The Last Time I Saw Him

I received a phone call from a custom builder called Cabriolet near Elkhart who wanted an airbrushed scene on one of their RV haulers. When I went to their shop near Constantine, Michigan I found a small company that assembled luxury sleeper compartments on a series of new truck cab and chassis.

After meeting with the boss, I was shown the unit to paint. The partially completed truck was to receive a mural of an eagle across the back. After putting my van in the proximity of the project I tapped into their compressed air. I got to work.

Midafternoon, the crew wound down. One by one they clocked out and went home. I still worked. The boss wanted to go home too. He requested that I turn off the lights and lock the door behind me when I was done. Then I was alone in the shop. I thought this was odd. I finished my project, closed up behind me and went on my way.

Cabriolet began to call me twice a year to create more custom artwork on the units they built for fifth-wheel RVers. They had plenty of room for my rig in their parking lot so this became a regular stop. Cabriolet even had a rally I was invited to. When I attended this get together, I met other couples who wanted my artistic product on their fancy units.

I stayed in touch with my parents throughout all these adventures. My dad was excited with how my career was evolving. He lived vicariously through me. During one of our conversations I learned about a challenge he was going through. My dad had been misdiagnosed a few years before. Now the cancer they didn’t catch had spread throughout his colon. Surgery revealed it was too late.

He chose to live his final days at home. A hospital bed was set up in the living room and caretakers arrived each day to keep him comfortable.

While I worked on another RV project, I received a phone call from hospice. “You’d better come now to see your dad.”

I finished the work that was pressing and drove to the Ozarks. I arrived at my parents’ home. It was bittersweet. My mother was glad to see me. I saw my dad in constant pain and that scared me. I couldn’t sit still and simply be with him. I made myself busy around the place.

An area outside where the rooflines of two garages met had been a problem designing a rainwater drainage receptor. I got busy. After situating a steel tub underground, I arranged large cut blocks of stone into functional positions to finish off the area. When I did report this progress in the house, my dad appreciated that I had solved this challenge. He wanted to see what I had done. With John’s help, my dad made it out of his bed and slowly walked outside of the house and over to see the accomplishment for himself. He was proud of me yet suffering from the internal pain of the cancer that ravished his body.

While I spent time with mother, father and my brother, I received another phone call. I had a request to design some stunning mural work for a Cabriolet owner from Louisiana. He wanted to feature paintings of his Boston bulldogs and several icons from the Cajun state on the truck he was having built. After receiving that phone call, I grabbed a sketch book and began to design the arrangement of all the items he wanted in his painting. I found safety in my work knowing dad was proud of me also.

While I experienced an emotional tug of war at the brink of losing my dad, a market for my work was opening up for me. Finally, I had to go. Duty called. Filled with sorrow and grief for my father I loved, I headed down the driveway to make the return trip to the Midwest to resume custom painting. That was the last time I saw my dad. I was grateful that our relationship had progressed from the frustrating foundation during childhood and into the healing portion that recovery had provided and we had become best friends. I found the love that I was created to reflect. 

Between painting gigs, I used every bit of my spare time to compliment the mural making process. I needed reference for these projects. In an effort to be ready with the right stuff, I subscribed to several magazines filled with pictures of wildlife and nature pictures, Indian scenes, horses, scenic landscapes and an illustrator’s chronicle. While sitting in a restaurant between towns, I gleaned resource pictures from magazines.

                While I waited for my meal, I flipped through the pages of these magazines. When I found a stunning picture, I ripped the page out of the magazine and placed it in a pile to file away later. My filing system was a box of folders with various categories – birds – animals – fish – Indians etc. subcategories included – eagles – song birds – horses – elephants – mountain ranges – wolves – skyscapes – oceans – etc.

Many times, a commissioned project required up to three different reference pictures. One for the sky, another for a mountain range and of course reference for the central focus of the mural, most times an eagle.

Although my life was solitary, inclusion in the many lives touched along the way made exposure to richness of people quite satisfactory. Add to that, I enjoyed my horseman friends in both Michigan and Florida, the AA fellowship I found at each town, the friends at regular stops at RV plants, rallies and of course River Ranch.

