The Words Dad Left Me

They weren’t all sweet, but they were colorful

Jan M Flynn
Crow’s Feet
7 min readJun 13, 2024

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Photo by Joris Voeten on Unsplash

The last story I heard Dad tell around a campfire was two weeks after he died

I was 22, sound asleep on a red-eye flight from my parents’ home in the San Francisco Bay Area, heading back to grad school in Chicago. Dad’s death had been unexpected, a sudden heart attack in the middle of the night. It was only through a providential accident that I’d arrived home in the wee hours that same night, startled to learn he’d just been taken to the hospital.

I’d gone to visit him in the intensive care unit the next day. He’d been in high spirits, pranking the nurses by squeezing his oxygen line until he set off the alarm, cackling with glee when they came rushing in response.

“Well, look who’s here,” he’d said, his grin widening as I entered his room. “Come here and give your old man a hug.”

All my life my father had loomed fearsomely large. Now he looked small, the skin on his forearms as wrinkled and thin as his hospital gown, beeping machines and monitors hovering over his bed. I leaned down to hug him, noticing a slight tremble in his hands. Hands that used to be able to grip our bathroom scale until the pointer on its dial shot to the top, 250 lbs.

I told him to behave himself or the nurses would get back at him. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes,” he said, smiling. “No wonder the boys like you.”

We didn’t have long — ICU visits were strictly limited in time. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said and gave him a peck on the cheek. “Be good.”

I left the room, feeling a mixture of relief and bewilderment. My tough, ornery, larger-than-life father, suddenly vulnerable. Our brief visit, full of affection and lightness — and devoid of criticism, impatience, or bullying.

I couldn’t remember another time with him that was like it. Looking into those brown eyes, hooded by their crinkly lids, I’d seen only warmth; no trace of the rage that always simmered beneath the surface. It had been almost hard to recognize him like that.

Maybe a brush with mortality had knocked a few of the burrs off him. But he seemed to be recovering; the reports from his medical team were optimistic. By that evening, my mother, my sisters and I — all gathered now at Mom and Dad’s house — felt so confident of his recovery that I headed out to join my college theater buddies at a local watering hole.

That’s where I got the news later that night. He’d died in his sleep.

He wasn’t an easy father

We’d had a difficult relationship — at least, it had been for me. Since I’d left home, Dad hadn’t seemed to register that our shared history held anything but harmony. He’d written letters to me after I’d headed to Chicago; chatty, cheery notes that were even a touch sentimental.

They were tough to reconcile with the father I remembered. The one whose moods my sisters, mother, and I all carefully monitored. The tension level in our home ratcheted up in a hockey-stick curve when he walked through the door. His caustic verbal digs could escalate into sudden rages the moment he felt challenged.

I was the youngest of his three daughters, the last child at home when my sisters went off to college. In the years before I too fled the thorny nest, I kept all the distance I could from Dad.

Anger was a forbidden emotion for the women in my family, a kind of venal sin. Powerless to do much else while under Dad’s roof, I indulged in a secret thrill when he’d leave the room after one of his outbursts. I hate you, I would mouth at his back.

That wasn’t the truth

At least, it wasn’t the whole truth. I don’t know how to honestly label my feelings about my father in those years. Maybe what comes closest is curiosity.

Whatever else Dad was, he wasn’t dull, serious, or remote like some of my friends’ fathers. Picture an amalgam of John Wayne, Archie Bunker, and Willie Loman from Death of a Salesman and you have a fairly accurate portrait of my father. The kind of man others described as “a character” — outsized, unorthodox, wildly inventive, yet somehow ill-suited to the expectations of mid-20th Century manhood.

I used to think he’d have been happier had he been born 100 years earlier, 1813 instead of 1913. He’d have been more at home on the frontier than in a status-conscious San Francisco suburb.

