The second time my father left me was last week, his body carried by a small funeral home truck to be cremated. This was my real father. He was leaving me forever, and a piece of my heart left with him. He was the father who raised me since age 4, and who officially adopted me at some point, at age 11 I think.
Friends and family have offered words of comfort, reminding me I have many happy memories with him. But the happy memories hurt the most. When I remember the fights we had or when he was less than perfect it helps me humanize him and stop myself from crying. But when I remember the happy moments growing up, it was so magical and perfect that I want to go back in time and do it all over again, only this time realize how special it was. It was the smallest moments.
When we had enough cans to “afford” breakfast, we’d go sell the cans, gather our money and head straight to Waffle House. “Coffee,” I’d order. The waitress would look at me, a little kid on a stool whose feet did not touch the ground and ask my father “coffee?”
“Coffee,” he’d say, and we would enjoy our burgers and waffles with the satisfaction of a hard day’s work.
I also remember painting homes with him, cleaning offices and too many other jobs a child should not have been doing. But we needed the money, and what I remember is a father who worked hard, who seemed to do everything well, and who loved me and taught me things. He also gave many people jobs to help them – some people did good work and others did terrible work but he helped them all.
He came to the U.S. to do hard labor after leaving an office job doing bookkeeping and accounting in Mexico. When he came home after work, he was always reading. So I love to read.
He also taught me how to cook. Mexican rice and flour tortillas were first. The rice had to be sautéed until it was opaque before adding the liquid … “keep stirring,” he’d say. The tortillas I never mastered, always producing map-shaped things we ate anyway. Like everything, we’d share one, passing it back and forth and taking smaller and smaller bites until we were passing around crumbs.
And each summer, we’d escape the many jobs of Dallas and go be free in Mexico. He’d spread out a map on the kitchen table, and we’d point to where we were going that year. Always traveling within Mexico, we’d pack in the car and head toward the border. We’d go visit family in Monterrey or a whole new part of Mexico as if we were world travelers. Once there, my already jovial father would turn even louder – cracking jokes with strangers on the street and driving like a madman, just like every other Mexican.
After college, when I told my father I wanted to move away, leaving Dallas for Los Angeles to pursue my journalism dreams, he simply said, “Do you think I can rope down a cloud?”
I went on to live in several cities but did not return to Dallas, juggling a career, marriage and two daughters. He eventually owned his own small businesses with my mother and they built a dream retirement home in Mexico. Each time I visited their house there, my father would give me the royal tour, showing off fig trees, lemons, pears, cactus, lavender, grapes, strawberries, flowers and even bananas. They navigated Mexican rules to build a well, and made new friend with their small town neighbors.
In my mind, my father would retire there one day to garden and relax.
Instead, my parents visited the house and would go back to the U.S. to tend to their small business. His retirement day never came, and I was devastated he never got to enjoy his dream.
Then I remembered he chose love. He didn’t want my mother to retire before she was ready so they compromised – Mexico to relax, Dallas to keep building. They kept chugging along together.
As an adult I thought he would live forever. We grew somewhat distant because we lived in different cities and only saw each other a few times each year. We were supposed to spend this Christmas together. But we talked often and knew we loved each other and that he was always on my side. I was always on his side, too.
He died a week ago of a massive stroke, one day after his 77th birthday. It was completely unexpected. He was in his home country of Mexico, surrounded by my mother and his family.
In the end, he had love, a lifetime of hard work and helping others, family and granddaughters who loved him and a place to call home. Still, I am devastated at how fleeting life is and that I will never see him again. My brain cannot comprehend that he was just here the other day, and now he is not, as if something went terribly wrong in the universe. And it did. I was not ready for him to go and a piece of me is missing.
The happy memories hurt the most, but the memories of me in trouble make me laugh, so maybe one day I will be OK enough to smile at the happy moments, too. For now, I cry.