My dad liked to brag about the fact that he quit “cold turkey” and hadn’t had a cigarette in 40 years. But he did everything else he could to abuse his body. Bacon, eggs and fried potatoes every morning of his adult life. And way too much hard drinking. After successful heart surgery in January, dad’s body began to shut down. He spent the next six weeks in the hospital where he died.
When we knew he was close to dying, all of the siblings gathered from Mississippi, Texas, and California. We stood around dad’s bed, holding his hands and having one of those sad unexpected family reunions. We all cried by turns, but mostly we laughed as the pictures tumbled through our collective memories.
“Remember the time dad did such and such…?” “Remember the time…?” “Remember…” Dad would have loved it. He would have added plenty of his own stories, but he was in a coma. We only hoped he could hear us and was enjoying the party.
He died early the next morning.
I’m the eldest of seven kids, and for most of my childhood we lived out in the country near Cincinnati, Ohio. My parents bought an old farm house on five acres of woods. It was our “glass castle”. With input from all of us, dad drew up detailed blueprints to convert the dilapidated place into our dream house. It had all kinds of clever little architectural whims and fancies. It had innovative features far ahead of their time. I remember feeling so proud when dad would show visitors the latest project, and they would always shake their head in amazed appreciation.
We lived in the house as dad tore down walls and rebuilt the place room by room. Some parts of it were finished with incredible detail…an aquarium built into the wall… Some parts remained ramshackle. “Remember that time the roof started leaking above the bed?”
Black plastic sheeting was the outer wall of the living room for months… “Remember the time the neighbor’s pig came through the black plastic into our living room?”
We lived in a state of construction for years, but we knew that house was going to be amazing when it was finished! But it never was finished. So many things were never finished. Dad always struggled with drinking.
He was a brilliant man, a millwright who could engineer plans for any kind of machine to do anything. He was a whiz at mathematics, and artist with oil paint – his mural of a Chinese garden scene covered one dining room wall, while other walls of the room were raw sheetrock.
Years later, all of this was reflected in dad’s workshop. Orderly rows of baby food jars filled with nuts, bolts and screws. Three-pound coffee cans lined the shelves, neatly painted and labeled with dad’s clicking tape label maker. And unfinished projects were everywhere.
Clever, artistic, and a little quirky.
Later that afternoon, my brothers came home frustrated after their appointment with the funeral director. Dad had specified that he wanted to be cremated, but they didn’t like any of the urns the mortuary offered. “They were all too fancy. Dad wouldn’t have liked any of them! They just weren’t him.”
I think he was joking but we all jumped on the idea. Dad would have loved it.
In something like a pilgrimage, my brother Brian went out and bought a new can of Folger’s coffee. I can still see him wiping out the coffee residue with almost sacramental reverence.
Dad was honored at his memorial service with all the honor due a Korean war veteran. We had a family flag ceremony in his front yard. My brother played taps on dad’s harmonica as my nephews brought the flag to half-mast. And Art’s coffee can was placed on the shelf in his workshop.
Nine years have passed. The workshop looks pretty much the same as it did when dad died, but it’s not a shrine. We always go out and “visit dad” when we visit my mom. The boys go out there and tinker around, making and fixing things with dad’s tools. Sometimes I go out and look at his books and papers and maps. For all of us, the years have burnished the edges of hard, uncomfortable memories, and only sweetness remains.