Sean-Martin and I stopped home briefly yesterday afternoon between busy Saturday afternoon errands to drop off some things before heading out again. I was listening to a couple of messages on the answering machine when I noticed that my cell phone had been buzzing in my purse. By the time I got to it, it had gone to voice mail. The area code was 417, so I knew it was my dad. I was glad. We hadn’t had one of our marathon-phone conversations for a while. It had been at least a month and a half since we’d spoken, in fact. Too long. Behind me, somewhere in Sean-Martin’s brief case, his cell phone started ringing. I didn’t know what zipped pocket he’d stuffed it in, and by the time I wrenched it out of the bag it, too, had gone to voice mail. 417 area code. My dad was calling through the list of numbers he had, and I was missing him every time. I laughed and looked at the house phone. This time I would be ready! Sure enough, it rang and I pounced on it.
“Hello!” I answered, expecting to hear my father’s voice greet me with his usual, “Hello, darlin’.”
It wasn’t his voice.
The voice I heard was kind and calm and told me that my dad had passed away that morning.
My dad never scolded me. He never put me on restriction. He never made me eat my vegetables. This is because by the time I met my dad, I was married to my first husband and pregnant with my son. I heard his voice for the first time that I remember on my 24th birthday. Geoffrey’s father and I were living in Cape Girardeau then. We were just walking out the door to go to dinner and then to our first Lamaze birthing class. The phone rang, and I picked it up.
“Hello?” I answered.
“Hello, darlin’,” he replied. “My name is Don Lofton.”
“Dad?” I couldn’t believe it. It was the most amazing birthday present I’ve ever received. I told him, “It’s my birthday! You called on my birthday!”
He said, “I know, honey. I haven’t forgotten.”
The following spring, we took our new baby, drove west across the state of Missouri and met him in person. My grandparents, Jon and Billie, were with us then. I met my Uncle Ronnie and my sister, Georgi. I loved them all instantly.
My dad told me that he had been stationed in Thailand when I was born, and he’d received a telegram from the Red Cross, which read, “Baby girl arrived. Mom and baby doing fine.” He told me he’d gone into town to celebrate. That may have been the first time, in fact, that I’d ever heard the phrase, ‘three sheets to the wind’, which was how he’d described his condition. He bought me a tiny, little Thai outfit and gave it to a pilot, I believe, who was coming home. He asked that soldier to send it to me when he got stateside, but it never arrived that I’m aware of. I hope that when I am reunited with my father again in Heaven that he greets me with a hug and that little outfit. I want it. I wish I had it now. It was my first present from my father.
Since then, my father has given me many presents. The best of which are answers. I look like him. I have a string of feistiness that runs through me that, admittedly, pales in comparison to his. After all, I’ve never stood up on a bar top in a rowdy, rival Kansas bar and started a brawl by screaming at the top of my lungs, “KANSAS AIN’T NOTHIN’ BUT A BUNCH SUNFLOWERS AND SONSA BITCHES!”
He grew up late, and I grew up young. I would tell him stories of my students in school and how I handled them when they were naughty and how I got them to behave. He would laugh and tell me, “You don’t even know why you act the way you do. But I do. You’re just like me.” He, in turn, told me stories of how he dealt with his kids on the bus he supervised. Each story seemed like one of my own fingerprints. I started to understand my own relationship with my students. Every time I talked to my dad, he would give me another little piece of the puzzle of my life. It was comforting to finally have some explanations as to why I was the way I was. Growing up, I didn’t look like my family. I didn’t want the same things. I always felt different. Meeting my dad reassured me that I wasn’t different—I was like him. It was a series of little gifts that he gave me every time we connected.
He told me stories of the war. Of having to make a trip into Vietnam once a month to salvage parts for the airplanes he worked on. I thought he’d stayed in Thailand—I hadn’t known he had to actually go into Vietnam. He explained, “Well, honey, when they shoot those planes down, it’s not like they bring ‘em back!” He loved the History Channel and even expressed a desire to return to Vietnam and Thailand to experience it in a more positive light. He talked about the times when the rain would suddenly burst out of the clouds and every soldier would stop what he was doing, go get a bar of soap and strip down buck-naked right where he stood to shower. It didn’t matter if they were eating, relaxing, or working. He laughed at the poor schmucks who were still lathered in soap when the rain stopped as suddenly as it had come.
He asked every pilot how he felt about his mission before he allowed the plane in the air. “Are you feeling good about this one, sir?” he’d say. The soldiers would almost always say, “Absolutely! I’m coming back.” Only once did he have a man say, “You know, I don’t have a good feeling about this. I don’t think I’m gonna make it.” My dad grounded that plane. He “found” something wrong with it. That soldier didn’t fly that day. It’s how my dad coped. He spoke reverently about the bravery of the men he’d met. He said when his tour of duty was over and he flew home, there was no fanfare. No flags. No banners. Wrong war. His parents were waiting for him at the airport along with my mother and me. He talked to me about my mother and how he had loved her. I’d not been told that. Another gift for me.
When Sean-Martin and I got married, we were thrilled that Dad and Barbara, whom I call ‘Mom’, were able to come to our wedding. I treasure the fact that he walked me down the aisle and gave me away. He stole the show at the reception when he caught the garter and proceeded to cut the rug in celebration. He was quite the dancer!
Even thought our relationship was one of continual discovery, I know there were things we didn’t tell each other. We both kept things from each other, and I think we both knew it. I think he knew there was much I didn’t tell him. I wonder if he knew that I was aware that there was more he wasn’t telling me. Neither of us would have ever given the other any information that would have been burdensome, so we held that to our chests. The past was the past. We spared each other the details because we loved each other. He’d suffered enough, and so had I. He carried with him certain regrets concerning me. I think I will carry them with me now.
Today, I am grateful. I’m grateful that I was able to know him for the eighteen years that I did. I’m grateful that I knew my grandparents. I’m thankful that I have an uncle and a sister to love. I’m thankful that he gave me Barbara. She gave him the greatest joy of his life. She was his gift, and he was proud to share her with me. To have missed out on knowing him and the rest of my family would have been the tragedy of my life. But that didn’t happen. I got that phone call on my 24th birthday, and I heard that now-familiar greeting, “Hello, darlin’.” It changed my life forever.
I thought I would hear that greeting yesterday when I saw that 417 area code, but I will look forward to the day when I hear that greeting again. It will be in that glorious place where no one will ever cry. No one will ever leave someone they love. He’ll be waiting for me.
He’ll smile and say, “Hello, darlin’.”