ON MY FATHER’S BIRTHDAY
104 years ago on this day a baby boy was born to a devoutly religious woman who believed in tithing even though she had little, and a good-natured Irishman with a drinking problem. That boy grew up to be my father. That is how I remember him. Not as a Governor and a President, not as an icon, but as my father.
I remember him returning home from a day at the ranch, coming up the drive just as I got back from school. He smelled like horses and hay and the sun had reddened his cheeks. When I was a kid we had a Collie who always went with him, and always got carsick. My father patiently hosed out the back of the station wagon, reassuring her that she’d done nothing wrong, that she was a good girl. He respected animals and taught his children to do the same. He never hunted; he didn’t understand hunting. Even rattlesnakes had their place on the earth. Unless you or someone else is cornered and in danger, he told me, there is no need to kill a rattler. You make a wide circle around it and let it go on its way. Some of the politicians who avariciously grab at his legacy while slaughtering beautiful animals and shooting wolves from helicopters might want to consider that, but I’m sure they won’t.
I remember his voice calling out to me in the ocean, coaching me on how to ride a wave all the way to shore. I remember him telling me to get back on my horse after I fell off, so I wouldn’t be scared and so the horse would know that everything was okay. I remember him helping me bandage a bird’s broken wing because I believed I could save it and he knew it was important that I try.
My father was an elusive man. The child of an alcoholic, he learned early on how to keep a safe remove. My sister Maureen tried to get his attention by being the good girl. I tried by being the bad girl. Neither plan worked out well, although he did reach out to me whenever I screwed up, which was often.
I remember him in the long decade of Alzheimer’s — the early days of heartbreaking confusion, and the passages that got smoother simply because he had drifted into a shadowland where no one else could follow, but where he was somehow mysteriously content. For all the sorrow that comes along with this cruel disease, there are also gifts. When memory melted away, when words became fractured and bumped into each other, when his eyes stared into the distance, his soul — his spirit — was there in full view, in all its sweetness and vulnerability. He had been stripped down to the essence of who he truly was — a man with a good heart and a graceful faith that God had given him work to do on this earth. He left a huge imprint on the world, but I remember him as the hand holding mine as we climbed a hill to fly a kite. “If we climb high enough, can we touch God?” I asked him. “You don’t have to climb,” he said. “God’s always right there.”