The Long Road Home: Day Three

Dateline: Butte, Montana and 546 miles farther down the road.

I feel the need to explain something before proceeding.  Although a writer is not bound to offer explanations for their work, I believe that such is necessary for this post.  I want to avoid as much confusion and misunderstanding as possible.  I know that readers come to any work with their own preset baggage, and view what they read through the prism of their own lived experience.  It is something I have worked to avoid, and avoiding as many of our pre-existing prejudices as possible was part of my training in history.  One must be on constant alert for them, or at least recognize that they can color our interpretation of anything we read.

What should be understood, if it has not become apparent already, is that I loved my father very much.  He was on balance a wonderful, caring person.  But I also have the ability to do what psychologists call “compartmentalization”.  I can be in a given situation or relationship, “put” it in one part of my brain, and analyze it separately in another part of my brain.  This can lead me to new or novel conclusions that others would not have considered.  While this might sound kind of cool, my second wife can attest to it also being problematic.

Further, I do not accept the concept of having anyone as a hero.  When we put someone up on a pedestal, we hold them up to an unreasonable standard and make them a caricature of who they really are.  We take away their humanity and replace it with our own wants and desires for someone to follow.  I cannot remember a time of having a hero, but rather people I respected and admired…people I knew had their own faults.

We all have faults.  It is the essence of being human.  I recognize a plethora of faults in myself, and while I try to work on them I realize I will never rid myself of them all.  I can only minimize their impact.  Knowing that we are all less than what we want to be, and less than what anyone who idolizes believes us to be extends to everyone, including our parents.

With mom’s illnesses in the 1970s, we learned at very young ages that our parents were not perfect, indestructible beings.  We saw just how fragile we all are, including our parents.  We understood that our parents were regular people, with their own flaws and shortcomings.  I find it interesting that some people never fully recognize this about their parents.

Dad was no exception (none exist).  As I mentioned yesterday, I know he had his own self-doubts.  He was unsure of himself in many ways, and avoided taking any risks as much as possible.  I believe this held him back, kept him from realizing much of his own potential.  I accept it was his decision, but I also sensed some regret on his part.

Another aspect of my father that virtually no one ever saw was his temper.  He had a terrible temper when he was younger.  And most people do not know he spent a night in jail because of it.  Those of you who know me from when I was much younger might also remember my temper, and my son has one as well.  But we all learned to control it.  Dad never gave anyone an inkling of what he was capable of, and both I and my son have our tempers under strict control that rarely gets loosened.

Dad avoided situations where his temper might erupt.  He avoided confrontation as much as possible.  He never disciplined us growing up, leaving that to my mom (who at 4’11” could still swing a paddle pretty damn hard).  We were always told it was because he was afraid he would break our bones – he had rather large hands for a man who was at best 5’5″.  But I think there was more to it.  I think he was afraid of losing control.

Dad also had trouble with “caring too much”.  He found it difficult to tell people “no” (guess who we went to first when we wanted something).  He would give well beyond his ability to give and give too much.  I know – he did with me when I was going through the roughest patch in my life.  Just ask my brother and sister.  This could often result in dad doing without and suffering himself.  The problem was that he would do this when some of the people asking were not really in the dire situations they claimed and it would get him in financial trouble.

This wanting to please could also get dad in trouble with mom.  He never was much of a heavy drinker, and almost always kept it to a few beers when he did go out.  But there were a couple of times while we were growing up where he would stay out with some of his friends who came to town and drink way too much.  I can only remember it happening once or twice, but it did (and to be honest it is rather funny to remember it now).

His dedication to being involved in the community could also be a two-edged sword.  I remember times as a child when it felt like he was more a father to everyone else in town than to us.  It could be painful at times.

But then as is very evident from all the support we have received the past few days, dad was creating a much broader legacy than simply in his own family.  Everyone who has kept us in their thoughts and wished us all the best has a piece of my father living in their spirit.  You are sharing his passing with us.  Dad was never wealthy, never held any position of public office, and never achieved any lofty presence in business.  What dad did was much more important: he helped make a community that includes all of us.  He was not perfect, he was not a hero, he was not a caricature: he was a flawed, loving person who added to all of our lives, and I will miss him terribly.


The Long Road Home: Day Two

Dateline: Spearfish, South Dakota

Another 566 miles down.  I think I need to clarify a little something about my last post.  When talking about my sister’s death, the only point to be made is that we were given a story by the Cheney police about gasoline residue in the stairwell leading up to her apartment and that the sliding glass doors had been frozen shut.  Nothing more, nothing less.

