There is a giant hole in the world shaped like my father. I can walk around it, but I can never fill it. He died this morning in his sleep, in his own bed, and without pain. Dying piles indignities on us, but he held on to more dignity than most.
At age eighty-six he liked to say, “Old age ain’t for sissies.” He grew up hunting and wandering around in the woods, and he spent most of his career outside. His favorite parts of himself didn’t thrive indoors. Past injuries and illnesses kept him inside during too much of his final twenty-nine years. During twenty-three of those years he spent most days sitting next to my mother in matching recliners, talking about a whole lot of enjoyable nothing. The next six years he sat next to her empty chair.
He built things on all scales. He managed projects that built schools, manufacturing plants, and a nice chunk of DFW Airport. One year for my mother’s birthday he built her an organ.
I have never talked to a person who knew him and didn’t think highly of him. That includes people he fired.
A few slices of my father’s life sketch him with unavoidable imperfection:
One day when he was six years old he was haranguing his mother about someplace he wanted to go with his dog, while she stood in the kitchen holding his little sister. She kept saying no. He finally said, “If you weren’t holding that baby, I’d throw this dog at you.”
At age nineteen he joined the Marine Corps, and they sent him to the war in Korea. Not long afterwards his platoon was attacked by massed waves of Chinese soldiers. At the end he was the last man standing on either side, and he blocked that memory for the next fifty years. Seven months later, his company was split up so that half could be sent home to help form a new company. He volunteered to stay, but his commander refused, saying, “No, you’ve seen enough of this shit already. You’re coming home with me.” Within a month the men who stayed were nearly wiped out.
My father never smoked, even though cigarettes came in his rations in Korea. After the war, he and my uncle would go to rough places in the river bottom to play quarter-limit poker and lose a bunch of money. Everybody smoked. Once in a while he would reach over to the ashtray and mash out all the cigarettes with his finger. Nobody objected, they all just lit up a new one.
My father only spanked me once, a single swat with a switch I cut. It didn’t hurt, but I was devastated. I don’t remember him ever yelling at me. I would have crawled over broken glass for him.
When I was about eight I was helping him with a project in our shop at home. I got distracted and let something drop. He frowned and said, “He who hesitates is lost.” Then he smiled and said, “All things come to he who waits.” Then he said, “Both of those sayings were probably made up by the same man.”
I don’t remember my father giving me much instruction on how to live life. He did what he thought was the right thing and admitted it when he did the wrong thing. He told me the Bible must have been written by a con man. The idea that you can hurt people your whole life and then profess faith on your deathbed to be forgiven was ridiculous to him.
In these past years my father has often told me he’s ready for death when it comes. He said he’d had a good life, done about everything he wanted to do, and had no regrets. He sometimes said you may as well laugh, because it does no good to cry. I saw no sign that he changed his mind at the end. Even when he became too weak to talk, he still smiled when we talked to him.