My father passed away suddenly last Thursday morning. So many feelings, memories stirred. Still can’t quite comprehend this loss. So many tears. Still trying to process it all. Wrote a piece about him. Read it at his memorial service. Thought I’d post it here. A tribute to the man he was to me. Miss him so much. Rest in peace, Dad.
?What?s he like?? Meg says to me. ?Your father. Tell me about him.
It?s early in our relationship. Twelve years ago. Before we?re married. The time when everything is new. Your stories. Your family. Your hopes and fears.
We?re on a beach. Lying on our stomachs. On an old frayed-edged blanket Meg had stashed in her trunk for emergencies. Plucking salt and vinegar chips from a shared bag. Passing a bottle of water back and forth. It?s chilly and we?re nestled in close to each other. The waves whooshing in and out. The smell of ocean air. Seagulls doing their bobbing-head scavenger-hunt shuffle in the sand.
?He was a police officer,? is the first thing I say. Because it?s what comes to mind right off. ?In New York. Central Park.?
?Oh goodness,? Meg says, her eyes wide. ?That must have been scary for you growing up. Such a dangerous job. You must have always been worried.?
?Nah,? I say. ?It wasn?t that dangerous. He rode a horse for a while. And a bike. He was plainclothes for bit. And then he was a patrolman. Mostly he sat in his squad car, reading his paper, eating doughnuts and drinking coffee.?
Meg does a give-me-a-break eyebrow arch. ?Right,? she says. ?In Central Park? In the seventies and eighties? And all he did was eat doughnuts? You?re kidding, right??
?No. I?m serious. That?s what he told us. That?s all he did. It was a pretty boring job for the most part, pretty quiet, not much to do.?
Meg laughs. ?He?s a good man, your dad. Of course he didn?t tell you what he really did. He was taking care of you. You don?t still believe that, though, do you??
I shrug, feeling a little fire in my cheeks. ?I don?t know,? I say. ?I guess I don?t think about it much. I believed what he said. I mean, I know he found the Central Park jogger. He was proud of that. Saving that woman?s life. He was mentioned in the book she wrote. Even though she spelled his last name wrong. But I don?t think there was anything too bad.?
?You ask him,? Meg says to me. ?Next time you see him. Ask him what he saw. He?ll tell you now. Because you?re not a little boy anymore. And he doesn?t have to protect you from that kind of thing.?
It?s years later and my dad and I are sitting at a table at a diner. He?s got his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose, the ones he?s always got draped around his neck like a amulet. He?s holding the giant plastic menu at arms length. He catches me looking at him and he scrunches up his face like he does. Smiling and crinkling up the skin around his eyes.
Willie Nelson?s playing on the diner?s speakers. But it could just as easily be Glen Campbell?s Rhinestone Cowboy. Or John Denver?s Annie?s Song. Or Gordon Lightfoot?s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It?s my dad?s soundtrack, those old country songs, and I can?t hear any of them without thinking of him.
It?s the same with Clint Eastwood movies. Or golf on TV. Or rolls of mints. Or brown sweaters. Or seven card stud, deuces wild. The little details that brush by the life and bring his face, his voice, the spiced scent of his cologne to mind.
?Watcha havin??? he asks me.
?I?m thinking turkey burger,? I say.
?Oooo.? He makes a little O with his lips. ?Turkey burger?s gooooood.”
I put my menu down. ?What about you??
?I might just have some eggs and toast.?
We place our orders, my father joking with the waitress. Something about the weather. Something about the endless rain. The forecast for the week. Something he picked up on The Weather Channel.
He peels open a couple of Half-and-Halfs and stirs them into his coffee. Takes a sip, the steam swirling up around his white beard. He nods. ?Not bad. It?s no Dunkin? Donuts. But okay.?
We do our small talk dance. Asking each other about our respective golf games. How Muriel?s doing. How Meg?s doing. How he?s doing. His gout. His black cherry juice. When the last time was that he saw Robert and Camille.
We talk about the house in Queens. If he?s planning on selling it. We talk about the marina. We talk about him coming up to Canada for another visit soon. We talk about going golfing tomorrow. I tease him about all the stuff in his car. Asking him if he?s going to be able to make some room for me to sit in the passenger seat.
