Tag Archives: father-daughter relationships

A Handkerchief Man


Circa 1972 - Hank - Weyerhaeuser

A few days ago, a brown Kleenex box triggered a flood of images – all of my father in his last year of life. He had shrunk by then so that we stood eye to eye, his broad shoulders rounded as if chipped away by a sculptor. All of his sharp edges were gone. Even his feet had lost their original conformation and spread like puddles (the same flat feet that nearly prevented his entry into the Reserve Officer’s Commissioning Corps but for an obstinate doctor who said he sure as hell was going to accept him).

As I wrote about the tissue box, I was thrown back forty years to a time when my father would never have carried tissues. He was a white handkerchief man.

Although my father was no longer on active duty, he still wore a uniform: neat pants, lightly starched white shirt, tie, belt and shoes (polished). Under protest, he capitulated to my mother’s demand, grew his hair longer and altered his grooming regimen in conformance to the “dry look.” Though a civilian, he remained prepared for inspection. Every Sunday, he assembled his gear to maintain his shoes: the brown terry cloth towel that would protect his trousers, the Kiwi shoe polish (brown and black), the mesh leg from a pair of pantyhose (successor to silk hosiery, back in the day), the long brush with natural bristles, and a bottle of Aqua Velva. Next to him, a row of sturdy Oxfords awaited at attention. In a process that seemed to take hours, he inspected a shoe, wiped off any dirt with a damp cloth, and applied a thin coat of shoe polish. Resting the shoe on his thigh, he buffed it to a sheen, rhythmically dashing the brush back and forth across the toe, along the side and around the heel. One-two, one-two, the same number of strokes each time. Then he paused to regard the result. Although any normal person would have stopped there, he was not done (he would say finished — he often corrected waiters who asked if he was “done” when they wanted to clear his plate). The process was not complete until the shoe had been dabbed with after-shave tonic to set the polish, and then buffed with nylon, see-sawing back and forth until the shoe was so shiny it reflected. Periodically my father would notice the sorry state of my shoes and suggest I polish them. What a waste of time, I thought.

My father looked out of place in the 70s. When he grew his hair longer to match the style, it flared out from his head in waves below his bald pate. I look like Guy Kibbee, he said, referring to the old actor known to play jovial buffoons. Shearing his hair in the style he preferred would expose him as the former Marine he was, an identity my mother was sure would limit his advancement, when protests against the Vietnam were at a crescendo.

My mother and I each had a part in maintaining my father’s standards of appearance. (The “boys,” my brothers, performed masculine chores like mowing the lawn.) My mother laundered Dad’s prodigious supply of white V-necked undershirts, white boxers and wool socks, ironed his shirts (permanent press though they were) and dropped and retrieved his light-weight wool trousers from the dry cleaner’s. But ironing my father’s handkerchiefs was my responsibility. One of few. I was hardly overburdened with chores like my best friend who seemed to be grounded every other week for failing to load or unload the dishwasher when it was her turn.

I am standing by the ironing board in the laundry room, setting the hot appliance on its heel while I lay a damp hankie across its surface. In this small utility room off the kitchen, crowded with the extra refrigerator at one end and the washing machine on the side opposite the wooden ironing board, I can barely turn around without collapsing the flimsy drying rack behind me. On the washing machine is the roll of handkerchiefs that I sprinkled with water the night before and then rolled in towel. It was the third time I’d prepared them for ironing — and then didn’t do it. My mother hollered at me, angry that my father was out of stock and exasperated that the hankies had been abandoned once again (they will get moldy, dammit).

I look out the laundry room window, half noticing the white spring sun as it lights on the hummingbird feeder sparkling with cherry-colored liquid. I’d rather bike over to my friend Ellen’s. Or go downstairs, where I get left alone. I’d rather be doing anything but ironing or be anywhere but home. In my reverie, I almost scorch the hankie.

Those were tough financial times for my family. So tough that my father convened a series of family meetings run according to Management By Objectives (complete with flip chart), a technique he used in his work as a human resources director. We play our roles according to type: Dad the planner, laying out the problem and situation; Mom the annoyed, noting that she had more house to manage than ever before, with less help; Bruce the eager, brimming with ideas about how he could help; and Dean the loyal, committing to find part-time work at a gas station (and doing so, within a week). Me the self-absorbed teenager. I did not see how I could possibly help, given how busy I was with homework and activities. I also contributed to the meeting evaluation by complaining that a family should not be run like a business. Duly noted by my mother in the typewritten minutes.

I finish my chore. I have ironed each square flat, folded it in half, then in halves and halves again. My father will fold it one more time when he places it in his pocket. I probably gave it to him. I never know what to get him, the man whose only interests are hunting and fishing. He knows exactly what he wants – another rod, another shotgun – or needs – another pair of Filson tin cloth pants, wool socks. Nothing in my budget, anyway, and nothing I’m interested in. So he gets handkerchiefs. I know he will open the gift ceremoniously, slicing the ribbon with his pocketknife (ever at the ready) and displaying the contents of the box with a flourish. (Handkerchiefs! Great, just what I needed, Betz!) I think, he is the most predictable human being ever.