After I finished last night, I had trouble shutting off my brain…what should I talk about next?  Different thoughts flooded my mind, until I finally dozed off…only to wake up almost an hour before my alarm and be unable to get back to sleep because the brain kicked in again.  I settled on topics for tonight and the next two evenings and hope to write something people still enjoy reading.

We are all the products of our parents, for good or bad.  We start off with their genes and they provide the initial environment for us to grow.  Some of us stay more true to their influence, and some of us deviate incredibly so as to appear to be completely disconnected from them, but they still provided that core.

I have to say I got more of my playful side from dad.  Dad was a big kid who never quite grew up, something we realized years ago.  He could joke with anyone, and there were very few people I ever saw him get mad at (more on that tomorrow night).  I learned my humor from him, and it does tend to be more on the raunchy side.  I know it is a White family trait.  I saw it in spades from our Uncle George…Uncle Bob’s sense of humor was there although it was a bit more dry than the others….and Uncle Max’s tended to reflect his time in the Navy during World War Two.  So dad came by it honestly, and that’s my excuse no matter what you think.  I have relied on it as a coping mechanism for years, much to the consternation of other family members.  It has helped me with the current situation, as some of the people who have received personal messages can attest.  Thinking on it further, I can see how I have incorporated aspects of all of their approaches.

Dad had always been athletic as well, something I could never measure up to having received a lot of my physical aspects (including susceptibility to chronic illnesses) from my mom.  However, I DID get his physical appearance as anyone who sees me this week will recognize instantly.  Dad was a great football lineman in high school.  He was active in the men’s softball teams in Kellogg for years, and coached Junior Football for decades.

He enjoyed swimming, and could swim like a fish.  He was one of those guys who would jump off bridges over the North Fork.  I can remember going to the Kellogg swimming pool and hanging off the side in the diving area while he would go off the high dive and do a huge cannonball almost on top of us.  I think swimming was what he missed most after his cancer.  In those days, they did not have a snorkel he could use given how he was forced to breathe.

The three White families usually got together on the Fourth of July (at least from what I remember, throughout the 60s and 70s).  We would alternate between houses, but dad, George, and Bob would be like kids in a candy store lighting fireworks…especially the “special” ones you had to go to Montana or the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation to buy.  I remember one year they were shooting off the fireworks at our house from a cable spindle that was about 3 feet high when on its side.  It was a perfect platform, until….one of my older sister’s friends had brought a large firework that was shaped like a pill with wings midway on it.  I will not mention his name…Pat knows who he is.  Well, the Brain Trust put this little bomb resting in one of the holes in the spindle, being held up by its wings.  As soon as they lit it, it shot down INTO the spindle and proceeded to blow it up.  Classic.

Dad was a “pleaser”.  He wanted people to be happy, and hated seeing anyone upset…it bothered him to no end.  It may surprise some people familiar with my current situation, but I did get that from him as well.  But for me, it becomes extremely painful and costs my considerable psychic energy, so I use a different coping mechanism of covering up…and have a reputation as a bit of a grumpy curmudgeon…which I use to my advantage for comedic affect.

I have also never really been very good at “small talk”, at least in my own mind, and it always amazed me how dad could do it seemingly effortlessly.  It got to the point where one time where I asked him about it, how he could do it so easily, and I saw a side of dad I never knew existed, if only a quick glimpse.  I will never forget the look in his face.  He looked like he was at a total loss, that he could not explain it and had no idea what he was doing.  It was as if he was afraid of being seen as a fake.  I know he wasn’t…but that look in his eyes is still in my thoughts more than 35 years later.

People who knew my parents can be excused if they do not quite understand how they ended up together.  Mom could joke, but nothing like dad.  And while I get my logical side from mom, it is the enjoyment of debate that comes from dad.  In fact, my parents initially get together by way of a trick.  Dad had a “reputation”, and even though my mom grew up in Wallace, she knew who he was and would not have gone out with him except they had mutual friends who tricked her into going on a blind date with them…and dad.  I am not sure how he wore her down…if it was his sense of humor, the dates to  the dump to shoot rats (yeah, they did that…it was the 50s), or whatever, but they ended up together and lasted through many ups and downs until mom’s passing.

Dad was a big kid…a joker…and obviously a hopeless romantic. *cough* *cough* I am glad I take so much from him…just not dating advice.  I messed that up enough on my own early in life.

