My Dad loved stories.
Steve Fowler died last month, just before the holidays, and I haven’t felt much like writing about it until now.
Dad was my first — and best — audience. He liked to tell stories, but more than that, he liked to listen to them. I practiced my stories on him for years, and he inspired me to think I could tell them to more people one day.
He’s gone now, at age 81. It was quick.
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Dad was diagnosed with an incurable lung disease on Dec. 7. He died on Dec. 21, the winter solstice. It was, in a very literal sense for me, the darkest day of the year.
The stories I want to tell you about him aren’t dark, though.
“I like stories with happy endings,” Dad reminded me sometimes.
The joy of undivided attention
When you talked to Dad, he gave you his undivided attention. No scrolling through a cell phone — he never owned one. No looking over your shoulder toward a TV.
It was just you and Dad — with him usually sitting in his La-Z-Boy, a cup of coffee within easy reach. He was ready to be delighted, to offer his knee-slapping, hand-clapping laugh at any opportunity.
If you told him a good one, he would exclaim, “Golly Ned!” This was his all-purpose expression of amazement.
I’m not objective, of course, but Dad was brilliant. He could quote Macbeth and make furniture. He had a PhD in statistics and ultimately ran a research department for a company in Spartanburg.
He was also a man of simple pleasures — pocket knives, full moons, whistling, solar eclipses, rescued dogs, Homer Simpson, his own homemade chili and a stack of books from the Spartanburg County Public Library.
After he retired, he took a mid-afternoon nap from about 3-5 p.m. nearly every day. When I was younger, I thought this was crazy. Now I wish I could get away with it.
Dad came from a small town in Texas called Clarksville. He was the first from that family to earn a college degree — which he did after serving three years in the U.S. Army. He was so naïve when he joined the Army that he didn’t even know you got paid when you were in it.
Dad wasn’t an athlete and didn’t care much about sports. Didn’t matter. He was my hero, and I admired most of all the way he made people feel.
He taught me how to treat people — with patience and kindness. He also taught me what a great marriage looks like. He and my Mom were married almost 57 years and were basically inseparable until he died.
Dad would go out of his way to make you happy, especially if you were a child.
And that brings me to the feather collection I had when I was little.
The ostrich feather
Yes, go ahead and snicker if you like. But in elementary school, I collected feathers.
I searched our backyard diligently. I had feathers from blue jays and cardinals, mockingbirds and gold finches.
Once when I was 6 years old and we lived in Texas, our family went to a zoo. While there, we stopped to look at the ostriches.
There was an enormous ostrich feather about 3 feet from the edge of the fence. It was beautiful.
The fence had holes in it at the very bottom, and those holes were barely big enough for a human arm. The ostrich in question was about 30 feet away, not paying a bit of attention.
I knew my arm was way too short to reach the object of my desire.
“Dad,” I said, “could you get me that ostrich feather?”
He looked around, and then he smiled.
“Sure,” he said.
Dad got completely on the ground, because that’s the only way he could stretch out far enough.
He laid down on his side, in the mud and dirt beside that fence, reaching as far as he could, nearly brushing the feather with his fingertips, not quite getting there ...
And then that ostrich realized something was messing with his territory.
Three hundred pounds of very angry bird turned in a hurry and came sprinting straight at my Dad’s offending arm inside the cage — and if you’ve ever seen an ostrich run, they’re really fast.
The ostrich lowered his head close to the ground. He bowed back his neck.
And just then, Dad’s fingertips clutched the feather.
“Got it!” he yelled triumphantly. At the same time, he pulled back away from the fence as the ostrich rammed his beak exactly where Dad’s arm had been a second earlier.
Golly Ned, it was something.
Trip of a lifetime
When I was 17 years old and my sister was 12, Dad gave us a different sort of gift. We lived in Spartanburg by then, and I hadn’t been to a lot of places yet. My parents decided to take us to New York for a weekend.
Times Square back then was rougher, seedier ... and absolutely thrilling for a 17-year-old boy.
We went to two Broadway shows and to Central Park. We stayed in one tiny hotel room. We ate several meals from sidewalk vendors.
Dad — and Mom — wrapped up New York like a present that weekend, and then they gave the city to us.
We never forgot it.
In his final few days, all that tasted good to Dad was Krispy Kreme donuts. So that’s what we gave him.
It was so hard to watch him decline. But I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
I know each one of you reading this has had to deal with your own losses, and has had to mourn your own loved ones, often in even more difficult circumstances.
We are so grateful we had Dad for as long as we did.
My mom, sister and I spent a lot of time with Dad in December. He had several very good days when his mind was sharp, although he didn’t talk a lot. So I retold him some of our favorite stories.
At one point, I was recounting for him that New York trip we took together as a family 35 years ago. How it had been the most significant trip of my life. How it had broadened my understanding of the world.
I wasn’t sure he was listening — it was hard to tell sometimes toward the end — but I kept talking.
“That trip was ...” I said, searching for the right word …
“Magic,” he said softly.
80 pieces of bubble gum
Can I make two suggestions?
The first one is to please do something wonderfully extravagant in 2019 for whatever young people are important to you.
Whatever their equivalent of an ostrich feather is, please get down on the ground and grab it for them. That is what they are going to remember years from now.
Another example of wonderful extravagance: In 1943, Dad’s own father, Frank Fowler, asked him a question.
My Dad was about 5 years old when his own father asked, “Steve, would you like me to buy you some bubble gum?”
“Yes!” he said.
World War II meant America was dealing with extreme shortages on all sorts of things, including bubble gum. But Frank Fowler was managing a grocery store in Texas, and he knew how to get some.
“How many pieces do you want?” he asked his son.
Dad thought for a moment.
“Eighty!” he said. He told us many years later that, as a 5-year-old, “80” was the largest number he could imagine.
So Frank Fowler ordered his son 80 pieces of bubble gum.
When the gum came, Dad shared it with all the kids in his neighborhood.
And 75 years later, in the final weeks of his life, he still remembered vividly how sweet that gum had tasted.
The second thing is simply this: Listen to your loved ones, completely, with your undivided attention, like Dad did with us.
It won’t cost you a penny, but it will take some discipline.
Put down your smart phone. Turn off the TV.
Just listen, and laugh, and love each other.
Because, golly Ned, Dad would really like that.
And I bet you would, too.