I never predicted that he would become old, so old that we would stand eye to eye, so old that he would rely on Kleenex, wouldn’t even remember that he was once a handkerchief man. I feel ashamed by my teenage annoyance, my flickering embarrassment about my father, my glowering thoughts that I hid behind thickly mascaraed eyelashes. I remember the days when I still looked up at him, and he was a handkerchief man.


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The Brown Box

brown kleenex box

To the casual observer, the tissue box looks worn, two out of four corners ripped, one side caved in, another mangled. Some Kleenex executive must have returned from Italy enthused about marbleized paper and decided that a little European flair was just what the product line needed. Some minion then dutifully produced a facsimile in a repeating pattern to decorate the cardboard before it was cut, scored, folded and glued into the shape of a box. The result is the brown box before me.

The design of the packaging is not important here. The brown is. Brown was my father’s favorite color, so I bought brown Kleenex boxes.

After dressing and emerging from his room at precisely 8 a.m. each morning (the hour he determined he would be less underfoot), my father pushed his walker to the side of my kitchen table and pressed firmly down on the handles that secured the brakes. He then crab-walked his hands along the edge of the table, moving carefully so as not to fall, and lowered himself into place on the far side. I rose from my chair nearby and surrendered the New York Times, reassembling it for him so that it appeared fresh from the porch. He offered to pour his own coffee, as he did every day. By then I was walking to the coffee maker, as I did every day. It was our little dance of manners; he would offer and I would decline. Coffee with room for milk, doctored with two blue packets of sweetener.

It was time for Kleenex. Every morning, while I prepared his coffee, my father prepared Kleenex with the precision of a Marine Corps drill detail. “Snap and pop” they call it. Dad had the snap but had lost the pop. In slow motion, he carefully withdrew one double-ply sheet of Kleenex (he insisted on double-ply) and laid it on the table, aligning it with the table seam that bisected the oval surface. A second sheet was pulled out. He then delicately lowered the second sheet onto the first, taking a moment to make sure the lower corners matched before allowing the top sheet to drift onto its mate. With impressive dexterity, he picked up the entire construction by pinching the top two corners between his index fingers and thumbs, this despite the loss of one top digit to a lawn mower years before. He raised the two double-ply sheets to eye level and inspected them to make sure that the creases lined up exactly. Then he folded the top half over the bottom, and reduced it to pocket size by doubling it again. When he blew his nose (damn post nasal drip, he would say), this improved Kleenex would provide a reassuring eight sturdy layers of absorbency. He supplied his left breast pocket with two such packets, and his left trouser pocket with two more.

The day could begin.

The prospect of running short on Kleenex was a constant source of anxiety for my father. He not only stocked his pockets, but tucked folded tissues under his bed pillows and stuffed them along the seam of his recliner. Every room that he entered was supplied with a large box. When a box in the bedroom, bathroom or kitchen reached the half-way mark, he asked me to buy more.

“How could we possibly need Kleenex again,” my husband asked as he prepared for a Costco run at one point. “I just bought it two weeks ago.”

My husband didn’t realize that, every night, Dad unloaded his pockets into his dresser drawer. Along with his glasses (kept in a plastic sleeve with his Col., USMC Ret., business card taped to the top), my father’s pockets disgorged his hoard: the small vial of nitroglycerin, travel sized dental floss, his wallet. But mostly, his pockets were a storehouse for wads of crumpled up tissue that would cover more than a square foot space with a two-inch high pile.

When I saw the brown Kleenex box with the tattered corners shoved in the back of a bathroom cupboard, I recognized it. It’s the last of the supply we laid in for my father.

These days, I buy tissue rarely, and when I do, I gravitate toward boxes with delicate patterns in light colors – peach, blush pink, pale yellow. But when I turn them over, I see that the saccharine message, written by some copywriter, remains the same: “With the perfect balance of softness and strength, each tissue soothes your sniffles, sneezes and tears and leaves your spirits uplifted.”

It’s hard to feel moved by tissues. They’re just absorbent paper in tasteless boxes. But this box, this ugly brown box, is a relic of everyday mornings in a sunny chair with coffee, the paper and Dad.

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Love in Thought, Word and Deed

Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 8.28.58 AM

When I was growing up, my father rarely said “I love you,” and almost never hugged me in a display of affection. But I knew he loved me.

What he did was engage.

When my second grade teacher said I had a problem with reading comprehension, it was my father who read aloud to me from the Oz books and then listened while I read aloud. My father took me out to the shooting range and taught me how to fire a rifle and later a shotgun. He shared his enthusiasm for poetry.

What I remember most, however, was the simple act of sitting around the dinner table, talking. There we discussed current events and world affairs, poverty and discrimination. Dad drew upon his library of stories — tales of the Old West, meeting Mom, fishing and hunting successes. Often, books were brought out for reference: tomes of Shakespeare, an Atlas, the dictionary. If you didn’t know where something was, or what a word meant, you had to look it up.

