A few years ago, I lost my father to congestive heart failure at age 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. I recall the sound of his harmonica accompanying a couple of friends on guitar and banjo playing late into weekend nights, and learned that he had been an accomplished musician in his youth and had once dreamt of playing for a living. Over time his family grew and as he settled into his role of husband and father, his playing became less and less frequent. Taking a new position with Boeing near Seattle in 1967 moved him away from his band mates and his harmonica’s were relegated to a box in the basement, perhaps to be taken out again someday when he had more time. As he was a very good engineer and took his responsibilities of being a husband and father as his highest priorities, more time was something that didn’t materialize until us kids were mostly grown.
By the time more time had begun to make itself available to him, a three pack a day smoking habit had robbed him of the wind necessary to play at the level his pride demanded so the harmonicas, long forgotten, stayed that way. He kept his creative mind alive by developing a deep appreciation of Native American design and taught himself the art of silver smithing, becoming adept at creating jewelry using the spiritual forms of the northwest coastal tribes. With his four children grown, that old adversary time was seemingly on his side again.
At the age of 57 dad suffered a stroke, leaving him unable to speak and his left side mostly paralyzed. At last on the verge of again having the time to indulge his creative passions to their fullest, his body had given out. Unable to communicate effectively, even the chance to work the plum engineering assignments typically awarded to those of competence and experience when nearing the end of a working life were lost. He was forced into an early retirement. You might 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 sold the family home and bought the biggest motor home I’ve ever seen. 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 having a time, and having nothing but time.
In his final years he had become noticeably frail 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 more 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 are lessons that will stay with me forever, and be passed on to my two sons. He was a man of substance.
Happy fathers day pop. I wish we’d had more time.