Saturday, August 19, 2017

Losing My Dad

On Father’s Day, my life changed. The toughest, coolest, scariest, man I’ve ever met died.

My Dad.

Over the last ten years, Dad’s contemporaries have been dropping off one by one. I was sad, but also secretly relieved that I still had my dad. It was like the Reaper kept putting him off, like “Ug, really?! John Turner’s number is up? I have to go after that ornery old bastard?! Maybe next year—2016 about wore me out.” I was beginning to think he'd go on forever, like Keith Richards.

Dad was healthy and taking good care of himself. He was happy too. It was rare for me to call up and catch him in a bad mood. The kind of mood that used to make me try to feel his vibe through the phone before dialing it.

Dad and Tibs
He was making plans. He was feeling good, other than a recent issue with bradycardia which the doctors were working on, he was good. He loved being a grandpa and we were getting to know each other a whole other level; as fellow adults, as friends.

Then he caught the flu and was sick for over a week. On Father’s Day he started feeling better. He talked to me, Charley, and then later my brother Reed. Then he took a nap and died.

The Reaper finally got up the nerve to deal with him...when he was napping.

Reed and I were devastated. I couldn't believe it.  At the funeral home, I opted to see him because if I didn't, I knew it would never be real to me.

It was real.

This summer has been a whirlwind of phone calls, trips to his house to clean things out, sending and receiving condolences, and finally having a gathering to remember him.

We tried a few dates, but the only one that worked fell the day after my 40th birthday.  I felt crushed under the weight of passing time. 

I was stressed out trying to create something worthy of his life. Something loud. Something big. There should be fire and brimstone, cannons and roaring motorcycles, wailing virgins, a clashing of swords beneath a murder of circling crows, then a flaming boat to carry him to Valhalla. But all I could do is stake out a spot on the river and brings some stuff for a potluck. It all seemed so...inadequate.

Preacher Bob
It wasn’t. It was wonderful.  There were Dad’s friends old and new. There were wise words spoken by a preacher who was once Free Soul biker.  He normally holds services in a tavern and baptizes sinners in a river. There were motorcycles and leather chaps. A skunky smoke wafted in the air. There were drinks of whiskey & Coke prepared by a friend who used to tend bar when they were young. There were tears and laughter, and rambunctious kids underfoot. And there were wonderful hugs. There were stories told from open hearts about what Dad meant to them. There was a feast of delicious food. The sunlight percolated through the leaves warming us.  The river wept and told us of her remembrances too. Forest fire smoke spoke of death and renewal.

Karen, Barry, Geno, and Les
I could feel Dad there too, and he was having a helluva time.

Although I will forever miss my dad, I am grateful to everyone who has reached out. For every bunch of beautiful flowers, hugs, I love yous, and cards or notes through FaceBook. I am so lucky to be surrounded by all of you. I have been pouring all that love right into the hollow place that Dad left when he died and my heart feels full.

Doc & Ginger
For those who couldn’t make the memorial, here is what I had to say about the man who was my father.


The last time I talked to my dad was on Father’s Day.

He had been sick with the stomach flu for over a week, but on that day was feeling better. His fever was gone and he’d felt well enough to shower and eat a little bit.

I talked about my girls finishing up their school year and about my new garden.

I told him about a neighborhood party we were about to have to celebrate the kids getting out of school. And that by the next summer my new berry row should be dripping with blackberries and raspberries, and how I was thinking I’d make some pies for a social, and how I’d love for him to come for that and stay for a few extra days.

He thought that sounded great.

He told me about the tomatoes he’d planted in pots and was excited to see how they’d turned out. “I’ve never tried growing tomatoes before.”

When I was cleaning out his house after he passed, there they were, two beautiful tomato plants in pots sitting in the sun. I loaded them up too and brought them home with me. They’re doing well and setting out beautiful fruits.

He told me again how much he liked Trader Joe’s.

I had introduced him to that store during his last visit. We went shopping together and he was excited about all the health food stuff: the fresh ginger, avocado oil, a stevia sweetener he liked, organic coffee… The man was always a foodie, and as of late he been reading a lot of about nutrition and holistic health too. He’d send me emails about things he thought I should know, like the dangers of non-organic potatoes and coffee because they absorbed toxins from pesticides and herbicides.

As I packed up his kitchen, there was a stack of Trader Joe’s paper bags that I loaded up with all of his organic goodies.

He sounded tired on the phone, but I didn’t want to hang up. I kept telling him how I hoped he’d feel better soon and that I wish I could make him some chicken soup and hang out and watch The Quiet Man with him.

He wished that too.

I gave the phone to Charley so they could wish each other Happy Father’s Day. They talked for a bit and Charley handed me back the phone.

Eventually, I realized he wanted to go, but didn’t want to have to say it, so I said good-bye told him Happy Father’s Day yet again and said, “I love you” two or five more times and hung up.