I was the youngest. I could easily have been overlooked or out-argued. But when I spoke up, Dad listened attentively. Dad might challenge my thinking, but he never dismissed it. (My brothers were a little less circumspect.) I always felt that Dad was interested in what I had to say.

It wasn’t all polite conversation. There was a certain amount of “monkey feeding time.” Dad had a strange expression that derived from his adoption of the Management By Objectives technique. When facing a challenge (like our family budget, which was a frequent source of concern), one methodically stated the situation, considered alternatives, developed solutions and assigned accountabilities and timeframes, preferably on a flip chart pad. Then came monkey-feeding time, also know as follow-up.

Dinner was follow-up time. My parents never asked me what homework I had or checked to see if I’d done it. But Dad did ask the result. I was never criticized for the grade I achieved. If I was doing poorly in math – as was often the case – he offered resources. (My best resource, I learned surreptitiously, was my boyfriend, Jerry Hooker, who could be persuaded to do my trig homework for me.)

I wanted Dad to tell me he loved my writing, but I knew he didn’t. As a fledgling writer, I was given to flights of multi-syllabic adjectives and wandering sentences, the more complex and flowery, the better. I’d be waiting for a compliment and Dad would say something like, “Very nice.” His tone of voice, however, said, “Adequate.” If I pushed for feedback, he would say, “It’s a bit purple for my taste.”

Mom laid it all out there, for better or worse. With Mom in menopause and me hormonal about half the time, our household was the scene of lot of estrogen-fueled interaction. When we started in, my brothers would exit. At the end of our fights, her jaw muscles flexing and her eyes shooting lasers, my mother would say, “You know I love you, Betz, but I don’t always like you.”

I’m not sure what I wanted more: to achieve my father’s approval or to avoid his disapproval. Just as he didn’t dole out compliments, he rarely said anything harshly critical. Anger did not take physical form.

All of us, however, feared my father’s disapproval and anger. I don’t know what to call it but Dad’s command presence. Even when leaning on the arm of the chair, he exuded a state of readiness. Even relaxed, you had the sense that he could snap to attention and his focus would be on you. In stillness, his eyes would shift your way.

I talked to my brother Bruce on the phone yesterday and I asked him, “How is it that we knew when Dad disapproved without him saying or doing anything?” It was the look, we agreed. Dad just looked at you.

“The eye of Sauron,” I said.

Yesterday, I read that only 56% of black fathers say they hug or show physical affection for their sons every day, and only 45% of the same group tell their sons they love them.

I thought to myself, Dad generally didn’t hug us or tell us he loved us either. How is it that we were confident in his love?

He showed us.

His model for fatherhood was everything that his father wasn’t.

As he told me once, his Dad wanted to be a loving father, but couldn’t bring himself to be. Dad often wondered aloud, “Why wouldn’t my father want to spend time with me?” He couldn’t understand it.

Dad treated us like we mattered, introducing us to the things he loved most: the challenges of the mind, the beauty of nature, the thrill of outdoor pursuits.

He may not have been a hugger. He rarely said, “I love you.” But he loved us in thought, word and deed.


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The Storyteller

Ozma of Oz

The wind blew hard and joggled the water of the ocean, sending ripples across its surface. Then the wind pushed the edges of the ripples until they became waves, and shoved the waves around until they became billows. The billows rolled dreadfully high: higher even than the tops of houses. Some of them, indeed, rolled as high as the tops of tall trees, and seemed like mountains; and the gulfs between the great billows were like deep valleys.”

Can you picture a storm-tossed ship, far out on the waters, rolling up and down and tipping side to side? Do you begin to feel a little anxious, imagining yourself in that tiny vessel as it submits to the mercy of the sea? Or are you distracted as you read this by the papers on your desk or the pinging of a smart phone at your side?

When I was first exposed to these lines from L. Frank Baum’s Ozma of Oz, I had no such distractions. I was snuggled in my twin bed, clutching my bedspread in the circular pool of light that flowed from my bedside lamp. I grew fearful as the storm worsened and the light was extinguished from the blackening sky.

To me, the story wasn’t something comprised of words on a flat page. I didn’t even read them. They were read to me by a master storyteller, my father. His voice traveled outward, rising with the tempest and bouncing off the ceiling, and then softening with reassurance when our narrator reminded us that our heroine, Dorothy, was an experienced traveler who had after all made far more difficult trips, arriving in Oz by way of cyclone.

Though his primary career was the United States Marine Corps, my Dad had the sensibilities of a thespian. He learned to tell stories from his father who, despite being demanding and detached, could spin a tale of the Old West that put you in the Pastime Saloon as Uncle Jake Cottrell faced down the Montana Kid.

Dad told a story with his whole body. He leaned forward and paused to see if he had the attention of his audience. His body coiled and his shoulders squared as he prepared to slowly unwind the story. He painted the setting, be it a hot Yakima day crouched in the sage brush at the edge of a canyon, a starry Seattle night when he held my mother in his arms, or a too-quiet lonely dirt road on a war-torn Pacific island with nothing more than a sidearm to protect him. He could startle his audience by booming out a phrase capable of reaching the length of a parade ground, or beguile it with low, mellifluous tones as he recited Antony’s description of Cleopatra on her barge.

