I found myself thinking the other day about how I might start a piece of writing in memory of Dad, my Dad, your friend, Gary Powers, who passed away last Friday afternoon as I held his hand in mine, tears streaming down my stunned face.
I suppose my first thought was to start like this, how I might have talked to a friend of my adult life about him when he came up in conversation: My Dad is a good guy, but…
…he has a lot of problems.
OR …he’s been battling drug addiction for years.
OR …he’s had some trouble with the law lately.
OR …he gave up on himself, which really hurts me.
But that wouldn’t do any good, because it became clear to me that the problems my Dad faced were not a clear representation of who he was OR how people remember him.
Over the past few days, my sister and I have witnessed an outpouring of love we may not have thought possible. We’ve re-learned who our father was. We’ve felt his impact on other people’s lives. Most of the messages people have left on Facebook, especially those of people who grew up with him here in Clinton, have been of pure disbelief that he is gone, testaments to his goodness, his fairness, his kindness, and, most of all, his fun-loving spirit.
If you travel back in time to the 1960s, you would probably run across my Dad, a boy coming-of-age as I did, in this town that my family holds so dear. He would be walking around town, probably charming everyone he passed. He would be at the Little League field (the one now neighbored by the Community Center), learning the game from his father, my grandfather, Les Powers, who, at one time or another, coached what seems like every boy in Clinton in either baseball or football or both.
As a boy of Clinton myself, you would find me much the same. My friends and I in our cleats and white baseball pants, stirrups and cheap silk-screened ball caps and shirts, looking to Gary Powers, my Dad, our Coach, making sure that we all thought the game of baseball through, that we appreciated it and respected it as much as we loved to play it.
Then, my mind goes to “and…” instead of “but…” As in: My Dad was a good guy, AND he loved his town.
OR …he made me feel like I belonged to a team.
OR…,as an old childhood friend of mine, someone I haven’t seen in over a decade, wrote in a nice Facebook message to me the other day, “he was the only coach who would allow me on their team and he was always so good to me…”
OR…, as another childhood friend I haven’t seen in a while put it, he “was such a good person and an integral part in our childhood.”
Certainly, there are some hard truths about the life of Gary Powers. He had bouts with depression and drug addiction for much of his adult life.
As my Uncle Jeff, Dad’s younger brother put it:
“My brother Gary died because of drug addiction. In the end, it was a particular failure of his liver that killed him but ultimately it was Gary’s lifelong drug addiction that caused his death. Gary was truly successful: he had a beautiful relationship with all his family who deeply respected his gentle ways, his engaging intelligence, and his personal integrity. He earned a fine college degree. He enjoyed a very happy and fruitful career. He knew the precious love of his wonderful son and daughter. He was fully active in and well loved by his community. My lovely brother experienced “real" periods of successful treatment for his addiction; he was “clean” for long months at a time. Gary had a full and fulfilling life but he also lost his battle with serious drugs. I want to thank all our friends for loving him through all of this struggle. Gary’s body simply couldn’t take any more punishment…”
We live in a tough world, one that is often unforgiving and punishes even the kindest of us. We fight our battles, and we sometimes lose. But we don’t take our losses with us when we leave. Only our victories.
And Gary Powers, my Dad, enjoyed plenty of victories.
He helped to raise a beautiful daughter, my sister, Ally, who has become a fierce, independent woman, a free spirit, the life of every party, much like her old man. He raised me, Kevin, a man of letters and ideas, a reader and writer, a civil servant dedicated to the youth of Clinton, just as his old man was, and his old man before him. He taught us to think of others first. He did it by showing that to us. He led by example. He drove kids home from school or practice when their own parents couldn’t make it. He took our friends in and fed them, even clothed them. He welcomed everyone, even the most random of people, into his heart and his home.
From him, we learned charity, understanding, compassion. We learned to fight for the underdog. Not only did we learn to fight for those less fortunate but also to believe in people others may have seen as odd or different.
The lost causes of the world found homes made by Gary Powers.
He also taught us a love of the arts and culture. He breathed into us a love of music, only the coolest music (I remember his famous air guitar to that wicked solo in Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”), and movies (I remember quoting lines from Coen Brothers movies, laughing.), again…only the best.
He engaged us intelligent conversation and encouraged us to know our country and its politics, it failures and its successes.
When I woke up last Friday, I found myself cursing my Dad’s poorer choices, those that led him to an early death. I found myself thinking of Norman Maclean’s memoir A River Runs Through It, a story my Dad loved, a particular line about the choices of those we love the most:
“And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding.”
When I got to his room in the ICU that morning to see him in so much pain, his mind starting to go, I saw a man blessed by the presence of those he loved, those that didn’t always understand him. I saw the love in his eyes when he reached his feeble hand, laden with IV tubes and bandages, around the back of my head and pulled me to him.
I kissed his forehead and told him I loved him.
He knew his death was imminent, but I still could not see it.
And even when his kind nurses, so concerned with this man they had only met the day before, already knowing his humor and strength, and his doctor made it clear that he would not make it through the day, I held onto hope as he continued to charm the room, laughing and smiling in between each painful moan and labored breath, filled with the blessing that I was by his side along with his brothers and his 90-year-old father, who held his other hand and prayed for his son’s peace, and that my father’s daughter, my sister, would soon join us.
He found peace that day, a peace he searched for his whole waking life. It could be felt in that room.
From now on, I’ve decided, the word “but” will not enter into my sentences when speaking of my Dad. Only “and.”
As in: My Dad was a good guy, “and” he will be missed dearly. By his family. By his abundance of friends. By his hometown, our hometown, that he held so dear.
OR, simply: I miss you, Dad, “and” I love you.
Stay cool, “and” rest easy.
Your life had value, “and,” in our fondest of memories, you live forever.