If he were still alive my father would have turned 64 years old today. We had a complicated relationship filled with fundamental disagreements, but I want to believe at the root of it all we loved each other. Relationships with parents can be a tricky thing, they have the obvious reasonability to be an authority figure but (hopefully) want to engage with their kids in a fun and educational way too. Some lean heavily one way or another and the truly great ones know how to balance it all for each given moment.
My paternal grandfather died in 1969 leaving behind my grandmother, two aunts and my dad. Still a pre-teen and having a newly widowed mother who consequently had to travel a great deal he found himself at home with his aunts most of the time. They were 8 and 9 years older than him and were beginning to transition to adulthood and having lives of their own. His older sister Justin soon married and started her own family and he had a tumultuous relationship with Kathy that carried into their later years.
Being a young man in the early 70s with little to no supervision he tended to get into trouble (or so he told me). His high school years are a mystery to me as the stories were ambiguous and changed with each telling but I gathered that he moved to Sioux Falls, SD for a few years only returning for his senior year where he graduated from Raytown High School.
He used to tell me repeatedly that he spent time in the military, but I could never square where that fit into the timeline between school and meeting my birth mother. When I pushed for details he said his record was secret because he was involved in some type of military testing. Even as a young man this seemed fishy and an easy out. After he passed away I filed to receive his military records but they were unable to find a match.
When I was young my father worked long hours as a repair and service tech for a vending business. At some point in the early 80s he opted to strike out on his own launching Quality Coffee Service Inc. Being an owner operator he ended up working even longer hours. For a variety of reasons he and my birth mother would fight and eventually separated when I was still in elementary school. As a result my grandmother Lula (although everyone just caller her “Lu”) stepped up as a babysitter/caretaker.
Despite his busy work schedule, we still found time to bond and would occasionally go on fishing trip to Bennett Spring State Park. Although I spent most of my time climbing on the rocks near the river while he fished it was still a magical time to be away from home with just my dad. I always wanted to go on bigger trips but we never found the time.
By the time I was in high school my dad had remarried, and my stepsister Katie was born taking up a great deal of their time. As there was a 12+ year gap between us I was more or less still operating as an only child. Naturally I still saw him and was expected to help with the company and chores but we rarely spent time bonding. I am not putting it all on him after all I had friends, a steady girlfriend, sports and work.
My folks were pretty controlling and when I struck out on my own with my girlfriend (who eventually became my wife) they disagreed with my decision and severed all contact with me. I didn’t hear from them at all for a couple of years and when we finally did reconnect things were strained. I wanted them to be in their grandkids lives but they know how to hold a grudge. I would hear of holiday parties where my stepsister and cousins would be invited but we wouldn’t. I tried several times to repair the relationship but never truly succeeded.
On Groundhog Day 2009 my father and I had played phone tag a couple of times. I was trying to arrange a time for the boys and Phaedra to come over and see them. That afternoon I got a call from my stepmom telling me to hurry to Belton Research Hospital but not giving any details other than “Dad’s hurt”. Upon rushing into the ER she met me and immediately told me that he had had a heart attack and passed away.
He had come home from work and was in the kitchen when it hit. He collapsed and was found several hours later. Although they said it was massive enough he likely didn’t even feel himself hit the floor I always wondered if someone had been there to call 911 would he still be around? My father was 51 years old. His father and his grandfather had all died within a year of their 50th birthday and all from heart attacks. What a lovely tradition I have to inherit.
I had only recently connected with my sister but had the unfortunate job of calling her to give her the news. Together with my stepmom we began planning the funeral but as she was his spouse she had final say in most of the decisions. He was eventually laid to rest in the same place as his parents, Flora Hills Cemetery, but on the top row of an outdoors mausoleum (against my wishes).
We had a chaotic relationship but weighing the highs and the lows together I can confidently say he did the best he could considering his upbringing. I wish he was still around as my wife and youngest never got to meet him and my older kids don’t have the best of memories with him. He was judgmental, controlling and deceptive at times but also charismatic, clever and larger than life. Most importantly though he did his best to be a good dad. I hope when the day comes that my kids reflect back on my life that they can safely say the same about me.