It is Christmas Day.
I am considering what I am grateful for.
Every thing has a foundation. And, for me, there is always a story.
As many of you know, I think my Mom and Dad were a terrific team. It was obvious they were in love. Dad always said that it was his job to make Mom happy. And, they taught my brother Greg and me, mostly by example, how to be dedicated husbands, and stalwart fathers in our own right.
This Blog entry is about three separate, yet connected, heart wrenching memories I have of my father, and why I am grateful for them.
After a 12 year battle, leukemia took my Mom in 1985. Dad, Greg and I did exactly the opposite of what the Hospice people advised and took off in different directions. Greg went back to school at the University of Virginia; Dad/1 let Northrop Corporation move him to Omaha, Nebraska; and, I indulged myself as a mercenary with epic adventures (this ends up being another cool Brian Cork story for another time).
Dad had sold our house in Springfield, VA and bought a condo in Omaha. The good news is he had family (his mother, siblings, etc) close by. Greg and I would visit Dad as often as we could. Dad had rooms for me and Greg decorated with the furniture and our “stuff” set up just like we had them in High School. “That’s the way your mother would want it”, said Dad – and, he was right.
It was always clear and evident Dad missed Mom. His agony and misery hung in the air around his broad thick shoulders every where he went. But this Blog entry’s focus is about a singular transitional event for me…
During a visit with Dad in late July of 1986, I woke up around 2am needing a drink of water. Dad’s bedroom suite was connected to a study a level down from the kitchen that always smelled of coffee and cigarettes. As I turned from the sink with a cool glass of water in my hand (not much bottled water in 1986) I could see a soft glow emanating from down stairs. I padded down the stairs quietly moving through Dads study, that, differentially, smelled of his pipe (Mom had made him stop smoking in the bedroom after too many butts had burned her favorite bureau… The one they had all their married lives) and all the of books he always had stacked every where, and found myself, as always, struck by how familiar and comfortable his rooms were. He had it arranged just the way Mom would have… In the corner, by the sliding door off of a patio, was her favorite reading chair – recovered several times after years of bed time stories, countless romance novels, and late night talks with Dad finally home from alert or endless days at the Command Center. Directly across from their king-sized bed was that long low bureau where she had kept her scarves and all the fascinating perfumes collected by Dad on his distant travels. I stopped for a moment considering the bureau. I knew that if I opened it the scent of Mom’s hair would fill the room. I smiled. Then I realized that the light that had caught my attention was coming from his closet.
This was different.
Dad always liked their bedroom dark with the windows open. I found myself standing in the dim light looking into the room watching him sleep.
Something did not feel right…
It took me a few minutes to realize that the slippers Greg and I had given him back in 1970 were missing from their usual spot just off of his bed stand. Then I realized that he was on Mom’s side of the bed with the covers pulled back just enough for himself to slip into a ball (later it occurred to me that Dad was so off the routine that he could not even be bothered with his beloved slippers). His back was to me with one arm stretched out under a pillow. Dad had a really broad back and shoulders. But, he looked small and fragile in that bed – and utterly forlorn and alone.
My heart went into my throat as a nauseous wave of sadness flowed over me. It made me feel dizzy. I will also admit I felt a little frightened because it seemed like that wasn’t my Dad. He was… well… gone.
This was the perfect picture of grief. But, I never truly understood the great potential for grief until I married Joanne (December of 1990). Keep reading. This will make sense shortly.
Dad took his own life the day before my birthday in the garage of that condo on October 6, 1986. He did not leave a note. He did not clean the condo (that is NOT what Mom would have wanted). He apparently started his 1984 Toyota Celica Supra; sat down with his back against the door leading into the condo; opened up a Zane Gray novel; and, faded to black.
The last time I saw Dad alive was at a Marriott hotel in Los Angeles while he was on a business trip. It was late August of 1986, and I had ridden my Interceptor 750 over to see him (Mom would not have liked that motorcycle, and Dad liked reminding of those things). We had dinner in his room while I updated him on my Lacrosse team (South Bay Lacrosse Club), my buddies, and “work”. I took off around 8pm. I kissed him on the cheek and gave him our usual hug (I always kissed and hugged my Dad – even in public). I was walking down the hallway and something made me look back. Dad was standing in the doorway of his room, leaning against the door jamb with his hands in his pockets, looking at me with an odd and sad smile on his face (I don’t think he knew it was the last time he would see me. But, I always knew I reminded him so much of Mom). I did a sort of wave-off goodbye towards him as I spun on my heel and made a leap for the elevator. As I jabbed the button for the lobby I had the disconnected thought that I was really going to miss him. I considered punching the button for the 9th floor to go back… And, then I started thinking about Mom and the vivid dreams I had just after she died… My finger fell away from the button and I caught my reflection in the glass around the sliding door. My eyes were dark and a bit wild. I let the elevator take me to the lobby. I took off on my Interceptor, and decided to go for a ride in the Pacific Palisades.
So, for several hours I slid through and amongst the hills that overlook the ocean, blinking back tears; amazed at all the stars; thinking about Mom and Dad and the kind of people they were; wishing I was 8 years old again lying in bed waiting for them to come home from the officers club smelling of cigarettes and martinis and perfume and laughing.
I had never done that sort of thinking before. I realized that Dad was never going to be himself without Mom. But, I sort of liked that – perhaps in a selfish way.
So… As we prepared to inter Dad that October (we put him at Mom’s feet), I listened to people’s views about suicide and his soul. His secretary told me – quite adamantly – that he was going to hell. But, I was oddly at peace.
I think Dad and God had an understanding.
Mom was the best part of Dad. He did what he needed to in order to get back to her side as quickly and efficiently as possible. That’s what she would have wanted. And, his job was to maker her happy, after all. And, he knew Greg and I would find girls like Mom; and, we would be fine.
So… I look at Joanne, Haley Anne and Emma Jo and think of Mom and Dad every day.
I totally get it.
I know Mom and Dad would adore Joanne. And, I am married for life. My job is to make my girls happy.
It’s the best way I can honor my father.
It’s all so simple.
And, I am very grateful.
Peace be to my Brothers and Sisters.
Brian Patrick Cork
1/ My father retired from the United States Air Force as a full Colonel in 1980.