Twenty-two years

“What’s a dad for, dad? Taught me how to stand, dad. Took me by the hand and you showed me how to be a bigger man, dad. Listen when you talk, dad. Follow where you walk, dad. And you know that I will always do the best I can.” — Yellowcard, “Life of a Salesman”

I’ve written about my dad in this space and other places before. I planned to let this year go by without mentioning it, trying my best to treat it as another day, but I’ve found myself talking about him in the last couple weeks because of what I do in my professional life. Last week, for example, I mentioned Dad, who served in law enforcement, in testimony to an Oklahoma Senate panel on civil asset forfeiture.

Twenty-two years ago today, my dad, known to most as “Butch,” passed away after a years-long battle with cirrhosis, which our family believes was caused by his exposure to Agent Orange when he served in Vietnam. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone for more than half my life.

 

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Growing up, it was almost routine for Dad to go into the hospital. I can’t even count the number of times he went in and, after a few days or a week, he’d come home. My mom and I have ballparked the figure at around 60. But just before I entered 7th grade, in summer of 1993, Dad had to go to the hospital again, and this time, he wouldn’t come home.

Not long before Dad died, I recall asking Mom after church one Sunday night when he would pass away. I was probably ten years old at the time, so we’ll peg that at some point in 1991. I knew that he wasn’t healthy because of the frequency of his hospital visits. She handled the question the best way she could. As I found out later, they were told by the family doctor that Dad was terminal and he had two years to live. Shortly after this, Mom began having severe stomach pains, which was related to the stress of the situation.

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When he went into the hospital in August 1993, I knew something was wrong; that this particular visit was worse than any previous ones. A week into his stay in the hospital, I remember tearfully begging his doctor to help him get well enough to come home.

Shortly before he passed, I had the chance to visit him. Initially, I couldn’t do it. I walked in and saw him connected to machines. I broke down at the sight. Eventually, after I’d gotten over the shock, I went back in and spent a few minutes with him.

 

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In the wee hours of September 7, 1993, Mom got home from the hospital, she walked in my bedroom, and told me, “Son, your dad is gone.” We buried him a few days later. He was promoted posthumously and given full military honors. The flag that was given to mom was later given to me by her as a Christmas gift. It now sits in my living room, though I may move it into my office, now that I think about it. Honestly, I don’t remember much from the immediate days after his death. I was pretty numb. I recall getting a “student of the week” award from my school not long after. At the time, I played baseball and was planning to try out for the school’s team. I nearly quit playing, altogether. Growing up, I was so used to playing with Dad sitting in the stands that I couldn’t imagine him not being there. Thankfully, I didn’t quit.

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I went to counseling to help deal with things, and that helped some. But I struggled to shake off the effects of the loss. I didn’t get rebellious, per se, though I had some anger problems that I didn’t fully deal with until my late 20s. By the time I graduated from high school, the most Mom had to worry about was me staying out at band practice until one o’clock in the morning. I did, however, develop a deep skepticism and resentment of the United States’ foreign policy, which eventually subsided and subsequently redeveloped to a lesser extent.

 

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Six years ago on this same day, I visited Dad for the first time since we laid him to rest. I happened to be on the way to visit Bob Barr. The cemetery in which he is buried is huge. I’m surprised I found his grave as easily as I did. I had a moment, but I was glad I visited. I’ve been back twice since.

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This time of year is always rough for me. I try to avoid it getting me down, and sometimes it works and others, not so much. On the bright side, while no one can replace a father, I’m thankful for the many who were there for me over the years, from when he passed to today, including Richard Schrade, Bob Barr, Joe Shadowens, and my step-dad, Gary Lee. Mom, of course, was the biggest positive influence.

Looking back, my life could’ve taken some bad turns, but I’ve had some great influences who helped kept me on the right path. While it gets easier every year and I may have finally dealt with Dad’s death, I don’t think I’ll ever be “over” it, and that’s okay.

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