I was eight years old when I met the man I would call “Dad”. Looking back, I can’t remember the meeting as a remarkable turning point in my life, but as I sat on the ragged couch of our tiny living room next to my younger sister and stared at the little man with balding black hair and kind green eyes I somehow knew that my life would never be the same. His name was Dan and eventually we would come to know him simply as “Dad”, but due to a small hearing problem, he would never know the difference until years later.
I can’t imagine how it must have been for him, dating a single woman with two rambunctious daughters who fought worse than Cain and Abel ever could have. He himself had three children, but they were fully-grown before he’d ever met our little family. But for whatever misgivings he must have had about us, he made peace with them and five years later on June 13, 1982 he married my mother in a small, beautiful ceremony with family and friends present at the dinner club that he would own and manage with Mom by his side.
My teen years flew by in a sea of rebellion and temperament, because no matter how much I loved my mother and her husband, I had never gotten over the fact that I had never earned my biological father’s love. This led to many heartwrenching fights with my mother, my sister and even Dan, who was quite possibly my strongest supporter while I was growing up. For it was Dan who argued with my mom for days in order to get her talked in to letting me get my driver’s license at the age of 16; it was Dan who rode around in the passenger seat of my Renault LeCar as I learned to shift the gears of its manual transmission, it was Dan I celebrated my birthdays, holidays and other milestones with. The very definition of what a Dad should be was wrapped up in this tiny man that we knew as Dan.
It was at that point that I realized that no matter how much I yearned and craved for my biological father’s approval, it wasn’t genetics that made a good parent, it was kindness, it was affection and most of all, it was love — all of these I’d always had from the man whom from that point on I would call “Dad”. A few months later, I’d graduated from high school and Mom and Dad were throwing me a reception in the same dinner club where they had married only a few years earlier.
It would be six years before Dan heard me call him “Dad” for the first time, or at least before he realized that I called him “Dad”. I had gone home for the weekend to visit and Dad had volunteered to drive me the short hour’s distance to my house. Upon returning me to my residence I had given him a hug and in his good ear I had said “I love you, Dad.” That night, my mom called me and said that when Dad got home, he’d had tears in his eyes. “Babe,” he’d said, “she called me Dad.”
Shortly after that visit, on Labor Day weekend of 1993 Dad was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of the blood similar to Leukemia. He was immediately transported to the VA hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah and was on a constant strain of medication and dialysis. For the next few months, Mom, my sister, my stepsister, my two stepbrothers and I traveled back and forth from Montana to Utah so that he constantly had family by his side. The diagnosis was grim and we knew that we didn’t have much longer with him. It was a roller coaster of emotions, sometimes up, sometimes down and you never knew what the day would bring. I’d gotten to the habit of sleeping on the couch so that I would be sure to hear the phone ring if something happened.
Eventually he was able to come back to Montana and was cared for at the local hospitals and nursing homes. That Christmas was spent in the employee lounge of Deaconess hospital, which was so generously given to us to use by his many doctors and nurses. By February, he was allowed to come home due to the outpouring of wonderful neighbors and friends who had volunteered to care for him, as his condition had to be continuously monitored. By March, he was back in the hospital, but he would still greet me with a cheery “There’s my girl!” when I’d come to visit him.
When Dad decided he’d had enough dialysis, each member of my family took turns spending the night at the hospital with him. My last night with him was March 24, 1994 – even though he was catatonic he squeezed my hand. The next night, my mom stayed with him and he passed away the morning of March 26 with Mom by his side, just like he wanted.
What I remember most about the funeral were the people. Dad’s service was standing room only ~ he was a kind man and loved by everyone, it seemed. I remember sitting in the family room and seeing the people come to pay their respects. Paying tribute to the man he was. In the limo ride to the graveside service, I remember looking out on the street and seeing the people. There were people saluting the car, there were people waving and they were everywhere. On the sidewalk. On the street. I mean, not only was this man an amazing gift to my life and my family’s life ~ but he’d touched the hearts of so many others.
After the funeral and spending a week with relatives, I returned home and tried to get back to life “as normal”. A month went by, but I still slept on the couch because that’s the habit I had gotten used to while Dad was in the hospital and in a funny way I felt a tiny connection to him that way. But every night I sobbed, agonizing over the loss of my dad and the things he’d never be able to share in my life.
One night I was laying, my face towards the back of the couch crying so hard I could barely breath. I felt Dad sit on the edge of the couch and start rubbing my back. “It’s going to be ok,” he said. “You’re going to be all right. I’m ok. I’m ok.” I wouldn’t turn around for fear that he would go – I laid with my face buried in the couch while he rubbed my back. Then he was gone.
Call it imagination – call it a daughter’s wish to have one last conversation with her dad. But after that night, I didn’t feel the need to cry. I felt ok, and more importantly I felt like my Dad was ok. And I didn’t feel the need to sleep on the couch again.
~~Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you and miss you every day.