The phone call came while I was at the mall. My girls were on Spring Break and I was enjoying a leisurely day in their little girl company. I didn’t notice my phone was on silent mode until I glanced at it and saw I’d missed 18 calls.
It should have been my first clue.
My hubs was one of the many numbers I saw, so I called him while in the dressing room. It was to be my last few seconds of innocent oblivion.
His words froze my heart. He thought he was talking to my sister. He answered the phone in a strange, twisted sort of calm saying, “Has he regained consciousness?”
When he realized it was me, he had the heinous duty of telling me that my father was on his way to the hospital in an ambulance. That my 66-year-old vibrant father; a man who prescribed to a healthy, rigid diet; a runner in excellent shape; a man who'd never smoked a day in his life; a man who spent every moment of his life on this earth treasuring the time he had with his family, had been found on the roof of my parents’ home, unconscious by my mother, three days short of their 45th wedding anniversary.
He never woke up.
I will not go back to the rest of the details of that day. I will tell you though, that I learned a few things on that day. I learned when you receive news of that sort of devastation, your knees really do buckle refusing to support your weight. Your body collapses as if it too, must surrender to forces mightier than your own. I learned the absolute depth of sorrow, a grief so acrid and decimating, I didn’t know if I would ever be able to find my way back. And, I learned how fierce and abiding my love was for my Dad, my darling wonderful Dad.
But the one thing I did not learn, that I still find unfathomable, is how the world has gone on with heartbreak of this kind of unendurable loss, without people dissolving into bits of nothing, swallowed whole by their grief. To this day, I have never known such untenable loss.
Enough now of the sadness.
My dad would have never have had that. He lived life, each day as if it was a birthday present waiting for him to unwrap. He found infinite joy in the everyday of things, most importantly in his wife and family. He was a great listener, a wonderful conversationalist, a magnificent father and grandfather, a true friend.
He thought of himself as an ordinary man. He was humble in that way. But what he didn’t seem to realize was how extraordinary he was to everyone who knew him.
He lived an exemplary life, raising a brood of seven, wild Irish-Catholic kids, a tough task in itself. He loved us with a passion. And as we grew older, we realized how lucky we were to have a father of his caliber. And we passed that love on to the next generation. His grandchildren adored him.
The pictures here speak volumes of who he was. In fact, they are so much him that on the day he left us I had to turn them face down, unable to face the life that was captured in those photos, unable to cope with the grief. It took me over a year to be able to look at them again with a smile.
In the first, he is at my Tori’s pre-school. The preschoolers each got a special day devoted to them. On their day, they were allowed to bring in their favorite thing in the “whole, wide world.” The children brought in stuffed animals, robots, dolls, their dog, the things that make up a 4-year-old’s adoration.
My girl brought her grandfather.
I remember reading her the note of instructions when it came home from school. When I got to the part about the show and tell favorite item in the whole, wide world, without a moment of hesitation my 4 year old piped up, “I want my Grandpa.”
It's how we all felt.
He was a singer of songs. From the time I can remember, he sang to us all the songs in his extensive collection. In his clear, beautiful voice he would croon for us, “Rockin, Rollin, Ridin,” “Skinny Marink a Dink a Dink”, “A Bushel and A Peck,” and of course, the classic,“She’s got Freckles on her Butt.” My childhood was filled with the sound of my father’s voice. He did the same for my girls.
My Tori girl wanted her favorite thing in the whole, wide world to come in and sing for the class.
Julia and her grandpa had a special relationship. He retired temporarily. But he was a man who needed to be constantly active and he found retirement just didn’t sit well with him. His temporary retirement happened conveniently right around the time Julia was born. Since Dad was home, he was forced into the title of babysitter. Their bond was immediate and irrefutable. It became a well-known joke that Julia was Grandpa’s favorite.
I want to share two little memories of my dad to try and erase the sadness that will forever haunt this day for me.
