Goodbye, Dad

Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life.

~ Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1956)

It’s like he saw it coming and didn’t want to go without one final whopper of a shindig, one everyone would enjoy. So he loaded up the car with grandkids and a cooler and met us at Six Flags in Chicago. He had a cough that gave him trouble most mornings, or if he walked too much, but he didn’t seem worried about it. He swam in the pool at the motel, rode a few rides at the theme park, and ate pizza with typical gusto.

July 24th, 2010.

We sat on the hotel bed and chatted after a long day. It came up that I had quit smoking, and he gave me the most intriguing look. Not a smile, so much, but an acknowledgment of sorts. Where one looks at another and changes ever so slightly their estimation of them. Then he reached over and patted me on the back.

Today, the wait is over.

My father-in-law Gary passed away this afternoon, just minutes after a family/doctor conference call where we decided to let him go. We agreed that his life had been too large to have it now squandered away tethered to wires and tubes in a too-small hospital room. His cancer had ravaged him quickly, and he went with no hesitation. His ashes will be spread among the giant redwoods of California, his own heaven on earth. I’ve never been there, and I will meet him there one day.

Before we left his side this past Monday, I paid him one last visit. I gave him a hat sporting the logo of the place where I work. You see, for as long as I’ve known him, he made sure that each time I visited, I got a new Lund hat. The latest model. We often looked like the goofiest and most unlikely pair of twins when we went out on the town. We’d sit at the Eagles café, drink coffee, and tip our matching hats to the waitresses. I wore each hat with pride, and still have a few here and there. But there in the hospital, he had no hat. So I left him one of mine. A gift for when he decided to wake up.

He never did.

But I like to think that he knew I left it for him. I sat it beside him, leaned in to kiss his cheek, and told him I loved him. I thanked him for the gift of his daughter, and for that pat on the back. Such a casual thing, yet it meant something between us. More than I will probably ever be able to express.

It has been an honor to call him dad . . .

Gary Lee Harper
March 3, 1946 – October 21, 2010

[Flickr photo is by Tim Pearce and is protected]



It is not death, but dying, which is terrible.

~ Henry Fielding (1707-54)

Lately, she cries even when she is sleeping.

I slip between unfamiliar sheets in a room carpeted with children, mine and those belonging to relatives, and gently roll her toward me. She hasn’t moved in hours, sleep having finally, thankfully, overtaken her.

I hold her. Let her dampen my chest. Tell her that it is all right to hurt. To be here and helpless.

We are in Fargo, North Dakota. On a trip we cannot afford to make. We are not sure how we will get home.

And he is here. Since Friday morning. He wasn’t supposed to make it through that day. So we came. Sixteen hours bookended – flooded – with uncertainty.

We sit. Occasionally, we wander through the big doors at the end of the hall and stand at his side. Hold his hand. Brush the stubble on his chin with our hands. Talk to him. Wonder if he hears. Hope he does.

Two weeks ago, the doctors said he had cancer in his lungs. We fretted, even when he told us in his simple way not to. Then pneumonia settled in. Dug in its bloody talons. Somehow he made the ninety minute trip here.

When asked, he said he wanted to live, so he is now adorned with tubes and induced by drugs into a healing slumber.

He is fighting as he sleeps.

And we are waiting . . .

[Flickr photo is by Brittany G and is protected]

Simple Man

Simplicity, clarity, singleness: these are the attributes that give our lives power and vividness and joy.

~ Richard Halloway

First impressions can be slippery bastards at times. We want to cling to them, allow them to set the tone for subsequent relational maneuvering. But more often than not, they are but an awkward glimpse. One small facet of the whole.

It was my first visit to my then-girlfriend’s rural home in central Minnesota. No light pollution overpowering the stars. No neighbors within shouting distance. A pine-scented breeze caressing the fields, carrying upon its back a chance of showers by morning. And a car with the windows rolled down. So he piled forth to roll them up, just in case. We met at the kitchen sink where I stood reluctantly nursing a glass of sulfur-smelling well water, waiting between sips for the cloudiness to evaporate, to just maybe start resembling the processed city water I’d grown up gulping. For half a second we contemplated each other’s presence, me in my grungiest sleeping shorts with my ample gut hanging over the waistband, him in his birthday suit.

“Don’t look, Ethel!”

Too late. Strains of Ray Stevens’ “The Streak” were the second thing that floated through my mind during that early-morning encounter with my father-in-law. A slightly more calculated and predictable response than my initial reaction:

“Egad! Who are these people!?”

It’s safe to say I don’t remember much about him prior to that moment. I’m sure we’d met out in the yard after Garsy and I arrived, maybe we shook hands, perhaps we chatted a bit over dinner and possibly he’d said goodnight before he turned in. My pre-streak recollections are foggy, lost in the haze of cautious acclimation. But as he disappeared out the front door and I quickly finished my glass of water, a third thought: a boundary had just been demolished.

Denuded, if you please.

And the cool thing is that now, twenty years later, I know he would have no problem with me sharing that story. He’ll probably break into that big grin of his, hunch his shoulders and laugh, and then proceed to put his own spin on it. I can’t wait for this summer’s reunion . . .

Gary is my kind of country. Fishin’-in-the-dark, counting-all-the-stars, just-a-swingin’, she-thinks-my-tractor’s-sexy country. He loves his mama, his kids, and a cold beer. He was in town this past week, a week from hell for me on several fronts, and yet he took time to take us swimming. Never one to favor the sidelines, he jumped in and propelled the grandkids . . .

. . . and giggled with them when they surfaced, spewing water and smiles.

For two-score-and-one years, he’s worked the line manufacturing fishing boats for Lund. If you’re a serious fisherman, odds are good that you’ve spent at least one quiet morning casting a line or two from inside a boat he built. He got his walking papers recently, a sad sign of the times. And yet, there he is, still smiling. Making time for things that matter most.

We spent an evening this past weekend sitting in my garage watching the neighbors shoot their Independence Day wad. We talked, as we always do, about simple things. Around him, I don’t have to put on airs or pretend I have all the answers. Sometimes we just sit and enjoy the silence. To spend time with him is to brush up against honesty.


He trusts me to do well by his daughter. He’s never said that in so many words, but I see it in his eyes. I wrote a letter to him once, out of a sense of duty, an obligation to let him know how much I loved her and, much like the suitors of old, I asked his permission to marry her. The only reply I ever received came in the form of a slightly firmer handshake and a trusting glance.

The same sort of glance he gave me as he tossed me the keys to his new convertible . . .

“You want me to drive?”


So we hopped in, just us and the womenfolk, and headed to town. I punched the gas like Jimmie Johnson coming around turn four with the checkered flag in sight and relished the powerful link between man and machine under the open sky. I must have looked like an idiot smiling so big.

My father-in-law understands the simple things. He awakens my senses, granting me the freedom to emerge from my despondent, navel-gazing slumber into timeless, never-for-nothing moments, and for his trust, his gentle prodding, and his heart of gold, I will be forever grateful . . .

[top photo credit]