator. I was supposed to call my sister. My heart was broken already, I knew what message was waiting. I was exhausted. Physically but also turning like a butter churn internally. I knew I should be in a hurry to return the call but I wasn’t. I had left Boise only four days earlier after throwing myself across my father’s lap as he sat in his wheelchair at the airport -- his oxygen pumping away. And me on my hands and knees in the boarding area, bawling like a child, my luggage tossed aside. I got up from his lap and went around behind him. I put my face against his cool, old skin and bones and held him as he grunted, groaned, and tried to wave me toward the airplane. I knew the inevitable was soon coming. My god, it couldn’t be….could it? Never again would I see the life in his eyes.

As I made my way out into the early Sunday morning, I remember thinking how warm it felt especially being, literally, just across the road from the sea. I breathed deeply and heavily, trying as nearly as I could, to propel myself into calmness. The phone was ringing thousands of miles away. Her shaky, monotone, and dark voice said that “Dad passed away two hours ago.” The doctors had wanted him to stay in the Portland VA Hospital for his dehydration. But he wrote “Boise” on his notebook. He wanted to go home. A place of comfort, respite, if any were to be found. The doctor finally agreed to let my mom drive him the 450 miles to the VA Hospital in Boise and check him in. She drove through the drenching rain having to stop repeatedly to fix the windshield wipers. My amazing parents spent the last night of their 33 years together in an old roadside motel just west of Pendleton, Oregon. You just never know where the road you’re traveling is going to end up. Dad couldn’t breathe while laying down any longer so he slept in a recliner, upright. I still have the handwritten notes he wrote to the doctors and family that last afternoon. It is incredible to trace his journey by reading scribbled notes. That evening ,carbon dioxide began building up in his body. “Your husband is in critical condition and probably won’t live through the night” the nurse told my mom in the hallway outside his room. “Call your family together.” How could this be? Can’t we just put in a feeding tube…that should take care of it. Did he actually hear them saying that he wouldn’t make it through the night? His last words on paper: “I have to go to the bathroom….pee….it’s hot.” My brother and my mom were on either side of the recliner that my father was resting in. They sort of “looked at each other” at 10pm and their tired eyes told each other that he wasn’t breathing any longer. Lewis was gone. Damn that wretched Lou Gehrig’s Disease….it would never haunt him again. I walked back to my room in the warm wind just as the sun was making it’s way up over England. I’m glad it wasn’t raining that morning. I returned home the very next day. All of the way back across the globe to where I’d just come from a few days earlier.

He lay in his Navy uniform, glasses in place, and hands folded just so. You wouldn’t have believed the red, white, and blue flowers that were jam-packed into the small viewing room. The morning of his funeral, I took the car to get it washed….well, at least that’s what I used as my excuse to go, by myself, for one last visit with my father. I slipped into the Alden-Waggoner Funeral Home, turned left, and down the hall where he and I had a chat. I kissed his cold hands that had worked so hard for 62 years. And I leaned into the wooden box as far as I dared and hugged his face as tightly as I could. I thought it may break….no, wait, that’s my heart. That blip in history, my friends, will wring water from my eyes forever. The rest of the day was spent with 500 of his dearest friends at his completely overwhelming funeral--45 minutes for their long, wan faces to file past his casket. The moment or two before the lid was closed permanently is one moment of time that etches itself in my memory. “Wait,“ I wanted to shout. I would never see him again. Never. And, that was it. The lid closed and locked. His essential life lessons to me were over. Class was dismissed. There were so many of his fellow Navy men and women who volunteered to salute him that day that they had to turn them down. His impact on the people of this earth was dramatic in a horribly simplistic way. As the seven rifles cracked three times with their 21-gun salute, we jumped…but in silence…on the hillside above Boise that spring afternoon with the wind blowing. It still blows there today. The flag was folded with precision by the Navy and rested gently on my mother’s lap. As we drove away, my determined and self-assured mom staring, almost glaring, in silence--her voice broke, the wind seemingly sucked out of her lungs, and she sobbed. “I told him to wait for me but he couldn’t.”

My father never met a stranger. His infectious smile broke across the deepest of divides. I have no idea whether he knew about my sexuality or not. I have no regrets. None. I do wish that I’d done more to open myself up to him…not only in the last few short years…but throughout my whole fleeting lifetime. I wish I’d allowed him to see me for who I truly am. Time is short, my friends. Very. Don’t waste it. I wish that he’d been able to know me as a gay man….his gay son. The man that I know I am today. His spirit lives on in me, that I know. I find myself thinking like him, acting like him, even, possibly, looking like him. And, in the greatest of honors, I now use his name for my own when I can. He would be proud, I know he would. I can see his smile, his crooked teeth, hear his bright laughing voice, and feel his positive energy even today. I loved him dearly. My world isn’t the same without him in it. But in some crazy, unexplainable way, it is. He lives on in me….and that, my dear comrades, makes my journey on this earth complete.


Ronda Hunsaker said...

Arnie, Your Dad Did Know You. He Loved You As We All Do For The Wonderful Person That You Are. Love you

Ronda Hunsaker said...

Arnie, Your Dad Did Know You. He Loved You As We All Do For The Wonderful Person That You Are. Love you

LSL said...

Lewis, this breaks my heart. Having lost my dad so recently - and he wasn't 1/2 the man your dad was - I can hardly read your words about his last moments and your great love for him. But I am grateful for the lesson you're sharing - time is short, no regrets. It's so relevant. Thank you and big hugs to you and hubby today. xo

The New Flops Boy said...

My own dad died at 49, in 1987. It was 25 years ago last October. I do miss him still, and occasionally dream about him, and my grandparents who outlived him by many years.

Love you!


T-Bird said...

He raised a child who knows how to love. A parent cannot ask for much more...