By Susan Harper
Yesterday my father died. Tomorrow I’ll fly to L.A. for my son’s wedding. The day after that, I’ll fly back here for my dad’s funeral.
You might think that this could give a person serious emotional whiplash, but I’m not sure it will. It seems to me that endings and beginnings — birth, death, the start of a life together — are similar in their sacredness. It’s as if the veil that separates us from the eternal is lifted briefly in these moments, and, perhaps from far away, we feel or sense the breath of the divine.
Tomorrow I’ll turn away from an ending and toward a beginning. And when I come home? I think I may find that I turn toward thanksgiving.
Dad left us in the early evening, between one breath and the next, and so quietly we could almost have missed it. My mother and I were sitting by his bed, as we had been all day, and we were talking quietly about the wedding plans, and then we weren’t, because we knew we were suddenly in the presence of something else. In the midst of the quotidian, the veil had lifted, and when it dropped, everything had changed.
Dad was a great appreciator of life, and therefore a great teller of tales about it. Sitting around the dinner table on those occasions when we all managed to get together, we used to ask him for stories as if he were a human jukebox. “Tell us the story about ham and eggs and gravy legs,” we would beg. “Tell us about Punk’s hack. Tell us about the time the cockpit floor filled up with gasoline and nobody knew if you could land without exploding. Or tell us the story about when all the engines went out — that’s a good one!” They were all good; that was the thing. They had irony, that twist in the middle that gives tales their energy.
The twist to the story about the time all the engines went out, over the mid-Atlantic on a dark and stormy night, sending the plane plunging sickeningly toward the cold sea below, was that the crew, in its alarm, completely forgot that it had a passenger in what was usually just a supply plane. After the pilot realized what had put the engines out, and restarted them, narrowly avoiding a stall and a consequent disaster — after that, and after the crew sat and talked for a while about the incident, Dad suddenly remembered the major general in the back of the plane and went to see about him. He never could tell this part without a big grin as he recalled the man’s face, and his stoic reserve.
And that’s what he showed us. He could hardly talk, at the end, this great storyteller, and he bore it patiently. But he managed to say, after one tough episode, “I’ve had a hell of a day!” — an understatement of such magnitude that everyone in the room burst out laughing.
We were lucky to have him, and as we lose him and gain another family member and Thanksgiving looms and the wheel of life keeps turning, I am grateful to have had him as my dad.
Susan Harper is the former director of the Commerce Public Library. She lives in Commerce.
A beautiful column Susan. Thanks for writing. It reminded me of Ma Joad at the end of the movie "The Grapes Of Wrath". Her qoute went like this "A woman can change better than a man. A man lives sorta-well in jerks. Baby's born or somebody dies, and that's a jerk. He gets a farm and loses it, and that's a jerk. With a woman, it's all in one flow, like a stream-little eddies and waterfalls but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it that way."
I am so sorry for your loss and hope that the trip and the wedding went off without a "hitch" (no pun intended!!)
What a wonderful story; just when I needed a good "jerk". I lost my job on 11/20/09, and am scared, apprehensive and prayerful that something will be out there for me.
It's at times like this that I really miss my dad, who had a way with stories and "sayings" that could brighten up my day and always "made sense". And as my dad would say at a time like this, "girl, just hike up your britches, keep praying and the Good Lord will open a better door for you"...
Gosh do I miss him !!!