Justin, Junior

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Lessons from my Dad

My Justins...
My dad was awesome. He was the kind of guy that could fix anything, even if he had never seen it before. If something exploded, imploded, shattered or collapsed - no problem. Dad would fix it (and on the off-chance he couldn't, he’d buy you a new one). He was good at every sport, faster and stronger than any other guy (even your dad), a gifted artist, oblivious of any wrongdoing on the part of his offspring (the way a good dad should be), a firm believer in never starting a fight but never being afraid to fight back, a champion of the underdog (and all dogs loved him). He had served his country as a paratrooper for the United States Army during Vietnam and had a great respect for others who chose to serve (as long as it wasn’t one of his kids and you didn't brag about it too much). He thought pregnant women were beautiful, and babies miraculous…and he would answer any question truthfully, as long as it didn’t have anything to do with sex. He worked hard and gave us everything, and never needed anything for himself.

It’s pretty safe to say that my brothers, sister and I all adored him. Dad taught us so many things - how to draw a hand, check your oil, make potato pancakes and how to nail a five-rail bank shot. He also taught us how unassuming and normal a hero can be, and how bravery is quiet.

He died of cancer in February of 2005. No one understands the devastation of losing a parent except those who have lost a parent. I don’t have the words to describe even the surface of pain and bewilderment you feel when you face the world fatherless (or motherless) for the first time, and realize that you have to face the world that way for the rest of your life. It sucks. Immensely.

But time really does pass, and softens the harsh edges of grief, and tempers the terror and anger and sorrow with distance. We all still cry sometimes when we talk about him, but it’s a different kind of sorrow - a “remember-when,” kinder, more mellow kind of grief, the type of tears that you can also smile through a little.

When I met (or re-met, considering we went to elementary school together) my husband, and realized that he was the one I wanted to spend my life with, even though I was incredibly happy and over-the-moon in love, I was still saddened by the fact that my husband and father never got to meet - I think they would have liked each other a great deal. When my brother walked me down the aisle and gave me away, I wanted with my whole heart for it to be my dad’s arm I was holding, but even through that, I was comforted in knowing how proud he would be of me, and how happy. And when the ceremony was over, before we joined our guests at the reception, I hugged my husband, cried a little, and said, “I wish my dad could be here today.”

And when my son was born, and I became a mother, I felt a whole new longing, wishing that my dad could see his grandson, and hold him, and see how awesome he is…and that my son could know how awesome his grandpa was. And before we let our family in to meet the newest member, I held my husband’s hand, hugged my son close, kissed his head, and cried a little as I said, “I wish my dad could be here today.”

As my son grows older and has developed relationships with his various family members, I try to picture how my dad would have fit into my son’s pantheon of adults he worships. He’s got aunts who spoil him and an uncle who adores him. He has two sets of grandparents on my husband’s side and my own mom - count ‘em up, people. That’s THREE grandmas. THREE. He’s got a great-grandma on his daddy’s side, too, so, as you can imagine, he lacks little in the spoiling department. I watch the way my son wraps his Papa Don (my father-in-law) around his chubby little finger, and I am so glad to see that, and how crazy his Papa Gary (my step-father-in-law) is for his “Buck,” but I don’t guess I’ll ever stop wishing that my dad was getting wrapped around one of those fingers, too.

My dad adored my sister’s kids, was certain that the sun rose and set on them, and they, in turn, were pretty sure he hung the moon. (So am I, for that matter.) And I am so glad that my dad got the chance to be a grandpa before he died. My niece and nephew were old enough to when he passed that they still remember him, and I hope, when my son is older, they can tell him stories about their Papa Jack and how much they loved him. And I will tell him myself that his grandpa would have adored him, as well…I just wish he were here to tell him himself.

The truth is, though, I wish my dad could be here every day. But he’s not. He wasn’t here to walk me down the aisle, or see the birth of my firstborn, and he won’t be here to see the next. This is a forever thing, this grieving we do, even tempered with time. But I tell you this - I still feel like the luckiest girl to have had the father I had for 25 years than any other dad for a hundred. And I will teach my son the things my father taught me: how to check the air in your tires and NEVER drive on a flat, that bragging is ugly, how to make the perfect buttered toast and how to knot a tie and to love Johnny Cash…and how the strongest of men are strong enough to be sweet and kind and tender.

Everything I know about being gentle in a harsh world I learned from him. Every man I ever meet is measured against him - that’s the legacy a good father leaves his daughters. And I am raising my son to be the kind of man my father would have loved and respected, because that’s the legacy a daughter leaves her father.


  1. I (hearts) you, Sam Palmer Kilgore...even if you do make me cry on a damn Wednesday night.