Baldheaded Woman

So today is the 5th anniversary of my darling Dad’s passing. A day both happy and sad, a day when I cry easily and often but try to smile as well, remembering all of the joy he brought into so many lives. This is who my Dad was and is and always will be.

To his country, he was a hero who forged his birth certificate to make it appear he was 17 so he could enroll in the Navy and serve as a medical corpsman on a naval ship during World War II for almost 2-1/2 years. He went back again when America became embroiled in the Korean War and served the country he loved for another year. He flew the flag outside his house every holiday and was so proud to live in a country like ours. He is proud, I know, to be buried alongside his fellow soldiers and sailors in a beautiful Veterans cemetery not far from home, a place that brings me peace when I visit it.

To my Mom, he was her best friend, her partner in crime, her husband, the love of her life. The man who made her laugh every day. The man who – when she lost her own mother a few short months after they married – insisted that her father and her brother come and live with them in their tiny apartment. The man who – as my cousin Cooky rightfully points out – was there not only at the beginning of so many lives but also there at the end of so many lives as well. The guy who never met a chore he wouldn’t do, never met a person he couldn’t strike up a conversation with, never met anyone he couldn’t charm. He was her own special leprechaun. He couldn’t have survived without her had the circumstances been reversed. She was his sun, his moon, his stars, his everything.

To my sisters and me, he was what every kid dreams of as a child. A father who came to every event great and small. A dad who drove everyone else’s kids home after sporting events and school dances and parties. A man who left us notes, even after we were adults, encouraging us, telling us things would get better, assuring us that the Blessed Mother was watching over us and would protect us. A dad who came here to my tiny little condo to tidy up (one of his favorite phrases) when I had newly become a single parent raising a young child and working 50+ hours a week with a 2-hour round commute thrown in for good measure and trying to juggle it all. A man who painted my living room when he was 80 years old, filled up my gas tank whenever he noticed it was running on empty and raised himself up to his full 5’2″ of height and threatened to beat the crap out of the guy who had wronged me.

To my great kid and my niece and my nephew, he was the grandfather who would ask you to comb his hair and who thought rewarding you for doing so with a shiny new quarter was the best treat you could get. He came to all their school events. When I worked full time, he drove my son to swimming lessons and bowling tournaments and basketball games and always encouraged those activities (although, truth be told, sports was not my great kid’s thing). He went to amusement parks with them and rode on all the rides and ate hot dogs and fries and ice cream with them and then fell asleep alongside them as we headed home in the car. When my great kid was sick, he’d take the day off and stay home with him so I could go to work. And when my great kid’s own Dad walked away, he stepped in and showed him by both words and deeds what kind of man he could become. That my son is the man he is today is because my father laid the foundation.

To my cousins, he became their second Dad. He stepped in for them when others couldn’t or wouldn’t. He is godfather to more people than I can count and Uncle Bub to so many others. He loved being surrounded by his family and liked nothing more than a party that happened to fall on a day when the Kentucky Derby was being run so he could start a pool and get us all caught up in cheering on horses we had never heard of an hour before. He told them stories of growing up with their parents and aunts and uncles and passed on that oh-s0-valuable ancestral info that is far too seldom written down.

To his friends, he was loyal and true to the very end. His best friends – my Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Ed – were part of his life for over 50 years, people he and my Mom met when their son and I started kindergarden together. He loved tormenting my Uncle Ed by filling in applications for him to box in the Golden Gloves tournament or calling him on the phone to say he was the police coming to serve a warrant. When my Uncle Ed decided to convert to Catholicism as an adult, my Dad served as his godfather (although he did draw the line at having my Uncle get into a christening dress and having my Dad hold him over the baptismal font).

To those who had harmed him, he was forgiving and kind. When my Dad was in the Navy for his second tour, he asked my Mom if she had a friend who could write to a fellow he’d met on the ship who had no one writing him. My Mom’s best friend from childhood started writing to my Dad’s friend and they eventually met, fell in love and married. But when, after she died, his friend became hardened and hurtful and cut my Dad out of his life, my Dad mourned the loss and – when he had just a few days to live – asked my sister to initiate a phone conversation with his friend who had abandoned him. I was opposed to the call but my Dad  was nothing but kind and gracious in what he said to the man he still considered his friend. He was a bigger person than I was because I felt this person didn’t deserve my Dad’s forgiveness. But my Dad knew better and I learned a lesson from him that last Sunday before he left us, that it’s never too late to forgive someone and if you don’t seize the opportunity when it presents itself, you might not get another chance.

To all of the dogs and cats and various other pets we and others had along the way, he was the best friend they could ever hope for. He would stop and pet any dog that crossed his path. When I adopted a dog who was terrified of men, my Dad used to come to my house and lay on the floor as the dog barked at him, staying there sometimes for hours just so she could get used to him being there and learn he was not there to harm her. The dog eventually preferred him over all other men (my ex-husband included – what a good judge of character that dog turned out to be). Whenever any of us had to make that very tough decision to end our pet’s life, he would come with us, even if it meant driving hours from a remote location to get there. He’d sit with the dog or cat and hold it and tell it he’d see them one day on the other side of the rainbow bridge and then weep as he watched their life slip away.

And lastly he was the person who knew what mattered in life, what meant the most. That last night of his life he struggled mightily to breathe. As the night went on, it got more and more difficult and the options were few and not pleasant. About 5:00 am, he interrupted me as I was reading him passages from the Bible and said “Ask Mom to come to the hospital”. I almost didn’t call her. It was so early and I thought I’d wait an hour or so. But I didn’t wait and I called her and my sister and my son and told them he wanted them there. And they were there by a little past 6:00 am, the point where it became clear that the end was almost here. The doctors gave him something to help him be comfortable and we all held his hand and my Mom sang his favorite songs and my sister read from the Bible and we watched him be freed from the pain and the suffering. He knew, I’m positive, that he had so little time left and he wanted to be surrounded by everyone he loved. Not everyone gets that moment, gets that chance to see the people they love the most that one last time. He did and it is that knowledge that got me through those dark and terrible days.

So today I honor my Dad by reminding those who knew him how important they were to him and what a part they played in his life and by letting those of you who didn’t know him how lucky we were to have him. And in this Easter season, with the promise of the resurrection and life eternal taught to us again, I look forward to the day when I will see him again. I know that just because I can’t see him doesn’t mean he’s not here but until I do see him again, thank you, Dad. I’m the luckiest girl on earth and I’ll love you forever.



About mygreatkid

Mom, daughter, friend, blogger, DC grad.
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One Response to Baldheaded Woman

  1. Virginia says:

    What a beautiful tribute, Ellen. I do remember your Dad, Mr. Burke, from my grammar school days, but certainly learned about the man from reading this. Makes me think of my own Dad, gone too soon as well. Happy Easter!!

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