My Dad.

Shared by Hallie Torrell Saxena on February 14, 2011

My dad.  He died last Monday night.  He was alone in his apartment and it seemed that he died peacefully.  My grandmother called on Tuesday to tell me.  She asked if I had a minute.  I have eight- month old twins and, of course, responded that I did, literally, have one minute. 

“Your dad died last night honey,” she said.  “He’s gone.”

 I dropped the phone and collapsed face-down on the floor, sobbing.  We had just been to Buffalo for Thanksgiving to introduce our babies to our friends and family - my 100 year-old grandmother and my parents, in particular.  It had been a difficult journey but one that we thought important given my grandmother’s age and my father’s so-so health.  Twenty years ago when I was in college, my dad had a heart-attack and a stroke which almost killed him.  Ever since then we’ve all cherished his time with us all the more.  The stroke wiped out much of his communication skills.  He had been an English teacher at Cleveland Hill for many years and it always seemed to me a particularly harsh and ironic hand for someone so adroit in the English language.  My parents had some differences but love of the English language was something they shared and passed on to my siblings and me.  When I was about ten my father told me something was “erudite.”  This was how my family was – my parents used the big words with us even when we were very young - something most parents eschew (a word I learned from my granny).  Before grocery shopping, my mother would ask me what sundries I needed for my daily ablutions.  At times my parents’ constant introduction of these seemingly complicated words annoyed me: why couldn’t I have “normal” parents and a “normal” family? In retrospect, my erudite parents taught me the value of articulation and helped pave a solid foundation for my future education.  Despite having a very middle class upbringing with two public-serving parents (my dad, an English teacher and my mom, a librarian), and a public education at Amherst high school and SUNY Fredonia, I had the opportunity to go to Harvard graduate school, in large part because of the education my parents provided for me at home. 

 

It’s odd how when people are alive you often focus on, perhaps even resent them for, what they are not, but in death I can tell you that all you think about is everything they were.  Everything they did for you and how grateful you are for having them in your life.  When my dad was alive, I sometimes felt my relationship with him was rather distant.  At least from my perspective.  He was not the kind of dad who taught us sports, had deep conversations with us, or gave us advice.  He was quiet and often stayed in his study grading papers, smoking his pipe, and listening to opera.  Now that he’s gone, all I can think of is every little thing he did for me to help me in the best way he could and how much I miss him.  Miss hearing his voice, miss his hugs, miss his quiet yet steady presence in my life. 

I remember walking around the living room with my feet on his when I was a tiny girl.  I remember him and my mom swinging me between them on our family walks around the block after summer dinners.  I remember him teaching me the value of art by taking me to Art Park when I was young.  I remember watching Hawaii 5-O and Magnum PI with him, stretched out together on our green shag carpet.  I remember him teaching me the value of hard work by driving me to, and picking me up from, my high-school jobs at The Limited, Tops, and Pizza Hut.  I remember him dispelling gender stereotypes by cleaning the house on Saturdays and helping with the ironing.  Though he burned a hole in the shape of the iron in my Christmas nightgown, at least he tried.  He also tried to help with the cooking.  In particular, I recall a cream cheese and jelly sandwich he made me one summer which I secretly threw out as well as many a charred grilled cheese.   Let’s face it: he was no Betty Crocker.  Although he loved food and used to take me out for donuts and hot cocoa when I was little, for .99 cent breakfasts when I was in my 20s, and for Greek food when I was in my 30s.  He had such a sweet tooth and was always up for a trip to Dairy Queen after school when I was a teenager.  He was also up for fun: he took my cousin Jengi and me to Busch Gardens, our family to Darien Lake, and my cousin Mike and me to Fantasy Island where we gorged ourselves on red licorice, after which he (my cousin, not my dad), threw up all over our bathroom and permanently stained our bathmat an iridescent pink. 

Later on in my life, my dad was proud but not thrilled when I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Ukraine.  Before I left, he bought me a suitcase and a coat for my journey and accompanied me to the airport with my mom.  I remember him telling me “Now you’re all alone,” at the airport and me laughing at his grim farewell.  Years later, I realized he was talking more to himself than me, sad at the fact that his daughter was leaving.  The summer after I completed my Peace Corps service and before grad school started, he drove me to and from my job in Clarence almost every day because I didn’t have a car.  He was living in Williamsville at the time and I was living in Buffalo.  Supporting me to support myself took about half his day almost every day the entire summer but he was so happy to do it and always greeted me with a smile and a kiss.  He also drove for Meals on Wheels for many years and lent his car freely.  He took us on vacations to Florida and Maine when we were young.  Sometimes he fell asleep at the wheel for a few minutes on the way, but he always managed to get us there and home safe. 