Those familiar faces and friendly folks along the way became my family. I had found my calling on the road and responded to the huge demand by Ma & Pa USA. With it came satisfaction while I made my customers happy. Word got around. My life was full. Things were about to change.

I was in Decatur, Indiana with two motorhome mural projects underway when I received a phone call. My father had passed away. I was immediately filled with a sadness that brought tears to my eyes. I shifted into high gear and completed the two eagle images in record time. I then arranged to leave the rig in Indiana and drove to Arkansas post haste.

Upon arrival in Sulphur Springs I embraced my mother. She was glad to see me. My brother lived in the guest apartment and had been there throughout the long illness. He was there and held my father’s hand as he passed away.

My sister and her husband arrived with their two boys. Little Michael and David adored me.

As a tyke little David made an observation, “You’re the most fun uncle I have.”

From that day on I became known as funcle Dave.

We were all there in that sad situation. The boys shifted from sit in the car mode on their long trip to grandfather’s house when they realized the severity of this situation. When they realized that their grandfather had died, they too were at the verge of tears. Their dad, stoic and stern, confronted his boys.

“Don’t cry,” he commanded as he shook them.

Both boys left his proximity and came to my side. They were sad. We held hands and cried. Their grandfather, a well-spring of fun in their lives was gone.

My father’s funeral service was lightly attended. By this time the Shiloh community had dwindled to about a dozen. Mother created the musical portion of the service and my brother emceed. His background with Toastmasters came in handy. He handled the agenda and spoke fluently his knowledge of our father.

John mentioned his contribution in the Army Air Corps during WWII and his career in the ministry. His testimony flowed to become one of great honor and a loving testament to this fine man. When John moved into the accomplishments of our father’s recent life, he started to weep as his talk continued. In spite of my brother being a source of frustration in my life, it was clear that John loved his father.

I too had a seething blend of confused emotions as I reviewed my history with dad. He was my hero but was also a source of frustration. He was perfectionistic and difficult to please as a child. I felt lost. I became a rebellious teen and launched myself in to the creation of a solution.

After going it alone with my ambitions my dad realized I was having fun and joined me to have the time of his life. Our experience changed. My dad became an ally and provided a hand when I needed one. With sobriety came a new way to connect and we became close friends. Now at the brink of a huge market for my skills, I had news to share with my dad but he was gone.

The service ended. Family members then received condolences from the community. These were all of dad’s friends. A pause occurred.

My sister Paula confided something to me.

“While listening to all those things about him,” she began, “I started to feel sad.”

“So, the whole time I kept telling myself over and over: I will not cry, I will not cry, I will not cry.”

Paula missed knowing a wonderful man. She had a history of fighting with him that never graduated to a level of connection. Whatever it was that she wouldn’t let go of interfered with her ability to enjoy the father who loved her. 

This was not a surprise. My sister shut her feelings off long ago. Then she married Chris who had to be in control at all times. He brought a new form of discord to the family.  I felt sorry for her.  In my grief, I saw clearly how her contempt for her father and the relentless production of belligerence short-circuited her flow of health.

During my life, I fought conformity but I learned from the pain of my belligerence. In sobriety, at my bottom, I opened myself up to receive God’s grace and love. I learned in AA long ago that part of finding my true self required allowing myself to feel my feelings and not make them wrong. We were made to feel these God given emotions. There was a reason we have them.

In this situation, the death of a parent, a deep sense of loss was normal and a desirable part of emotional health. I learned it was okay to feel. I wept the loss of my true love.  Here among community friends and my nephews I cried freely while Chris and Paula maintained their rigid emotional flat line.

Now I reviewed the series of life lessons – both good and bad – that resulted in my dad becoming my friend. At one time, while I confided to him about an obstacle that wouldn’t let me get past the frustration of childhood and the recognition of the value of coming to peace with the dad of my childhood, he responded with “I had to go through that same thing with my dad.”

The episodes we grow through occur for our greatest good. Obstacles provide growth. I look back and see frustration was part of what it took for me to grow into the man God intended. As I stay out of the obsession with what I didn’t get, I appreciate more of what I have. 

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