?Remember Captain Lou out of Freeport,? my dad says, changing the subject. ?I drove by there the other day.?
And then we?re onto reminiscing our early morning fishing trips. Memories flying past of Robert, Camille and me with Dad on the boat. The fluke. The flounder. The hard boiled eggs, the cans of Coke, the boloney and mayo on white bread, and the ?biggest fish? pool we never won.
There?s a lull in the conversation as the waitress brings our food. My father salts and peppers his eggs. I take a bite of my turkey burger. The juices dripping down my fingers.
And that?s when I ask him. The question Meg brought up all those years ago. The one I?ve been carrying around. Not sure why I waited so long. Why I decided to ask him now. But it popped into my head. And so, I ask.
?What?s the worst thing you ever saw as a police officer??
He screws up his face. ?Why do you want to know about that??
?I just do. I?m curious. It?s the writer in me.?
?We?re eating,? he says, waving his utensils over his plate.
?Come on,? I insist. ?Tell me. I want to know.?
He shrugs as he cuts into his eggs, the yolks running out, a little yellow rivulet outlining his whole wheat toast. ?The worst thing? I don?t know. I saw a lot of bad things.?
?Like what?? I ask, hearing Meg?s laughing ?I told you so? over my shoulder.
?Okay,? he says, sitting up a little taller. ?This one time we went out on this call…?
And he?s off.
Telling me shocking things. Scary things. Disturbing things.
Things I never knew he had to witness. Had to face. Had to deal with on a daily basis. Had to take home with him and stuff down inside. And our dad, you gotta understand, he?s a gentle, soft-spoken man. This kind of stuff couldn?t have been easy for him.
And as he talks, I?m just reeling, stunned by all the things he went through, shielded us from as kids.
So we wouldn?t worry, be scared every day he went to work.
So maybe we wouldn?t think the world was such a harsh place.
And I see him now. My father. Across the table. Allowing me to see part of him I didn?t know. A curtain blowing aside.
And I?m glad I asked. Happy he told me.
Because I understand him a little more than I did before.
And then, it?s last Thursday morning, five-thirty, the world outside, pitch black. Meg and I lying in bed, sound asleep.
And the phone jangles me awake.
?Meg, Meg,? I say, fumbling for my glasses on the bedside table. My heart skipping with excitement. ?It?s the baby. David and Amy are having the baby.?
?What, what, what?? she says, her voice a sleepy-confused. ?Where?s the phone??
?It?s on your side of the bed,? I remind her. ?They?re calling about the baby. She must be going into labor. Want us to get down to the hospital.?
And Meg spins over, grabs the handset from the receiver. ?Hello, hello?? she says.
But it isn?t the baby. It isn?t the call we?d been expecting.
It?s Cathy, Robert sobbing on the phone. They are talking, but I?m only catching fragments, keep hearing myself say things like, ?gosh? ?jeez? ?whoa? things like that. After they hang up, there are calls to be made: Camille, Muriel, Mom, Cathy and Robert again.
And then. Nothing. Nobody else to call. Just the quiet of the house surrounding me.
I lie there on my back, arms wrapped tight around the empty space in my chest. Feel numb, unable to get my mind around it. The extra-soft sheets we brought from Toronto rumpled up beneath me. Outside the window, looking over the water, the early morning sun has just started to stain the sky, the wispy clouds, pink.
A lone seagull drifts circles, not flapping its wings, like a balsa wood glider swooping round and round, silhouetted against the pale blue.
And I can?t feel much. Say much. Because it doesn?t seem real. Try to picture him. Not being here anymore. And I can?t. Don?t want to. ?I should have called more,? I finally say. ?I should have made him take that trip with me. I should have known he wasn?t doing well, made him see a doctor-? everything tight.
?Honey,? Meg says. ?You were a good son and your dad. He loved you. Words might not have come easy to him, but he loved you with his actions. The things he did day to day. And you loved him, too. And he knew that. No regrets honey.?
And she nestles up.
Puts her arm across me. Her head on my chest.
And I cry.
Robert Louis Calame
August 13, 1942 - March 21, 2013