He had a unique sense of style, particularly in home décor and cars.  I won’t expound on my dismay over the red pleather chair that mysteriously showed up in our living room one day and ended up staying there for the next decade.  Or the hideous thirty-two gallon plastic garbage can that appeared in our dining room one day never to leave.  At one point, my dad drove a long brown Buike Regal with velvet seats which my mom referred to as “the pimp mobile.”  He covered the velvet seats in clear plastic and drove my cousin Jengi and me to Sanibel Island one summer.  I distinctly remember him protesting when we propped our feet up on the front seat from the back to help reduce the sticking to the seat.  That trip I also witnessed him the angriest I think he’s ever been after we’d snuck out in the night to hang out with some new friends and chew tobacco.  We returned to find him standing in the doorway; in a stern tone he said, “I’m really pissed off at you kiddos!”  Jengi commented to me recently when we were reminiscing that his anger would have been more threatening had he dropped the “kiddo” part.  He was a gentle person with a caring and giving spirit despite the fact that he struggled with depression all his life.  He never complained, despite his numerous physical ailments, and he was really happy with the small things in life like sharing a meal, feeding the birds, taking a walk, or listening to music. 

He was generous, often beyond his means.  He and my mom bought me my first car and he gave generously to my siblings and their children.  After my parents divorced when I was thirteen, he stopped by every week to see me and drop off money.  He was not a dad who checked out after moving out.  He loved our family deeply and never took off his wedding ring, even long after the divorce.  When he still lived with us, I discovered that he was a closet opera singer.  Little did he know that I listened to him singing in his study when the door was closed.  It was like that cartoon with the singing frog: as soon as I opened the door, the singing would stop but when I closed it, I had Pavarotti in my midst.  My dad may have made money to support his family by teaching English but he was an artist at heart.  I won’t hi-light the carpentry which can be summed up in four words: green plywood phonebook holder.  But he sang beautifully and robustly, illustrated in pen and ink with painstaking accuracy, painted abstractly and with abandon, wrote both silly and serious poems and essays, and photographed the world, especially nature, with a rare acumen that revealed his appreciation of the wondrous uniquity of something as simple as a shell.  That was, in fact, my father.  Simple and complex at the same time.  A paradox.  His gift-giving was the perfect example.  He had a playful, almost childlike sense of humor.   Who can forget the singing cow skull he gave my brother, the dancing trout, or the talking tree face.  We often made fun of these gifts for their silliness but their real purpose was to make everyone laugh and that they accomplished.  He was giving us the gift of laughter.  Other gifts were the complete opposite: a beautiful etched crystal paperweight with a personalized poem for my husband and me when we got married; a lovely silver necklace with tiny charms saying “live like heaven’s on earth,” “laugh like no one’s watching,” and “sing like no one’s listening.”  He always let me know he was proud of me.  He had photos of me and the rest of the family all over his apartment.  He gave me a plaque of a star that says “You make us proud just by being yourself and that’s all you ever need to be.”  He gave my husband countless thoughtful and generous gifts, including a beautiful Ganesh statue that we display in our living room.  Just a few weeks before he died, he sent the babies a book called “Prayers for the Little Ones” and signed it “Love G-Pa” with a heart sticker.  He also gave them warm hats and gloves which they’ve been wearing out on walks.  He gave me so many beautiful gifts from other cultures which he was so interested in, yet never traveled to or experienced himself.  He was not talkative and we spent many a lunch at Tom’s or Perkins eating lunch in content silence, yet his gifts to me often shared very poignant verses or valuable wisdom.  His writing was often silly but other times beautiful and lyrical.  A few Christmases ago, he sent me a poem he had written which I thought so lovely I put it on my refrigerator door:

Christmas Meditation

 

The twinkle you see tonight may have begun

Its journey through the blackest of space

Two hundred thousand light years ago.

The star itself, eons ago, may have exploded

Into star dust, even though man will continue

To see it shine until the last vestige of light

Ceases.

Perhaps, when the final moment comes,

The dying sun will blaze forth in a blinding

Nova.

Maybe a sentient race of beings will evaporate

In a moment’s tick.

Some say the Star of Bethlehem that guided

The Wise Men to the chilly manger was

The death blaze of a dying star.

If our sun should someday grow large

And end man’s story, wouldn’t it be wonderful

To think that somewhere on a distant planet,

Rounding its own sun, the light from

Our death might signal the birth

Of a new hope?

 

-          Richard Torrell           

 

 

As a new mother, this poem is particularly poignant to me at this time.  May the light of my dad’s death illuminate and guide me and my family and may he watch over us all as we continue his legacy of appreciating and respecting nature, being gentle and kind, and sharing ourselves and our talents with the world as best we can.  I will miss you so much, dad.  Thank you for everything you did for me and for being a good father to me.  I will always remember you and will make sure the babies know you.  Your spirit lives on forever, I promise.

 

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