Monday, June 6, 2016

My Father

On December 16, 2014, at approximate 5 pm, Oscar Floyd Hooker took his last breath while sleeping.  He was 92 years old.  My mother was right where she always had been in the previous 66 years and 4 months; sitting beside him, holding his hand.  The hospice nurse had just cleaned him up and changed his bed linens; while rounding the corner of his bed, she looked back at him and noticed a slight change in his coloring.   She stepped back to his side with her stethoscope, and determined that he had slipped away quietly.  She went out to call my brother, who had gone with his wife to run an errand.   He called me.   I had been the night shift the previous night, and had been napping for about an hour.   Within half an hour, we were all again in that room with my mom and my father’s remains.   As my brother would later make note in a beautiful poem, we told stories, remembering things he had said or done - - usually funny things – half expecting him to wake up and correct the errors in our story-telling.  Maybe wishing that he would.

I am a Southern girl, and we have special relationships with our daddies - - and make no mistake, he was my daddy!   It’s somewhat hard to explain.   There are many issues that only my mother could handle, but some were particularly “daddy territory”.   Those usually related to my car.   Or money.   I remember once when I had moved back to Charleston, South Carolina from San Francisco, I had a job interview in South Augusta, SC.   Dad just had to get the map out and show me “the best route” to go, even though he had never been there.   He had driven from Charleston to Atlanta a few times, and never mind that I had found my way around San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas -Fort Worth, Kansas City, Chicago, Syracuse, NY, all over Florida and a few other places on my own, this was THE best way to go!    I just listened.   Now, of course, I just plug in the address in my GPS and head out!

Dad had shown me the best way to go in many areas of my life.  Sometimes I listened and heeded his words.   Sometimes I just listened, remembering his words after I had made a mess of things.   Always, I hated to invoke his disappointment, as I did on more than one occasion.   He always, ALWAYS forgave me.
There was one time, when I was about 18 months - - and no, I do not remember this first hand - - that we were out in the front yard, and I can only guess that he had been playing with us and stopped to have a conversation with someone who dropped by.  People were always dropping by….   Anyway, I marched right up to him with those hard soled little toddler shoes and kicked the heck out of his shin!   I am alive to tell the story because he laughed, even as he massaged his leg!

That was not the only time his laughter saved me from certain death.   When I was about four, maybe five, he had been left alone with us, and between the three of us, the den was quite cluttered with our toys.   Most of the toys were usually housed in a cedar chest that I now have in my living room; the longer ones - - the toy rifles, my baton, etc - - were stood in the corner beside the back door.   We had been playing, and cutting up with him, and he had a defiant, sarcastic sense of playfulness sometimes, when he suddenly looks at his watch and told us that “mommy would be home soon” and to “put your toys away.”  I was across the room from the corner where my baton belonged, and I started walking – albeit slowly - - toward it, twirling the baton as I went.   It wasn’t fast enough, and he interpreted my lack of speed as disobedience.   The origin of the idea in my mind for what happened next is still a mystery, but, he leaned over me with a very mean expression on his face, clapped his hands and pointed to the corner.   I set the baton down, looked directly into his face, adopted the same expression, clapped my hands and also pointed to the corner.   I heard my brother’s gasp behind me as I stared into my father’s face, instantly wishing I hadn’t done it, but somehow knowing that if I moved before my dad did, I would surely die.   We were thus frozen for what seemed like an eternity, but then I saw the twinkle come back into my dad’s eyes and his facial muscles moving into a laugh.   I jerked that baton off the floor, ran to the corner to put it away, and picked up the rest of my toys as quickly as I could!   We were still talking about that incident during his last week in the hospice, and still chuckling.   My instincts were correct; he had forced himself to laugh at me so he wouldn’t hurt me in his profound anger at my defiance!

For reasons that I’ll not share here, I spent a good part of my early life with a sense of inferiority, and a strange idea that I was not supposed to be alive.   Indeed, I had a few incidents of daredevil activity in my early childhood that could have resulted in serious injury or even death, had others not been around to prevent them.  (I did get a broken right arm in one such occasion.   It only served to assist me in nearly ambidextrous behavior for a while.  I still do a lot of things with my left hand because of it, even though I am right handed.)   I was driven to make good grades, to play music, to sing, to be the best I could be so that I could win approval, even though I knew my parents and the rest of my family loved me.   I just wanted to be kept around.   I don’t know exactly when the full on depression started, but I know it was there by my teenage years.   Folks just thought I was weird or conceited.   I’ll cop to weird; never to  conceited.  If people only knew how much I felt like a fraud.

About a month before my father’s passing, I showed him a document to which I had contributed significantly.   It was published, and is in use.   He told me he was proud of me.  Not only for that, but for all the things I had been doing, especially in the church.   He was proud of how I had handled my husband’s death a couple of years earlier (don’t think he ever read about that herein; he might not have been so proud).   I might as well have received a Nobel prize or something that monumental; my father took the time to list things for which I had made him proud.  I’m not sure my feet hit the floor or the ground for the rest of the afternoon!

On the Sunday before he passed away on that Tuesday afternoon, he called each of us individually to his side.   If we weren’t physically present, he had us telephone the missing ones.   He talked to me, to my sister-in-law, we called my brother, my niece with the great-grandkids, and my nephew.   He told each of us how much he loved us, how proud he was of his family and how much he would miss us!   Many tears were shed, most of which came when he took off his wedding ring and put it on my mother’s finger with her rings that he had given her.   We all got to tell him how much we loved him, how proud we were of him and how much we would miss him, too!   He called out to God and to the angels to please come and get him. Nothing important was left unsaid.  No regrets.  No recriminations.  Just love.  He mostly slept after that.

Once he was gone and we were planning his memorial service, I learned that when we had first moved to Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960’s, there had been a Freedom March, in which all the local pastors had been invited to participate.   Dad went the Session of our church, told them of his intentions to march, and invited them to march with him.  Only one of them had the fortitude to do it.   They became life-long friends after that.  

My father taught me through word and deed that:

1.       Family is of paramount importance after God.
2.       People are people, regardless of skin color, nationality, creed, gender preference or identity, etc.
3.       God is Lord of all.   What we believe about God doesn’t change who God is.
4.       Doing the right thing doesn’t make one popular, but it helps one sleep at night.

Once, in 2000, when my parents had moved to Jacksonville where my brother was living, Dad had to have a catheterization procedure on his heart.   He reacted badly to the dye, and became critically ill.   I was told to, “get on a plane and get down here”.   When I arrived, my brother met me at the airport and drove me to the hospital.   As we were walking across the parking lot, he suddenly grabbed my arm and said, “Susie Q, you are going to meet some people that I work with, in all likelihood.   They are coming to see Dad, but also to see me.   When they meet you and refer to you as the ‘foster child’, just go with it!”    I laughed, saying, “the joke’s on you; I look more like Daddy than you do!”

I am proud of that fact!   And I am proud of the man that my father was on earth.  My daddy…  I miss you so much!

In 1979

Picture of him and me just before walking me down the aisle

Mom and Dad on June 24, 2006, at my niece's wedding 
On his last birthday, November 22, 2014.

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