Happy Father’s Day, Dad

Today, for the very first time in my life, I celebrate Father’s Day without a father. My dad passed away last April after a long illness, so it is only fitting that I remember him on this special day.

Walter Harold Stricklin was born August 26th, 1920 on a farm a few miles northeast of Detroit, Texas to Walter Davis and Maude Beatrice Stricklin. He grew up with his older brothers Leo and James, and later his younger sister, Ester Maude, in Northeast Texas during the Great Depression, working on farms and oil fields in the area. On June 3rd, 1941, he graduated with an Associates Degree from North Texas Agricultural College (now the University of Texas at Arlington.)

For a little over a year after graduation, he helped his parents work the farm, hauled cotton to the Gin, and dug stock tanks and oil field slush pits. During a stint as a roustabout for Continental Oil Company he met and later married a slender beauty by the name of Miss Audra Obinelle Graham. Two weeks after the wedding, he was drafted into World War II, serving in the Army Air Corp.

During the war he maintained and repaired aircraft, stationed in England prior to D-Day and following the troops into Europe afterwards. He was on a troop transport heading to the Pacific when word of the Japanese surrender reached him, and the ship continued back to the States instead.

After his military service, he and his bride moved to Shreveport, Louisiana and began working as a purchasing agent for Superior Ironworks and Supply Company. Their first child, Sharon Ann, arrived in 1954 and I was born in 1960.

My earliest memories of my dad were of his evening routine: he would read the paper and watch the evening news until dinner was ready at 6:30 P.M., we would all have dinner with very little conversation and absolutely no television, dad would return to the couch where he would often sleep, paper over his torso, until 10:00 P.M. when he would watch the local news, then the television would again be turned off as everyone went to bed. My dad would be up early in the morning and off to work, even before I’d woken up to get ready for school.

I would later learn that this part of his life was a humiliating, depressing gray period, where he was consistently passed over for promotions and not paid very well. Still, I never went to bed hungry, I always had clothes to wear, I received a good education and I only had one bedroom my entire childhood. My dad did what he had to do because he had a family to provide for.

After being forced to take an early retirement, my dad worked part-time for Enterprise Rent-a-Car as a driver. He would wake up early in the morning, meet several of his also-retired co-workers and drive vehicles all over the southern states. He loved his job and the travel it required, and he was the happiest I’ve ever seen him. He lost much of his excess weight and was full of life and energy.

That all changed the day a nurse called, informing him of his enrollment in a Diabetes management course. Although many diagnosed with Type II Diabetes today go on to lead full, healthy lives, to my dad and many of his generation, the illness seemed like a death sentence.

The remaining six years he shrunk into his “cave” as we came to refer to his bedroom. He would sleep all day and keep my mom awake all night crying out and moaning. The drugs used to treat depression caused nightmares and disorientation, and were generally worse than the symptoms. He broke off contact with family and friends, and he broke my heart when he was too ill to travel to and attend my long-postponed college graduation.

The last time we all gathered as a family was last Thanksgiving. Dad, Mom and I went over to Sharon’s home to have turkey and dressing with she and her husband Frank, and their son Matthew, as well as another family they are friendly with. I recall thinking to myself how sad it seemed, my dad unable to follow or join conversations because of his failing eyesight and hearing, my mom and Sharon having to cut his food for him, and I specifically remember having to point out to Mom to clean his nose. Still, it was good that he was able to be there.

A few days later, while out of town, I learned that he had had several small strokes. Mom, Sharon and myself had Christmas by ourselves, while Dad was in the hospital for observations.

After returning home, he generally worsened, eventually entering hospice care and suffering several more small strokes. His appetite waned, and then he stopped eating altogether. He was winding down.

Sharon recalls having some funny, loony conversations with him where he seemed to be re-living parts of his life in real-time, sending her off to drilling platforms and the like. Then, he stopped talking.

I was working in Pineville, Louisiana the Thursday, April 24th when I got a call from Sharon. We had agreed that I should continue working as normal because it was so difficult to know when the end was near. She was exhausted after dealing with his convulsions earlier that morning. Sharon said she wasn’t sure if it was approaching, but I sensed it was, dropped everything I was doing and raced the two and a half hours back to Shreveport to be at his side.

Over the next several hours, Mom, Sharon, Frank, Matthew and myself moved in and out of his presence, letting him know we were there and saying our goodbyes. In his own home, in his own bedroom, surrounded by the people he loved and who loved him, he quietly passed away.

My dad and I weren’t all that close while I was growing up. How stupidly universal it seems, that all children distance themselves from their parents. When I was a teenager, and knowing everything like all teenagers seem to believe, I began calling him “father” since I didn’t like or respect him enough to call him my “dad”. He would later sign his letters addressed to me as “Father”, a clear indication now of how much it hurt his feelings to be thought of this way. I curse at myself now at my insolence and insensitivity!

Still, we had some good memories; when I was 13, he bought me my first pair of boots, obviously some sort of transplanted-Texas sort of rite-of-passage thing. When I was 27, and in the early morning fog he drove me to the local MEPS where I would begin my enlistment in the Navy. Uncharacteristically, he hugged me, told me he loved me and how proud he was of me. While I returned to college after a decade-long hiatus, I learned that he bragged about his son in college to anyone and everyone who would stand still long enough to tell.

Sometime after my own wartime experiences, I began to reexamine our relationship and realized that I was, in many ways, exactly like my dad. I too, was opinionated. I too, was stubborn. I too, was balding and putting on too much weight. Most of all, I too talked too much.

After I began to look at my father through the filter of age and experience, I saw that, despite our few differences and disagreements, he was a generally decent and honorable man. I began to call him “dad” again, and piece-by-piece, brick-by-brick, I began to disassemble the wall that I had formed between us. I think ultimately, with God’s guidance, I was able to accomplish that.

My dad wasn’t a religious man, but late in his life I learned that he was a man of great faith. I know in my heart that my father is now in the presence of his Heavenly Father.

Happy Father’s Day, dad. I’ll be coming home one day soon.

“…I know to be absent from this body is to be present with the Lord, and from what I know of Him, that must be very good.” — Sara Groves, “What Do I Know?”