Losing Dad

Dad and me in 1962

We buried dad on mom’s 89th birthday this October.  That day worked best with family travel schedules, and mom was okay with it.  Eight immediate family members gathered for a graveside service. We did not hug or get too close, the reality of Covid-19 altering life rituals and gatherings.

Dad lived in a nursing home for almost six years due to increasing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and other conditions. His health declined although his mind stayed sharp.  He watched hours of CNN news, and before Covid-19 hit, he regularly played Bingo and attended other activities, tooling around in his electric wheelchair. 

So when the call came from my sister, I wasn’t surprised that my 91-year old father had died (peacefully and in his sleep).  What shocked me was the instantaneousness of grief, how visual and audio memories of him in younger, healthier years started parading through my brain.

I’ve known dad 58 years; he’s been a constant in my life.  Quiet and mostly in the background, he was smart, steady, loyal and hard-working.  My dad, Robert Milton Hartman, was also complex.

He worked hard at a low-paying job – 47 years as a plumber for the same company – and he excelled at it.  Customers would call the business asking for him to come out to their farm or home because they knew he’d do the job right. 

He was fastidious about certain things, like washing the family Buick EVERY Saturday afternoon until it gleamed, and trimming the edges of the lawn just so. He preferred certain foods, like potato salad, just like his mother made it.

Dad also struggled with depression on and off for much of his adulthood and took a passive stance to his health, deferring to mom to manage doctor appointments and medications.  He refused counseling. He was maddening that way.

Church and faith were vital to him and yet he lived with fear that he’d done something to prevent salvation and the Christian’s assurance of eternal life.  This tormented him and so we did not talk with him about death or his last wishes.

He did not like to take risks, his life seemed quiet and small, less than his potential.  He refused to ask for a pay raise because “if that’s what they are paying me, that’s what I’m worth.” 

And yet, in grief I think of daddy as kind, gentle, and easy to be with.  His quiet love for his family dominates.

Warm and vital memories surface:

  • Sitting up with me as I retch over the toilet with some bug, or patting me to sleep at night when darkness scared me.
  • Leading hymns at church, first blowing the worn, trusty pitch pipe, then leading our congregation in his clear tenor voice.
  • Arriving home every work night at 6 pm sharp to relish my mom’s home cooking, eating dessert every single night.
  • Popping corn in the old electric skillet and slicing crisp local apples on Sunday afternoons.  
  • Fixing our family cars with his keen mechanical skill, taking pleasure in driving on road trips. 
  • Recalling, at my wedding, a little incident when as a child I bit him, in fear, on a roller coaster. Everyone was cracking up.
  • Helping my spouse and me with plumbing projects in the homes we owned.  He soldered copper pipes with ease and perfection.  And when our garbage disposal backed up just a few days after his death, I commented to my family that “dad would know how to fix this.”
  • Gently holding my children as babies when he and mom came to visit.
Dad and my daughter in 1998

And while the circumference of dad’s world was mostly in our rural Ohio community, he and mom flew to Nigeria in 1998 where we lived at the time.  He walked the crowded markets, visited our friends and bravely tried local foods like melon seed soup and pounded yam. 

So many memories.

I lived several states and sometimes a continent away in adulthood, and while I visited when I could, it doesn’t seem like nearly enough, nor do the phone calls I made to him in the nursing home. I did my best given my life, work, and family.

After his death, my sister and mom removed his belongings from the nursing home.  Seeing his phone hit me hard.  He loved having a phone; it was his lifeline to those he loved and it was especially vital during the the last months when the pandemic prevented any visitors.   When I’d call, he often answered with “Hello, Brenda!”  I can’t erase his number from my phone and I still have his voicemails. Here’s one: “Brenda, it’s Dad, I just wanted to call and tell you I love you, and thank you for calling.  You can call me back if you want to but you don’t have to.”

I’ve been listening to Colin Hay’s “Dear Father” a lot. (It’s a marvelous song.) These lines I’ve selected especially get to me, as I grieve daddy, honor his life, and reflect on the ways he lives on in me.

“Dear father, I’ve got your photographs.
Thank God for photographs, hip, hip, hooray. 

Dear father, I can’t let you go just yet
and I still can’t forget you walking around.

Dear father, you’re starring in my dreams,
and you’re stealing all the scenes, where did you go?

Dear father, you’re in my reflection now.
As I reach out and touch you now, where did you go?

Dear father, I’ve got your photographs.
Thank God for photographs, hip, hip, hooray”

Brenda Hartman-Souder, December 2020