Tag Archives: Dad

What Dad Really Gave Me

Although I don’t have children of my own, I’ve heard sage advice that when it comes to your children, you should spend half as much money and twice as much time.  My dad never had much in the way of money, but he always made sure I had plenty of his time.

This is the dad who took me fishing and we caught a catfish so big we had to call on other nearby fisherman to help us retrieve it out of the river. The dad who spent a weekend helping me craft a model of the planet Saturn out of plaster, house paint and a coat hanger for science class. The dad who spent countless hours teaching me how to perfect my free throw. The dad who made and decorated a homemade kite with me, named it “The Swearingen Special” and took me out on the perfect windy day to fly it.  The dad who challenged me to save my babysitting money and matched me dollar for dollar until I could afford the ten-speed bicycle of my dreams. The dad who helped me build a bird feeder and paint it orange.  The dad who gave me my first butterfly net and helped me collect butterflies for years to come. The dad who was sincerely impressed with me for spelling the word “yogurt” during an after-dinner Scrabble game.  The dad who took me camping, patiently setting up the tent and making me a foil dinner over a crackling fire in the park just across the street from our house.  The dad who helped me build a hutch for my pet bunny, Eddie Rabbit. The dad who convinced me that whatever I do in life, I should do it passionately and with joy.
This is the dad who was willing to give me all of the time he had, until his time ran out.  This is the dad I still miss every day.

A Basket Full of Love

I love Easter, and it started right here. Right here with one-year-old Baby Jenny, her proud papa, and a bunny named Thumper.  You know you have parents who want to give you the world when they gift you with a live bunny for Easter.  I love the look on my face in this picture.  It is a look of pure, unadulterated joy and intrigue, mixed with maybe even a little bit of disbelief. Family legend is that Thumper peed on Dad’s lap when the flash of the camera went off to capture this photo. Thinking about the chaos that ensued one second after this picture was taken makes it even funnier.

People talk a lot about Christmas spirit, and that’s all well and good.  But in my family, Easter spirit was a pretty big deal too.  Easter was always a time of laughter and love, of togetherness and affection.  It represented an appreciation for doing the same old thing, year after year, and knowing that sometimes that is precisely all you need.

The Easter festivities always began in the same way on the evening of Good Friday.  Pot after pot of eggs would be boiled, leaving each and every kitchen window covered in unrelenting steam.  Never ones to scale things back, our family would set out to color a good six or seven dozen eggs.  The air in the old farmhouse will fill with the smells of sulfur and vinegar, smells that repelled and attracted us simultaneously.  I distinctly remember sitting at our old rickety kitchen table, newspapers laid out and every mismatched coffee mug in the house filled with a different color of dye.  And there we would sit, for hours, talking and laughing and doing pretty much the same thing we did every year prior.  There was the compulsory “watermelon egg” and the never-ending pursuit for Dad to perfect his “two-tone egg.”  The last two dozen eggs were probably colored in disinterested haste, but even that was part of the tradition.

Easter Sunday always brought about a new set of delights.  We girls would don our Easter outfits, usually something pink and frilly and a little on the scratchy side.  Leaving the house practically in the dark of the night, we would head to church for the sunrise service.  We loved the sunrise service because instead of a traditional communion, we got donuts and pastries.  From there we would head to “the big city” to visit our Uncle Alan and Aunt Pat, where our cousins and grandparents would be waiting for us in eager anticipation.

Now one thing I can say about Aunt Pat, she knew how to do it up right when it came to Easter.  Long before our arrival, the adults in the family would hide dozens and dozens of plastic eggs out in the expansive yard. When we “country cousins” arrived, the annual Easter egg hunt could begin.  We would run through the yard with our Easter baskets, breathlessly exclaiming another round of excitement for each egg found. When the last of the eggs had been retrieved, the family would gather round to see what was inside them.  Many of course held jelly beans and malted milk balls, and a few held shiny coins.  Others held tiny slips of paper commanding us to do one thing or another, and our favorites were those that included these explicit instructions: “Go get $1 from Grandpa Swearingen.”  Year after year, Grandpa would make a long, drawn out scene of shock and dismay at having to part with his $1 bill, and year after year, we grandkids would belly laugh at his feigned misfortune and fussing.  It was the family joke that never got tired.

