Me and Dad, on the day I was born
Ten years ago, on January 3, 2001, my father passed away in the night, from sudden heart failure.
I often find myself wanting to pay tribute to Dad by describing him thoroughly and in as much detail as possible, for the people who didn't know him the way those of us in the family did. But how do you fully and accurately describe someone's entire personality, their entire life? Of course this task is impossible, but it seems like there must be a way to come close.
I think that there are two methods of describing someone. One is to use broad words that give a general sense of the person as a whole. For Dad, I would use the words confident, capable, intelligent, and independent. It's hard to stop at just those four words--many, many more would also be fitting--but I think these qualities were the strongest ones in my father, and that he passed on these traits to many of us who knew him.
The second method of description involves giving specific details about the person. I think this approach is more insightful because details really shed light on what someone is like. So here are a few details about my dad:
-He loved music, especially the Beatles. For him every song had an apex, his "favorite section," during which he would crank up the volume and announce excitedly, "Here comes the best part!" He also knew how to read music, and whenever we shared a hymnal in church, he would point out the notes in the bass clef that he was singing.
-He encouraged intellectualism and creativity in our household. He would often ask me to describe the scene outside the car window as a writer would. (This happened a lot in England, as we were driving across beautiful, green countryside.) He rewarded me (often with cash) for good scholastic performance and encouraged me to compete in spelling bees. He once even taught me how to spell the longest word in the dictionary: antidisestablishmentarianism.
-He had a fun streak and made time to enjoy life. He particularly liked outdoorsy activities like fishing and camping. "Take a deep breath, Kay," he said to me on a family trip to Taos. "Just fill your lungs with that fresh mountain air!" He always owned a bass boat and took us kids out to the lake to fish with him several times. I recall the utter horror I felt when I dropped the fishing pole he bought me into the lakewater and it disappeared, never to be seen again.
-He was a thrill-seeker and even bought a motorcycle when he was in his 50s. When I was in college, I met him for a ride one time in the Hill Country and was touched to discover that he had bought me a Harley Davidson T-shirt.
-He had a real sweet tooth. Thanks to him, we often had dessert after dinner, and my mom kept ice cream and cookies on hand. He also liked chips and salsa and in fact requested to have some mailed to us while we lived in England!
-He was very smart and had a near-photogenic memory. I encountered this many times, after snooping through or using his belongings--papers, coin-sorting machines, handkerchiefs--only to discover later that he could tell exactly what had been moved out of its usual position.
-He had a sense of humor, and often hammily recited jokes, like (while trying to assemble a complicated electronic device) "When all else fails, read the instructions!" or (at the dinner table, standing up dramatically after a meal) "Well, it's been real, and it's been fun, but it hasn't been real fun."
-He made me feel special. Once when he needed to repair a shingle, he let me get up on the roof of our house on Downing Drive. We carved our names in the replacement shingle with a nail.
-He was philosophical and nostalgic. He made toasts and drew attention to special occasions, like Christmas and other family moments. Even eating dinner together was important to him--he wanted us all to sit at the table together, with the TV off, and talk about our day. "Someday you'll look back on this moment and realize how precious and rare 'family time' is," he often pointed out. And he was right.
These random details offer a partial glimpse of what the man Douglas Lee O'Shields was like. They are the precious memories that often pass through my mind and make me feel grateful to be his daughter. I hope they create a worthy, though limited, representation of him as a person.
I miss you dearly, Dad. I wish you could have been here over the last ten years. I like to think that, since I always have you in my heart, you never fully left us.