Today would have been my dads 80th birthday.
A couple of years ago I lost my father to congestive heart failure at 78. He was a man from a dirt poor background who through will, determination, and the GI Bill, worked his way through college to become an aerospace engineer with Boeing. As a kid I remember him waking before dawn for the two hour commute to Vandenberg AFB and then arriving home long after my sister and I had eaten supper and been tucked into bed. When I was very young I recall the sounds of his harmonica and those of a few of his friends playing guitar and banjo and learned that he had been an accomplished musician in his youth and had dreamed of playing for a living. Over time as his family grew and he settled into his role of husband and father, his playing became less and less frequent until taking a new position with Boeing near Seattle moved him away from his band mates, and his collection of harmonica’s were relegated to a box in the basement with the other flotsam of life that falls out of favor for one reason or another. He was a very good engineer and took his responsibilities of being a husband and father as his highest priorities but he kept his creative mind alive, developing a deep appreciation of Native American design and teaching himself the art of silver smithing, becoming adept at creating silver jewelry using the spiritual forms of the northwest coastal tribes.
At the age of 57 he suffered a stroke leaving him unable to speak and his left side mostly paralyzed. He was no longer able to practice his profession or indulge his creative passion, forced into an early retirement. You may be thinking this is the part of the story where I recount my fathers decent into bitterness and resentment and early death but you would be wrong. After a long rehab he partially regained mobility and improved his speech to where he could be understood. He came to understand his forced early retirement as a second chance to do some of the things that he had long ago dismissed as unpractical or unrealistic. His final twenty years were a time of traveling. Of he and my mother buying a small place on the Sea of Cortez in Baja. Of exploring and adventure. Of living with no rules other than where to, what next.
In his final years we all knew he was living on borrowed time but it was still a shock when I received the phone call from my mother saying his heart was failing and that he wasn’t expected to make it through the night. I quickly grabbed a flight, hoping to see him one last time, to reminisce of days past and speak of the things that sons and fathers always seem to put off until that late night phone call comes, but he passed peacefully as I was in the air somewhere between Seattle and Tucson. If I had had the chance, I would have told him that he was my hero. That the memories of his harmonica playing, memories of teaching me to fish and to swim, the example he set through a life well lived that a man is only limited by his dreams in what he can accomplish will stay with me forever, and be passed on to my two sons. That he was a man of substance.
Vaya Con Dios dad.