Saturday, May 7, 2016

A Dream of Phil

A Dream of Phil

I had a dream about Phil last night.  We were in the old Bargain Books store that used to be in Coldwater.  We used to go to rent movies at the video store next door, and then would go to peruse the books.  We were each looking in different sections of the store when, suddenly, he was gone.  My dreaming mind instantly knew what this meant – it was time to face the sadness of losing him.  I tried to fight the tears, but they began streaming, and then flooding, down my face as I stood there in the bookstore. 

I noticed some friends were also in the store, so I went into a more secluded corner to compose myself.  It was no use.  The weight of his loss bore down upon my shoulders until my arms just hung lifeless to my sides.  Then a group of friends turned the corner and saw me, not sobbing, not crying, just standing like a withered wraith and eyes leaking water.  I couldn’t tell what was said, only that we agreed to go and get some food.

I remained in the corner, alone, for several minutes to pull my composure back together.  I walked up to the cashier to pay for something, and I saw tears falling like raindrops on the book as I placed it on the counter.  The next thing I knew, I was walking into the restaurant where I was to meet my friends.  I could feel going into the place that this was the funeral dinner that I had missed.  I was given the choice to either keep my job, which I needed for my family, or go to the funeral.  I missed it, and it has left a hole in my heart since then.  Now, the door begrudgingly allowed me in, but opened heavily in passive aggressive resistance to what was within.  Once inside, the air was thick with the smells of everyone’s perfumes that they wore to say their final goodbyes.  Underneath the perfumes and colognes, you could smell the deep fried fries and could nearly taste the steaks searing upon the flaming grill.  The air was so heavy that I could feel it press upon your face as I walked.

Stories were told as we sat and ate.  The memories of other people’s stories were not words, but just moving pictures on the mind’s screen that showed, and not merely told, of the good times we had.  Periodically, a memory of my own would flash upon the screen, and the tears would fall from my chin before I even felt them in my eyes. 

            I saw the many times that he helped me change the oil in my truck when we lived in Sturgis.  I recall him sitting on a 5 gallon bucket and telling me what to do each step of the way.   Then there was the time that I had to change the brakes on my little S-10 pickup truck.  Man!  Was that cold!  Phil didn’t complain as he sat there and showed me what to do.  He could have just told me to watch and learn.  We would have been done so much quicker, but he wasn’t like that.  He was willing to take the time to let you actually learn what to do by yourself.   He didn’t just teach me how to change the brakes.  He taught me how to learn, and how to have the courage and patience to do things that most people don’t want to do.  Years later, armed with nothing more than a Haynes manual (or sometimes not), a little diligence, and the confidence that he taught me, I went on to do many other things that he never showed me how to do.  He taught me how to teach myself to fix vehicles, and, from there, how to teach myself how to build houses.  Years later, I would even help a friend change the brakes on his Toyota.  Yep, I felt bad doing it because it wasn’t a union car.  However, Phil wasn’t prejudiced, and I know that he’d be proud of me for putting aside my biases to help a friend.  Just to be sure, though, I never told him about the Toyota ‘cause I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

            Next, I saw him as were doing things around the house.  He let me use the chainsaw when we cut wood for the Creek Road house.  He even let me go out to cut wood on my own.  This shouldn’t be a big deal, since I was already in college, but my own dad wasn’t as comfortable letting us do things on our own the way Phil was.  He saw that my good traits, like not being afraid of a hard day’s work, came both from my mom and my dad, and encouraged them.  Oh, and for the record, he always said that I was stubborn, “just like your mom,” and that we irritated each other because we were “just too much alike.”  He never said a bad word about my dad, even during the several years when I refused to speak to my dad.  He would listen, but never preach.  It was in that space that he made, over several years, that I was able to repair the relationship with my first dad.  Because of Phil, I was able to become friends with my first dad, and got to know the good man that he was before he, too, passed away.  Phil let me cut wood by myself, and he made me learn how to cut through my anger on my own as well.

            As the drink orders came to the table, I saw one of his brothers lifting a glass of beer to toast Phil.  Seeing his brother in a dark gray shirt reminded me of the times we spent siding the Ridge Road house in the same color.  By then, I had been working as a carpenter for a while, and had learned a trick or two, and I built us a homemade table to help cut the siding.  We spent many nights and a few weekends siding that house.

Phil complimented me on the ingenuity of the table, but I don’t think he realized how much he helped me to build it.  No, he never saw it while I was making it.  He did, however, encourage me to do different things over the years, even things he didn’t understand that well, like brewing beer and martial arts.  When my mom would find out that I did crazy things, like to Barcelona, Spain for a weekend martial arts conference, he just chuckled and asked if I had a good time.  Mom, on the other hand, was still trying to not have a heart attack for something that I had done a few months before.  He seemed to know, though, that I learning one thing helped to figure out something else.  It’s like how you only apply a wrist break at hand tight when you practice in the dojo, but you torque that son of a gun if it’s real life.

