December 13, 1994

richardneilsmithwick-graveTwenty-three years ago my father died on this day. I miss him very much. He died of poor health due to his diet and heavy drinking. He was 68. I remember the times he drank, and I hate that those days are still so vivid. He ended his evenings passed out, slouched over on the couch in a passive, Vodka coma. This was a nightly routine and the last image I saw of him before I went to bed. It is hard to forget. It is hard to forget that your first true love was imperfect. But every morning he would get up and meet the day with a glass of orange juice, sober and clear-headed. Every morning I was hopeful that perhaps on this day he wouldn’t drink so much. Every morning he got up as if last night never existed, and every evening the transparent pattern would begin again. Until his retirement, I don’t remember a day he never went into work. I love my dad without a single doubt. He was the first man I ever loved. It is a strong love, an unconditional love, a never-ending love, and it is a grateful love. I believe him to be one of the most admired

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Richard Neil Smithwick
men I have ever known.

My father was born in India, October 15, 1926. A time of the Charleston, Calvin Coolidge, Al Capone, the average salary was $1,320.00, and you could purchase a stripped-down Model T for $260. He was born to a mother -whom I don’t know much about – and to a Seventh Day Adventist preacher. My father had read the bible many, many times and was well versed in its teachings. So much so, that when the Jeopardy Biblical category was hi-lighted, he answered correctly every time! He confessed that because of a strict religious upbringing, his beliefs had wained as he got older.

Dad,UncleRobert,Grandparents
Ricard Allen, Richard (dad), Uncle Bob, & Cathryn (Clark) Smithwick
My father was a great storyteller and often told me about the time when he was a young boy, dressed in wool knickers and a plaided newsboy cap, had run out of the small-town gas station because he had just stolen a gumball and found Pretty Boy Floyd outside pumping gas. That’s it. That’s the story. I don’t know if it’s true, but I love that he kept telling me the same story over and over throughout my life. I can see him so clearly enjoying telling me as if it were the first time each time he told it, and I, listened each time as if it were the first time I heard it.

unnamed-11As I got older, I learned much more about my father. Dad had received a Bachelor of Science in 1948 and then completed a Doctoral in Dental Surgery. He served as a Junior Lieutenant of the United States Naval Reserve, 1951-1953 during the Korean War. He also told me stories about how he had to perform dental surgery on the incoming wounded men of war. “The sides of their heads were torn off,” he would say. “I had to try to put their teeth, jaws, and faces back together.” He didn’t smile when he told me. He just stared straight ahead into space, puffing on a More’s cigarette. Dad smoked one cigarette, one long, continuous cigarette that lasted a lifetime. It must have been horrible for him, and I can’t imagine the pictures that tormented and stirred in him but now, finally, lay asleep. As I got older and experienced PTSD myself, I realize that these horrendous happenings quite possibly contributed to his drinking. It’s easier to understand. It’s easier to forgive. As much as it hurt me to see him drinking, the realization of his mental pain is clearer. He was silently scarred, and those are wounds that never show the bleeding.

75152_1715949822964_6769324_nBefore the war, dad had started a dental practice in Sunnyvale, California. He then returned after his time in Korea and continued to practice there for 40 years. During his time there, he was a member of American Dental Association (ADA, trustee 1978-1984), California Dental Association (CDA, president 1970-1971), Santa Clara County Dental Society (president 1961-1962), Federation Dental International, and a member of the Sunnyvale Chamber of Commerce. He was very active in politics and contributed to writing articles in the local newspapers to which I am hoping to find with more research. I would love to read them.

On a warm August day in 1969, dad adopted me when I was eight-and-half years old. I had come into a home with five other children, four of whom were previously adopted. In 1972, my dad and his wife divorced. I went to live with him and lost touch with my adopted mother. But during my short childhood years, with a seemingly intake family,  dad contributed to my life with many remembrances of activities in fondness and kindness: we went on repeated car trips to Tahoe, Disney Land, and Montana where I

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Montana (1970)
learned that if I caught a fish, I would need to learn to clean and gut it, too. I became a master at it. We spent many times on the lake where I learned how to swim, fish, and to drive and care for a boat. He taught me to appreciate the outdoors. We had scavenger hunts, we carved pumpkins, we played board games, and he taught me how to play Liar’s Dice and Crazy Eights.

