Remembering daddy

Published 9:10 pm Friday, June 19, 2009

(Editor’s Note: This story was submitted by Cathy Lassiter Hartley, now of Suffolk, Va. and formerly of Aulander, in tribute to her father, the now late Russell L. Lassiter, a native of Colerain who was living in Aulander at the time of his death on May 2, 1970.)

The day is May 2, 1970. I am seven years old and playing outside in our new back yard while Daddy cuts the grass.

After he is done, we go inside our new home and freshen up and take a break. It is early afternoon as I sit on his lap while we share a half gallon of Neopolitan ice cream.

It is our ritual- we each have a spoon, eating straight out of the carton. Daddy and I have done this every afternoon or evening for as long as I can remember.

My Mama always gets mad, insisting that my appetite will be ruined for dinner. Later that afternoon, Daddy leaves to pick up some of our furniture from the house we had rented.

He kisses me good-bye and I ride on his shoulders all the way to his car. He promises to return soon and gives me a big bear hug. It starts to get late in the evening. Daddy is not home yet.

We expected him home by dinner time but it is now eight o’clock. Mama saves his dinner and gets me and my two year old sister ready for bed.

Since it is Saturday night, I get to stay up a little later but Daddy is still not back by nine o’clock. Reluctantly I go to bed.

A half hour later, I am tossing and turning – I am restless and now feel sick. I also become very anxious but do not know why. My Mama is still up but I don’t hear Daddy.

He should have come to check on me by now Something is wrong! I wish Daddy was here! At around eleven that night, I hear someone come to the front door but it is not Daddy; my great uncle Paul has come to pick up all of us and take us to Grandma’s house to spend the night.

Mama looks very sad and scared and everyone is very quiet on the way there. I know something terrible has happened but no one is talking.

When we arrive at Grandma’s house, the house is full of people I don’t know. Everyone is crying and sad.

We go into the guest bedroom where Uncle Paul carries my sister to the crib.

She is still asleep. I lie down with my Mama to rest but people keep coming into the room to stare at us.

My Mama holds me and soon we both fall asleep. I wake up the next morning and feel very anxious again.

Daddy is not here, Mama is still in her clothes from yesterday, and she looks like she has been crying all night.

She calmly tells me that Daddy has been in an accident and won’t be coming home. He is in Heaven now with the angels.

I reach up and wipe the tears from her eyes. I know now that I must take care of Mama and my sister The next few days go by slowly.

As a seven year old, my magical thinking kicks in to rationalize what has happened. There has been a mistake – Daddy has just gone a way for a while but he will be back.

Everyone is confused. The day of the funeral, my sister and I are not allowed to attend. I am not quite sure what a funeral is.

I just know that I must stay at a friend’s house with a cousin for a few hours. My Grandma talks to me before the funeral.

She looks very pretty but extremely sad. But I did not see her cry in front of everyone. She is the family matriarch, always strong and calm.

She assures me that she will give Daddy a kiss for me. I still don’t understand. After the funeral, I arrive back at Grandma’s house.

There are people everywhere. It looks like a party. I have never seen so much food or flowers!

Grandma tells me that this is how people say that they are sorry for our loss.

My mother is sitting in a chair with many people around her. She does not look like Mama – she is very tired and almost looks lost.

She misses Daddy terribly like me. I sure wish Daddy could be here to make her happy. I miss a whole week of school and also have another painful earache.

I receive a book of drawings and cards made by my classmates. My Grandma, Mama, and I go to visit a man I don’t know.

He was in the accident with Daddy – he works with Daddy but I have never met him. He is not very talkative and avoids answering any questions about the accident.

For some reason, I know that I don’t like this man. He won’t look at us in the eye when he does talk. He insists that Daddy was driving his car and lost control.

I don’t believe him. Why would Daddy drive another person’s car? A few weeks later, we move to Norfolk to live with my maternal grandparents.

We live in a duplex with them. It is a lot of fun because we can see them whenever we want. We live there for a year while my Mama goes back to work as a elementary school teacher and “gets back on her feet”. Then we moved into an apartment close to my grandparents’ house. During this time, I come to understand a little more about Heaven and that I will see Daddy again one day.

