Lessons learned from my dad occupy my thoughts in his absence
By Michael M. Barrick
I thank you for the music
And your stories of the road
I thank you for the freedom
When it came my time to go
I thank you for the kindness
And the times when you got tough
And, papa, I don’t think
I said, “I love you” near enough
– From Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band”
Last month, our dad passed on. As such life experiences go, it was joyful and honoring. And as is customary in our family, we also set time aside for a raucous and humorous wake. It was his wish; of course we had to honor it.
Indeed, honoring a simple request from Dad to celebrate his life with stories and a toast was easy. What isn’t easy is honoring his legacy. We were like most fathers and sons. We quarreled. We saw the world differently. We had, in short, “a generation gap.” As much as that gap sometimes caused us to be at odds, I am finding that in his absence, those differences now seem so trivial – because they were. Now, I have a very real gap to deal with – the space in the room he used to occupy. So, I am finding that lessons I learned from my dad are occupying my thoughts in his absence.
Sarah and I are reminded of his presence constantly, as we are still in his and mom’s home, which we shared with him for the last year and a half of his life (mom passed in 2008). What I miss most, beyond any doubt, are the stories he told. Just as the father in Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band” told “stories of the road,” so too did Dad. He was a traveling salesman most of his life. And, as you see in the photo, he was also a leader of a band. It was a story he loved to tell.
The band was formed in 1941 by his older brother, George. It was known as the “George Barrick Jr. Victory Band.” George played the drums. Any time I would ask Dad about it, he would eagerly repeat his memories from those early days of World War II. He was incredibly proud of his brother, who enlisted in the Army, served in the war, returned home, but was killed five years later on a battlefield in the first days of the Korean War.
During a break from writing recently, I was snooping through a sock drawer of Dad’s and came across two documents that truly touched my heart. They were letters I had sent him. One was from ten years ago, in which I asked him a series of questions about George. Interestingly, though the questions were open-ended, he mentioned leading the Victory Band as one of his fondest memories. When the photo was taken he was only about 15. Why he had never sent the answers to me, I’ll never know. I’ll also never know why I found them ten years after he answered them and filed them away in a drawer. But I sure am glad I did.
The other letter was one I sent to him on Father’s Day 2007. It was actually a copy of a column I had written about him and I had just written a short note above it. What struck me when I found it, is that an event told in it – a trip to Pittsburgh – is the memory I shared at his Vigil service. I don’t even remember writing the column, let alone sharing it with dad. So finding it was a double blessing. First, it was sweet to know he had saved it. Second, it was simply cool to realize that the event behind the story made such an impression on me that it has remained forever etched in my mind after 45 years. I think of Dad and I think of the trip to Pittsburgh. Why? Because that day exemplified who Dad was.
The essay is titled, “Thanks, Dad, for What Matters Most.” It follows.
What do you get an 81-year-old man for Father’s Day? There isn’t a tool he doesn’t have and you can only wear so many ties to church; the retired life is more suited to tennis shoes and shorts.
The only thing this son can think of is to say, “Thanks, Dad. Thanks for the most important thing you could have given me and my sisters – yourself. Thanks for being there.”
Being there. It’s so simple, yet requires so much commitment.
My dad’s dad didn’t do it. Neither did my mother’s. And, I reckon half the youngsters I’ve coached or taught have been abandoned by their fathers.
Yes, just being there is the best gift a dad can give his children.
So, Dad, thanks…
For taking me and five or six other buddies to Pittsburgh – on just a few hours’ notice. We were in the eighth grade. We were “Patrol Boys.” Don’t laugh. It was serious stuff for a 13-year-old. There were first-graders to help across the street. In any event, there were a couple of dozen of us I guess. Our teachers offered us a chance to go to Pittsburgh for a double-header to see the Pirates play the New York Mets. It was 1969. The Mets were on their way to an amazing World Series victory and I was thrilled to see my heroes on the Pirates, in particular Roberto Clemente.
So, when the teachers asked if anyone’s dad could drive us to Pittsburgh (a 120-mile drive on two-lane mountain roads), I volunteered Dad. He loved to drive. He did it every day for work. I figured he’d love to go to Pittsburgh.
But I wasn’t really quite sure I should have volunteered him without first asking, so I procrastinated. I waited until the Friday night before the Saturday date. I stuttered and stammered. But he never complained. He simply said, “OK.”
I don’t recall who won. But I do remember – vividly still – the players, the dugouts, the rickety bleachers of Forbes Field. Afterwards, when all the other dads took the other guys to the fast food restaurants, Dad took us to the Woolworth’s cafeteria at the mall. We ate like kings, and Dad picked up the bill. Dad, that day, was a servant. He was simply there.
As he has been so many times.
Like painstakingly and lovingly preparing the room for his first grandchild – our first child.
Like when his mom died but he comforted me.
Like the countless WVU football games – at rowdy Mountaineer Field and varying hostile fields.
For my first dive into the ocean at Myrtle Beach when I was eight; for the annual overnight drive to there for so many years afterwards; and, for not saying anything to me, when at 17, I decided I was too cool to be seen with my parents, so I just stayed home and skipped the beach trip.
For trips to the West Virginia State Wildlife Center, Blackwater Falls and so many of the spectacularly beautiful landscapes of our native state.
For letting me go to work with him when I was five.
For cheering me on at the track meet in high school when nobody else believed in me.
For hot dogs at Ritzi’s Lunch and trips to Cass Scenic Railroad.
For working beside me – without pay – as I struggled to start and keep a business afloat.
So, all that I can give Dad is a hearty “Thanks!” – for being there more often than I can count. And, for something else really important – teaching me how to be a Dad.
That is what I wrote nearly eight years ago. And now, in his absence, I concur with Dan Fogelberg. “Papa, I don’t think I said, ‘I love you’ near enough.”
© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.
The Appalachian Preservation Project is also handling planning for the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” Earth Day conference scheduled for April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. Learn about it here.