In Memoriam: Part I

My father would have been sixty years old today, which seems much older than the fifty-nine that he would have been yesterday. It’s odd to think of my father growing old. I suppose part of me knew that he never would, especially since long term alcoholism usually doesn’t lead to a long, healthy life. It’s just as well – I’m fairly certain he wouldn’t have become the wise patriarch that his father had been.

My entire concept of Dad was built upon his stature and strength. He was a tall man, broad shouldered and lean. A testament to unyielding blue-collar work ethic. Strong as an ox, and just as stubborn. Southern to a fault – generous, tenacious, funny, and fiercely loyal. He was a gun toting, mustachioed, foul mouthed son of a bitch who loved his family more than anything else, even if he often had trouble expressing that love.

He was born on June 15, 1955 and given the name of his father. Thirty years later, I was born and given the same name. Now I’m turning thirty, and I’m the only remaining Lionel Elbert Willis. Being the last of something is a tremendously lonely thing.

Seven years ago, today, was the last time we ever spoke. It was one of those years that his birthday and Father’s Day fell on the same day, which I guess is the dad equivalent of being born on Christmas. Overall, we had a decent conversation, which is something that I have always been thankful for, and leaned on heavily during the early stages of my grief.

The next day he was admitted to the hospital, where he lingered in an unconscious state for almost a week. He died that Sunday morning with my head on his chest. I will never be able to properly express the feeling of hearing a heart fall silent. It’s empty and eternal. You wait for the next beat, and with every passing instant hope withers and dies, until you have no choice to to acknowledge the truth.

For years after his death, I would write him a letter on his birthday to catch him up on my goings on and put another stitch in the festering wound that the loss of a parent leaves behind. My grief has been long-suffering and complex, but it has been a couple of years since I’ve felt the need to write to him, and that feels like progress. June has lacked the oppressive stink of grief in recent years, which is relatively surprising, since my Nana died in June two years ago, but that’s a discussion for next week.

The original dedication for The Snowflake Effect included only Dad and Nana, for very different reasons. It only seems appropriate that I revisit this in honor of Dad’s birthday.

My father made sure that I never felt entitled to anything and did his best to ensure that I took nothing for granted. He challenged me, pointed out my flaws, praised my work, and held me to nearly impossible standards. Both of my parents did this, and I grow increasingly thankful for their lessons as I grow older.

Dad knew I was intelligent and would probably be successful in school without much difficulty. Because of this, he often put me into situations that would frustrate me, or ones where I would fail. These were often things that he was naturally good at, which helped me to learn that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. Nobody is the best at everything. I can only assume this was not a conscious choice on his part, but he instinctively knew that I would need a sense of balance in my life. This foundation of balance has served me well.

He never hesitated to criticize instances where it was apparent that I had given little effort to a task or assignment. No matter what the grade was, I was expected to try my best. Phoning in an A was not an option if an A+ was within my abilities. Dad made sure that I was never comfortable with the idea of coasting through life, thereby developing the expectation of a life without challenges or difficulty.

Both of my parents worked hard, and even though we lived comfortably, they wanted better for me. This was especially true for my father, who came from a line of Carolinian farmers and fisherfolk stretching back several centuries. It was a source of pride that his only child could break out of this generational pattern and trade-up to a white collar from his familial blue.

My father did his best to give me a pragmatic set of Southern values to build my life upon. I earned the things I had and was held accountable for my actions. I learned the importance of work, family, respect, and tenacity. Because of him, I was able to become the man I am today.

He may not have been the best father in the world, and his addiction prevented us from having the closest relationship. But he was my dad, and despite his issues he was a better father than many are given.

I miss him every God damn day.

Father’s Day is in a couple of days. Hug your dad’s yall, they don’t stick around forever.

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