“Welcome to Orlando!” the woman at the rental car counter chirped. She tipped a finger at the mouse ears on her head. “Are you here to see Mickey?”
I could feel my brother losing it beside me. I put a hand on his arm, but he spoke before I could stop him.
“Actually, we’re here to pick up our father’s ashes,” he said through gritted teeth. “Could you just get the car, please?”
At least he didn’t tell her where she could shove those mouse ears.
There is something particularly cruel about a death happening in a place whose tag line is “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Today marks four years since my father’s sudden passing. He was at Disney World with my mother and the youngest two of my six siblings. He ran ten miles under the full moon — a Supermoon that night, which I am sure he enjoyed — then he went to bed, woke with a cramp in his leg, and was killed by a pulmonary embolism.
Four years. It is unfathomable in so many ways. Some days, it seems like just yesterday. I still have moments where I pick up the phone to call him. Sometimes, though, it seems his death was an eternity ago. I meet new people and it’s one of the rote details of my life: I’m the oldest of seven children, my son is eighteen, my mother is alive, my father is not.
The other morning, as I prepared to give this post a last proofing, I saw a Facebook message from a friend whose mother had just passed away.
Please tell me it gets better, she said, because right now I feel like throwing up most of the time.
I remember that feeling. And it does get better, though it doesn’t seem to be a progressive sort of thing. One step up, one back. Sometimes I can talk about my father easily, happily. I can be grateful for all the years he enriched my life. I can joke about his quirks. Other times the loss still feels fresh. I get blindsided by tears and that lump in my throat.
The thing I try to remember is that I had my father for nearly 37 years. He was my role model, mentor, and ultimately my friend. We worked together, ran together, consumed unholy quantities of beer and pizza together.
Because nothing in my life is normal, perhaps least of all my family, my youngest two siblings are twins who were only seven years old when our father passed. (Go ahead. Let that sink in. My parents had seven kids over 30 years. Yup.) Seven years old. Eleven now. Where I have memories, they just have loss.
Daily I work at being grateful for all the ways my father made my life special. I try to share with my younger siblings in a way that won’t feel like salt in a wound, offering funny stories or singing along to songs he liked, telling them when they share his strengths or mannerisms.
I’ll share with you, too.
Here are some of the things that made my father unique:
- My father loved babies. The whole deal. When my mother was pregnant, his hands were always on her belly. When she delivered, he was there (and would excitedly recount every graphic detail to anyone foolish enough to ask how it went). He loved holding babies, changing them, bathing them, bouncing them around and singing to them. He spoke to babies in a tone that completely engaged them. If you wanted a baby to stop crying, my dad was the man for the job. (In hindsight, I should have just left The Boy with my dad — Papa Al — for those first six miserable, colicky months.)
- When it came to singing his kids to sleep, my father had the most unusual repertoire. He favored songs about ill-fated lovers and tragic teen deaths: “Teen Angel,” “Tell Laura I Love Her,” and “Running Bear” were staples. My personal favorites were “Everglades” by The Kingston Trio (go ahead and Google the lyrics; it’s especially screwy when you consider we were living on the outskirts of the Everglades at the time) and Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” No matter how restless I was when I first climbed into bed, you could bet I’d be sleeping soundly by the time “the church bell chimed 29 times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Sweet dreams.
- My father was a culinary whiz — if you like Spam and egg sandwiches, potato-chip-and-cheese on Wonder bread with Miracle Whip, or chowder with Cheez-Its.
- My father was fiercely protective of his kids, and determined that his daughters should have every opportunity afforded his sons. When one of my sisters was threatened and sexually harassed at school, and then school officials mishandled things in a way that reeked of misogyny, my father hired an attorney to advocate on her behalf and bring about some changes in the school administration. Nobody put his Baby in a corner.
- My father was the best youth sports coach ever. Not exaggerating. Everyone got playing time on his teams — not because he subscribed to the “everyone is equal” nonsense that seems to be taking over all youth activities today, but because he brought out the best in each player and made everyone truly work as a team. He found ways to connect with every child he coached. He never belittled, always encouraged.
- My father thought it was perfectly normal to waterski — slalom — in 200 feet of water, dodging bluefish, or to swim with seals in the frigid water off Monomoy Island — a favorite feeding place for Great White Sharks.
- My father played as hard as he worked — and he passed that trait along to his kids. I’d need more fingers than I’ve got to count the number of times he and I stood together at the starting line of a road race saying, “Yeah, we probably shouldn’t have had so much [beer…pizza…fill in the blank….] last night.” But once we’d crossed the finish line? Beeline for the pizza, maybe a beer on the way home.
- My father had a twisted sense of humor. Think Pulp Fiction. That was my dad, through and through.
- My father was the Grammar Police. I totally inherited that gene, yet I always went to him for editorial help. Writing his obituary was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I actually sent the draft to his email. He didn’t respond. I suppose he had better things to do at that point.
- My father was an actual police officer prior to going to law school.
- My father always carried a nail file in the breast pocket of his suit jacket. In a world where people wear their pajamas in public, he still polished his Florsheim shoes and always had a perfect executive manicure.
- My father loved watching YouTube videos of live music. In his office, where he often passed fourteen hour days, one of his two computer screens was almost always displaying music videos: Queen, David Bowie, Talking Heads, The Smiths. Yep. He was an attorney, the VP and branch manager of a national title insurance company, and there he’d be, bopping around the office cheerfully singing, “Psycho Killer.” When employees came to him with questions, it wasn’t unusual to be encouraged to join him in singing a few bars of “Girlfriend in a Coma” before discussing the issue.
The trip my brother and I made to Orlando four years ago to bring our father’s ashes home was a brutal comedy of errors. From the relentlessly cheerful people everywhere we went to the backwater funeral home across the street from a taxidermist, it all would have been darkly funny if it had been happening to anyone but us.
And still, there was a moment when I looked at my brother and started laughing. Crazy, maniacal laughter.
“You know who would find this really, really funny?” I said.
He laughed through his tears.
“Yeah,” he said. “Dad.”
Showoffs! (They actually did this right up until the summer before my father passed. And my mother is still waterskiing.)
Maybe his hair was too long for police work?
The next step.
My brother tortured me for years, but here it is…photographic evidence that I may have started it.
And another one.
I guess someone neglected to take pictures of babies for a few years…
Wild Dog Tri. We swam, biked and ran for brunch.
Kicking my butt in the NK 5K. If you look closely, just over his right shoulder there’s a redhead totally giving up.
On the water. As usual.