I loved stories, but I especially loved hearing stories.

Today’s Daily Good article, reprinted from Aeon Magazine, reminded me how much my father’s stories have shaped me.

The story describes the response to  “pin drop” oral storytelling readings created by writer and journalist Elizabeth Day, reporting that Day “believes that reading aloud is more intimate than theatre because all the scenery and props have been stripped away, leaving only the listeners’ imaginations: the theatre of the mind.”

Just as Dad’s voice comforted me when I worried about Dorothy on the turbulent sea, I hear his voice in my head as I write the next chapter in my own story. Dad has been gone for a year, and I know I discharged my duties as caregiver with honor. This summer I will embark on a new venture in writing, and I confess to feeling a bit scared.

Maybe that’s what this quote shared by Daily Good means:

“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.” – Ben Okri

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Something Happened

Official Portrait, Promotion to Colonel, 1959

Official Portrait, Promotion to Colonel, 1959

Most of my life, my mind has raced. While I was physically present, in my head I often was thinking about something else, half-attending, listening for what I had to sock away in short term memory while filtering many of the other signals and information that flew past my head. Way back, in first grade, my teacher reported, “I found that Betsy reads well in a second grade book, but has almost no comprehension of what she has read, so we gave this up for now.” To which my mother wrote back, “We’re reading aloud to Betsy more frequently so this may help the comprehension too. She’s had much less reading aloud than our other children. Her Dad is reading Oz books now.” (Thank heavens. Reading the L. Frank Baum series is one of the most important memories of my childhood.)

About seven years into my career, when I first began to achieve some success, a leadership styles assessment found that I was seen by others as analytical, decisive and self confident. That was the positive side of the coin. It also found that I was seen as detached, determined and independent. I was a woman on a mission, more focused on what I had to get done than building relationships.

Fast forward 17 years. Before I left corporate life, another battery of personality and leadership assessments found something quite different. According to the 16PF Fifth Edition Personal Career Development Profile (yes, that’s a thing), my personality was found to be most aligned with people who are most interested in “helping” professions, particularly counseling. “Are you interested in counseling,” the consultant asked.

“God, no,” I thought. I wouldn’t have the patience for it. But I wondered, how does someone change from “detached” to “receptive” and “attentive to others”?

Experience. Age. Or both.

I find myself doing what I often do — thinking about my Dad. Looking back on his aging process, I accelerate it in my mind until it resembles time-lapse photography, those film sequences that capture a plant as it transforms from a seed that germinates, pushes a green sprout toward the surface, shoots up toward the sky and blooms.

Memory is like that. I look back on the father of my childhood, adolescence, adulthood and now middle-age and I piece the images together until they become a narrative arc.

It was hard to get Dad’s attention when I was young. He looked distracted in most of our old photos, uncomfortable, often unsmiling. It wasn’t that he hated having his picture taken. In college snapshots, he looked relaxed and confident, maybe even a bit full of himself. In my childhood, he barely tolerated the ritual of the family photo. His mind was somewhere else.

Fast forward 70 years. Dad sat at my kitchen table savoring his coffee and the morning newspaper. When we conversed, I had his full attention.

His mind worked vastly differently in his nineties than it did in his twenties. When asked a question, he would pause for some time. In a social situation, well-meaning people might try to rescue him by filling the void with chatter.

But if you waited and watched, you could almost see his thought process. He would consider the inquiry, mentally find the correct file cabinet, and eventually the right memory. Sometimes, the answer would escape him for a while and he would say, “I’ll come get you at 2 a.m. when it comes to me.” When he stopped worrying about retrieving the sought-after tidbit, it often emerged as if by its own volition.

What would once have taken seconds took minutes, maybe even hours.

In today’s “New Old Age” column in the New York Times, Benedict Carey writes, “(T)he larger the library you have in your head, the longer it usually takes to find a particular word….” Accumulated knowledge, vocabulary and expertise, Mr. Carey reports, represent “crystallized” intelligence, which some scientists suggest actually grows over time, while “fluid” intelligence (short-term memory activities like remembering a phone number) shrinks.

I find this heartening. Every “woman of a certain age” I know complains of the annoying tip-of-the-tongue syndrome and short-term memory failures that seem to move in about the time we are finally rid of the equally annoying biological systems that plagued us from age 12 on.

This summer, I will start a Masters in Fine Arts program in creative nonfiction. Part of me is mildly terrified to engage with a group of students whose median age is likely to be under 30. No doubt their fluid minds will quickly digest the volumes of reading that come with the territory. While I try to remember them.

Dad is again my guide and mentor. His love of people — and literature — only grew as he aged. I don’t think it was just the easing of daily demands that enabled his internal life to flourish. Something happened to his patience. Something happened to his ability to savor, appreciate and feel gratitude. Something happened to his depth of understanding.

I’m praying for something like that to happen to me.

[Author’s note: One of my friends messaged this photo to me. Thanks, Kristin Warren Vandersluis!]



