October 20, 2021

The Beauty of a Father who loves us Fully & Completely—Dents & All.

My dad was not a new car kind of man.

He liked things beat up and had never been impressed with flash. He had about four outfits, and everything was always run-down.

Nonetheless, in 1993, I talked him into buying a brand new, bright red Chevy pickup truck. I was a teenager, so I was quite impressed by flash and as you may have guessed—young Michelle loved bright red Chevy pickup trucks. My dad, well, he was a sucker for teenage Michelle. So, a new truck it was.

It was small town Nebraska, a new pickup, and a teenager—so I’m sure you know the twist that’s coming. About a week after he bought this expensive, huge, brand new, bright red Chevy truck, I talked him into letting me take it to the Gretna High School graduation (which wasn’t difficult, he said yes to everything I ever asked). I was a high school junior, but was going to watch the ceremony with my friends then attend the after-parties.

Despite the truck being only a week old, apparently, I didn’t think it was quite shiny enough to show off, so I ran it through a car wash on my way to the high school—and I skidded the entire side of the truck along a pole in the process. I still did the graduation and parties before bothering to come home to tell him.

My dad didn’t yell at me. My dad didn’t punish me. My dad certainly did not shame me or tell me how stupid I was.

But let me tell you what my dad did: he never fixed that giant dent and the scrape along the side of that truck. And then he had the audacity to drive the thing for over 240,000 miles, proudly displaying my damn dent.

That was how my dad parented. He would make small jokes and tease me for years about that dent, but there was never an ounce of anger. And as I got older, and maybe needed that unconditional love even more, he would go so far as to tell me the dent made him think of me and smile. And my God, I think he meant it.

My dad never yelled at me for anything. He did yell at my twin brothers—they were rambunctious and wrestled constantly. They were maddening. My brothers are a year and nine days younger than me, so we’re almost triplets really, and my parents divorced when we were five and four. How would he as a single parent not have to scold twin boys? But my dad was the most patient person I’ve ever met, we would all attest to that. In fact, I’m pretty confident he was the most patient person God has ever created. He was a flawed man for sure, but he was a flawless father to three recklessly wild kids because of that calm patience, constant support, and unconditional love.

When I became a mother, my oldest son was one of those little boys who would not sit still—for about five years (and if I’m being honest, it’s 15 years and still counting). My young mom friends would tell stories of reading their kids books, doing crafts, or coloring, and I was taken aback that their children wouldn’t climb all over the room. I often wondered what I was doing wrong.

When you are a new mother, you compare everything you do to your mom friends and I don’t think I was able to read my boy a book at all until he started school. I struggled with what that said about me, my patience, or perhaps a lack thereof. I wanted that calmness.

But when my boy was only about 10 months old, there was an afternoon we spent with my dad that I’ll never forget. He said to me, “Oh yes, you have one of those. That boy has to be outside—because outside, there are less no’s.” So my dad, at that time an old, slow, gray man losing his eyesight, would go with my boy and I on hikes, and I understood. That’s how he parented us, that’s how he was able to actually enjoy twin boys and a slightly older, fearless little girl—he looked for less no’s.

For my baby boy, reading a book or watching TV was a struggle of no’s, disappointment, and frustration. A hike was filled with wide-eyed open wonder where he conquered all, fell down, got back up, and knew no limits—and I fell in love with that little boy. I owe my dad for that.

I had a funny, pigtailed little girl shortly thereafter, and then it was four: my old dad, myself, and these two toddlers going on hikes and outside adventures. My daughter added a sense of magic or mysticism, and she brought my dad so much joy. While she was capable of sitting or focusing in a way her older brother was not, she could certainly keep up with him and still has a sense of wildness that comes out when she is in nature and set free of boundaries.

As my dad and I meandered along those hiking trails with my wild toddlers, I always knew he related to the two of them through his experiences with my brothers and me. My dad had never been intense like my maniac toddlers, or his own kids. He never bounced off the walls and didn’t shake his foot when he sat cross-legged (which he teased me about for so many years). Make no mistake, he was a rule-breaker and marched his own path, but there was a serenity or a calmness to him that, even when he was ornery, seemed to radiate from him. Those two wild babies and I did not carry that same sense of calm anywhere within us.

The last hike we took with my dad was around my sister’s lake in Colorado. Shortly after our hike (or really, a slow walk), my dad and I sat alone on her deck, overlooking the picturesque Rocky Mountains. When you’re a young working mother with a chaotic life, there aren’t many one-on-one, idyllic, peaceful deck talks overlooking the mountains with anyone—especially your old dad. There were even hummingbirds buzzing right near us. It was like a moment trapped in time.

As we talked, my dad got serious and went beyond telling me how proud he was of me (which he did constantly), and launched into a long explanation of how, if he passed away, what he wanted his services to be, where he wanted to be buried, and a number of other precise details regarding his final plans. I’m an estates and trusts attorney, so this is the kind of conversation I can handle and even offer advice or guidance, but hearing it from my dad just made me laugh. It was Thanksgiving weekend, and I blew him off and said, “No, no, that’s nonsense…what you just planned was your 75th birthday party we will throw next August.” I took what he had outlined and elaborated on it, turning it into a celebration. I told him it would be the biggest party Main Street in Gretna, Nebraska had seen in years—with all of us there together.

My dad died two days later.

It was absolutely out of nowhere. He called an ambulance and was gone in three hours. If you knew my dad, you would know that somehow, my dad just knew, and that’s why he sat there on that ridiculously beautiful deck, in that serene moment, with hummingbirds swirling by, and let me laugh about a huge party for him. You know how we all know people like that in our lives—who just know? My dad was a man who just knew. He was such a serene, peaceful, positive, loving man—a man always looking for less no’s, which is why he saw more than the rest of us did.

I have no training in psychology, and haven’t done enough therapy myself, but have read quite a bit about grief. There’s a general quote you come by when you read too much about grief—about the desire to be the things you loved most about those you’ve lost. If I can make my kids feel a fraction as loved as my dad made us feel, I will feel as though I’ve honored him, his patience, and his parenting.

As my two little kids and I left my father’s graveside service and headed to the party at his favorite small-town bar that he had planned himself on my sister’s glorious deck a week before, I received a phone call from my OBGYN.

I was pregnant.

I was not supposed to be pregnant. I had, just several weeks before, delivered a stillborn through a series of complications, and my body was not ready or likely even able to be pregnant.

But whatever you believe—be it God, faith, karma, cosmic intervention, or maybe even coincidence—when we pulled out of that cemetery after burying my father and I took that miracle call from my doctor, there was a shift in the world. And I’ll never be able to artfully explain or put into words what I know: that somewhere up there, in heaven, or in the cosmos, or in some spiritual realm, my dad and that baby crossed each other. I know they did because my little boy shares so much of my dad’s spirit. Whereas my other two kids and I are the people on the trail of life who must climb every tree, explore every ravine, and do it all with a racing heart, my youngest and my dad are the ones who guide that trail and every so often remind us to look for less no’s.

On his way out, my father left me an enormous gift of himself. Every so often, when it’s just my kids and I, and especially when we’re outside, I feel a bit of his patience and calmness around us and I’m reminded to slow down and just love them for who they are, just like he did us. Dents and all.

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