11/11 has always been one of my very favorite dates. Not only because it’s the ultimate day to wish for what you want most in life 😉 And not only because it’s a day set aside to celebrate the brave souls who have sacrificed their own liberties and comforts to bless us with ours. But also because God chose this day for my very own hero to grace the planet with his presence.
Tomorrow will mark the 17th year that I’ve celebrated Dad’s birthday in memory instead of in person. Each year, I take the time to remember him in my own personal way, whether it be a social media post acknowledging how much he still means to me or, when I lived closer, a trip to my hometown to leave roses on his headstone.
This year, however, I wanted to do something extra special. 2016 has been packed with a number of life-changing events for me that I have no doubt he had his hand in, and it just doesn’t feel right to keep him to myself. Instead, I’d like to share with y’all the deepest parts of what I’ve learned from not only his life, but his death as well, and dedicate these reassurances to every sweet lady out there who knows this loss firsthand ♥
You will never not miss him.
As I mentioned, it’s been 17 years since I last heard Dad’s voice. And although it takes a while for me to open up and share him with others, one of my favorite ways to remember him is to relive our memories with those around me. Most are receptive, but every once in a while, I come across those who meet my recollections of him with, “It’s been almost two decades. Why aren’t you over it?”
Friend, you will never “get over” losing someone so deeply integral to your life. Nor should you ever be expected to. Nor should you, in all honesty, surround yourself with people who lack the empathy to understand what a ridiculous request that is. Sure, you’ll reach a point when their loss resembles more of a scar on your soul than a gaping hole. And the pain will subside enough to think and speak of them without feeling a sharp stab in your heart. But you’ll never forget them. You’ll never pass a milestone in life without wondering if you made them proud. You’ll never escape a holiday without wishing they were there to celebrate with you. You’ll never again forget their birthday, or absentmindedly dismiss the age they would have become. And you should never allow anyone to make you feel like there’s something wrong with you for loving someone so deeply that you’re as equally impacted by their death as you were their life.
“Grief is the price we pay for love.”
– Queen Elizabeth II –
You will meet him again and again as you grow older.
The first time I experienced this, it was admittedly weird for me. Most of my memories with him begin to taper off around 5 or 6 years old… Flashbacks of him tickling my toes as he wrapped me in a towel after my nighttime bath, or meandering around our ranch with him each afternoon as he fed our horses and cattle.
But it wasn’t until I began to dig deeper into the lives of those who knew him best that I met the hell-raising Bill in his early twenties who, rumor has it, rode his motorcycle from one end of Lubbock to the other with music blasting so loud through his headphones that he was oblivious to the tornado trailing him; The playful, gentle husband who left notes around our house reminding Mom she was his world; The charismatic oilman who rubbed elbows with presidents and country music superstars; And the man of true grit and courage who pressed through the last moments of his life to finish prayers for Mom and I. Of all the beautiful faces that my father wore, I only had the chance to officially meet one, but it was the best one a little girl could ever see: My daddy.
You realize at a very young age the importance of living and loving like there’s no tomorrow.
Cystic Fibrosis plays a huge part in this is as well, but I’ve been accused of “loving too hard” on more than one occasion. It never made sense to me that caring in that capacity held such a negative connotation, especially with the constant need to “finish” loving my father looming over my head. I’m happy to report that this trait that burned me for so long is now one that has revolutionized Zack’s and my relationship in ways I never imagined possible. A part of me has learned to intentionally snapshot every moment with him and stuff it deep into a filing cabinet in my mind labeled What If This Were the Last Moment I Had with Him? Some may consider that morbid, but if you ever try it, you’ll discover it’s quite the opposite. When you truly live every moment with someone with the idea that it may be your last, fear becomes a tiny and pointless concept next to love.
He can still be part of the biggest moments of your life.
Nothing will ever be as good as having him by your side as you experience the most momentous occasions of your life. But if you get creative enough, you’ll find that there are ways to have him there, even when he can’t be physically.