When I started working as a carpenter, I could barely read a tape measure.  That made it tough to work on my truck too, but he let me take my time to convert all the measurements in my head and learn.  He was always happy to take the time to help us with things like that.  By the time that I made that siding table, I knew that I was good enough to make that table, and that it would make the whole siding job a lot easier.  It was little things like this that made me confident enough to take on buying and renovating an entire house a few years later.

When he complimented me on the table, though, he wasn’t saying it like a step-father, or even a father, would.  He said it in a way that made me know he respected me.  That’s why I never liked calling him my step-dad.  “Step” means that something is in the way, but Phil was always there for us.  Sometimes he was like a dad, sometimes like an uncle, and sometimes he was just a friend.  I eventually got to a point where I would never call him “step” – it just didn’t feel right.  I would call him my second dad if there might be confusion between him and my first dad, like the time he came with to Cooley to see me get the award for being the top student in my labor law class.  (Otherwise, I just told everyone he was my dad – because he was.)  Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have cared that much about the award, but, we all know that Phil loved the union and knew labor law.  I felt like a 9th grade kid who wanted to make his dad proud.  Phil was a sentimental guy.  I remember him hugging me a several times that night, and how happy I was to see him proud of me.  And then, in the dream world once more, I felt the tears leaking out of my eyes again.

I looked over and saw a couple of his grandbabies talking and laughing, reminding me that funerals aren’t always horrible.  There are many moments of laughter and memories too.  Then I saw Phil again.  This time we were at the accident scene where my baby brother died.  I saw him wiping the tears from his eyes and blowing his nose the way he always used to do – where you couldn’t tell if he were sneezing or exorcising a ghost.  I saw something at the accident that would have broken what was left of mom’s heart that morning.  I wasn’t sure if I should have done what I was thinking, so I looked to Phil and pointed.  He gave me a nod, ‘yes’, and I kept it out of mom’s sight.  That’s how Phil always was.  He was sentimental.  I know he cried more than I did at the funeral.  But he wasn’t weak.  As crushed as he was that day, he was strong enough to help me too.  He was always happy to give a hug, and you could feel that deep down.  Even in one of the most horrible moments of my life, he was there to show us there are still good things in the world, like friends who act as a rock to rest upon when you were struggling against the tides of emotions.

            When the ice cream came, I looked to my side and saw one of my brothers eating ice cream.  Then it was Phil, sitting back on a Friday night and watching TV at the Ridge Road house with a bowl of ice cream and watching Gunsmoke.  You see, with Phil, you have to understand that the little things in life are important.  It was that bowl of ice cream after putting in a hard day’s work.  I think he loved Gunsmoke because he related to it on such a personal level.  Just like Marshall Dillon, he was soft spoken, had a quiet strength, always took care of the people he loved, and wasn’t afraid to use a gun if he needed.  Yep, there was a guy who lost his job when Phil was a Union rep, and Phil couldn’t get him reinstated.  So, the guy started to show up to Phil’s office and made some threats.  Phil carried his .44 magnum to work for a while after that.  (So, for his younger relatives, ya’ll oughta know that your Papaw/uncle/cousin/etc. was kind of a badass.)  Unlike Marshall Dillon, however, Phil knew who he wanted in his life and didn’t let his red-headed Miss Kitty get away.

            The dream continued on, alternating between tears and memories.  I’d see a picture of him sitting in the barn with his ’68 Dodge Charger, and then I’d feel a pang of emptiness in my gut when I realized that neither of my daughters would ever get to meet their Papaw Winkle.  I would see him and mom on their wedding day that April 1st so long ago.  I cannot describe how thankful I am for Phil because he took such good care of my mom.  I also felt a wrenching in my gut, knowing that he would never get a chance to meet my wife.    When I finally awoke this morning, I was exhausted, as though I’d already spent the whole day on the emotional roller coaster of that funeral.

            For all of Phil’s loved ones, I know that you were told why I couldn’t be at the funeral.  Nobody knew, however, how much that tore me up inside.  I’ve been so angry that I couldn’t even write this until today.  Even so, it took going through some weird Christmas Carol kind of dream to get to this point.  Phil was my father.  Sometimes when I get frustrated with my daughter, who seems to have entered the terrible two’s at only a year and three months, I think about Phil and how gentle he always was.  I may not be his blood, but I have inherited a lot of his personality.  Like the several times in law school when I needed to make a very strong point, but I could tell that people weren’t ready to listen.  So, like Phil would do, I’d tell a little story or give a little homespun preface for these future lawyers like “I know ya’ll ain’t had the elite privilege of growin’ up on a dairy farm and spendin’ yer spring breaks pitchin’ manure like I did, but that strange fragrance you detect is the unmistakable scent from the backside of a bull . . .”  People thought it was funny, and it helped me to get the point across, but it was just as much Phil as it was me.  He was a teacher, a father, and a friend.

Mom & Phil with all four of the boys.
This would probably be one of Phil's favorite pictures.
L to R: Jade, Kelly, Phil, Mom, Me, & Kelvin

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