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Daddy

He was never, ever, “Daddy”. He was “Dad” and he was bigger than life, meaner than a crocodile, and funnier than Red Skelton. I came to terms with my image of him decades ago, when I needed to address my idea of a father figure vs. what God wants a father figure to be like. My father was not a God-like father-figure, make no mistake of that. But the man who terrified me was the same man who amused my best friend, and bantered with her on a chalkboard next to the refrigerator.

I was horrified the first time I noticed that she’d written a note on the board – and signed it, no less, with the name “Krazy Kat”. Dad would blow a gasket. That board was only for parental instructions and the once-a-year greeting of “Gung Hay Fat Choy!” scrawled in Dad’s left-handed print. But Lisa had left an off-hand remark and signed it, there, on the forbidden board.

Moreover, Dad answered her with some tongue-in-cheek repartee that had us all giggling. They corresponded for years like this, Lisa and my father, while my siblings and I cowered under his authoritarian rule and dodged his “black” moods. Their notes on the blackboard were some of my earliest memories of his humanity.

Not my earliest, however. I remember that sometimes – and very rarely – he would let my sister and I try to tickle him to death. Somewhere in the tickling, he would “swallow” his cigarette, and we would rear back, afraid we’d kill him or he’s be mad at us. And then, miraculously, he produced the butt of the cigarette from his mouth, still smoldering, and we’d all fall in a heap, giggling.

More often, he was the authoritarian. He was moody and unpredictable. He could say something simple and it felt like it cut like a knife, We all longed for his approval, and we all felt like we fell short of it.

But that was the early Dad, not the Dad of our adulthood. He still had his moods, but he seemed more mellow. Kinder. More patient.

My sister was very needy. A single mother, an addict, an alcoholic, a woman with no marketable skills. Dad taught her how to do her own plumbing. Encouraged her to get minimum wage jobs. Got guardianship of her oldest when it was needed, but didn’t try to interfere with the younger ones. He loved his grands to the moon and back, and don’t you think they knew it? Where was the drawer with cookies in it? Have a fight with Mom (my sister)? Ride your bike over to Gramps’ house and hang out. Dad was proud of Deni.

I was closer to my mother than to Dad, but when she died, roles changed, as they needed to. Dad became my friend, my confidant. He and my brother went on many trips to revisit Dad’s childhood. Our sons stopped to visit Dad when they were in the area, and Dad loved Jared and Levi for that. He had other kids he “adopted”: my sister’s friends, our childhood friends. Their children. He took care of them, shared drinks with them. Tomi (my niece via my foster sister) was his favorite.

Somewhere along the line, I addressed all my issues toward him, and he toward me. We became friends. I talked to him the week before he died, and we made plans.

And then he was gone. Just like that. A candle blown out. The papery feel of the skin on his hands just a memory. His face – which mine echoes – and his eyes – mine resemble – gone. The good, the bad, the ugly. The beautiful.

So – we’re driving down the two-lane from Lages to Ely. All of us on the bench seat of the old pea-soup green GMC. Dad, Mom, Me, Deni. Dad lights a cigarette and passes it to Mom. Dad lights another cigarette and passes it to Mom, who passes it to me (the non-smoker). I pass it to Deni. Dad lights a third cigarette, which he takes a long drag on.

Deni, “Um, Dad, you just lit three cigarettes,” She’s staring at the one in her hand with lust.

Dad: “I thought you were a smoker. That’s for you.”

Mom and I collapsed in laughter. Deni rolled her eyes and smoked her cigarette. “Thanks.”

He died on May 5, 2011. I miss him so. But not in a painful way. I miss him like I miss my mother and sister. They’re gone. Will-o-wisps. Voices that whisper from the grave once in awhile. A faint touch on the shoulder. A nod in the wind.

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