WOSTER: A lifetime of messages
Mixed with the intense grief that enveloped me when my dad died was a shameful feeling that only several years after his passing I was able to identify as disappointment.
Sunday, August 19, is the 50th anniversary of Hank Woster's death. He was 56 years old, a strong and decent man up until cancer claimed him, in the space of eight weeks from diagnosis to death. Like his other four children, I was lost without him for a long while. I still am to some extent, I suppose, although grown-up kids adjust to the loss of a parent, move on, find some sort of closure. Society expects no less.
And, yet, how does one find closure while he is still feeling a sense of disappointment in the way his dad left him? That's what I realized after several years of refusing to examine the source of the shame and guilt I'd felt after he died. I was disappointed he didn't go out like a western movie hero, bravely using his last breath to give his children one last message for surviving the years ahead without him. I wanted the Gipper, John Wayne, Gary Cooper — something stirring and solid to cling to for the life ahead.
Instead, my dad approached death angry and sullen. He spent a lot of time in silence, often in an old green-webbed lawn chair under the tree on the south lawn. I didn't know how to talk to him about the one thing that mattered most in his life, my life, the lives of my mom and brothers and sisters. I couldn't talk to him about cancer. I couldn't sit and ask what he was thinking and feeling and wishing and dreading.
Well, he didn't talk about it, either. Almost nobody did, not in those days. I didn't understand until later that my dad, who almost always knew the right thing to say, didn't have a clue how to talk about cancer or his fear and anger. There he sat, alone, and we didn't know what to say.
Scared? Angry? Who wouldn't be if, out of the blue in an otherwise fine life of farming and family, a still-young man is told he has a few weeks to live? He must have been eaten up with anger, terrified at the diagnosis. I didn't know how to see that.
Instead, I was disappointed that he wasn't more visibly strong. I wanted that last message. This guy was my rock, the family's rock. He was the guy with the broad shoulders and massive forearms who would always be there for the rest of us. And here he was wasting away, leaving us with no words of comfort, with no assurance that we would be all right. I needed an exit line before the curtain came down.
Once I recognized, well after his death, that I'd been disappointed in my dad, I also realized that he hadn't left us without a message. Heaven's sake, he'd been giving us messages every day he lived. His whole life was his message to me, to my mom and to my brothers and sisters.
For as long as I could remember, he'd crawled out of bed every morning, usually before the sun was up, to go to work in the hay field or on the combine or in the corral behind the barn where the calves were being branded. He did that day after day, whistling and singing and smiling. He nearly always seemed happy with his life. He showed me that the business of making a living was something well worth doing, not just something a body had to do.
More than that, he showed me that making a living was just a tiny piece of making a life. He showed that a strong man could be gentle with small children and with animals, that a person who respected himself cleaned up and dressed up to go out in public, whether to the barber shop on Saturday evening or to church on Sunday.
I didn't need one last message. I had a lifetime of them. It just took a while to see that.