Saturday, June 15, 2013

I Can Never Forget: Father's Day 5 Years Later

My father died of biliary cancer on the morning of Father's Day 2008. I actually don't remember the date (Google tells me it was June 15), but I remember Father's Day. 2008 was five years ago. That's a long time, yet it feels like only yesterday that Dad was mowing the lawn shirtless, working on a miniature model project, and making another culinary masterpiece.

51 weeks out of the year, I don't think too much on my Dad, but this week is that one exception. I suppose being five years out from Dad's passing has given me more reason to stop and think throughout the year. Dad and I shared a complicated, a rich relationship, as so many sons enjoy with their fathers; for better or for worse, I can never forget the things that my Dad was for me.

I will never forget that my father was forever a student of life. He was always reading history books and watching historical documentaries. On vacation, we were never allowed to simply lounge at the beach. Oh no, we had to find a museum or a historical site to explore. We always had to learn something cultural.

I will never forget when my dad took me to Chicago for the first time. I was about 10 years old, and it was January. This Texas boy got his first dose of real winter. We stayed in the uber-fancy Drake hotel - Dad had the highest of standards - and visited all the museum - we always had to learn. We also took the CTA around town, and noting that we were only white people on the bus, I leaned over in youthful ignorance to my dad to whisper, "Dad, why are there so many black people?" He silently gave me my first lesson that there more skin tones to the world than my pasty white one.

I will never forget the lessons he taught me by example:

He taught me the value of eating as a family, and he taught me that a home-cooked meal is always, always better than eating out.

He taught me how to budget time and money - budget for fun, budget for necessity.

He taught me the value of a clean room and an organized workspace.

He taught me the value of humility. Though he was the president of his franchise of Management Recruiters - complete with a posh executive suite to call his own - Dad chose to work in a cubicle like everyone else.

He taught me the joy of hospitality; if ever we were to have guests over, he made sure to have a clean house, a stocked refrigerator, and no one was allowed to have an empty glass.

He taught me the joy of reading. I will never forget that he was always reading a Tom Clancy novel. If we were running errands, he would bring the book with him to read at a red light behind the steering wheel.

I will never forget the meals he made. When my friends were eating meatloaf and pork chops, we were eating chicken marsala, fettucini with homemade pesto, veal saltimbocca, wiener schnitzel, gyros with homemade tzatziki sauce, and the best fajitas in San Antonio.

I will never forget his love affair with a good drink.

As a young boy, Dad would slip me a tiny taste of triple sec and tequila while I juiced the limes for his infamous margaritas.

When I was a teenager, he handed me a can of Miller Lite and said, "Try this." When he saw the grimace on my face, he told me, "Tastes like piss, doesn't it? That's not good beer, so don't ever drink it" (Thanks to that episode, I'm now a forever beer snob).

I remember how much beer and wine he would drink at dinner, many times passing out at the table before he could finish the meal.

I remember, in his last weeks, he passed on the recipe to the Cornfoot Margarita, and when that cocktail was memorialized with him at his funeral, I knew that I had a legacy to continue.

I will never forget how, after coming out to him, he said to me, "You don't ever need to tell anybody this." I don't believe he was a homophobe. I think that this man who grew up in the 1950s had no vocabulary to talk about my sexuality, and I think that he never anticipated having a gay son. I will never forget how we would never talk about that subject ever again, and so I will never know how exactly he felt about it.

I will never forget riding around town with him as a pre-teenager, listening to the classical music station. He would ask me, "Jim, who do you think composed this piece of music?" He would give me stylistic considerations to listen for - Beethoven was heavier than Mozart, but Brahms was more complex harmonically. Little did we both know how, in just a few years time, these skills would come in handy for my drop-the-needle tests in my musicology and choral lit courses.

I will never forget how he would only come to church if I was to sing with the youth choir or play piano in the service. Otherwise, he had no time for that Methodist church!

