Remembering Dad and Telling His Story

Dad with his brother Martín at my brother Tony’s wedding. Photo taken by Lisa Van De Graaff.

Five years ago, early on Thanksgiving morning, Dad died. He’d spent the last eighteen years battling a multitude of health problems that stemmed from heart failure and the heart transplant that saved his life. That new heart gave him eighteen more years, but not all of them were wonderful, as a myriad of other issues popped up, things like gout in his hands (Dad said it was the most pain he ever felt), a weakened body from laying in bed for months waiting for a heart, and kidney failure, forcing him to start dialysis. He would always say that the motor was working fine, but the chassis was falling apart. Most days, at least when we – and especially the grandchildren he got to see because of that new heart – were around, Dad put on a brave face and made the most of his time with us. But, I can only imagine the harder days, where it didn’t feel like it was worth it, days only Mom really saw in any detail.

Dad, at my brother Tony’s wedding. Photo taken by Lisa Van De Graaff.

There are so many questions I wished I’d asked. So many things about Dad that I don’t know. His childhood is one big black box to me. There are no photographs and very few stories. One of his favorites was about a time when he really wanted to take his dad’s motorcycle to town. It was Sunday, and his mom was harassing him to get up for Mass. Dad, snuggled under his blankets, pretended not to hear, pretended to be asleep, until his mom gave up and left without him, beginning the thirty minute hike to town on her own. As soon as she was gone, Dad threw off the covers, fully dressed in his best Sunday suit, and found the motorcycle. He figured that he would be forgiven if his mom thought he had overslept and needed to get to town fast to make it to Mass on time. I don’t recall if it was on the way to town, or on the way back, but Dad had a minor accident as he guided that motorcycle down the narrow and curved roads that are so typical of the heart of Bizkaia, and tore a hole in his suit. He panicked, full of fear at the wrath of his mom. He made it home before she did and hid on the roof of the baserri with the guys that were replacing their roof that day. He stayed there, waiting and hoping his mom wouldn’t find him. Eventually, of course, she did, and she found the hole in his suit. Dad made up a story about having played handball in the fronton with his friends, of him falling down and tearing the suit on the stone floor. Whether his mom bought the story or not, she had the suit fixed. Dad said you could barely tell there was ever a hole. I’m not sure he ever told her the truth about the motorcycle…

Dad and me when I was about 5 months old.

But, such stories are few and far between. Before his transplant, I would occasionally help Dad out with his hay runs. In reality, I didn’t do a whole lot: I help untie the ropes from the hay stacks on the truck, or help tie them on a new stack if he was loading. I would sit on the end of the grapple on his tractor and he would lift me up to the top of the stack. Once in a while, if the hay bales weren’t tight enough for the grapple to grab them, I would help rearrange them (though given I was a 98-pound weakling, I was only moderately helpful). Mostly, though, I was there to help move the tractor around while he moved the truck.

These runs would mean getting up too damn early – Dad would want to be at the hay stack at dawn to maximize light, and we wouldn’t stop until sunset for the same reason. We’d drive hundreds of miles in the dark, both ways (though it wasn’t always uphill both ways). You’d think that would have been a great opportunity to pull some stories out of Dad. And, I didn’t even have a phone or some other device to distract me! But, we usually sat there in silence, neither of us really knowing what to ask the other. We never talked about girls, about the future, or about anything, really. When I was older, and had made my own connection to the Basque Country, sometimes Dad would tell me stories about the old country, but I didn’t always follow as the names and places weren’t familiar. As a teenager or even in my early twenties, maybe I was just too self-absorbed or thought Dad would be there forever, but I simply never asked.

Dad laughing at someone’s story. Photo taken by Lisa Van De Graaff.

Life is so transient. We are born and then we die. Maybe people remember us for a generation or two, but after a few short years, we are just whispers on people’s lips. Maybe the best we can hope for is that we live on, perhaps through our children and their children or through our deeds and the impact we make on a few of the lives around us. We have the amazing ability to write, to break the barrier of time and share stories that can last beyond what our memories would otherwise allow. But, even so, it seems that, for most of us, our time passes and we are soon lost to memory. It doesn’t help when, if you are like me, you have a horrible memory and your own childhood is a black hole… And I don’t have the five million photos we seem to take daily of my daughter to jog my memory…

On the other hand, we all have fascinating stories. Each of us is the main protagonist of our own drama we have lived through, complete with highs and lows; heartbreak, tragedy and joy; and unique twists that would confound the best story writers. I wish I knew more about Dad’s story. I wish I’d asked him more questions and pulled just a little more out of him. I’m on a personal mission to fill in as many gaps as I can. While not as good as getting it directly from Dad himself, I’m hoping I can get glimpses of his story from those who knew him, his family, friends, and acquaintances. Maybe ultimately it is futile to fight the so-called sands of time, but knowing just a bit more about Dad’s story would make my own a bit more fulfilling.

5 thoughts on “Remembering Dad and Telling His Story”

  1. This is a great tribute to your aita, Blas. I wish I had known him. Even though I’m sure it’s painful that he died on a holiday, it seems like you’ve taken it as an opportunity to think about him every year around this time, discuss his memory with your family, and reflect on gratitude for having him in your life. I think he’d be pretty happy about that 🙂 Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

    1. Thanks Lael! It sure makes the holiday different. And makes me want to get to know more about his life. I hope you and your family had a great Thanksgiving!

  2. It was a great story, but what is the name of this family.
    I think I know the face, but maybe not.
    Thank you

  3. Blas,
    I believe that your father loved you very much!! Silence is louder than words. During the long days and miles, going to and returning home, your father shared his work, his life–you were a child so you did not understand the unspoken words of the love of a father for a son.

    You helped your dad a lot more than you realized…had you dad needed help to turn the tracker around and bail the hay, he would have asked one of his buddies –he did not–he wanted his son with him–just Dad and Son.

    May your Dad rest in peace.


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