For example: Dad shared the same gypsy soul I have, always moving from one place to another looking for new adventure. So to follow suit, each time that I move, I take my “Dad Wall” with me – A wall pieced together with memories of him that allows him to still be part of my everyday life. A hand-rendered painting of my favorite picture of he and I that my friend Jon commissioned for me; A poster print advert of one of his photography showcases from before he lost his eyesight; An old beaten up Nikon camera shell; And a sign that reminds me to always “Let Faith Be Bigger Than Your Fear”.
And when it came time for me to walk down the aisle to marry the man of my dreams, we chose to incorporate him in four ways: His favorite red and white striped tie was interwoven into my bouquet; The painting from my “Dad Wall” was placed in a chair beside Mom during the ceremony; A memorial dance with my cousin, George, to “You Should Be Here” by Cole Swindell was held in place of the Father/Daughter dance; And a special dance was held for Zack and my mom to “Lady” by Kenny Rogers, the first song she and my dad danced to at their wedding in 1981.
Sometimes, all it takes is their memory to bring them back.
You can’t feel guilty for not better appreciating your short time together.
For a long time, this was a really hard pill for me to swallow. I was only 9 years old when Dad was taken away from us, and 16 when he died. All I had for seven years were occasional visits and handwritten letters that I, more often than not, forgot to reply to. To this day, failing to write him back more frequently is the single regret that I have in my lifetime, but I eventually had to come to terms with the fact that my expectations of my teenage self were largely unrealistic. The most developmental years of our lives are inherently selfish, and it was normal to lack the ability to comprehend that he wouldn’t always be around. However, one aspect that I still struggle with now that I’m older is understanding the conditions he lived in for those seven years, and how a letter from home was the biggest joy he looked forward to each day. I can’t say for certain that he ever knew how much I loved him while he was here, but I hope that I make up for it tenfold today.
He will still pop up when you need him most.
This past February, I spent my very first birthday away from home and away from the family and friends who never failed to make it a big deal for me. Even greater was the uncharted territory of spending the weekend in Ohio with Zack visiting his grandmother, and as excited as I was to meet one of the most influential women in his life, I was extremely homesick. He could tell and, being the amazing guy he is, cleared the day between our birthdays (his is the 26th, mine the 28th) for an evening to ourselves. This led to accidentally finding a place in downtown Cleveland called The Harry Buffalo, of particular significance because Dad had always held a special place in his heart for his “tatonka”. So Zack and I jokingly took it as a sign that he had single-handedly chosen our birthday spot. When we returned to our car after dinner, there was a single artificial sunset rose – My favorite – Behind my passenger tire, and when I showed it to Zack, his eyes welled up with tears. It didn’t need to be vocalized that Dad had just spent our first birthdays together with us.
Fast forward to late April, when Zack decided it was time to make a trip to Texas to ask for Mom’s blessing over our engagement. Once we were there, he requested some time alone at Dad’s graveside to seek his approval also. (Told y’all he was amazing.) Little did I know that he had humbly told Dad he wanted the best for me, and asked for a sign reassuring him that he was, in fact, just that.
Mom suggested we try a restaurant on Lake Tyler that she and I had never been to – A beautiful place set back in the woods with a walking trail alongside the lake that led to a small gazebo. I couldn’t help but notice how much Zack kept fidgeting throughout dinner, and I thought he was nervous about talking with my mom. Come to find out, he was anxiously waiting for the sign from Dad before he proceeded. A sign that came only moments later when, on the walking trail back from the gazebo, we suddenly spotted a single bush of freshly-planted sunset roses.
Whether we choose to believe so or not, those who go before us never leave us entirely. Whether it be in the moments when we swear we can still feel them standing beside us, in our own personal memories, or in stories that are gradually passed down to us over the years, their legacy lives through every person whose life they touched in one way or another. Thankfully for me, my daddy dreamed of being a legend, and that’s exactly what he will always remain to those who knew him as Willy.
Happy birthday, Daddy. I love you more than life.