Reed called him later that afternoon.

Then my dad fell asleep and left us.

Two days later I got a text from Reed that said, “Call me ASAP.”

*Oh fuck.*

I called, and before he spoke I said, “Is Dad OK?”

His voice broke he said, “No.”

I don’t remember anything else from that conversation.

I do remember the fear and adrenaline that was running through my body. I can feel it now too.

I’ve been thinking about how to talk to all of you about my father. But most of you already know. That’s what it is to be among family. You can drop half formed sentences and the other person knows enough to correctly interpret what you’re trying to say.

So that’s what this is a long half sentence that I know, you know, how to infer all that I can’t find the words to say.

There’s no doubt that I was a daddy’s girl. I was the smallest of the crew that we grew up with, but I was scrappy. With a father like big JT, what did I have to fear from anybody?

Being a dad’s girl never changed. Reed and I visited our mom occasionally and she’d try to talk us into staying with her, but that was never an option for us. We knew we belonged with our dad. We loved growing up on the river and everybody in our extended family here. Several times mom challenged him for custody and each time he fought to keep us. It would have made his life so much simpler to unload us on someone else, but he didn’t. Reed and I will never forget that. My dad was far from perfect, but we belonged together. And there’s not a face out here today that didn’t in some way help keep us together.

The crew. 

Here are a few of my favorite memories of my dad:

I was about six and after a long drive home from town, I pretended to be asleep in the backseat of the car we’d borrowed for the trip. I was hoping Dad would carry me inside. He picked me up and carried me like I weighed nothing. I still remember the feeling up being curled up next to his chest. I’m pretty sure he knew I was faking and carried me in any way.

At about eight years old, we were at The Rope swimming and I had yet to work up the courage to jump off the high rocks—but I really wanted to. Dad and I walked to the top and he executed a perfect swan dive from the rocks into the pool below. He came up and shook the water from his hair and wiped it from his face and mustache and treaded water waiting for me. I stood up there, holding on to the snag trembling. He called up, telling me it was OK, that’d he’d be right there to catch me. It took me forever to work up the courage to do it, but he didn’t get impatient, just treaded water and kept sending up encouragement. Finally, I let go of the snag, shuffled up to the ledge, pushed was exhilarating. And when I resurfaced Dad was there to tell me how proud he was.

Running the River
Going down the river on Dad’s drift boat was always a treat too. He was always at ease with us and the world out on the water. Fully engaged, he taught us how to fish from a boat, and to read the water to find the best holes and how currents drifted in food to the fish. He also taught us to oar the boat and explained how to read the water for hidden rocks, holes, and how to best position the boat to hit the rapids. He was always relaxed and happy on the river and in the woods. To this day that’s where I go when I find life weighing me down.

He taught us to fish, to shoot, to forage, and to take care of each other. I left home as a 18-year-old adult, fully capable of taking care of myself, holding a job, paying my bills, and keeping my home. He gave us strong work ethic and principles.

My dad also had a soft spot for cast-off animals and people who needed a leg up. Until recently, I’d never raised a puppy. Our dogs came to us fully grown, usually unwanted by their former owners. We always had two or five cats. Dad never hesitated to take in friends that needed a play to stay either, sometimes for a year or more. Kids were no exception. It was usual for us to have one, sometimes two, extra kids living with us for a while. In fact, there are really only a few times I can remember where our house consisted of just the three of us.

Even without live-ins, our house was usually full of people. He was never so happy as when he was surrounded by friends. Not just friends, but people he called “Brother” and “Sister.”

They were people he loved and who loved him in return.

All of you.

Ten years ago, I became a parent. Seeing first hand the trials of being a parent I gained a new respect for him. I think he saw me in a new light too. I could call him when my parental frustrations were causing me to lose my mind and he’d talk me down. Then we’d talk about other things and I’d hang up feeling so much better. I leaned on him a lot. I needed him and he was there. Just like he always has been.

My girls loved him. Tiberius loved him. Dad had grown into a soft touch in his grandpa years and doted on our kids. As I was cleaning out his things, all of the pictures and art the kids had made and sent him over the years were either on display or carefully tucked away. He always had the patience for their little kid ramblings on the phone. There was a wonderful day when we were all at the Blue River Boat Landing and he was teaching my littlest Berzo to fish, just as he did with me thirty-five years ago.

The thing I admired most about my father is that he never apologized for who he was. He owned his strengths and shortcomings and moved through his world with confidence. The Japanese people have a tradition called Kintsugi, which means “golden joinery” wherein they repair cracked pottery and with gold or silver, making something broken into a work of art. My dad was like that, cracked from his mistakes, but made more beautiful by the repair. And when he’d see my brokenness, he’d pour gold in those too. So I stand before you, with all my shimmering breaks accumulated over my life proud to say John Turner was my father, and I will miss him every day for the rest of my life.