In Memoriam, on Father’s Day
Colonel James D. Suver, DBA, USAF, Retired
The last coherent words my father said to me were, “I’ll always love you.” There were other words from his hospital bed: paranoid, deluded whispers about experiments being conducted in shadowed hallways, half audible invective about the doctors and nurses around us, but the last thing he said that made sense was, “I’ll always love you.”
My response was, “Why?” I didn’t say that, of course, but the thought still crossed my mind. All the normal emotions were there too, the main one being denial: why are you saying that? What does it mean that you would say this thing, which is the kind of thing people say when they’re leaving, never coming back. He was leaving. He’d fought cancer for a year, had shrunk from a robust six-foot-one with a broad belly he joked about to an elfin creature no taller than me. He was still stoic and tough and paternal on that last day. I was there because my stepmother had asked me to stay with him while she attended a conference out of town. I flew from California to Kentucky, climbed out of the taxi from the airport, walked up the brick path that arrowed through the verdant manicured lawn to ring the bell next to the heavy oak door. A frail old man opened the door and said my name. It took several seconds to recognize him as Dad.
He was stoic and tough and paternal on that last day. I could have driven him to the hospital but he called a friend to take him instead. “I need you, buddy,” he said over the phone. My father’s voice broke when he said ‘need’; a retired Air Force colonel and Harvard DBA from blue collar roots in Columbus, with parents and sisters proud of their high school diplomas, James D. Suver gave help, he didn’t ask for it. My father’s willingness to lend a hand was a point of contention between my parents—my mother always resented how readily he’d go to a neighbor’s to help build a tree house or clean out a garage. On that last day, however, his liver stabbing at him from the inside, Dad knew he wouldn’t make it to the hospital without help. I could have driven him, but he called a friend to take him, and while we waited for the friend to arrive, he imparted wisdom and dispensed love. Never work for less than what you’re worth. Find a way to be friends with your brother. I’ll always love you.
“I’ll always love you.” Twenty years later I can hear him say that, see him say it. He sat on a stool, breath labored, back against the paneled wall. His friend arrived and took him away, and I never saw my father lucid again. I waited for the babysitter to arrive and look after my half-brother, who was only four at the time. When I made it to the hospital, the friend told me my father had walked in through the ER door under his own power. “Just like Jim,” he said.
Self-reliance and denial—these are the legacies Dad left me. Until I got the call from my stepmother, asking me to come stay with her family while she traveled on business, I didn’t even know he was sick. He’d fought off cancer half a dozen years before, while I was in college, but I had no idea how sick he was then. Weekly phone calls had come, cordial exchanges on the weather and work. No conversation lasted more than five minutes—I assumed he wasn’t interested in what I had to say, and I didn’t take an interest in his life either. Nearly everything my father did came as a surprise to me. From my perspective, his marriage to my stepmother came out of the blue, and so did their adoption of my half-brother. (The day Dad called to tell me about Adam, when he said over the phone, “You’re getting a new little brother,” I thought he meant a puppy.) I always believed Dad kept his life private from me, until there was something I needed to know. Now, looking back, I think it was my indifference that led him to stay silent. I didn’t ask, so he didn’t tell.
Where did this indifference come from? I loved spending time with my father—he knew how to show a girl a good time. After my parents divorced, Dad would pick me up on Saturdays and take me to lunch at Michelle’s, my favorite ice cream parlor in downtown Colorado Springs. I ordered the same meal every time: tuna salad sandwich with the Black Bart ice cream sundae. Dad had a hearty appetite and also ate fast—a habit picked up as an enlisted man in the Air Force. He’d finish long before me, but every meal we shared together, he would trick me into looking away so he could steal a pickle or a French fry from my plate. An inventive trickster, he didn’t always deceive me on the first try, but he never failed to distract me at some point, and when I returned my attention to the table, I’d find a pickle or fry hanging from his lips. He even pulled this trick during that last visit, before he had to call his friend to take him to the hospital.
He was the fun parent, the one who took us skiing and swimming, to weekly tennis lessons and miniature golf. An athlete himself, he must have been frustrated by his klutzy, bookish daughter, who missed more tennis balls than she hit, who would snowplow to the top of a mogul and freeze there, instead of sliding easily between the icy mounds. He was surely frustrated, and he probably rolled his eyes and groaned behind my back, but where I could see he rarely showed impatience or temper. My mother claimed Dad’s eyes would turn bright green when he was angry, and there’s the family legend about the time Dad dumped a cup of milk over the head of my older brother, because he was so frustrated and outraged by Jim’s toddler eating habits. I’d grown up hearing these stories but never knowing that sort of anger. I was Daddy’s girl; he didn’t even raise his voice to me.
Dad grew up in a row house in a working class neighborhood in Columbus. His parents scraped together money to pay tuition at the local Catholic school, but they didn’t have much more to spend on my father and his two sisters. He joined the Air Force at the urging of a friend, went down to Mississippi and completed basic training, met and married an Air Force nurse in violation of the rules against fraternization. The marriage ended quickly, before my father even knew his first wife was pregnant. The first wife gave the baby up for adoption, and we all learned about my half-sister when she turned up at age 16 on a quest to find her birth parents. The Air Force sent him to Beale AFB in northern California and paid for him to study at Cal State Sacramento as part of an officer’s training program, and that’s when Dad met my mother. Their marriage lasted seventeen years, through two tours navigating bombers over Vietnam and the interleaved stints at Harvard when Dad earned his MBA and then his DBA, degrees that led to his professorship at the Air Force Academy. That experience was a springboard to a flourishing career as a professor of healthcare administration after he retired from the Air Force.
