Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Father's Legacy

     It was September 12, 1999. I pulled into the Jack-In-The-Box parking lot to use the payphone to call my brother because I was trying to get to his apartment and thought I might be lost.

As I got out of my minivan and headed for the phone booth, a woman approached me. I don't remember what story she told, but she needed money. I told her I didn't have any to spare.

I told her my dad had just died and I had just driven in from Vegas and was trying to get to my brother's to plan his funeral and I just needed to use the phone. She said she was sorry and I looked at her and saw her bedraggled hair, the dark circles under her eyes, her pleading look, and I realized my dad would have given her some money.

As she turned away, I stopped her and gave her $5.00. She smiled gratefully and I watched her head into the Jack-In-The-Box.
That's the legacy dad left us - my brother, my sister, and I.  It wasn't a tangible legacy, yet it was perceptible. It was the qualities he ingrained in us - generosity, consideration, kindness, the infallible belief in the good in people.
The day prior, I had been cleaning my house when my sister called and told me dad was gone. My brother had gone over to dad's little apartment to check on him because he hadn't talked to him in a couple days and found him.

Dad had just moved into the Senior Citizen complex that very week. It was near my brother's place in Orange County, California and he had helped dad move.

The last time my brother had seen our dad, they were sitting in the little apartment, having a beer together and chuckling over the free cable my brother had managed to...we'll call it, procure...for him.

That was a Wednesday, and my brother found him, lifeless, on Saturday. He'd had a heart attack.
My priority that day was no longer my dirty house.  It was trying to remember when I last told my dad I loved him.

I knew he knew. I just couldn't remember telling him.

We had talked on the phone about a month or so before...maybe longer. I was busy trying to hold my marriage together and take care of my kids and I knew my brother was looking after my dad, so I wasn't worried about him.

Then all of a sudden, I wouldn't ever have to worry about him again.
Dad didn't always need to be looked after. He worked hard for most of his life and provided for us the best he could. He made his living repairing televisions and running a small janitorial business. We didn't have everything, but we had what we needed.

He was able to buy his first house in the Spring of 1973. How we loved growing up next door to our cousins and across the street from our elementary school. Dad was proud to be able to give that to us.
As far as I remember, dad never had to ask for help in providing for his family. He was industrious, but he wasn't materialistic. He knew memories of time spent together would last much longer than anything money could buy.

Most of our family vacations were camping and fishing. The outdoors made for cheap accomodations and nature's attractions made his kids grateful for simple things.

This would be another legacy from dad for which I'm grateful.
Dad tried hard to be a spiritual man. He and mom brought us to bible meetings three times a week. All of our friends were of the same Faith. It made us humble and honest (except for the cable TV incident) and self sacrificing.

However, it was a faith that did not tolerate weakness. Dad, despite his big heart and strong work ethic, and love for his family, had his weaknesses. These made it difficult for him to live up to what his religion required of him. They were like his demons and he battled them daily.

He was the oldest of four kids. His father was an engineer, and a Mensa member,  who finally got his master's degree when he was in his 50's.

I still remember my grandfather posing for pictures in his cap and gown on his front lawn. He was a driven man who expected his first born to have the same drive. My dad never could quite live up to what his father expected of him.
Despite their differences, they battled the same demons. My grandfather's father made a pact with his siblings that they would all commit suicide in their old age to keep from being a burden on their families.

I'm not sure, but I think this qualifies as a mental illness.

He fulfilled his promise by hanging himself in my grandfather's garage while my dad and his siblings were at school.

There were other skeletons in the closet of my dad's childhood. They would morph into those demons that he would battle his whole life while trying to give a normal life to his kids.

Isn't that what parents do? Try to make normalcy out of chaos?
He chased away the demons of mental illness and low self-esteem and childhood traumas with alcohol, just like his father. But like his father, he wasn't a drunk. He was a hard working man with a big heart, a kind nature, a need more for the spiritual then the material, a sense of humor, and a love for his family.

He was just coping, in the best way he knew how to. He wasn't a drunk, but he was an alcoholic.
I didn't start this post to write about dad's weaknesses. But since they're there, I'm not going to go back and delete them. It's who he was, the good and the bad.

