In honor of my father

My father passed away last Sunday, at 3:51 in the morning, after a two year fight with stage IV pancreatic cancer. When he was initially diagnosed doctors gave him a 1% chance he would make it as long as he did, more likely they told him, he would be gone in 5 months. Of course my dad wasn’t ordinary, so it surprised none of us that he was able to fight as long as he did. And a fight it was. He went two consecutive years on chemo, never taking a break. At the end his body was completely destroyed.

The day after my dad left this world his death was front page of the local news. The main focus of the article was on his last 10 years as a state champion track coach for Marshfield High School. My father was a huge figure in his community, a larger than life presence, he had the unique ability of making you feel like you were the only person in the room when he spoke to you. Before that he flew F15s in the United States Air Force. And before that he earned a world record in the 40-yard shuttle hurdles, while a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy.

But that’s not what I’ll remember most about him.

Being raised by a fighter pilot is like being raised by Zeus himself. Other kids in school had dads who were teachers, or mechanics, doctors, or lawyers. But my dad? He was the greatest fighter pilot in the world. How did I know that? He told me so.

Do you know the difference between a fairy tale and a fighter pilot tale? A fairy tale starts out, “Once upon a time.” A fighter pilot story starts out, “No shit, this really happened.”

Except in my dad’s case, it was true.

He could break apples in half with his bare hands. He could juggle pretty much anything you threw at him. He could split logs in a single heft.

My dad was the strongest, handsomest, fastest man I knew.

One time a girl in school saw a picture of my dad and shrieked, “Your dad looks just like Arnold Schwarzeneggar!”

Nevermind that he was Asian. She was right. He was a perfect specimen.

Of course, being a fighter pilot in the Air Force meant my dad was gone a lot. And for the most part, my mom raised us. But when he was home you knew it.

Whenever a group of people got together my dad was the life of the party. The first to start a game of charades, the first to start telling jokes, and the first to put on music (he loved Motown).

Everyone who knew my dad would say the same thing. “Your dad is so fun!”

And he was.

When my dad was home we did everything together as a family. He called it Forced Family Fun (Triple F). The rule was each member of the family got to pick something to do on their weekend. My mother usually chose a quilt shop in a neighboring town, my brother chose comic book shops, my dad was partial to battlefields and historical landmarks, and I usually steered us towards anything that ended in ice cream. And we all went. There were only a few rules: No friends allowed, just family. And you will smile. Oh yeah. And you will have fun (hence the forced part). But the thing is, we didn’t have to fake it. Our family really did love each other.

My brother and I were best friends. From a very young age my parents would always say the same thing. Friends come and go, but your family is forever. And it was true. Especially for us. Moving every couple of years meant we said goodbye to friends a lot. But your family. Your family was always with you.

My mom and dad were the other constant we could count on. Their love for each other was palpable. The respect they showed each other, the way my dad would talk about my mom in public, the way he would catch her eye in a group of people. He would tell anyone who would listen that he married his high school sweetheart, his true equal, and the love of his life.

Not that my dad was big on saying “I love you.” As an adult, if I spoke to him twice in one day on the phone, he would only say “I love you” the first time. Even if I said “I love you,” he would answer, “Yep” and then we would hang up.

Not because he had stopped loving me, but because he really was a man of few words. Every thought he gave voice to was carefully crafted and spoken with an intention to teach, inspire, or force action.

Everything my dad did warranted an audience. He was one of those magical people who, I was convinced, walked among giants before coming down to Earth to start a family.

As an Air Force officer my parents attended a lot of black tie affairs. Watching them head out for the night, my dad in his full mess dress and my mom in a full length ball gown, was like watching the King and Queen head out into the world. The best part was the pride my dad would emit having my mother by his side. It was intoxicating.

Of course, my mother was always happy to be there. As an adult she often shared with me that she still got butterflies when my dad would walk into a room. She would have followed him to hell and back…and ultimately, that’s what she did.

We brought my father home from the hospital after complications arose from a shunt they had just placed in his liver (the bile duct was blocked and his body was shutting down) knowing that his chance of ever getting healthy enough to continue chemo was slim to none.

Turns out it was none.

My dad lived his life according to a quote by Vince Lombardi, “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.”

Never was my father more proud of me than when I deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Service, especially military service, was one of his true measures of success. Having already followed in my father’s footsteps by graduating from the Air Force Academy and running Division I hurdles I am positive he would have loved to see me complete a career as an Air Force officer. I can only imagine what his first thoughts were when I declared I wanted to start a goat dairy. Financial security, 401ks, and retirement plans were extremely important to my father and being a farmer didn’t necessarily bode well for employer matched contributions.

Every time he talked to me he would probe. What does a successful goat dairy look like? How do you make great cheese? What was my plan to achieve excellence?

The first time I brought Matthew home to meet my parents I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I was bringing a tree hugging hippy of a man into the home of my father, the world’s greatest fighter pilot. At the end of the visit, as Matthew and I prepared to leave, my dad handed me gas money for the 6 hour drive home. I instantly made a joke about being a poor goat farmer. Instead of laughing though he shocked me by saying, “Yeah, but you’re rich in love.”

He was right of course, and I think he knew that, in Matthew, I had found my most perfect match. He couldn’t have known though, that love would come full circle.

After we brought him home from the hospital, with the promise that he could die at home, not hooked up to any machines, and surrounded by the people he loved, we were unprepared to understand exactly what death would look like.

The last full sentence my father ever said to me was a promise to die with grace. Even on his death bed my dad was committed to what he saw as the most excellent way to die.

And it was Matthew, my tree hugging hippy of a man, who had experience as a nurse in end of life care, who stood vigil with him, treated him with honor and respect, and helped us ensure that we could keep our promise to him to die at home. The last few days of my father’s life were not comfortable, beautiful, or easy, but as a family, we were there to help him pass to the other side.

And he did it with grace.

And, because of Matthew, who took on the role of his caregiver, we were able to focus on holding him, talking to him, kissing him—loving him.

My father died at 3:51 in the morning surrounded by his family. And even though he didn’t answer me when I kissed his cheek for the last time and said “I love you,” I know he was thinking it—and that’s always been good enough for me.

If you knew my father, or would like to honor his legacy, please consider making a donation to Tribute Hall.