I will never forget when he confessed to me that he no longer believed in a Christian God. Surely, he thought, there was a supreme intellect out there, but who were we to call that God Jesus? Thus was I introduced to a broader, more humanistic way to think of religion.

I will never forget how he and my mom would travel all the way to England to follow the Rhodes Singers on our international choir tour. My friends would play, to my embarrassment, "Spot the Cornfeet" at all our concerts, and they never failed to point my parents out to me. Mom would wave. Dad would just stare at the architecture of England's glorious Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals - everything had to be a learning experience.

I will never forget when Dad came to my senior recital, and after a grueling first half - a 30 minute, four-movement Beethoven sonata - my dad rushed into the greenroom to flatly tell me, "Well done, son." And then he went back to the crowd. Front row center.

I will never forget when Dad came to hear me give my last concert in Memphis before I would move to North Carolina. The Rhodes MasterSingers Chorale gave their occasional performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor. It would be the last performance I would give for him.

I will never forget that phone call in April 2008 when he told me that he had an MRI and biopsy; the doctors found malignant spots on his liver. My dad never got sick.

I will never forget when he was diagnosed with biliary cancer; he was given a 2-3 month prognosis. Despite this, dad continued to mow his own lawn and work on Management Recruiters business.

I will never forget that night in early June of 2008 when Dad fell in the house. I knew that it was close to the end, but I had no money to get home. I will never forget when my brothers on the Service Over Self summer staff bought my plane ticket to leave for home just two days later.

I will never forget the hospitality of my best friend and closest brother Byron that weekend I came home. When my home was full to capacity with my sister's family - she was there for her 20th high school reunion - Byron's family opened their home to me, and Roni came from Abilene to be a strength and support. When my 3-day visit turned into a 10-day furlough to bury my father, the Rogers family hosted me the entire time, and Roni took that week off work to take care of me.

I will never forget my last conversation with Dad. We listened to Bach's Magnificat and talked life. I will never forget that he refused to admit to me that he was dying, and I will never understand why his pride prevented him from showing his weakness. I was the last family member to have a sentient conversation with him.

I will never forget the morning of Father's Day 2008, when at 7:25 AM, half-asleep in Byron's room, my phone rang. It was my sister. I knew why she was calling; I picked up the phone only to receive confirmation of Dad's passing. I will never forget waking Byron up to tell him the news. He was in the bed on the other side of the room from me. He just held me for about 10 minutes - I would not have wanted anybody there with me at that moment than Roni.

I will never forget the funeral. It was held at Ft. Sam Houston's post chapel; Dad received full military honors. At the graveside ceremony, there was a 21 gun-salute and flag-folding ritual. Dad, in his coffin, was brought to the grave on a caisson. Despite the solemnity of the moment, one of the horses pulling the caisson urinated during the ceremony. Knowing my dad's sickly sarcastic sense of humor, it somehow seemed appropriate.

I will never forget the dozens of people I met at the funeral following the reception. War buddies, executives from corporate, and West Point friends came to me, extolling my father as a warrior, scholar, and businessman of the highest order - able to keep his cool in conflict, ready with a joke to crack the tension, and always prepared to give from whatever had to offer.

I will never forget how my dad's passing deeply uprooted all of my religious beliefs. There is no calamity like the death of a beloved one, particularly when that beloved did not share your religious convictions. Five years later, I've found some new answers, reaffirmed some old beliefs, and raised dozens more questions about judgement, salvation, and the un/limited atonement of Christ.

Five years later, I think of my dad in the small things. I'll crack a joke that my dad used to say. I'll make the wise-crack remarks that Dad always made; you can't always be too serious. I'll turn anything - even a dumb movie - into some kind of lesson, because, you know, everything has to be a learning experience. I cross my 7s like he does. I loop my lower-case 'f"s like he does. Anytime I hear a trumpet, I think of my dad and his love for jazz and classical music.

And if family reports are to be believed, I make the margarita and pesto sauce just like Dad did.

Until next time,