I started this post to thank dad for what he's given me and my siblings and to say I miss him. So let's get to that part.
I arrived at my brother's apartment that Sunday and the three of us, my sister-in-law, and my mom (who had been divorced from my dad for 20 years by then) planned my father's funeral.

We stayed a week with my brother. He had a one bedroom apartment and we all slept on the floor, side by side. We reminisced, and cried, and laughed.

We drove by the little apartment in Long Beach where we lived for a few years before moving to Vegas. We gathered photos and made a collage of dad's life. We bought flowers, and ordered remembrance cards, and organized a service, and a wake, and a viewing, and a cremation.

We went through dad's apartment and smelled his scent on his pillow and his clothes. We gathered with his family - my grandmother, his brother and sister and their families. And through all of that, a strange thing happened.
We realized we missed each other. We needed each other. Maybe we needed to see our dad in each other. We just realized we needed to be closer. A few months after the funeral, my brother and his wife moved back to Vegas. I saw my sister more after that, and it would be a few years later, but she eventually moved to Vegas too.
The real bonding between us happens each year when we go camping together. For a while, after dad was cremated, we didn't know what to do with his ashes.

Then it came to us. Let's put him where we used to camp. We all had fond memories of those times and he loved the outdoors, so it seemed fitting.

A year after he died, we packed up the camping gear, put dad's urn in the back of his old station wagon (another legacy he left to my brother) and headed up to one of our favorite childhood campgrounds. I don't think he minded getting jostled around between the rolls of toilet paper and the marshmallows.
We sprinkled him near a creek, and shared a Colt 45 as we said good-bye. We go back every year, all of us, to camp and fish and to say hi to dad. He would have really liked that.

Philip Mikkelson 06-23-1937 to 09-11-1999

Father's day makes me a little sad every year. I wish dad were around to thank him for teaching us to be caring, hard-working, empathetic souls and to thank him for his sense of humor and optimism and faith in the human spirit.

But most of all, I want to tell him I love him and that I understand now, how hard it is to be a parent and to always do the right thing, when you're battling your own demons.

Happy Father's Day to everyone and a toast to all matter where they are


Unknown said...

Blown away. Amazing post Lori. And what a handsome man your father was.

Ms. Understood said...

Beautiful post. Absolutely beautiful. I'm wiping away my tears right now. Your dad died 7 days before my mom (she passed 9/18/99).

Susie @ A Slice of My Life said...

Wow. What a wonderful, heart-felt post about a cherished man and father. I love that you go camping every year to say hi to him.

Tree said...

What a beautiful, sincere post! Your dad sounds like such a great guy! I'm sure I would've liked him if I'd have known him. :) You gave him a wonderful tribute, and I'm sure he's very proud of you. Hugs and prayers!!

Joann Mannix said...

What a lovely, lovely tribute, all of it.

I lost my dad suddenly, 7 years ago and it is the worst. I think the grief stays longer because you walk around at first in a state of shock.

My dad used to give us coins as we were going into the store when we were children. He told us we could use it on the horse ride or we could put it in the Salvation Army bucket. (The Salvation Army was year round back in my day). But, the choice was ours. It was always a hard choice for small children, but we always made the right one.

The camping trip you all take together, I'm sure keeps your dad smiling down from the heavens.

Unknown said...

Ah, Wife. You make it too hard to be anti-blog... and so I am become the consumate closet blog-patron (closblogatron). I can personally vouch for the generosity, consideration and kindness their father instilled in the sibling-triad I married into - it's why I married Lori, and why my in-laws are my favorite people to be around. I love them. I trust them. I depend on them. I live with them... yet I never tire of them (which is amazing since I tire of everybody else). If everyone was like them it would be a much better world, though the campgrounds would always be jam-packed.

They are my family and I love them. Bruthuhhh Tom's cooking is just icing on the cake... literally and figuratively. Mmmmmmmm... cake. I'm sorry, what were we talking about?

Babs said...

I'm so glad I decided to do "housework" on my blog. I needed to check all the buttons to make sure they worked. One thing led to another. I wanted to read what you wrote about your dad and I wanted to know about your thoughts now and then. I wrote my own a number of times but I also wrote a blog for him which helped put my memories down on paper.
Thanks so much
Barbara or bustersdaughter