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Remembering One Year Ago

Dad on January 8, 2012

Dad on January 8, 2012

I awakened just before 5 this morning feeling anxious. As I flipped from one side to the other, my thoughts churned. Though I have plenty of things I could worry about and long lists of things I should get done, I can usually put those thoughts aside and go back to sleep. Not this morning. Why was I feeling unsettled?

Then I remembered one year ago. One year ago, I slept while my father’s nighttime caregiver administered hospice comfort medications at the maximum dosage.

I felt like I had hopped on a freight train that was speeding, careening, barely holding to the rails along a treacherous mountain route that cast dark shadows on our route. I held on, trying to avert disaster.

A week earlier, Dad had been on a plateau, as hospice put it. He was still getting to the table for meals, and we were still making forays for fresh air outside, albeit by wheelchair. I had begun to accept that he would not rally, as I had hoped when came on service with hospice December 20. The nurses had explained that he would likely decline in increments, alternating with periods of stability.

I was Dad’s life ring and he clung to me for security, never wanting  me to leave his side. When Todd and I went out to see a movie as a short break, Dad remained at the dinner table with the caregiver, not wanting to retire until I returned. There he stayed, exhausted, counting the minutes until I would return at 9 p.m. I was counting, too. After one brother cancelled his planned trip, I crossed off the days on my calendar until brother Dean would arrive that Wednesday.

Dad’s confusion increased. I sat next to him all day and surrounded him with pictures. At dinner that Monday night, he picked up the picture of my brothers on the kitchen table and said, “They were siblings, weren’t they?”

I broke out in hives. I wondered if it was a reaction to the antibiotic I was taking to resolve a lingering cough, or a physical manifestation of my own anxiety. First my palms itched, then the soles of my feet, then my scalp. As I sat talking to the hospice Chaplain, I furiously scratched my head, twitching from the attempt to stop.

After Dean arrived, Dad’s decline only accelerated. The afternoon of Dean’s arrival, I asked our new afternoon caregiver to make chicken cacciatore. The process turned out to be long and arduous, but the results were delicious. Dad ate heartily, displaying his best appetite in a month. The mood, for that eyelash of time, was celebratory.

But that night, the medications we had pre-dispensed for the hospice nurse weren’t adequate to control Dad’s shortness of breath and agitation. From 11 p.m. on, Dad awakened every half hour. The caregiver summoned Dean during the night to prepare more. At 6:45 a.m. Thursday, Dad attempted to get out of bed by himself, after three weeks of being unable to support his own weight. The caregiver intervened before he fell. Dad was exhausted by the effort.

On Friday, Dean supervised the final move of Dad’s belongings to my house. The afternoon was quiet, with Dad sleeping most of the time. His breathing began to sound increasingly liquid, although the hospice nurse had told us not to be concerned. Just the same, we arranged for a house call the next morning, while I would be out facilitating a strategic planning retreat and Dean would supervise Dad’s care.

When I left that morning, I told Dean to call me with whatever the nurse said. An hour and a half into the retreat, he called with the news to come home. Now. I bluntly announced, “I have to leave. My Dad is dying.” I called my son at school and asked him if he wanted to come home even though Papa might be gone by the time he arrived. He did. My brothers Scott and Bruce booked flights for hours later. As I sat calling family in the living room, I overheard my daughter comforting Dad by reading passages from his favorite poetry. I wrote about preparing. Dad was on his way.

That Friday night turned out to be Dad’s last.

Dean told the story of that evening at Dad’s memorial:

The night before his passing, he was too weak to come to the table for dinner, even in his wheel chair – so Betsy and I brought our dinner into his room. We set up a card table in front of his recliner, squeezed in next to him, and had a quiet time together. In retrospect, he was clearly starting to fade, although Betsy and I did not realize at the time how close he was to the end.  He was very sleepy during dinner, and seemed to be in a waking dream state: still connected to the physical world around him, but clearly seeing and responding to other things as well.  As we sat together, he looked at me with half-closed eyes and asked, “Dean, will you drive?” This caught me a bit off-guard, but I responded that of course I would. I wish now that I had had the wits to ask him where he wanted to go, but I did not. Afterwards, my first thought was that in his mind he thought we were sitting in our camper on one of our hunting trips, and that he wanted me to drive because he was too tired to carry on. What I’ve now come to believe is something else…. Our hospice nurse told Betsy and me that such restlessness is fairly common, and offered the belief that perhaps those close to death know they have somewhere they need to go, and are so determined to get there they will get up out of bed and walk right out the front door if you aren’t watching over them. Today when I look back on my father’s words, I think he knew it was time for him to leave, and that he wanted me to drive him there. I think he was asking me to take him home.”

Dad is home now. I miss him. But I am glad he is free.

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Seeing Dad at the Marine Barracks’ Evening Parade

(Then) Lt. Col Henry S. Campbell, Gen. Pate and Gen. Leonard Chapman

As my plane ascends quickly out of Reagan National Airport, through the mist that hangs over Washington DC on this cloudy spring day, it banks steeply to the right, providing brief glimpses of the tree-lined suburbs below.