I am proud of my father’s accomplishments, but I don’t think he felt the same about mine. Throughout his life, Dad strove to leave behind his working class roots and rise into the ranks of the genteel. He realized his American dream and provided for his family so well my brother and I were deprived of nothing we wanted. (Within reason: I longed for a horse, begged for a horse, a real horse that I could ride and feed and brush—I never got one.) Dad wanted the same for us—that we should never have to deny our children—and he worried about career choices that would lead to deprivation. He steered my brother away from a passion for nuclear physics toward a degree in business administration (and eventually the younger Jim became a hospital administrator, doing what his father taught). He tried to steer me into business too, but maybe because he never scolded me, no amount of encouragement or cajoling or subtle manipulation could convince me to study something practical. I went to school determined to become an actress. Midstream I heard the siren call of physical anthropology and fancied myself digging up Lucys in Ethiopia. An English major at the time, I didn’t have the requisite classes for an anthropology degree and would need to stay an extra year to graduate. Dad drew the line there: “If you’re going to go to college more than four years and only get a bachelor’s, you’re paying for the fifth year yourself.” Used to Daddy paying for every last dime of my existence, I immediately caved and stuck with the BA in English.
That degree was bad enough, but by the time I graduated, I was determined to be a writer, and I saw the publishing profession as my entrée. Dad immediately mailed me a page ripped out of Business Week—no note, just the page. The headline read “Average Starting Salaries for College Grad Careers.” He had circled “Publishing” with its starting salary of $12,000 per year (in 1988). Undaunted, I marched through interviews at Bay Area publishing houses and landed a job in the industry at nearly twice that salary. Look, Dad, I’m making $20,000! The job was in the sales division of a textbook publisher, not quite a springboard to a career among the literati, but it paid relatively well. The next job, as a production editor for a science press—had more to do with writing but even less to do with literature. My copyediting skills honed to a fine point, I learned how to spot and fix a dangling modifier, but not how to land an agent or a publishing contract. A disappointment for me, but a success as far as Dad was concerned. Now his daughter at least held down a steady job and was off the family dole. She was learning to apply herself at work, rise through the ranks, become a supervisor and a manager, a person of note, even if her circle of influence was small. All those impractical notions of graduate degrees in anthropology, or film, or fiction writing were pushed out of the head of Daddy’s girl.
I did my writing behind his back, behind the scenes, after work, between episodes of the X Files and Star Trek, Next Generation. I never shared my fiction with him; I never thought he would see value in it. Dad loved the same kind of movies and TV shows I did, and I’m sure my love of all things geek grew out of his enthusiasm for Star Wars and Atari. But even though Dad strung an X-wing fighter next to the plastic B52 hanging from his rec room ceiling, I was too embarrassed to share the science fiction adventure I was writing with him. Certainly the subject matter was a taboo one for daughters to broach with fathers, but beyond that, I didn’t think he’d see any good in it. I can’t remember if I told him I secured an agent for my work. I think I didn’t, because it would have meant saying something deeper than a comment on the weather during our weekly 3-minute-long phone calls.
I miss my dad. I regret the brevity of those calls, the shallowness of my love, how I took my father for granted and never gave him the same attention I gave my mother. In 1989, a major earthquake hit the Bay Area, knocking out power, collapsing bridges, setting fires. I was in the local drug store when it hit, surfed the floor rippling under me, dodged away from the steel and glass cigarette case rocking on its heels. Unscathed, I walked across the street through the golden light of an October sunset, weaving past honking traffic, up the hill to my apartment where one bookcase leaned against another, the books on the floor but otherwise everything pristine. My mother I called immediately, dialing as many times as necessary until my call wedged itself through the jammed phone lines and connected. My dad called me, waking me from a dead sleep at 3 am, his voice strident, loud, raised: “Are you OK? Why didn’t you call me?” Could I tell him I simply didn’t think of it? I wasn’t that callous—I said I had called Mom and thought she or my brother would pass the news to him that I was all right. I wish I’d called him to say I was OK, that everything was fine.
While he lay dying in the hospital, mumbling delirium about experiments and invective about the staff, the nurses urged me to talk to him so he would know I was there and loved him. When my grandfather was dying when I was seven, I hid when the nurse came looking for me, but there was nowhere to hide in the hospital where my dad was dying. I was as frightened of watching him die as I had been of my grandfather’s death. And what was there to say? The man was caught in a dream world wrought by morphine. I figured he didn’t care about whatever superficial banalities I might share, and I was terrified if I did speak, it would only prompt more paranoid tall tales. The wizened old man in that bed, with a feeding tube shoved down his nose, was not my father. My dad was big, tall, with an outsized belly and charisma to match. My dad was the one who took me to see All That Jazz and Excalibur and covered my eyes during the sexy parts. My dad sheltered me, provided for me, protected me, right to the end. When he called for help, it wasn’t me he called. I wish I’d helped. I wish I had risen out of the poverty of my own selfishness and showed the generosity he always showed others. I wish I’d told him, “I’ll always love you,” because it’s true. I do.
This essay originally appeared in Four Doors Open published by JaCol Publishing.