On September 14, 1939 Gary Lee McClanahan (my dad) was born in a small farming community in Scottsbluff, NE. He passed away suddenly in April of this year.
It’s the first time I’ve lost a close family member and at times the pain is unbearable.
After I had read a half a dozen books on grief, hoping one might provide me with the magic piece of advice that would ease my suffering, I decided to try a different approach. I spent an entire Saturday morning at a local Panera and wrote him a letter.
As the healing process continues, I decided to share my letter as a tribute to my dad on his birthday.
Dear Dad –
It’s been several months since you passed and I don’t know exactly what I ‘m supposed to do or to feel.
I drift through each day, never going very long without thinking about you. When I do, my emotions range from overwhelming grief to gratitude for the life we shared.
I know one thing for sure – I’m not the same person.
I feel as though a part of me is gone and I see life through a completely different perspective. At times it feels surreal, almost as if I am watching someone else go through this painful journey. One day you were here, cracking jokes, struggling with your computer and the next, you’re gone. I know it’s illogical, but the idea of you not being a part of my daily life never really entered my mind.
To me, you’d live forever.
I can’t believe I will never hear your voice again – the finality of it is like a sucker punch to the gut. It may sound crazy but, I’ve nearly dialed your number at least a hundred times eager to talk to you about business, politics or the kids.
But, you know how I feel.
At some level, I believe that you are still with me, still watching the kids grow up, still watching the business grow, smiling from ear to ear. I can’t prove that you’re not here – but somehow I “know” it – just like I know that the earth is round, the pope is Catholic or that Donald Trump is a complete lunatic (sorry – I couldn’t resist).
I wonder some days if I am grieving “enough” or the “right way”. I’m nervous that I’ll forget what you sound like, the things you said or the crazy shit you did. It’s as though if those memories fade into away, you’ll really be gone.
And so, I decided to write you this letter. I don’t know if it’s a one-time event or if this is a new form of therapy to help me process this loss and honor the impact you had in my life.
It makes sense for me to start by telling you how amazed and proud I am with what you made of your life. Your dad died when you were 11 years old and grandma didn’t play much of a roll in your life. You lived in a small little town that very few people ever left.
But, somehow, you got out. With zero financial or emotional support, you put yourself through college where you thrived. After a decade of working on your own, you knocked up a 21-year-old out of wedlock and had the most amazing kid ever.
As you know better than anyone, life in Denver wasn’t always easy. But, I can see clearly now that you did the very best you could and learned a lot along the way. The move to Indianapolis was exactly what our family needed and you also did as well as possible in making the transition bearable.
In other words, you helped our family weather some rough times. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been and can’t begin to thank you enough for getting us through it all. I don’t think I ever realized exactly how much you had to deal with until this very moment.
I assume it’s natural for a child who’s lost a parent to reach back into the past and latch on to a handful of significant moments where you provided me with some amazing advice that changed my life.
When I go through this personal exercise… I got nothing.
I loosely remember you teaching me how to make a bed like you did in the army or tie a tie, but that’s it. No amazing words of wisdom about being a man. No brilliant career advice. No insight into how to raise my kids. Zip, zero, nada.
Looking back, it’s clear to me why this happened. First, you never got this type of advice from anyone and preaching to others just wasn’t your style. More importantly, I recognize that you were exactly the type of dad that I needed who put everything he had into his kids. And – this “everything” was more than enough to help me become the son, friend, husband and father I am today.
Now, just because I can’t recall any long winded, life changing lectures, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have any memories – I have lots of them. What’s most incredible to me (and anyone I tell) is that 99.9% of these memories are good. They make me smile, laugh and fondly remember our relationship. I can’t imagine this is normal. I must be one of the luckiest kids that has ever lived.
Most of my clear memories begin in college. I remember my Phi Psi initiation and hanging out with Dan and Tom’s dads. I remember calling you the night I was elected president of the house. I remember that call in the fall of my senior year as I sat crying in my room, extremely sad and afraid that I would need to drop out of college. Your comforting words got me to the doctor and helped me finish the year strong.
Many years ago, in my late twenties, a friend of mine asked me what I enjoy doing more than anything else. I vividly recall giving him what must have seemed like a completely ridiculous answer. My favorite activity at that time, is also to this day, one of my happiest memories – going to movies every Saturday morning with you.
It’s seems like yesterday that I would walk into the theater and tell the kid taking tickets that I was with the poorly dressed old guy who felt it was appropriate to buy enough popcorn to feed 5 grown men. I remember getting to the movie early and picking a seat near the aisle so that you could take the inevitable bathroom breaks that came when you drank a gallon of diet coke.
I remember deep conversations about life in the 15 -20 minutes before the previews began. I recall telling you to quiet down whenever you tried to get my attention during the movie because you had no idea how to whisper. I can almost see us leaving the theatre in silence after a horrible show before one of us yelled – “I can’t believe you talked me into seeing that movie!”.
You went to movies with me nearly every Saturday for more than 10 years (we saw some really bad flicks) and I can only hope that I’m able to have a tradition like that with my kids.