My mind is cycling just as rapidly through images from this past week and especially the last two days.

Last night, seated next to an older man in the VIP section at Marine Barracks’ evening parade, we approached the end of the 90-minute spectacle of Marine precision. Pass in Review had just concluded after the Marine Corps Band, Drum and Bugle Corps, Alpha Company and Bravo Company had marched smartly and precisely in front of the evening’s honorees and Col. Christian Cabaniss, Commanding Officer of the Barracks.

“There he is,” my seatmate Larry said. Looking up to the tall parapet, above which the reproduction 15-star flag snapped in the rapidly changing wind, I saw what he noticed, a lone figure in a red Drum and Bugle Corps uniform. The lights on the parade ground darkened and a spotlight lit the bugler. The crowd rose, and waited.

So slowly that it ached, the bugler blew the haunting refrain of Taps. I wondered who Larry was remembering, afraid to look in his direction lest I catch him welling up for friends lost in the Vietnam war, his first combat operation.

Though my Dad was here 55 years ago, when the evening parade was a “moonlight innovation” (as the newspaper described it at the time), he was a phantom by my side the whole evening.

Major Sarah ArmstrongBefore the parade, in the Drum Room of Center House, I chatted with Maj. Sarah Armstrong who was manning the log of drinks served to active duty personnel of the Barracks. Her demeanor easily toggled from a relaxed chat with the visiting daughter of a late Marine Colonel — socially at ease, articulate, with a ready sense of humor winking under the surface — to a direct gaze and ramrod straight bearing when greeting the Commanding Officer.

Photo credit: USMC, Marine Barracks Washington 8th and I Facebook page

I told the Commanding Officer that, as the youngest of my siblings, I had no memory of the Barracks. The silent drill that I remembered was a demonstration performed at home by my father with an umbrella. The umbrella did not always fare well for the experience.

Col. Cabaniss said that his youngest daughter seemed less than impressed by his position in the Corps. She was more likely to “Oh, Daddy” him than his eight year old, who liked the idea of giving orders. “Sir, she even orders me when she visits,” added Major Johnson.

As the reception progressed, I superimposed my father upon it. He was there, standing and smiling in the direction of Gen. Pate. On the other side of Gen. Pate stood Gen. Leonard Chapman, then Commanding Officer of the Barracks and later Commandant.

In the photo, Gen. Chapman is smiling broadly, looking directly at the camera. Given his rank and position, he cannot be a man to trifle with, but the warmth and welcome in his face is striking.

Dad looks a little less relaxed, but you can tell he likes these men under whom he serves. Respect and admiration shows on his face, but so does affection.

Having grown up outside the shelter of the Corps, this is one of the things that strikes me: the obvious affection between the men and women I see around me.

In corporate life, we may develop deep and long-lasting friendships. We learn to behave as a team. Inevitably, we work with a few who set us on edge.

I know from my Dad’s stories that there were men he didn’t like and men who didn’t like him. He once reported for duty to his new Commanding Officer (not Col. Chapman) and was greeted with the statement, “I didn’t ask for you.”

But I know he loved many of the people in the photos. It was in his eyes when he spoke of those he admired.

I saw the same mutual respect and warmth in the relationship between Col. Cabaniss and the current Executive Officer, LtC. Tom Garnett. In response to my question about how he came to be Executive Officer, LtC. Garnett said that he had previously served as Col. Cabaniss’ XO and was asked to join him in that role again when the Col. was given command of the post.

When I left Center House that evening, LtC. Garnett was standing by the door. I thanked him for his hospitality and told him how deeply the event had affected me. I told him I appreciated meeting Col. Cabaniss and could see why he would be pleased to be his XO, not once, but twice. I added, “And I can see why he is lucky to have you.”

He raised his index finger to his lips, smiled and whispered, “Shhhh.”

These are men and women who train together not just for the ceremonies that are a major part of the mission of the Barracks, but for survival and success. The officers I met had a common thread in their service history: Afghanistan.

I grew up in the time before 9/11, during a long period of peace. My generation had never been called upon to defend our freedoms. Most of what my generation knew about warfare came from movies and video games. It took becoming a parent to make me realize the vulnerability of the men and women on the line of fire, someone else’s sons and daughters.

I once asked Dad how he could have had the bravery to run toward enemy fire. He answered, “You do it for the guy next to you.” Your brother.

Here at the Barracks, you meet people who have been chosen to uphold the legacy of the Marine Corps, a storied history, ultimately, of military successes against terrible odds. The ribbons on the Marine Corps battle flag, presented during the ceremony, is a graphic reminder of each of the campaigns in which the Marine Corps has fought since the beginning of the country.

As the Marine Corps Hymn says: “… First to fight for right and freedom, and to keep our honor clean: We are proud to claim the title of United States Marine.”


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A memorial just as it was meant to be

My last bouquet of roses from Dad

My last bouquet of roses from Dad

I don’t know why I dreaded Dad’s memorial today, but I did. But it was perfect even in its imperfections. As I told my son tonight, Thom, everything was exactly as it was meant to be. Down to me inadvertently saying that Dad had a “big ass” smile on his face just hours before he died.

