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Memories of My Father

Some people you meet in the course of life are such immutable and vibrant personalities that it seems they will live forever. People felt this way when John Wayne died, when George Burns died, when Frank Sinatra died. They all were such lasting presences that, to this day, people still say, “I can’t believe he’s dead.” It simply does not compute to us that someone so vigorous and lively could ever stop, even just for a minute, much less forever.

My father was such a man. To me, he seemed like a big, boisterous giant who imposed his personality and idiosyncrasies on everyone. And he certainly wasn’t mortal. And he certainly wouldn’t die.

But, this past Tuesday, October 2, 2001, my dad did die. My mother found him in his usual position, sitting in his recliner, television on, apparently asleep. Well, Dad was asleep. He was asleep forever. I have to say that even now, a full week later, it still is completely a dream. There is absolutely NO WAY that this is real. My dad, I am convinced, is somewhere laughing at us all because he got us good this time. He is slapping his knee and rejoicing in how brilliant he is. He fooled us all, and soon, he’ll come out and make us all laugh at how silly we were. “Oh, God, that’s a good one, Dad! You really had us going there! As if you could ever die…” I guess you could say that out of the seven stages of grief, I am stuck firmly in denial.

Two parts of me are attempting to accept this reality. My adult side is speaking to me saying, “Dad lived a long life. We all loved him. He passed in his sleep. He was very peaceful. He’s in a better place now.” The other side is the remnant of the little girl, who Dad called Boomer, and she is saying, “My daddy is dead. What am I going to do? Why did this happen to MY daddy? Why did this happen to me? Who will protect me now?” The only strategy that has worked to comfort me this past week is reminiscence. Memories of my father are now all I have left, and so I have been indulging in them.

My best memories of my father are not sweet, gooey “happy family” memories. The best ones are when Dad made us laugh. For example, when I was about eight or nine years old, Dad decided that he would try his hand at magic.

He went to a magic shop and bought himself a couple of shimmering green and orange silk handkerchiefs, a couple of red, foam rubber balls and a plastic, flesh-colored thumb that fit over his thumb. Dad read the instructions and learned how to perform his trick very well. So, he gathered all us snaggletoothed, scrape-kneed, gangly children around him – my older sister, my younger brother, and me. He sat on the edge of his bed and said, “Look! See the handkerchief! I will now make it disappear!” He would have us kids stick the handkerchief down into his cupped hand. He would sprinkle some “magic dust” over his hand and say something like “ala-kazam” or “abracadabra” – but it was Dad, so he probably said, “Az-kalabra!” or something – and then open his palm. “Voila!” he would scream. The handkerchief was gone. We kids were amazed, and applauded. As we got older, he still performed the same trick, despite the fact that we eventually learned how he did it. We would say, “Dad, c’mon…You put it in the fake thumb.” Dad would stand there, the consummate salesman, and shout, “What fake thumb?”

Dad had no new jokes. He had no new stories. He revamped them from time to time. But basically, we knew them all by heart and would roll our eyes when he told them.

“Does your face hurt? (The person would reply, “no.”) Well, it’s killin’ me!”

“If you ever grow up to fit your mouth, you’ll be ten feet tall.”

“You know, you’ve got a Roman nose. It’s roamin’ all over your face!”

“You were built upside down. Your nose runs and your feet smell.”

We always wished Dad would get new jokes. Or tell new stories. Now, I think all the old ones are just fine. I would listen to a hundred chance run-ins with John Wayne, or a thousand stories starting with “I was the keynote speaker…” or “There was a radio station in Wilmington, North Carolina…”, or a million “A guy walks into a bar…” jokes – if only I could have my father back.

I know that this column does him NO justice – and my attempts to put my feelings into words right now are sophomoric and trite, but for once in my life, I am left speechless. Dad is gone and an entire family of conversational vigilantes is silent. Somehow, I know, I will get the words back. And when I do – I will speak not only for myself, but also for my departed father and I will never forget, or LET ANY OF YOU forget, him. So get ready. I’ve got a few jokes to tell.