There’s a reason we all love tradition.  The customs we create as a family ground us and give us something to hang onto when times get tough.  I look back at my childhood, and I know it wasn’t always easy.  There were hardships and worries that sometimes came in tidal waves.  But when I think of my childhood, I really don’t think about the hard times much at all.  What I think about is Easter:  doing the same things over and over, and loving it every time.  Sometimes, it seems, knowing exactly what to expect is the most exciting thing of all.

Billy Joe

In short, he was the coolest cat I ever met, and while most of his family called him “Billy Joe,” I was lucky enough to call him Dad. There are so many things I admire about him, that I am not sure I can put them all to paper. He was funny and patient and tolerant of the most trying of circumstances–far beyond anyone’s comprehension.

Born on October 1, 1941 to Harold and Kathryn Swearingen, Billy Joe was the baby of his family. (One of his all-time favorite jokes: “They named me Bill because I came on the first of the month.”) There is something about being the baby of the family that lends to a special brand of charm, and he had oodles of it. He just had an easy way about him, and was always the life of the party. Need a spot-on impression of one of the locals in our small Iowa town? Bill was your man. Want to feel better about your own circumstances, compliments of some serious self-deprecation? There he was again. (“How tall are you?” someone once asked. “Depends,” said Dad, “if I am on my good leg or my bad leg. I am either 5’10 or 6’0.”) His life was tragic, and charmed, and as far as I can tell, truly one-of-a-kind.

In 1971 just months before his 30th birthday, my dad was diagnosed with kidney failure and was given two weeks to live. But here’s where I developed a sense that there indeed is a plan out there greater than ourselves: Bill’s brother Alan was completing his medical residency at the University of Iowa hospitals who just happened to be some of the pioneers in the field of nephrology. So in a race against the clock, my family packed up and moved from New Mexico to Iowa so that Dad could get what was then state of the art treatment.

From there, and for many years to follow, my dad and our family experienced a whole lot of medical ups and downs. I look back, and I realize that all of my formative years were shrouded with worry of losing this most remarkable man. But here comes lesson number two, compliments of Dad: All the worrying in the world doesn’t change a thing. And, in fact, it just might make things worse. He showed us.

Dad went through a couple transplants that didn’t last long, but he spent most of the rest of his life on dialysis. Twenty-five years, to be exact, which put him in something like the top one thousandth of one percentile of life expectancy of people on dialysis. He had a point to prove.

If his onslaught of medical problems wore on his nerves, he surely never showed it. Every night for many years, we played Nerf basketball in the kitchen while Mom cooked dinner–sometimes to her chagrin and more often to her delight. Every night sometime after dinner, Dad would grab the guitar and sing his silly made-up songs. He thought and planned and dreamed about ways he could improve our little hobby farm for the quarter horses he so passionately raised on it. Maybe it was because he had the keen sense that life is short, but Dad really knew how to live.

When Dad’s body finally gave out on him fourteen years ago, clearly long before his will dared to do so, my sister and I were there with him. I have always felt it was a privilege to share this most amazing moment with him as he danced on the delicate line from one world to the other. And though he had been in a coma-like state for two days prior, he awoke on his last day and was as lively and as funny as I could ever remember him being. And you know what he said? He said the most astounding thing, considering that he was in the last hours of his life. He looked us in the eye and said, “I am not going to lose levity today.” There came lesson number three out of a gazillion that I got from him. I thought it every day he was alive, and I have thought it every day since: I am lucky to have known this man.

Life has all kinds of twists and turns. Nobody is guaranteed anything, and if you think you are then I say you’re a fool. Just ask Billy Joe: Our charge, if we can, is to live. Not just to breathe, but to live. Find your passion, surround yourself with quality people, seize every opportunity to try something new, make a new friend or for God’s sake, laugh.

Happy Father’s Day, my sweet dad. Thanks for shaping me and above all else, for letting me live in your light. Wherever you are, I will meet you again someday, and when I get there I know one thing that I can count on for sure: We won’t lose our levity.