Together, my brothers and I painted quite a composite picture of Dad. Following are my remarks and in upcoming days, I’ll post theirs:

“There are many ways to look at my father’s long life. You can look at it through the lens of history. He remembered having one of the first phones in Yakima with its three-digit phone number.. You can look at it through the lens of medicine. He was a walking miracle who lived 50 years after his first heart attack. You can look at his life through the lens of professional accomplishment, a tough, smart Marine who was twice decorated with a bronze star with V for valor and who was unafraid to challenge his superior officer even when threatened with court martial.

But I think of my father’s life as a love story. He was a middle child in a difficult family. He loved his mother deeply but feared his father, who he referred to as “The Great I Am.” Dubbed “the smart one” by his family, he was accelerated in school by two years, which he said was a disaster for any young man with an interest in young women. He said he didn’t stand a chance.

My Dad was a romantic. Meant to be the family lawyer, he was in love with words. He began to devour and memorize large swaths of poetry, with favorites including Shakespeare and 19th century poets.

Then he met my mother, and the next chapter in his love story began. As my Dad told the story, it was spring of 1939 at the UW, Dad’s senior year. After drying himself out from a binge in the taproom of a local brewery where his fraternity brother worked, he seated himself in Dr. Padelford’s class on Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning whereupon he saw “this vision enter the room, dressed to the nines.” As my grandfather said when he met my mother, “Son, a pretty face will fade away, but a good pair of legs will last forever.”

If ever an immovable object met an irresistible force, it was my father meeting my mother. My mother, upon learning that Dad was pinned to a girl in Yakima, handed him $5 for train fare and told him not to come back until he had the pin. In 1941, after Dad had been commissioned as a second lieutenant and was stationed in Quantico, Mom sent him a cryptic telegram saying that she accepted his proposal and was heading east with her mother to get married. He swore that he had no recollection of any such proposal.

Fast forward to 1999. Though I knew of Dad’s love of poetry and Mom, I don’t think I truly understood how driven he was by love until after Mom died and his life-long confidante was gone.

At the end of Mom’s 3 ½ month illness with late stage lung cancer, at sunset on May 10, 1999, I called my father in to their bedroom after I noticed that Mom’s color had changed; while I called hospice, he held her hand, told her that he loved her and that he would be with her again. Then her heart stopped.

As we sat together in the days that followed, recollections began to spill out from him.

First he recalled Mom. As I wrote later, “In the days after my mother died, my father recalled some of their intimate moments like movie images, how she looked with the glow of moonlight on her body.” It would have been a beautiful moment were I not trying to poke my mental eye out.

Then Dad began to talk about the war, something he had rarely done before. 

But the most difficult memory he shared with me was that of the final illness of my sister, Midge, in 1953. Dad sat on the couch and described her in her oxygen tent in the hospital, reaching out her arms toward him, and saying, “Daddy, help me.” He said that he went out in the hall and pounded on the wall with his fists. “I could do nothing,” he said. As he told me the story, he repeatedly slapped his forehead, not gently, but hard, crying. I finally took his hand and told him to stop hitting himself.

In 2006, I invited Dad to move to California, figuring that he was, as I put it, “past his expiration date.” The cardiovascular surgeon who operated on him in 1999 here in Tacoma had projected that the surgery would give him lasting relief for only about five years. Then he expected that Dad’s heart disease would likely end his life.

The ensuing seven years after Dad moved down were transformative, for Dad and for me. I listened as he worked through the most important experiences in his life. His love of Mom. The War. The Loss of Midge. His difficult relationship with his father. His love of his mother. Like all of us, he had regrets or things he never understood.

He softened. When I once commented that he seemed to have become more gentle and less judgmental as he aged, he said, “Who am I to judge?”

Perhaps my father’s biggest challenge was his final one – the grueling march of his final years.

His physical abilities were seared away by time. He lost his hearing. His balance faltered. His chest pain increased. His breathing became strained. It was brutal to watch.

What remained was Henry, distilled and pure. He loved red roses, which represented his love of Mom, and for several years after Mom died, he sent them to his favorite women: Ann Palmer, his daughters in law, his niece Louise and great-niece Mary, and me. He still loved chocolate and enjoyed his last bowl of ice cream with chocolate sauce the evening before he died.

He still cared about the future of the nation, and voted in his 19th presidential election last year. He still loved and worried about his adult children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. I asked him once, “Do you ever stop worrying?” and he said, “No, never.”

I said this was a love story, and it is. On the day my father died, he was agitated. His time was near, though we did not guess how near. At about 11 a.m., Maddie comforted him by reading poetry from the little book I created of his favorite poetry, “Henry’s Passages.” She read Longfellow, and Shelley, and, of course, Shakespearian sonnets.

Around 3 p.m., after being unresponsive most of the day, Dad suddenly smiled. And shortly before 6 p.m., his eyebrows lifted, as if he was seeing someone who delighted him. And his lips began moving as if he were speaking to that person. Dean and I felt that he was seeing Mom.