Speaking of kids, you sure did love Ian and Corinne and they loved their “Papa” more than you can imagine. Telling Ian and Corinne that you passed away is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.
I’ve got tons of pictures of you at their sporting events and they are almost all the same. You’re wearing a terrible hat that doesn’t fit, and a jacket that you’ve had for at least a decade. There’s a 95% chance you’ve got caffeine free Diet Coke and if there’s popcorn you’ll down at least a bag. You were one of the quiet spectators at all events for reasons – one, you really didn’t give a shit how well your grandkids played and two, you rarely knew what was going on.
I distinctly remember the last sporting event you attended. It was a baseball game for Ian and you kept asking other parents which team he as on. Seriously – it’s like you’d never been to a game before.
Another thing that I distinctly remember about you and the kids is that you almost never (I can only remember 1 time) turned down an opportunity to come and watch them. It didn’t matter if I was only giving you an hour’s notice – you were always there to help and the kids enjoyed every single time you came over. They knew they could talk you into Culver’s or Bob Evans if they got hungry.
I was excited again when you agreed to come on board and help me with the business – it almost felt like we were building a new “movie” like tradition. You attend my speaking events, acted like a knucklehead and served as the butt of countless jokes. I was so blessed that I had you to support me and work the crowd at numerous networking events that I hated attending. Even though you would bore people to death with your mobile home stories you were always everybody’s favorite.
I always knew you were proud of the business I had built, despite the fact that you were amazed people paid me money to tell jokes and give advice.
Overall, I think you were a good husband, but not award winning. You let mom take care of the house, couldn’t operate the washing machine/vacuum/dishwasher if your life depended on it and probably didn’t ask if she minded that you were gone every Saturday seeing crappy movies with me.
But, when push came to shove, you stepped up to the plate.
When we found out that mom’s cancer was malignant, I may have seemed strong, but deep down I was scared to death. I wanted to avoid talking about the subject and pretended like it wasn’t happening. I just wasn’t emotionally ready to handle it.
But you were. You had enough strength and courage for the whole family.
She went through an awful surgery and you waited on her hand and foot. When she was healthy enough for chemo/radiation you walked her into the hospital for every single appointment and stayed until she was done. You attended the difficult appointments and comforted mom when she was scared.
I never remember you getting down, frustrated or angry about the situation. It’s like you were built to put all of us on your back and get us through the tough period – just like when we lived in Denver.
During her recovery, you never left her side – never. We couldn’t have hired a team of live-in nurses to take better care of mom than you did. I believe you saved her life. I will never forget your commitment and love for mom and nor will anyone else – not Frosty, Dee Dee, Nicole, the kids, your friends or anyone else whom you touched on this journey.
You showed me how to be a leader when it mattered most.
And now I know, that’s the legacy you’ll leave for me and everyone else who loved you (which was just about everyone you met).
You didn’t tell me how to be a good husband, father, brother and friend – you showed me. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words ever could.
In retrospect, I can see clearly that I learned a ton from watching your actions over 46 years.
I learned that you should be kind to everyone you meet – regardless of the circumstance. You never met a stranger and your goofy smile would endear you almost immediately to anyone you’d talk to – which was anyone who made the mistake of making eye contact and asking what you did for a living!
You loved people deeply and gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. I can’t remember one instance of you criticizing anyone. People took advantage of you and it didn’t faze you a bit. You showed me that life wasn’t a game to be won, but rather a journey to be savored.
This selfless, enthusiastic love for others was never more on display that with that group of old guys you assembled for drinks every Monday – the “4 O’clock Club”. The banter at these gatherings was typically idiotic but everyone loved the being a part of the group.
In case you didn’t notice, these guys all attended your funeral and cried their eyes out. You were more than just a friend they drank beers with weekly.
I have very few memories of you raising your voice or getting mad. I can see clearly now that this was the result of you taking life as it came and not trying to control every situation. You were a laid-back guy who didn’t judge people, situations or life in general – you would rather live it.
At times, I’m sure that I wanted a dad who would tell me what to do and guide my path. But you didn’t and now I can see why.
Your style was to simply love me unconditionally. You never felt compelled to over analyze my choice of college, major or career. You didn’t criticize my decision to quit my job, drain our savings and start a business, 5 days before Ian was born. You didn’t tell me how to parent my kids or manage my finances.
I was your son and that was all that mattered. All you wanted to do was to be a part of my life. In retrospect, I didn’t need (nor would I probably have appreciated) tons of advice. As you know, I am pretty confident and opinionated.
What I needed was a predictable, consistent person who was always there for me. What I needed was a support system who loved me unconditionally. What I needed was someone to remind me that everyone was trying their best and instead of criticizing their effort, I should treat them with kindness. What I needed was someone who made me a priority in their life. What I needed was someone who would love and embrace my wife and kids.
Dad, I can see clearly now that you were exactly what I needed. You we’re the safety net that allowed me to take risks, grow, learn and become a man.
I’m proud to be your son and thank you for the gentle and powerful lessons you taught me.
I love you today and forever.