This is a tribute to my true hero. My John Wayne. In many ways, he was just that. Daddy looked strikingly like James Arness in Gunsmoke when he was in his 20s and 30s, and much like John Wayne in his older years.
I wrote a few years or so ago about calling a dead man's cell phone. That father's death affected me, admittedly, with nothingness. The man he was supposed to be was replaced with this one. One man held my hand while I crossed the road as a very young child, the other held my heart for the rest of his life.
The single biggest influence in my life, you couldn't convince me that the blood that runs through my veins wasn't his if you tried. Daddy came in strong and stayed. He came with gifts—food and raincoats for children, not broken promises and pipe dreams. He was the white horse kind of cowboy.
My first TV boyfriend was Little Joe on Bonanza. I was a little girl idolizing a cowboy while living in a brownstone in Chicago, Illinois, and living with the rhinestone cowboy father. I met the real cowboy eight years later in a little pink house outside of Moncks Corner, South Carolina.
Daddy taught me that Little Joe and the cast of Bonanza weren't the only western heroes. Let's see, there was John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Jimmy Stewart, Sam Elliott, Robert Mitchum, Roy Rogers, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and on and on.
There were good guys and bad guys, and in all the movies and books he ever read and watched, the good guys tried to win. I learned so much from him. He taught me that we just keep trying to get better, and even in his illness, he worked on this. He would ask forgiveness for imaginary sins, dropped pride and accepted grace.
Like the cowboys of his youth and the ones that were piped incessantly into the living room through the Western channel, he was given several death sentences (shot) over the past two years. He bounced back (healed himself behind the cactus) for over a year and a half. Old cowboys never die, they just fade away. In true Western fashion, Daddy faded. And then one day, there weren't any retakes.
I have found that grief doesn't discriminate, nor is there a hierarchy of pain. I also found there is pain where I can't be the encourager. I hurt, the mother hurts, the sister, the brothers, the grandchildren and in-laws. I am helpless to this day to share my grief. It is mine until it's not.
I watch the full moon drop across the night sky through the window, almost to the edge of the horizon. It hung low, like it could drop and splatter at any moment. My heart hangs as low as it does. I wonder those things, the things that you don't think of —until you do.
Did I glean all that I could of his goodness?
Who am I going to be after this? My life will change because of his death. Death turns a dial. Static comes across the waves of life. The stations don't come in as clear. I go to my journal for remembrance of some special moments, excerpts from a year earlier.
I have convinced myself that nothing bad can happen if I have my pink Curious George flannel jammies on. It works sometimes. I sit beside him as he nods in and out and he talks crazy stuff, grinning the entire time. The white noise is deafening, yet calming. Each gurgle of water and hiss from the oxygen tank is another breath he is with me.
He closed his eyes to sleep and I look at his bruised arms. Peeking out beneath his t-shirt sleeve are tales of his youth —name tattoo’s of lovers long forgotten, Debbie and Shirley, I think. I wished I had asked him about the crazy day or night that he got those. There will be a thousand and one things that I will wish that I had asked him.
I get up to make tuna sandwiches while he naps. I look out of the kitchen window. The massive oak, how many days we sat together on the porch and looked up into it's branches. How old is it, Daddy? I don't know, Nae, it was here long as I can remember, and Granny E said it was here as long as she could remember.
The last time Daddy and I measured it was about five years ago, it was over 15 feet in circumference then. Old and good, withstanding storms and ravages. Indelibly, it will die one day too, but not today.
I am honored to have fed my Dad tiny bites of tuna sandwich, to have watched him put a orange slice and a Cheeto in his mouth at the same time and proclaim its goodness. The morphine made things good and comical sometimes. I laughed when we left the room once and came back to find him completely upside down in his recliner. His head was near the floor, but he was grinning. But then again, there were the lucid days, the ones that leaked silent tears out of the corners of his eyes. Then there were the times he would just look at me and say, "I love you, girl."
He had many beds in the last year of his life, hospital, respite, and nursing. Each time in the guise of a relationship that I knew was just ours, I found him. I told him, "I will find you Daddy. Don't worry, wherever you are, I will find you." A nurse told me that she traversed to his room at night or her early morning shift just to hold the phone to his head and watch his blue eyes light up.
I watched my father, a prideful country man, nod to me this acceptance as a caretaker put a bib on him in a respite home. All the while, I wanted to holler, “Cowboys don't wear bibs!”
Daddy, I am sorry, I kept you here too long. While you prayed to die, I prayed for you to live. I am so proud of this simple man, his simple life, his sacrifices for family, his heartfelt convictions that changed a generational tide of racism and forged values that will haunt me to my grave. He had enough love to go around. I fall short. If anyone is jealous of the love I had for this man, they need only study his prototype to understand why.
I didn't know heartache could be so physical. I actually got up the night he died and took aspirins. I thought I was having a heart attack; it was the heartache of loss like I have never known. I feel the need even now, months later, to go into the forest—the kind where you don't hear trees when they fall and wail. I tried. The woods weren’t deep enough. So, rather than wait until I heal to write, I write to heal. Like a paralyzed cursor, only then can I move forward.
I didn't go to spread his ashes around that old oak tree. It was his life with that oak that mattered, not without it. I didn't do a damn thing I was expected to do.
I am going to follow the vapors of his trail that went into the sunset and then sank this big-ass Harvest Moon over me. I'll have to come back—there is only so far a live cowgirl can ride into the sunset. Don’t worry, I know where you are. I will find you, Daddy.