My dad died on July 29, 2021. This will be the first Father’s day that I don’t call him to wish him a happy one. In honor of Father’s day, I am sharing again what I wrote last summer after he passed.
Talk atcha later
For as long as I can remember, my dad ended every phone call with, “Talk atcha later.” Never talk TO you. I asked him about it once when I was a kid, and he said it was the difference between phone calls and face-to-face conversations. According to Dad, you only talked to people face to face. For me, it was just his sign-off. Talk atcha later.
My dad died in July. It’s surreal and strange still. We lived in different states, so we didn’t see each other often, but we tried to touch base via phone calls. I sent him pictures of my kids and grandkids regularly, especially after he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure a year ago. Now I have to remind myself that he won’t see my pictures anymore.
I found some of his recent voicemails the other day. His voice, baritone with a Bakersfield accent that reflected a little Arkansas and a little Texas, almost always said the same thing:
It’s your Dad. Gimme a call when you get a chance. Love ya. Talk atcha later. Bye.
My dad and I weren’t always close. He was always buddies with my brothers, but his expectations for his only daughter were exceedingly high. I did all the things: college, marriage, kids in that order. When he and my mom divorced, things got awkward. At first, he took my family on trips and sent extravagant Easter baskets to my daughters. Over time, we saw and heard less and less of him. His new wife and stepson captured his time, his businesses failed and rebounded, and his heart started responding negatively to his life of entertainment and less-than-ideal choices. His phone number changed regularly, and once he even moved and forgot to tell me.
But in the last two or three years, he began to reach out again. Sometimes he needed money, but mostly I think he realized that he was missing out on relationships with his daughter, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters. He wanted back. I was glad to have him back.
May 27, 2020 Ah, it’s just your dad checkin’ on you, wondering if you made it back to Vegas or not. Gimme a call when you can. Love you.
Dad loved Las Vegas. As a poor kid growing up in a tiny house in a small town in the middle of California’s Great Valley, Las Vegas was the epitome of everything he thought he wanted out of life: bright lights, extravagant entertainment, fast money, lavish surroundings, and good times. He lived most of his 82 years in extremes: money was made to be spent and hard times just had to be endured by any means possible. Vegas represented both.
He came to visit me when I spent a year teaching at UNLV before the pandemic. He regaled me with stories of old-time Vegas, when the food portions were large and cheap. He talked about his time in the Army, and how learning to type in high school kept him stateside during the early years of Vietnam, typing up reports for senior officers because no other enlistee in his class knew how. That was just like my dad. Figure out the skills needed to work the system and succeed. These were stories I had never heard before. I introduced him to the Las Vegas wetlands in Clark County. He couldn’t believe he had never been to the wetlands — and didn’t even know wetlands existed in the desert. That was our last extended visit, just the two of us. I’m eternally grateful for it.
June 8, 2020 It’s your dad just checkin’ on you, seein’ where you are and what you’re doing. Gimme a call when you get a chance. Love you.
Summer of 2020 was busy. I moved back to Atlanta from Las Vegas, taking the scenic route. I made a point of stopping in Memphis to pay homage to Elvis. Dad cried when Elvis died. I had never seen him cry before. I think, looking back, that Dad felt a kinship with Elvis. Both were poor kids from small towns, about the same age, and trying to straddle two worlds: the world of success and the world of faith. I think he saw Elvis as an icon of what he wanted to be. When that icon crashed, I think my dad took it personally. I was 12 at the time, but I remember the intensity of his emotion- and my dad never showed emotions beyond anger and joy. Sorrow was not familiar.
July 7, 2020 Well, it’s your dad. Yeah, great pictures. That kid sure is a cutie, ah, well, both of ’em really. But anyway, I, uh, I’m in the hospital, Bakersfield Heart Hospital. Everything’s okay, but. Anyway, great pictures. Tell ’em ‘hi.’ Love you. Talk at you later. Bye.
He loved it when I sent pictures of his great-granddaughters. The younger one looks a lot like me as a little one and she lives near me, so he got a lot of pictures. Sometimes a dozen at a time. She really is that cute.
And everything wasn’t okay. I can hear in his voice as I listen to the voicemails again that he was short of breath and his voice wasn’t strong as usual. He sounded strained. There are a couple of other calls that day as we kept missing each other’s calls. By the last one he hardly had any strength in his voice left. His voice had a higher, tighter pitch than even earlier in the day. I’ll call when I can.
July 28, 2020 Just callin’ to see how things are going. I’ll talk at you later. Love you Bye.
Then the doctors told him to get his affairs in order. True to his independent nature, he took that to mean taking a trip across the country to see his kids and grandkids. First stop was Tennessee. It was the first time my brothers and I had been together in a decade. Lots of stories about growing up in Bakersfield in two different decades. There are nine years between my “baby” brother and me. When I left for college, he was nine. I never lived at home again, and the atmosphere changed. We shared lots of laughs over just how similar we all are, even though my brothers had a completely unreal view of me. Lots of revelations, some good, some not. And we were all grateful for the time to reconnect as adult siblings. Dad was tired, but mostly glad to have us around. That was a year ago. A lot can happen in a year, and the bonds we formed during that brief visit helped us all through the events of July 2021.