The Long Road Home: Day One

As many of my friends and acquaintances know, my dad passed away early Saturday morning.  This is not the first death in our immediate family.  In fact death has been a constant companion.  My mom was diagnosed with lupus in the summer of 1970, and battled in the rest of her life until complications from a prior stroke took her in 1997.  There were times in the early 1970s when us kids would spend the night at our neighbors’ house for weeks with our mom in the hospital 70 miles away, not knowing if we were going to be told she was gone when we woke up.  When you are 8 or 9 years old, that tends to have an impact on how you view life.

Death tried to take dad in 1978 when he was diagnosed with cancer, but death was again thwarted.  So in January 1979 it struck my parents’ oldest child.  My older sister died a couple months before her 22nd birthday and being the first in  the family to get a college degree.  The circumstances were mysterious (she died in an apartment fire), but there was really nothing anyone could prove.  CSI only works on television.  So my sister died in 1979, my mom in 1997, and now my dad in 2014.

We all handle death differently, and through experience I have learned we handle each death differently.  When my sister died, I was literally in shock for a few months.  We had been woken up early in the morning by people from our church coming to tell us what had happened.  My dad’s Uncle Bob was the one to tell my brother and me that “there had been an accident and Debby was gone”.  I was the last one to break down after holding it in for months.  It was not until late one night, I am not sure if I had turned 15 yet or not, and I could not hold it in any longer.  The tears flowed, and I had to go upstairs (my brother and I shared a bedroom in the basement) to find my mom for comfort.

It was different when my mom died.  I had watched her suffer with all kinds of chronic illnesses for years, several of which could have claimed her life at any point.  When she had a stroke in 1995, she fought through it for two years.  If anything, it freed her to be more vocal about some of the things we had only mentioned in the house.  Or at least she now had an excuse.  I was living in Houston at the time, and flew back to bury her next to my sister.  It was strange when mom passed…we had anticipated it for years.  When she was gone, I missed her but I also felt a sense of relief for her.  I had watched her suffer for so long, with little or no break from the pain, discomfort, and exhaustion that accompany chronic illness.  I am sure I cried at missing her at some point, but I cannot remember when I did.

And now our dad is gone.  Many people know he had to deal with a pseudo-aneurysm around his heart this past March.  He had “arrested” (died) several times then, but they had always brought him back.  He successfully went through surgery, and although he had some setbacks and was severely weakened by the experience, he was continuing to improve.  My sister had even seen him with doctors and Friday and he was in good spirits and had a decent prognosis.  And then he was gone.  The attendants at the rest home he was at had just been in his room, and had gone to get him something and returned to find him on his room’s floor.  They tried CPR, but there was no rhythm at all coming from his heart.  There was nothing to shock back into working order.

And so we are all returning home to northern Idaho to bury another family member.  My brother is flying in from Oman with his wife.  Their daughter is flying in from elsewhere in the country, and my son lives in Seattle so he will be able to drive over.  I live in Ohio, and I had a decision to make on how to get home.  I chose to drive the 2,000 miles.  It’s a four day drive, but I find the solitude refreshing.  I have often been accused of thinking too much (when I find such a notion ridiculous).  It gives me time to think and reflect on life, on my parents, my sister who’s gone, what I have done with my own life.  I know I am still a little in shock about dad’s death.  It was not unexpected.  I had anticipated receiving the news ever since his episode in March.

But no matter how much you anticipate someone’s passing, it still comes as a shock when it occurs.

So today I drove the first 725 miles of the trip back, sitting here in my hotel room in Albert Lea, Minnesota, thinking about the things that ran through my mind on the road:  my dad, my mom, my sister, my living siblings, my son and his fiance, my new grandson, where I am at in life, the beautiful formations clouds make as they prepare for summer storms, the unique beauty of the rolling prairies of Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa as I drive through them.

How do I feel?  I honestly do not know yet.  I miss my dad, and I knew many people would.  The text messages and posts I have received on Facebook all tell the story of a man who had a huge impact on the lives of countless people by just being himself.  Do I miss him?  Absolutely.  But in a sense he is not dead.  He lives on in the memories of all the people he touched, and the lives of people he never met because of those people who knew him.  He lives on in me and my brother and my sister.  He lives on in my son, and he will live on in my grandson because of my son, and not just genetically.   He will live on in my brother’s daughter and her daughter, in my sister’s son.  Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, his spirit lives on in us.

I will try to post again tomorrow from Spearfish, South Dakota.  I am on Interstate 90 now, so no road changes from here to Idaho.