My dad died this morning. Jim Russell was 94 and, after a diagnosis of prostate cancer a few weeks ago and news that it had moved into his bones, he displayed grace that I can only hope to emulate should I ever be in the same situation.
“I’ve had 94 good years,” he said while telling me not to worry. Given his mercifully short decline, and his confidence that this life isn’t all there is, it’s hard not to be more grateful for his life than woeful over his passing. That will sink in over time, I think, in little things. A Facebook memory will pop up, or I’ll hear myself telling the kind of joke he called a shaggy-dog story or a groaner, the appreciation for which carried down the line to me.
Do you know how, when you think of someone, a certain image appears? It might be the person’s smile or laugh, or a frozen-in-time memory of a particular moment. For me, the first thing that comes to mind about Daddy is him picking apart a bird’s nest of tangled fishing line from an open-faced reel. For all his many talents he really shouldn’t have been using open-faced reels, but he was good-natured about this particular deficiency.
A child of the Great Plains, his folks moved him when he was a toddler from South Dakota to Kilgore, Texas. He was a bit too young to join the service during the war but he enlisted in 1946 anyway and served in the Navy for a couple of years. He was a signalman and could, if asked, deliver bits and pieces of semaphore or Morse Code many years later.
He was what you’d call a good sport. He never turned me down when I needed to go urgently to the hobby shop for a piece of balsa wood or some airplane glue. He taught me how to fly-cast and to form blood bait just so in clumps around treble hooks in order to attract catfish. Countless times, when my mom was too beat from teaching to cook dinner, Daddy would take me to Dairy Queen and then sit patiently while I worked out from the menu what I could afford with my allotted cash. I treasured those times with just the two of us together.
He took me twice to Colorado to fish in Rocky Mountain National Park. On the second of those trips I did some of the driving, having just become licensed. We had a white-knuckle experience heading up Pike’s Peak, where the two-lane road was barely wide enough for two Datsuns and where there were no guardrails to prevent your flight down two-thousand-foot chasms. While oncoming drivers motioned again and again for me to move onto my side of the road, Daddy, his face pressed to the cliffside window, repeated, “Keep to your left! Stay toward the middle!”
I took my parents’ divorce, when I was 16, badly, and I resented them both for some time. But the older I became, the more I understood how terribly unhappy they were, and how their split was the best thing after all. A couple of years later he found abiding happiness with Priscilla, who was with him until and at the very end. It’s nice when your loved ones are happy, and I told her this morning how grateful I was for her in my dad’s life.
Daddy had a hard time at first with my being gay but he came around. He embraced Calvin with open arms and a welcoming heart, and when Calvin’s father died in 1998, my dad wrote him and said that if he ever needed a father-figure, he was there for him. He ended every phone call, email and text with, “Our love to you and Calvin.”
Texting, by the way, became his thing almost as soon as he acquired his first smartphone a few years ago. Until then we had communicated mostly by email, his bad hearing making phone calls a challenge. But once he learned how to text there was no going back. He’d text me comments to things he’d seen on Facebook, where he lurked.
I told someone after my mom died in 2008 that I’d never felt so grown up, and I’m feeling the same thing today. Even when you know the natural order of things, and the likelihood that your parents will leave life before you do, it’s still an odd feeling. It makes you face the reality that your own generation is now at bat.
I once heard it said about someone that he paid rent for the space he occupied in life, and I can say that about my dad. He encouraged me and praised me and taught me and listened to me and made me a better man. I only hope I brought him half the joy he brought me.