Granddaddy spends a lot of time with me – he does things that Daddy used to do for me. We have a special bond as we share the same birthday! I feel very lucky to have such loving grandparents . Daddy’s parents, Grandma Marie and Granddaddy Robert stay in close contact with us and visit us when they can. They send cards and gifts, too! Over the years, my mother does not talk much about the accident but I know that she misses Daddy a lot, too. I hear her crying at night after we are all in bed. It is not fair – all of my friends have their Daddys with them. Why does my Daddy have to be in Heaven?

Is God mad at me for something? Is there ice cream in Heaven? I am eight years old and lying in bed. It is the middle of the night. It is summer and a thunderstorm has awakened all of us. Daddy always said that thunder was made in Heaven by angels beating on their drums. I want my Daddy here to protect us. He was a big man- 6’4 and 240 pounds. He always made us feel safe. I am ten years old. My stepfather is trying to talk me into taking the training wheels off of my bike. All of my friends have had their training wheels off for years. He says they are a security blanket. But I don’t like to take risks.

The next day I decide to go for it. I ride down the driveway for the first time with no training wheels. My step dad, Mama, and my sister cheer me on. I sure wish Daddy could have seen that! I am twelve now. I am cheering at my first football game. My friends talked me into joining a community cheering squad. We won our first game. I am excited to be doing something new and different. Daddy loved sports. He played high school and college football and basketball. He would have loved the game! I am thirteen. I am attending my first dance with my boyfriend. He kisses me good night before I run to the car.

My step dad asks me if I had fun and says, “He is a very nice young man.” I love my step dad a lot. He works hard to take care of our family. But, I wish Daddy was here. He always told me that any boy who wanted to date or marry me would have to earn his trust and approval. I am now sixteen. Granddaddy is teaching me how to drive. I am taking the drivers’ education class at school and I have been studying the book a lot. I am going very slow so that I don’t have an accident. My mother is extremely nervous. I wish Daddy could see me driving and reassure Mama that I will be okay. It is now a year later.

I am graduating from high school and Mama tells me how proud she is of me. I graduate with honors and we celebrate at a small gathering of family and friends. I sure wish Daddy could see my diploma and give me his bear hug. It is three years later. I am twenty years old and graduating from nursing school. I have studied very hard for three years and made many new friends. I am extremely excited about my new career and have already been offered a job at a large local hospital in the newborn nursery. It also means a lot because I can now take care of my Mama like she has always taken care of me and my sister.

Since her divorce from my step dad, it has been hard for our family financially. Sadly, Daddy has missed another graduation. It is now thirteen years later and it is my wedding day. It is the happiest day of my life but also one of the saddest. Even though my Granddaddy will give me away, I have always dreamed of my Daddy walking me down the aisle. I know he is watching over me from Heaven – he promised me he would never miss this day. Even though I am very happy and excited, I feel like a huge chunk of my heart is missing. It is now thirteen years later. At 34, I am extremely tired but my husband and I are on the top of the world.

We have just welcomed our beautiful daughter to the family. She will be our only child and a true blessing and what I consider a lifesaver over the next twelve years. She will help me to cope, not only with the everyday challenges of life but to keep me focused on my priorities. She will never get to meet her Grandma Nana, my Mama, who passes away three weeks after her birth. Once again, my heart is absolutely broken – it is hard to get up in the morning but my daughter keeps me strong. We are at Mama’s funeral. The pain in my heart is unbearable. My sister and I hold each other tight and help each other through this horrific day.

My cousin plays “Unchained Melody” on his guitar. This was my parents’ song. The outpouring of love from family and friends is tremendous at her graveside service. Before I say goodbye to Mama, I hug her casket. At that moment, I suddenly feel my Daddy’s big bear hug. I know now that he is finally here with me. After being apart for 27 long years, Mama and Daddy are finally together.

That will be the only comfort I take home with me that day. I am now 45 years old and preparing for Father’s Day. We will have a small celebration for my husband and once again my sister and I will make the yearly trip to North Carolina to leave flowers at my Daddy’s grave. It is hard to believe that he has been gone for 39 years. I sure hope he has a wonderful Father’s Day in Heaven. Daddy, please save me some Neopolitan ice cream! It shouldn’t melt- it’s Heaven! When I get there, we’ll share!