Today is my Dad’s birthday so it may feel a bit odd that I’m about to share the details of his death. But there’s something I want to share from my Dad to celebrate him. Most of these are my words but more importantly I plan to share his. He would be 75 years old today. The last birthday we celebrated was his 51st, I was just 23 and probably not all that focused on making it special. I’ve celebrated him many times since we lost him and now I think of him almost every day with more smiles than tears. The events are as I recall them and as most memories I imagine they’re flawed, but they are mine.
The day he died he was with his brother Hayden in the mountains. Hayden lived in Texarkana but often traveled the country in his van with no agenda but always a list of people he planned to visit, and my Dad was always on that list. He would just show up, and since my Dad thrived in the spontaneity of things he never seemed to mind shifting his life around to make room for his nomad brother. On that sunny and cool October Saturday they decided to take his canoe into the mountains up the winding Highway 24 that we traveled so often from the Springs. But he would never come back down that mountain and he would never get the chance to board that canoe.
When they started to enter the water he told Hayden that something didn’t feel right. They decided to pull the boat out and sit for bit. As they sat to rest my Dad talked about how he loved the mountains. I can hear him with his slight Texas drawl that he never quite lost. Hayden would share with us, as he recalled that moment, that my Dad was laying on the ground looking up to the sky and then without warning he would struggle as he went into cardiac arrest. From what Hayden could guess he believed it was less than two minutes and then he was gone. The life of the of the greatest man I’ve ever known would just cease to exist, there was no time to save him. In some way we all found some peace in that. He died in his favorite place and he went fast. There weren’t many “what ifs” because it all happened so quick that no matter where he’d have been there would be no escape from this fate. Maybe the circumstance was some small gift or a trade off for a life gone too soon but at the time we couldn’t see much good in any of it. Many people wanted Tommy back and I wanted my Dad.
The days to come would feel like walking through quicksand, like you couldn’t move and were being swallowed alive. It’s hard to recall the details of those moments now. What I remember was that we had to start doing “stuff” because there are so many things to decide for the end of life process. I know many people have gone through and understand this moment after a death. One part of you appreciates these tasks and requirements to show up and figure out the next step. The other part of you is so deep in grief it feels like you can’t move or talk or think. My Step Mom and I were trying to work together which was hard because our relationship had been strained over the last several years that my Dad was alive. She was for sure the one making the majority of decisions but I remember the moment when she collapsed in her sadness as we walked through the casket room. She couldn’t bare it, she couldn’t choose the box for my Dad’s body to reside in. So I selected what I thought he might approve of but understood him well enough to know he really wouldn’t care. It was one of the most basic caskets that they had. No frills, just a simple wood box that looked to be made of natural material, it made sense to me when not much did.
My brother would soon arrive from Texas and his presence was everything. We were now in this together and I could lean on someone that truly understood my grief. We cried a lot in nights to come but we laughed a lot too as we shared stories about Dad, just the two of us, and left the rest of world alone to figure out how to manage. Neither one of us would attend the viewing. We didn’t want to see our Dad that way, laid out and on display. We didn’t want our last image of him to be a lifeless body. So we skipped it, much to our relatives dismay. But for me I was clear that my Dad would understand and it wasn’t my job to perform or support everyone else’s needs in that moment. I was taking care of myself and I knew he would not only appreciate it but he would encourage it. But I did want to contribute something at my Dad’s service, I wanted to talk about him, that felt therapeutic to me. It took me a while to figure out what I could possibly present that would honor who he was and how I felt about him.
As I rifled through the dozens of letters my Dad had written to me over the years I found a letter from his best friend Mark. Mark and my Dad went to college together and were life long friends. Any time I’m around Mark I can feel my Dad’s energy and I know they are deeply connected in some beautiful way. Mark had sent me this letter in January of 1993, I was 19 years old. The letter was sweet and warm and made me feel loved by this man I had only seen a dozen times in my life. He’d included something that my Dad had written when he was a sophomore in college, so close to the age I was when I received Mark’s letter. The poem was typed on my Dad’s old typewriter and had what I’m assuming were coffee stains, knowing him. Mark explained that Dad had given this to him back then and now he wanted to share it with me. Mark knew that Dad and I were struggling to connect, at that time in my life, and I believe he saw this as a bridge. To this day I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have this little piece of my Dad. So when I found it I knew this poem would be the perfect thing to share with the world to honor him, at his own funeral, in his own words.
So now, almost 24 years later on what would be my Dad’s, Thomas Wiley Stewart, 75th birthday I share them with you…
Give Me Feet
Books would speak of greatness and tell us of fine men who wrote the doctrine and came back to fight again.
And yet the sludge of history covers most men’s name so deep and lack of time and place has put so many greats to sleep.
And if the time must match the man and greatness springs up there, then those who wish for greatness for crisis would despair.
For who would know of Churchill or Lincoln let us say if preparation, gale and brain had not found its day.
So healthy seeds though strong they be will not sprout up anywhere, the world too must fertile be if greatness it shall bear.
And tis the blood of souls that enrich this arid earth and meets a man face to face when nearer death than birth.
And one of every thousand men will call the death a lie, for though they’re gone, we know them yet and they shall never die.
But dare I not take the chance off living after death. But find the life of every man can draw with every breath.
And if the centuries choose to show my corpse to all mankind, twill only be footprints left mistakenly behind.
For scrutiny of the age ahead I do not wish to bare, and once gone I’ll no longer hope and I’ll no longer care.
And yet my hope is greater still than greatness fame and name, for what I want is still more rare than ere with all this came.
For footprints in the sands of time are empty spaces there. And follow each other down the beach and truly lead nowhere.
What I want is feet so I can stand up and walk a little piece. Though the tide of time chews up my prints and bids my past to cease.
For my fear on the sands of time where man by death is stalked. That he who left the deepest print may have never really walked.
I would say my Dad had feet and walked many miles over those 51 years but he also left footprints. At nineteen it may have been hard for him to understand that he could have both. But it’s clear to me now, because I’m still following the prints he left behind.
Happy Birthday Dad, I love you