Dad’s breathing suddenly changed at about 6 p.m., Dean held Dad’s hand, and I started reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, which was the last sonnet Dad recited from memory, several days before. Then his breathing slowed, and finally stopped.

Henry Snively Campbell – loving friend, son, brother, uncle, husband, grandfather, great grandfather, father-in-law and father — died in a state of love, which is to say, a state of grace.”

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With Love, to the Last Breath


At 6 p.m. tonight, Dad took his last breath as my brother Dean told him that he loved him, and as I read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, one of Dad’s favorites. To understand why my Dad loved that particular sonnet so much, you have to appreciate how he “fought for his pants” every day of day of his wonderful marriage to my mother. Not long before he died, his eyebrows lifted up, the way they would when he saw someone who delighted him, and his lips moved as if he were speaking to them.

Dad, this is for you and Mom, thanks to the Bard:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks; 
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
   As any she belied with false compare.

Their love was rare, and they are together again. But, dear Dad, I will miss you.


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Too much love?

Can you imagine this image as an older parent? It’s not how we think about our role as caregivers, is it? (courtesy Teach Through Love)

Our first instinct as parents is to surround our children in a cocoon of love that cushions them against hurts both physical and emotional. But eventually, we find out that we do our children no favors if we never let them struggle.

I am learning that being a caregiver for an aging parent is not that different.

Since I moved my father to California in 2006, he’s spent the majority of the time at my house. He has his own bedroom with a cushy La-Z-Boy, television and bathroom. After giving up the family house where he lived from 1969 to 2003, I wanted him to feel this was home. At the same time, I wanted to know I could leave town and trust that he would be secure, with all of the support services he needs. So he’s had a one bedroom apartment in a nice assisted living community.

The back-and-forth worked just fine until July, when his health became unstable. Although he is now almost fully recovered, his emotional health continues to suffer.

My mother, during the final stages of lung cancer, expressed fear of dying, despite the deep faith that sustained her for so many years. My father wondered why, if there is a God, would he abandon my mother in her hour of need? Now it is my father who fears dying – and, in particular, dying alone.

Ten days ago, he asked me, “Can I come live with you?” He continued, “Living alone is no way to live. I’m afraid to die alone.”

Using my strategic planning skills, it seemed to me that we had to revisit Dad’s living situation. My objective, and that of my brothers, is to ensure that Dad lives with as little physical and emotional distress as possible. To that I had to add an objective about meeting the needs of my own family — oh, and taking care of myself, too.

It seemed to me that there were three possible solutions: 1) Dad would come to live with me full-time; 2) we continue to muddle through with more companion services at his apartment on the days that I am not available; or 3) we limit the number of nights that Dad stays at my house because of his increased distress when he has to return to his apartment.

I sought input from a social worker, a mentor, our home church pastor, his doctor, and a psychologist. Along the way I also had Dad evaluated for hospice and found out that he’s not close to qualifying for that type of end-of-life care. I had to start thinking about what would be best for a period of gradual decline that could last for several years – something I never imagined given that Dad has had three heart attacks, three strokes and three open heart bypass surgeries.

I also had to “listen” to myself. I realized I felt overwhelmed by the possibility of Dad moving in full-time. I really want that to happen, but now isn’t the right time. My Dad isn’t the only one who needs me right now.  I had to admit to myself that I felt exhausted.

The social worker shared a little tough love with me. She said, “He is distressed about the prospect of going back to his apartment because it isn’t ‘home.’ And it isn’t home because you won’t let it be home. He spends enough time at your house that the transition is difficult. He doesn’t remember exactly what happens there and it feels unsafe to him to return.” She went on, “As family members, you’re responsible for providing the caring, but not necessarily the care.”

My beloved mentor Jim offered this advice:

This is very hard to do: separate what is in his best interest and his care needs from your heart duty as a loving daughter.  Like most elders in his situation, he is becoming more child like — likes what he likes and won’t budge; wants his mommy really to take care of him although he would not recognize that is what he is doing to you.  If he does move in and a caregiver is part of the team, you will have to force him to agree to let that caregiver do his/her thing.  You almost have to write out a ‘contract’ that he has to agree to.  Obviously it is not a legal thing, but you use it to force him to focus on reality when he just wants it all to be different and for you to be there constantly.

My church home pastor suggested that I facilitate a casual visit with a priest. “Throw him a lifeline,” he suggested. “He may choose not to talk about his concerns about death, but he may be ready to talk.” And my psychologist friend suggested having Dad evaluated for anti-depressants. His doctor agrees that may be worth trying.

So what was decided? I had a conference call with my brothers last Wednesday night and we decided to try out an arrangement where Dad is limited to three nights a week at my house. I’ve visited him at his apartment every day and joined him for lunch to reinforce the message that the staff knows him and is paying attention.

He doesn’t love it, but he is responding to the message that there are some things I need to do right now to take care of my family and myself. He asks how he can help, and I say, “Just be patient, Dad, and be supportive when I can’t be here.”

Week one went well, but the big test will come this weekend when I leave town for three days… Stay tuned.




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