A Thing I Wrote About My Dad, Part 2.

 

Part One is here.

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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.

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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.

**

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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.

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**

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.

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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 . . .

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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. 😉

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“This is a hammer, this is a hymn.”

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Last year at this time I lived in a beautiful beach town in Baja, Mexico. Last winter meant swimming in the ocean, tacos at open air street stands, micheladas at dark little bars. Palm trees and pink and orange flowers as big as my head.

Last winter also contained all the tension and sadness of an unraveling marriage, the cold, complete realization that both the marriage and the move to Mexico were profound mistakes, mistakes for which I was responsible. I would walk my dogs to the beach alone (he never wanted to come along), and have the conversations in my head that I wasn’t able to have out loud with anyone. This is all wrong but how do I undo it? The undoing felt impossible. Even now, with all undone and burned to the ground, it still feels impossible.

I’d sit on a sand dune, look out at the sparkling Pacific. Sometimes there would be whales. I’d nearly always be the only one on the beach. The whales would leap into the air and I’d gasp, look around like “Are you kidding me? There’s no one else around to see this?” And I learned that things unshared can still be beautiful, though not as beautiful as when you have someone to share them with.

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I would often cry, looking out at that ocean, horrified that my life could be so outwardly lovely and yet so deeply, so grossly wrong on the inside. I would imagine filling my pockets with rocks, filling my body with Nyquil and vodka, and walking out into the ocean until I drowned. The actual drowning part sounded painful and scary, so my mind glossed over it. I just wanted the ocean to erase me, to erase what I’d done, to do the hard work of undoing my mistakes for me so I didn’t have to. It was never a real option- half a second’s thought of my sister, my parents, was always enough to evaporate the thought as an impossible fantasy.

So my options remained, clear and stark and terrible: Stay in an unfixable marriage that makes you both miserable. Or leave. Burn it to the ground. Destroy something that shouldn’t be able to be destroyed.

In the end something happened that made the second option feel urgent and necessary, but the actual act of leaving a marriage, especially abruptly, and from another country, felt brutal. Like murder. I did it anyway. My pregnant sister flew to Mexico only a couple of days after heading back home from visiting me on the worst vacation ever. The two of us and my little dog Miles flew back to the States, holding hands on the plane and blinking back tears, much like we would in a church pew at a funeral three months later.

I spent the rest of the summer and early fall in Missouri, hiding out at my parents’ house. I watched a lot of Louie, wrote sad little short stories, clung to emails and calls with far-flung friends. I worked, grateful to have something practical to focus on. But mostly I hung out with my dad.

For most of the summer my mom was away in Ohio, taking care of my grandpa as he died in a hospital bed. My dad and I spent months together, the only time in my life I’d really spent time with just my dad. He’d come home from work, say “do you want to smoke a cigarette?” I don’t smoke, but I’d sit on the deck with him while he did, maybe I’d have a beer, and he’d tell me about his day. He was 60 and still worked 70 hours a week at a highly stressful job, a job involving making terrifyingly important decisions about things like terrorists all day.

We’d also talk about my life, how I was going to rebuild it. He helped me process my separation and divorce, told me over and over how proud he was that I’d done such a hard but necessary thing. He never offered unsolicited advice, never pushed me to talk when I didn’t feel like it. My dad and I shared a tendency to need to process things internally- sometimes for years- before we could talk about them out loud.

We’d make dark jokes, like we always did during weird times. We’d joke about whether or not 35 was too old to find a new husband, that I was lucky to look so young for my age, that I couldn’t technically be a spinster living in my parents’ basement because I’d already been married once (I googled it). We’d watch Impractical Jokers and cheesy ghost hunting shows, eat Girl Scout cookie thin mint ice cream. He’d watch football and try to explain it to me and I’d intentionally ask the most ridiculous questions until he, laughing, told me to shut up.

He taught me how to shoot a gun and he was as shocked as I was when I (gentle, afraid of violence, and with virtually no hand-eye coordination) turned out to be a naturally good shot, my hand steady and my aim precise. He couldn’t stop laughing in disbelief and pride.

I’d always loved my dad and we’d always gotten along well, but this summer he also became one of the best friends I’d ever had. His laugh, his blunt honesty, his belief that I was capable and strong even when I didn’t feel like it, the understanding between us that he could fix things for me if I ever needed him to but that letting me fix them myself was more important- these things bolstered me when nothing else did. By my 36th birthday in late October I felt calm, hopeful about my future, thanks in large part to my dad.

On November 1st he died, suddenly, of a heart attack. This blog is just my attempt to make sense of it all.