“Kelly, you need to report to the office,” Mr. Cronin, my 7th grade History teacher instructed me after a student aide arrived with a note and handed it to him. “Gather your things,” he added solemnly.
Puzzled, I got up from my desk, grabbed my purse and my books and headed downstairs and out of the building. Heading across the courtyard toward the office I noticed my Uncle Dan, my mom’s sister’s husband, standing outside. A policeman, my uncle was dressed in plain clothes that afternoon.
Even more puzzled, I asked, “Uncle Dan, what’s going on?”
“Your mom is out in the parking lot. She needs to talk to you,” was his somber reply.
We walked together out to the parking lot. I didn’t see our car anywhere, but Uncle Dan guided me over to his car, where my mother sat in the front seat with sunglasses on, while my brother Tom sat in back.
I opened the passenger door and climbed next to my mom, all the while asking, “Mom, what is it? Did something happen to Brian?”
“No, Honey,” she was quietly weeping. “There’s been an accident. Daddy was in a truck accident early this morning.”
“Oh, no,” I began, “is he okay? Where is he now?”
She held me very tight in her arms and said, “Honey, Daddy died.”
In disbelief I began to wail, and my first question was, “Was there a fire?” Having burned my finger on a match while lighting a candle several months before, I had gotten a dose of the excruciating pain fire can cause; after that my fear of fire became almost an obsession.
“No, he rear-ended another truck near Bakersfield and died instantly,” she calmly explained between sobs.
Tom sat silently in the back seat, nibbling on his fingernails.
The next couple of days were a whirlwind of tears, shock and confusion. We didn’t go back to the house after my mother broke the news to me; instead, we stayed with my Aunt Berniece and Uncle Dan out in Brentwood. This was close to a handful of my dad’s relatives and the funeral home.
In my twelve years I had never seen a dead person before, so the shock of seeing my father lying in the casket at the viewing was overwhelming for me. I walked up to him, but immediately retreated back into a corner, in tears, while our family friends, Bill and Brenda Cottier, comforted me.
The funeral itself was a blur as well, but I do remember key points, like seeing my father’s oldest sister Adra, who was always so jolly and fun, just sobbing into her handkerchief in the seat behind me. From my seat I watched family and friends walk by my father’s casket, and was particularly shocked, yet touched, when Brenda Cottier bent down and gave him a kiss. My mother let out a huge sob at that moment, and later in the service as we said our goodbyes, Mom, too, bent down and gave him a kiss.
My grandmother had a relative on each side of her, holding her up, as she wailed, “My baby boy….not my baby boy….” That was one of the most heartbreaking moments during the service.
As painful as it was to have my father ripped out of my life so suddenly, I can’t imagine how I would have survived had we had a closer relationship. Although I did harbor some guilt about wishing bad things upon this man who was more tyrant than loving father, there was a part of me that took solace in knowing that he was finally released from his pain and unhappiness.
I asked my mother if my father’s death had been intentional, if perhaps he had purposely hit the other truck at 80 mph, but she replied, “No, Kelly. Daddy didn’t want to die.”
The autopsy revealed he had fallen asleep prior to impact, waking up a split second before. The cab of his truck separated from the trailer and went careening into a field. He died on impact of crushed ribs and fractured skull; no suffering, which gave me a sense of relief. A couple years later we learned more about Narcolepsy and figured that was the main culprit.
The sad thing is the night before his death my mother, baby Brian and I had all just gotten back from a carnival at County East Mall. I had bought some 45 (rpm) records at The Wherehouse and settled in to play them the moment we got home. Dad was in a foul mood, as he had gotten a call that he needed to make a haul to the Bakersfield area. One of the other drivers was sick, or whatever, so Dad needed to pick up the slack.
Dad, like many other truck drivers, took Speed-related drugs to stay awake on the road. Several days before, Dad had asked Mom to pick him up some pills, but she — in her anti-drug-related stance — refused.
So there I sat in my room, playing my new Dr. John and Lou Reed records, while Dad scurried about to get ready, all the while barking at Mom and even taking a moment to spank Brian for fussing and adding to his burden.
Mom always made a point to say, “Be careful,” anytime Dad went out on a haul, but, put off by his grouchy disposition, this time she said nothing. He walked out the door and out of our lives forever, that evening in April 1973. We’ll never know what his last thoughts were as he drove down that highway; we’ll never know what was in his heart.
In spite of the pain of losing my dad, one would think that, considering the pain he put us through while he was alive, things would have gotten easier at home once he was gone. They didn’t, but that’s for another blog, another time.
I have always envied girls who grew up with awesome dads; no doubt it can have such a huge impact on a girl’s self esteem, and be such a positive influence on the choices she makes in her life.
I am also envious now, when I hear women talk about how wonderful their dads are, or were. I know regret can be the cancer of life, but there are times when I still feel cheated that I didn’t have what so many women were able to have in their lives.
Who knows, had my father lived longer, if he would have sought the help he needed. I think of him often, and how much he missed out on, not only because he died at only 42, but also how much he missed out on while he was alive.
I am my father’s daughter in many ways. I know he would be very proud of me, not only for making my own path in this world, and being in a career I love, but also for possessing a zest for life that he so would have loved to have had.
Anytime I am near a marina or harbor, I feel his presence. His love for boats and all things having to do with lakes, rivers or ocean were joyous experiences for him that were simply too few and far between. He loved Monterey, and I know he would have gotten the biggest kick out of San Diego. I envision us walking along the docks — arm in arm — admiring the boats, breathing in the ocean air, then of course settling in somewhere nearby for a good cup of chowder and some fried calamari.
(One thing I forgot to mention is that Dad always insisted I try all foods; one of his virtues, and a life lesson that has served me well. Again, I know he would be proud.)
Tom Wingo’s narration at the end of the movie Prince of Tides has always resonated with me. He states, “In New York I learned that I needed to love my mother and father in all their flawed, outrageous humanity, and in families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness.” How the words still bring tears and a smile.
Over time I have learned to not blame the dysfunction of my childhood for the things that aren’t right in my life today; instead I prefer to credit the dysfunction for the things that are right in my life today.
Thank you, Mom and Dad. I will always love you.