The first one: My Hubs and I were going out for the evening. We only had Olivia then and being overprotective first-time parents, we hadn’t left her with anyone but her grandparents. We told them not to wait up. We would let ourselves in, grab our Olivia baby and slip out so as not to disturb their sleep. We came with baby monitors, the Pack and Play and all the other hundreds of essentials required for babysitting a first-born.
We got back late and tiptoed into the spare bedroom where we had set up the Pack n Play. There was our baby, slumbering away and right next to her on a little twin bed, lay my father, softly snoring away.
The next day he told us he didn’t trust that new fangled baby monitor and he’d been worried he wouldn’t be able to hear her if she cried. So he kept watch alongside her playpen, the guardian of the night. And what a guardian he was! We gathered up Olivia and she began to wail, none too happy about being roused from a sound sleep. My Hubs packed up the playpen, not a quiet feat in itself, accidentally dropping it with a crash on the way out of the room, causing the baby to wail even harder.
The watchmen of his precious grandchild kept on snoring throughout the whole ordeal.
Then there was the time, the husband and I had been out to dinner with friends. It was late, well past the witching hour. Well, well past the time my parents would still be awake. My Hubs said, “Hey, let’s go wake your parents up. Come on, you know your dad will love it.”
My Husband, another brokenhearted casualty of my dad’s passing.
They were the best of buds, a tribute to both of these stellar men of mine. One who was impulsive, always ready for the next great adventure. The other, steady and calm, a steadfast anchor in my life.
An unlikely pair.
But oh, how they adored each other. Comprades, when it came to knocking back good red wine, completing home improvement projects together, both respectful of each other’s craftsman talents, and laughing the day away.
Against my protests, we stopped and knocked on my parents’ door. My Dad opened up the door, still bleary from sleep, with a concerned look on his face.
Hubs said, “Hey, we thought we’d stop by and see what’s up.”
My dad’s concern melted into his easy laughter, his grin so infectious. It didn’t matter the hour. It didn’t matter that he'd been sound asleep, probably for hours. In fact, it made the story better. We were there. It was all. He opened the door with a wide swath of welcome and ushered us in.
Wine was poured, his beloved music was turned on and we laughed and talked until the sun was almost up. He had on his massive Best of the Eagles CD collection and with each new song, we’d race to see who could guess the lead singer. Every song, no matter what, he’d blurt out, “Glenn Frey.” And we laughed so hard, for the joy of it, for the fact that we were together in the middle of the night playing the Eagles and drinking wine, impulsive and fun, making a memory.
I believe that certain people know deep inside they are destined to leave this earth far too soon. You can see it in the way they embrace life. And after they go, people marvel, “Now, that was a well-lived life.”
I think my Dad knew. And in his own way, he tried to prepare us. He was always saying to me, “When
I’m gone . . . ”
But I didn’t want to hear it. No one did.
He tried to show us that he wasn’t destined here for long by the giving of his heart, by the way he listened, really listened with his whole being, by the way he pushed aside his duties so he could play with his treasured grandchildren, by the smile and kiss he always had for you, even if you’d only seen him five minutes before. He treasured all the riches of his time on earth and he showed us the way to a contented and meaningful life.
I wrote and delivered my father’s eulogy. At the end of it, I read a guide to Jack Cleveland’s lessons of life. I’d like to share them today, to remember, a great man walked this earth. I was blessed enough to be his daughter.
JACK’S LESSONS (Use them well.)
And lastly tonight, do one of his favorite things. Gather your loved ones, your kids, your parents, your spouse, your partner, whomever matters to you, and take them outside to gaze at the infinite stars spread out above you. Forget about the TV or the dishes or your busy life and just fill yourself up with the wondrous perfection of the night sky, remembering that our lives are filled with simple goodnesses that mean everything. It’s all
around you. You just have to take the time to treasure it. And if you remember when you're looking at that night sky, say hello to my dad and his giant heart. He’ll be watching from the heavens with a smile.
I love you Dad, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.
Today’s Definite Download: The magnificent Louis Armstrong’s, “What a Wonderful World.” My dad’s anthem for life. Thank you Dad. For everything.