He couldn’t be there when I was born. He was a B-17 ball turret gunner in World War II; shot down over Rouen, France and hidden by the French underground for 70 days. He eventually was rescued and returned home for a brief stay when I was eight months old. He returned to duty for another year. I was 3 when he was finally discharged and settled in our first home. The bond was not there, but I was happy to have a daddy.
As the years went by, he kept a distant and strict relationship with me. There was no special connection — be it our late start together, the society of the '50s, or the busyness of his career and growing family. I never knew any different.
Ten years into my own marriage and children, Mom had a heart attack. After a long ride across the state, I walked into the hospital, and he grabbed me in a bear hug and held on forever, breaking down in tears while telling me she’d be O.K. This was our moment. This is when our connection burst forth. We never mentioned it, but as life went on, he became more and more demonstrative with me, more interested and talkative. We were growing closer than we’d ever been.
Most women see their mothers reflected in themselves. But for me, it’s always been my dad. I am my Father’s daughter. I look like him. I’m the oldest of four, and my sister and brothers all resemble our mom. I also love being outside. Gardening and long walks were two of his passions, and they are mine too. I’m forever optimistic — but cautious. I am frequently clueless at a joke’s punch line, but I can fall into fits of giggles at not-always-funny things. Just like my dad. So many other traits I recall in my father, I can now see in myself.
The best of times were the ones spent laughing— totally losing it with gasps and giggles and glares from all around us. As close as my mom and I were, daddy and I shared something special. I was the first to get our dad to open up about his World War II experiences. I worked alongside him in his yard each spring and was rewarded with seedlings and plants for my own garden.
After more than 20 winters spent on Myrtle Beach and along the Florida coast, daddy discovered beach walking. For most of those winters, I made it a tradition to visit them for long weekends around Valentine’s Day. He had me walking four to six miles in each direction. You know, sand is not easy to walk in. And he was in better shape than me. The rest of the seasons, he’d do the same thing in his suburban Detroit neighborhood. He paid no attention to rain, wind, the cold or the humidity. He had to have his morning walk! As I wind up my sixth decade, I do 5 and 10K’s and walk on sand at our rental beach house in California.
He never slowed down because of aging. (Something my husband tries to tell me to do if I whine about aches and pains.) Sure he had arthritis, surgeries and procedures that come with growing old, but he bounced back quickly every time. He made his fourth trip to Australia when he was 75. He wrote my mom a birthday poem for every one of their 60 years together. I too love to travel, and although I don’t do poetry, I’m a note writer. I leave them every time I head off on a trip. I write love notes to the grandkids and thank you notes to the ladies at Cracker Barrel or the laundry lady or my sister!
He was a workhorse well into his 80’s. He mowed his own lawn, cut down trees and cleaned the gutters on an early spring weekend. And then he came inside to do the vacuuming. No big deal for Daddy. This is how he lived. Mom called 911 when he couldn’t catch his breath. We all went home, sure it was a heart attack based on family history. I flew in late and volunteered to sit with him during the night so the others could rest. “It’s my lungs,” he said. “Doc says my heart’s in good shape. I’ve been thrown a curve ball!” I held his hand, and we laughed and reminisced, and he told me his decision not to go on a ventilator. I was still holding his hand when the beeping interrupted my dozing. And he was gone. Just like that. Not only am I grateful that we found our close bond; but that it was just me and that I could be there when he died.