My Father’s Voice

My Father’s Voice

From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

My Father’s Voice

My father raised me mostly by example. He was a doctor who also had a farm in the Midwest on which he raised cattle, horses and hunting dogs. I learned by watching how to work; how to handle animals and the kinds of unforeseen events that are so frequent in the life of a doctor’s family.

My father took things as they came, dealt with them and, as he used to say when some obstacle had been overcome, “Let’s move right along.” He had a few precepts I was expected to live by, and he always referred to them by their combined initial letters: DL! DC! SDT! and DPB! They stood for Don’t Lie; Don’t Cheat; Slow Down and Think; and Don’t Panic, Bud! I was amazed as a boy how often he found occasion to say one or another of those things.

He thought animals were splendid teachers, and he taught me to watch them carefully. One winter a squirrel invaded our house around Thanksgiving. We never saw or heard it, but I found stashes of nuts hidden under the cushions of the couch and almost every chair. The fascinating thing is that the nuts were always one of a kind. Acorns in my father’s chair. Hickory nuts at one end of the sofa and almonds in their shells—stolen from the holiday bowl that my mother kept on the coffee table.

I thought the squirrel was very smart to sort out his larder that way. My dad said the squirrel was even smarter than I had imagined and gathered only one kind of nut at a time. And that would be much more efficient than gathering a mix and then having to sort them out.

That kind of teaching did not alter much even when I was a grown man, even to the day he died. I was thirty when he became ill on Christmas Eve. We buried him on the third of January, his coffin draped in an American flag. The United States soldier who received the folded flag from the bearers handed it to me without a word. I clutched it to my heart as my wife and I left that most sorrowful of places for the long, forlorn drive to the airport.

The world seemed darkened by his absence. There was an emptiness so great that at times I thought I could not bear it. At his funeral, the minister told me that all he had been to me still lived. He said if I listened I could hear what my father’s response would be to any concern I needed to bring him. But after I left the small country town where he lived and returned to the large city where I was making my way, I never once heard his voice. Never once. That troubled me deeply. When I was worried about leaving one job for another—something I would have talked over with my dad—I tried to imagine that we were sitting in his barn having one of our “life-talks,” as my mother used to call them. But there was only silence and the image of me alone, waiting and profoundly sad.

Although I worked in the city, my wife and I bought an old farmhouse on a few acres of land some forty miles away. It had a pond where I could teach my son to fish and a meadow where we could work our dog.

One day during the same dreadful winter that I lost my father, I set out with my young son to do a few errands. We drove out into the country to look at some antique dining-room chairs I was thinking of buying as a surprise for my wife. I said we’d be home by suppertime. We had gone a few miles when my son saw deer grazing just beyond the edge of a parking lot that belonged to our country church. I pulled in the lot, turned off the engine and let the car glide as close to the deer as I could without spooking them.

A buck and three does rummaged in the snow for grass and leaves. They occasionally raised their heads and took a long slow read of the air. They knew, of course, we were there. They just wanted to be certain they were safe.

We were as still as we could be and watched them for some time. When I took my son’s hand and turned around to leave, I saw a pall of smoke coming from under the hood of my car. We stopped in our tracks. Oh God, I thought, the engine is on fire. And I am alone with a child in the middle of winter in the middle of nowhere. I did not have a cell phone.

I told my son to stay where he was, and I went to the car to investigate. I opened the driver’s door, pulled the hood latch and went to the front of the car. Gingerly, I opened the hood. As soon as I did, I saw that the right front of the engine was aglow with fire, and smoke was coming out of it at a pretty good clip. I closed the hood without latching it down and went to where my son stood in the snow, excited and amazed.

“Daddy, is the car gonna blow up?”

“No. But I sure have to do something, and I don’t know what. . . .”

“Snow will put it out,” he said.

“Snow might crack a cylinder, too.” What could be the matter? I thought. Engines just don’t catch fire like that. My mind began to move irrationally. I would have to find a house along the road, call for help. I would have to call my wife, frighten her probably. There would be the expense of the tow and probably a new engine. Then as clearly as I ever heard it in my life, I heard my dad say, “DPB!“

I am still astonished that I was immediately calmed. The frantic racing of my mind ceased. I decided to see exactly what, in fact, was burning. I retrieved a stick from a little oak and went to the car, opened the hood and poked at the glowing red place on the engine. Coals fell from it, through to the ground. I could see then, sitting on the engine block in a perfect little circle—a small collection of acorns, cradled by the shape of the metal.

I laughed out loud. “Come here,” I said to my son. “Look, a squirrel stowed its treasure in our car. And when the engine got hot, his acorns got roasted.”

I knocked the acorns and the rest of the glowing coals off the engine, closed the hood, put my son in his car seat and got in beside him.

When we drove away to finish our errand, I knew—for the first time since my dad died—that I could get on with my life. For on that snowy day in the parking lot of our country church, I discovered that his voice was still in my heart, and his lessons would be with me forever.

Walker Meade

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