It was eight o’clock on November 26, 1993, the morning after Thanksgiving, when I answered my phone in suburban Chicago. Mom’s voice cracked. Six words spilled out of her mouth, traveled through the phone line and hung in the air. “Mark, your Dad died this morning.”
My father had passed away peacefully in the middle of the night at his home south of St. Louis. Instantly, I no longer felt thankful. The mourning unfolded. Numbness inhabited my body.
Gradually, the facts began to sink in. My parents Helen and Walter Johnson had enjoyed the holiday with his two sisters in north St. Louis County. They had gathered at my cousin’s home for a big meal in Missouri that night. After Dad consumed a second slice of Thanksgiving pie, Mom and he kissed his sisters goodbye, drove home and prepared for bed. Shortly after midnight, Dad leaned back on his pillow and uttered, “Helen, I think I’m going to die now.” And he did. Unceremoniously.
Mom told me the paramedics came immediately after she dialed 911. They tried to revive Dad. But his second heart attack, thirty-one years after the first, claimed him that Friday morning. His life ended one week shy of his eightieth birthday.
Later that week, I stood near the banks of the Mississippi River with my mother, sister and two young sons. We watched as two stone-faced soldiers folded the flag on top of his casket into a triangle. Dad, a World War II veteran, was laid to rest at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. He was buried by a large tree on a hill overlooking a chapel.
Twenty-five years have passed. Row after row of simple white marble stones surround my father there, marking the remains of hundreds of other veterans. I imagine each of them were as proud as Dad was of his service to his country.
I’ve probably visited Dad’s gravesite twenty times since 1993. I go there to pay my respects to my father’s well-intentioned and turbulent life, to hear the clear tones of the clarion ring from the chapel on the quarter hour, to retrace my steps between the rolling rows of stones, to gaze at the deer that saunter by, to kneel beside Dad’s grave and that of my mother’s. She joined him, the other veterans and the deer there in 2013.
I’ll never forget how my father struggled with his bipolar disorder … how he searched endlessly for relief. But with the passage of time, the pain I witnessed has sifted away. Now I’m thankful to remember the entire picture of him: his corny jokes, crooked smile and chatterbox style; his love of family, the St. Louis Cardinals and a cold bottle of beer; his enthusiasm for Big Band music, sappy old movies and overflowing cups of coffee; his unbridled sincerity and patriotism; his quest to write his poetry in the 1960s.
I’m absolutely certain Dad would have been proud of his two grandsons and the men they have become. I’m not as sure he would have understood or accepted me as a gay man. But, because I know he loved me, he would have tried. He would have marveled at how I maneuvered through life as a single dad, juggled a demanding consulting career, sang on a stage with other gay men, wrote and published three books, married and moved across the country with my husband, and forged ahead in our Arizona home after suffering a heart attack of my own on my sixtieth birthday.
In 2018, when I see the American flag flap in the breeze, watch the Cardinals play ball or board the treadmill to keep my heart strong, I think of Dad. I have greater compassion for my father’s frailties and his plight to recover from his own heart trauma in 1962.
I wish I could have one more conversation with Walter Johnson to tell him these things and hug him once again, but this will have to suffice.
You’ve been gone so long, Dad, but I still love and remember you. Happy Thanksgiving.