I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about my father while traveling to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina last week.
48 years ago, I was a 25-year-old Army 1st Lieutenant stationed in Germany. My father had planned a vacation to visit with me and see a continent that he’d never been to in his 59 years of life. I spoke with him from a German pay phone just a couple of weeks before he was to arrive. Little did I know, it would be the last time I heard my father’s voice. During the call, he told me his doctor recommended that he not travel overseas because he had a serious virus. He could travel domestically but not fly anyplace where healthcare wouldn’t be close at hand. In other words, only where his doctor could reach him.
Instead of flying to Germany, he and my mother drove from Cincinnati to Myrtle Beach for their vacation. The only thing between us was a vast ocean. We could almost see each other. He took a swim at Myrtle Beach and while in the ocean, he had a heart attack and went under. He never came back to life. He was pulled from the water by a lifeguard and all the right procedures were applied. But he was already gone. I imagine the last thing he saw, was the sunny coastline of Myrtle Beach. So, as I planned this journey around America, I wanted to drive to Myrtle Beach to see his last vista.
When I arrived, I found a place to stay close to the beach. And, on a sunny day in January, I walked the same stretch of land he had, 48 years before. We were together again. I know because I could feel his presence. I told him how much I missed him and that I thought about him almost every day.
On this sandy South Carolina platform, we walked together about two miles and for a moment – so engrossed in my dialogue with my father – I forgot where I was. It was like he was still with me and it felt wonderful - liberating and cathartic. I recalled our last conversation exactly. I heard his voice say that he couldn’t travel because of his illness and that shocked me. But nothing like the shock I experienced two weeks later when my mother called to tell me he had died.
Once his death was confirmed by the Red Cross, I was given an emergency leave to attend his funeral. Flying home before the completion of my tour of duty felt very strange. And to return for my father’s funeral was even stranger. It was 1970. The Carpenters were the most popular singing group at the time and their latest LP was playing on the stereo when I arrived. My mother and brother were already there. I went immediately to funeral home where he was lying in a casket -- alone, quiet, peaceful and motionless. He was only 59 years old. He planned to own a couple of horses after he retired. He and his dad were horsemen. And he loved to ride and played polo as a youngster. But he never got there.
Seeing him like that at such a young age before he had a chance to do what he really wanted was a good lesson for me. It inspired me to ask myself, what would I like to do before I die. And the answer is traveling to places I’ve never been and meeting people who have survived significant life transitions. That is what I’m about these days.
When my mother informed me that he had died, I remember thinking that I finally understood the word “never” as in I would never see him again. That stayed with me until we walked Myrtle Beach together. “Into-the-Unknown” isn’t as scary since I’ve re-joined my father. Reconnecting with the past and looking to the future while opening my eyes to what’s right in front of me today – that’s what this journey is all about. I hope you can join me through this blog and through Facebook.