Two Walks With DadBy Bruce DeFrees, Jr.
n this day of Father’s Day, June 2008, and on all the other 364 days of the year, I’d like to take a walk with my dad. I would like to learn more about the extraordinary life of this ordinary man. But he’s no longer here. And so, I will recall the two longest walks we ever took together.
THE LONGEST WALK / Part One
It was one of the worst days of my life. And one of the best.
I was in high school. On my way home one afternoon, driving my dad’s car a bit too fast and reckless, I crashed into another car just around the corner from our house. Remarkably, the only damage was to my 17-year-old ego and to my parents’ shattered car. When my dad found a ride home from work he asked me to go for a walk to show him the spot where I wrecked our family’s only car.
My feet grew heavier with every step. It wasn’t a long walk, but it seemed to take forever. At the very least I knew he was going to take away my license – and rightfully so.
When we got to the spot where the skid marks were, I detailed the entire event. How I was racing with a friend. How I had tried to steer around the other car. The sounds, the smoke. He listened and I could sense the anger and frustration welling inside him. It was painfully quiet and I braced for an explosion of rage and punishment that was sure to follow.
I knew he was mad. I knew he was thinking about the money he didn’t have for repairs and wondering how on earth he would get back and forth to work without a car. The humility it would take to ask his colleagues to shuttle him around. Finally, he turned, and with tears in his eyes, he hugged me.
And then my father said, “thank God you weren’t hurt. Let’s go home.”
I couldn’t move.
With a few simple words I was given a lifetime assurance that no matter the circumstances, my dad loves me. Even when I was pretty sure he didn’t like me all that much. Beyond that, he showed me what it means to be a father. And I will forever try to live up to his example.
THE LONGEST WALK / Part Two
It was a damp May afternoon on the edge of a farmer’s field in the rolling green hills of upstate New York. The sounds were fairly silent except for the muted grief from the gathering family members – controlled sobs and whispered greetings accompanied by the occasional call of a crow. I mindfully stepped between the weathered headstones, carrying a folded American flag to meet the approaching hearse. It was my duty as a son to carry my father to his grave.
Although I had prepared for this moment in the months that separated his death from this graveside service – carefully running through the sequence in my head to avoid any unfortunate misstep – seeing my father’s casket again was a moment for which I was unprepared. It was a moment I will never forget.
The wide, black door swung open and there it sat. There he was.
There were decorative handles along each side of the polished wooden box that rested inside the purposeful station wagon. An engraved, bronze cross on top. We lined up – my brother, my cousins and I – along each side, finding our grip on the metal holds and stepping away from the car in orchestrated procession.
The box was heavier than I anticipated. And colder.
Inside this ornate casket was the man who taught me to walk. To talk and to swing a bat. He is the man who held me in his arms when I couldn’t be comforted, and ate his dinner in the car outside the restaurant when I threw a tantrum inside. He froze his fingers to make a skating rink for us kids in the winter and played baseball with us in the yard all summer long – never minding the dents in the aluminum siding on our house from an errant at bat.
He took me fishing and to football games. We went on family camping trips, and he coached just about every team that my sisters and I played on…regardless of the sport. Or his knowledge of the rules. He learned. And taught. On Sunday mornings, we awoke to his piano playing. “Nothing Could Be Finer than to be in Carolina” was a family favorite. The irony of my settling in S.C. as a grown man manifested itself years later. The cost to tune that old baby grand piano was always out of reach for our family, but the perfection of the notes would never have improved the melody.
Once, after I was caught in a lie, my dad told me that I had disappointed him. He meant it. His words melted my insides and I vowed to never do it again. I never did.
I remember the way he hugged me as we stood in the broken glass at the spot where I foolishly crashed our family’s only car – he was just glad I wasn’t hurt. And the punishment never came.
He bought me skis and silently endured the worn holes in his own shoes. He worked every day of his life to make our lives better – my sisters’, my mother’s and mine. And he never missed an opportunity to say how proud he was of his children for all that we had accomplished.
Years later in my adulthood as a father to my own children, I was taking one final walk with my Dad. Twenty-three short steps to my father’s grave that covered a lifetime.
They say that in your final few moments on earth, your life flashes before your eyes. That’s not the only time. In the twenty-three short steps from the hearse to the grave, I remembered all those moments and more, like the shaky, stuttering flashes of an old home movie. And I thought of all that will never be and all that will never become of this extraordinary man and his ordinary life.
On this Father’s Day…and the other 364…honor your dad and remember those who are left to embrace the memories because they can no longer embrace the man.
Photo "Proud Daddy" copyright Tina Doane.