August 21, 2020 I haven’t heard from you for a couple days. I just wondered what’s going on. Anything new, anything old? Just give me a call when you get a chance. Love you. Bye
It struck me as funny, that one. We had just all been at my brother’s house in Tennessee a week before. He tired easily, but loved having us all there. He sat and watched NASCAR with us, something we had done my whole childhood. NASCAR, Indy, Midgets, Go-Karts — racing was one one the things that brought him joy. The action in the pits, getting the timing right, the smell of burning rubber and hot asphalt. He loved it all. He watched the big one, but got my youngest brother into Go-Karting and Quarter-Midgets for several years. He even sponsored a kid who eventually became a NASCAR champion. He knew many Indy drivers during the 80s and had pictures with them hanging on his office walls.
November 26, 2020 Hey, you called me and didn’t even leave a message. I’m sure you wanted to tell me Happy Thanksgiving. Well, I’ll tell you Happy Thanksgiving. I assume you’re in Tennessee with the girls and the kids. Gimme a call. Happy Thanksgiving. Bye.
I don’t remember why I didn’t leave a message, but we were in Soddy Daisy TN, at an Airbnb for Thanksgiving with most of our kids. I’m pretty sure I called him back so the granddaughter could talk to him. It reminded me of the last Thanksgiving my brothers and I were together with Dad for Thanksgiving. At the time Dad lived at his truck yard, which was set among the cotton fields of south Bakersfield. To say he lived at the yard doesn’t quite paint the correct picture. Sure, there were trucks, Peterbilt mostly, made for pulling double bottom-dumps used for hauling gravel, base rock, and asphalt for building roads. There was a trailer where the working office was. It always smelled like burnt coffee, stale cigarettes, and dust.
Dad did not live in the working office. On the property was an abandoned cotton gin. Part of the structure was used for working on trucks. But through a battered door and up a frighteningly narrow set of metal stairs was a door to a different world. A full bar. Leather chairs. Trophies from races and pictures with celebrities. That was Dad’s official office. Around the corner was the entrance to the living quarters. And my dad never did anything halfway. There was an indoor stream flowing to the front door. The ceiling tiles were tin. There were big-screen television sets in every room. And the master bedroom included a jacuzzi and a round bed.
The last Thanksgiving we had in Bakersfield was defined by a deep-fried turkey AND a smoked turkey. Most of his drivers were there with their families. Plenty of alcohol made the rounds, and by the end of the evening, most people were feeling like they had really celebrated. It was chaotic and loud and festive, everything my dad loved about entertaining. He was always happiest at a party. His laugh resonated through the walls. When my dad laughed, everyone around him joined in. It was infectious.
January 11, 2021 Hey, sorry I missed your call. Give me a call when you get a chance. Bye.
He forgot to hang up, so there is five minutes of background noise, including his wife asking him who he called. He told her “Stephanie. My daughter.” Not sure what was going on, but his voice was gruff - like he needed to clear his throat. In hindsight, he was probably dealing with the effects of his inability to take a breath deep enough to cough. It makes me sad.
July 1, 2021 Just give me a call when you get a chance. It’s your dad. Bye.
That’s the last voicemail I have saved. I remember the call. A weird one where he told me to relay his calls to my brother through me. I didn’t know it then, but the trauma to his brain from limited oxygen was causing vascular dementia. He was losing touch with reality- not all the time, but his personality was so strong that it was hard to tell the difference between the real world and his altered perception of it.
The next three weeks were traumatic for all of us siblings. Dad declined quickly after missing the medications that kept his heart and kidneys in precarious balance. He spent several days back at the heart hospital, where I flew out to be with him. He was in and out of awareness and started symptoms of Sundowners Syndrome. He was increasingly belligerent and adamant that he be let out of the hospital, which he saw as a prison. My stepbrother made a mad dash of a trip to get Dad out of Bakersfield and to Montana. Dad had insisted for years that he would not die in Bakersfield; my stepbrother made sure Dad had his wish. My brothers and I all agreed that Montana was the right place, at least for the moment. The air was clean, it was cooler, and Dad loved the family my stepbrother built. It was a place where he was at peace and happy.
But happiness and peace are hard to hold at the end of life. He stabilized for a few days and gave us all a little hope that he would bounce back as he had many times before. But this time his heart was too weak, his mind too far away, and he was just too frail to do anymore. He finally decided that he was ready. He knew he was loved. He knew we siblings were connected. He knew we would be okay. The day before he died I was able to video chat for just a few minutes. He was only partially conscious, but I knew he could hear me as I read some of his favorite Psalms and sang to him the lullabies he used to sing to me. On July 29, at 2:22 pm, my dad took his last breath on this earth and stepped into eternity.
Talk atcha later. Love ya. Bye.
Talk atcha later, Dad. I love you, too.