Part One is here.
My earliest memory is of my mom. I’m two, she has friends over, and she puts me in the crib for a nap. In a panic I realize I don’t want to take a nap, don’t want to be away from the conversation and warmth of the living room. I cry. She immediately comes back to my room, lifts me from my crib, laughing, says it’s okay, I can stay up a bit longer. My earliest memory is the knowledge that sometimes it’s scary to be alone, but that I’m loved and taken care of.
My second oldest memory though, is of my dad. I’m in my high chair, and he’s charged with feeding me lunch, while my mom runs some quick errands. It must be an invention of my adult mind, but I swear I can see the nervousness on his face. He wants this to go well, he wants to do a good job at parenting me in one of the brief times when my mom isn’t there. Whatever he tries to feed me first I don’t like. Then he gives me a breaded chicken patty, cut up into tiny pieces, and it’s delicious. His smile is so big, bright and warm as the sun. He’s so happy and relieved that I’m happy.
Other memories of early childhood: he lets me ride my frog tricycle in the living room, and even on the couch. We both think it’s hilarious, until I lose my balance, crash to the ground. We both know we’re going to be in big trouble when my mom gets home. Once when I was three or four he was supposed to spank me for the first time ever. I’m not sure what I did to get in trouble, probably got caught telling a lie. His hand barely made contact with my butt and we both started crying. My mom was officially in charge of discipline from then on.
I tell you these things because they’re what kept coming to my mind during his funeral. He had a military funeral. It was somber, honoring, profoundly beautiful, as serious as his career had been. But it wasn’t the whole story.
The Army remembers my dad as a leader. A no-nonsense, tough as nails, fearlessly brave, blunt to the point of being rude, intimidating but fair leader. He had an incredible career, and he deserved to be remembered in this way. I’d like to think he’d have been touched to know how full Soldier Memorial Chapel was on the day of his funeral, that even though he considered himself a loner, the funeral was packed with people devastated by the loss of such a great man.
During the funeral, I clung to my mom, sister, and brother-in-law, tears pouring down our faces as Colonel McDowell gave a funny, touching, sincere eulogy, as General Funkhouser knelt, teary-eyed and with shaking hands, and handed my mom the folded flag. The roll call: a soldier calling out “Sergeant Major Cline!” and the staggering emptiness when no one answered. The shocking loudness and finality of the volley of guns.
The funeral was beautiful and true but my dad was so much more than the Army. He really was.
Despite his reputation for toughness, my dad was a huge softy, especially when it came to my mom, sister and me, his soldiers, and the strong young women in our lives who lost their husbands in Iraq.
This tenderheartedness also extended to animals. He loved his dogs, and dogs in general. When I was in Missouri during my separation he formed a slightly ridiculous bond with my little dog Miles, letting this 15 pound mutt completely boss him around. Once he took Miles on a walk and Miles decided to stubbornly lay down in a neighbor’s yard, refused to budge. My dad, the tough Army guy, picked him up and carried him home, shaking his head, laughing, and talking to him the whole time.
A few weeks before he died my dad and I shared what I think of as The Caterpillar Incident. We’d both noticed this huge, bright green caterpillar hanging out on the deck for a few days. One day I noticed it was slowly dying, probably thanks to some bug spray we’d sprayed in response to a spider situation. I told my dad, perhaps a bit dramatically and tearfully, that the poor caterpillar seemed to be dying a slow, painful death. Rather than make fun of me for caring about a silly caterpillar, he instantly got this look on his face- half sad, half resolute. “I’ll put the little guy out of his misery,” he said.
And he did the right thing, the thing no one else wanted to do, like he always did, quickly ending the caterpillar’s life so it wouldn’t suffer. We tossed it into the woods and said goodbye. Don’t even get me started about the mouse he buried in the yard . . .
Once I start talking or writing about my dad, the stories won’t stop flowing. I could write a book about this beautiful, flawed, complicated, wonderful man. Hey, maybe I will. 😉
Here are a few simple memories I will always carry, moments that make me feel loved and always will:
Dad coming home from the field, stinking with his face painted in camo, but bear-hugging us all anyway, unpacking his rucksack so he could give Sam and I the MRE’s we always loved. Going on “Cline family adventures” on the weekends, hiking near Mount Rainier, and the way he’d always carry Sam and I down steep hills if we asked, even when we knew we could handle it ourselves. His way of making Sam and I feel completely understood with a smile, a hand on our shoulder. Hide and go seek in the dark. Countless Sunday afternoon games of H-o-r-s-e. Bringing me a rose after my ballet recital and asking “How can you be such a klutz yet be so graceful up there?” The way he’d get childlike delight in the simplest things, like the remote-controlled helicopters and other “toys” my mom would surprise him with him on Christmas, trying to make up for his childhood which was so much rougher and more paltry than he deserved.
I want to carry his infectious smile, his ability to see the humor in even the bleakest moments, his fiercely loving heart, his tendency to do the right and honest thing, always. I want to let these things make me a better human being.
My dad was not perfect. He was a complicated man who lived a complicated life. A “bad kid” from the wrong side of the tracks who made good. He had a temper and he was stubborn as hell. But at his very heart, he was the man I snuck up behind on the deck one time when I was visiting. He didn’t know I was there and he was talking to the deer in the woods, coaxing them into the yard, his voice gentle, full of wonder and love. That was my dad and that will always be my dad.
Love you forever, Dad. I hope wherever you are, you feel lightened of the burdens you carried, and that you can smoke all the cigarettes and eat all the thin mint ice cream you want.