He escaped its confines when he could by heading into what he called “the wild country” to go fishing and hunting. As a little girl, I’d sneak out of bed some mornings in the fall to watch as he and his buddies loaded their vehicles with sleeping bags, rifles, groceries, and bottles of bourbon. Their voices and laughter floated on the predawn air like fogbound ships in a sea of tobacco smoke.

If Dad spotted me, which he usually did, he’d pretend to glower at me under his floppy felt hat. “I’m gonna go get Bambi,” he’d say, laughing at my wide-eyed expression. Then he and his friends would drive off, bound for their adventures in the Sierras.

Two or three days later, he’d return, tired out but jubilant, with a gutted mule deer strapped to the hood of his Chrysler. “Told ya,” he’d crow. “One shot, boom, right in the heart. Bambi never knew what hit him.”

I didn’t doubt it. I still don’t. Dad’s aim was as accurate as it was explosive. That applied to his words as well as bullets. Sometimes he relied on time-tested parenting expressions that have rightfully fallen out of favor.

“When we want your help, we’ll ask for it,” he’d snarl if I spoke up when he thought I shouldn’t, which was most of the time. Or, if I started to whimper, “I’ll give you something cry about!”

Other quips of his were less caustic but more vivid

To call Dad expressive was a pallid understatement. When offered a steak that was too rare even for his liking, he’d respond, “I’ve seen cows hurt worse than that get better.” Never averse to hyperbole, he’d communicate his distaste for certain flavors in clear terms: “One frond of dill is noxious enough to ruin a freight-car load of decent food.”

Small animals that darted past our car on road trips were dubbed “furtive unknowns.” Whatever he found visually objectionable, be it a painting or a person, was “uglier than a mud fence in a rainstorm.” My mother would purse her lips in embarrassment when he would offer a dinner guest one of his signature Bacardi cocktails, saying, “Here, flop a lip around this.”

As color TV established its presence in our living room in the 60s, he fumed aloud at the ads. Offended at a furniture polish’s claims, he’d harrumph. “Makes about as much sense as rubbing sawdust on your coffee table to feed the wood.” Of a Pepto-Bismol spot, he grumbled, “They won’t be happy until they can reach right through the screen and pour a bucket of puke on your living room rug.”

Not lyrical, perhaps, but certainly vivid. While it was my mother who encouraged my love of reading, it was Dad who proved that words had color and energy as well as meaning.

That energy found its way into the many yarns he spun about his hunting exploits and his brief military career. Fittingly for him, he’d lied about his age and enlisted at 17 in what was then still a service branch, the U.S. Calvary. He had plenty of epithets for the horse who’d thrown him hard enough to land him a 4F qualification and a bad back that would plague him for the rest of his life.

With his words he could summon the hushed, chill damp of a duck blind, or the hot, iron-smelling innards of a deer as he field-dressed it. He could conjure the splendor of a mountain sunset, and he could do it in a way I’d never forget.

Somewhere above Chicago on that flight, I jolted awake

To this day, I will swear on anything you like that it hadn’t been merely a dream that had me gasping.

There was my father, unmistakable even though he looked younger than I’d ever seen him in life. He sat on a stump, gazing into the flames of a campfire, the dancing light playing on his face as he recounted a story to the shadowy figures surrounding him.

It was as though I was granted the perspective of one of the sparks cast up from the crackling logs. My vision popped into focus, catching him at the climax of his tale, as he relished the effect of the spell he was weaving for his listeners:

. . . and all of a sudden, I’m tellin’ you, it was like getting kicked by a mule. Double-barrelled, right in the chest. Pow!

He paused for a moment, sobering.

And that was it, fellas. I didn’t come back from that one.

He drew a long breath, staring into the flames. And I woke up in a world where a future stretched below me with no father anywhere in it.

But I knew he was somewhere. And I still had his words.

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Jan M Flynn
Crow’s Feet

Writer & educator. The Startup, Writing Cooperative, P.S. I Love You, The Ascent, more. Award-winning short fiction. Visit me at www.JanMFlynn.net.