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My daughter with Santa. (1984)
During the Christmas season, he suited up as the jolly man and ho, ho, ho’d his way through the front door. I promise I never knew it was him. As the family grew and doubled up with grandchildren, the fishing, Santa, and the road trip traditions continued. He was an amazing “Papa Doc” and adored by all the grandkids. They could not wait to see him.

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Grandkids & Thanksgiving (1986)
As I got older, while living with him – and now with his new, lovely bride, – we often had long conversations, not always agreeable, about life, death, boys, and some things nonsensical. We had common interests in art, gardening, the love of a good dog, and watching the Olympics. During my high school years, he sat quietly and listened to me read my class assignments of amateurish writings without harsh feedback. Although, he was horribly impatient when it came to helping me with math. To his defense, I wasn’t, nor have I ever been, great in math. He taught me how to drive with the normal panicked, impatient, parental angst. He was an avid reader and believed it to be a key to any success. After a business trip, dad would come home, sit down with an Ice Tea, and begin to read the newspapers that had been collected by the floor. He would, starting with the oldest first, read them from cover to cover. He told me “You should always read everything, and if you don’t understand something, read it until you do. Stop, pause, and look words up, and then reread again.” All of these little lessons seemed so irrelevant then, but I find they have resurfaced in my everyday behaviors today.

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My son and dad. (1993)
In the latter years, we had become distant. Not because we were estranged but because I had been living in Texas, miles away. I had a new life, a young new family, doing busy things with others, – “the cat’s in the cradle, […] when you coming home son? I don’t know when […],” – that sort of thing. In 1993, I took a trip to visit my father. I felt it was time to introduce him to his new grandson; dad was eager to meet him and fell in love with him instantly. Naturally. But I had noticed that dad had given into retirement boredom and was drinking much more. It was a number one priority and passion. He was fading into the bottle without a fight. One evening, during my visit, he took out a piece of paper from his wallet and shared it with me. It was a poem about a parent and their child. I don’t remember the context of the poem, but I remember being emotional. I remember him tapping his hand on my knee and saying, “You’re a better parent than I ever was. You’re a good person, and I’m proud of you. I love you.” I didn’t speak out but looked at him with different, awed eyes. Without another word, he took the writing and placed it back into his wallet and continued to puff on that one cigarette. I remember coming home with feelings of helplessness but with a deeper love for my father than I ever had. This was a sad moment and one of the strongest memories I have. This is knowing that my dad loved me. He told me somewhere in the sober part of his day; he told me in a clear state of mind without any liquid courage, which makes seeing him sinker off into a paralyzed world that much sadder. However, knowing that he cared, in itself, deserves gratitude.

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June 22, 1991
But a year later, on a Tuesday night, twelve days before Christmas, I received a call that dad had passed away. Remember those landline telephone rings in the late, dark hours of the night? Remember that even though it’s the same ringtone throughout the day, the one at 12:30 a.m. sounds so different? That’s the ringtone that rang. The ominous and foreboding ring that just gives you the creeps. You pause and take a deep breath before answering it because you just know that that ring, that haunting ring is going to change your life. After hearing what was said from the other side, and realizing I was right about the tone, I fell down onto the carpet and cried heavily. We quickly made flight arraignments and a late night became even later. 12-2Our family finally nestled into one big bed, and while they all slept, I could not. I found, by clicking aimlessly, It’s A Wonderful Life was playing on the T.V. For the first time, in the quiet of orchestrated, rhythmic breathing, I understood its moral: “Every life touches another.” I got up quickly and wrote a eulogy that went something like this:

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Dad’s retirement (1987)
“Guided by the pebbles that lie in the bottom of the river, the water moves in a distinct pattern. Remove one pebble and the current shifts. This is our life. We are the pebbles We are all purposeful, connected and part of a current, part of a flow. However, if removed, the the flow of our life sets in a new direction. We all matter. To each other. By our movements of actions, we change the flow of someone else’s current. If dad were not here, he would have never adopted me, and I would never have the beautiful, little family I have now. I would never have had those memories, those experiences, or the stories I share. I am so grateful for what he has given to me.” (1994)

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Christmas (1969)
The holidays bring out the sorrow, the longing, and depression of a loved one’s passing especially so close to a day when it is meant for family celebrations. Memories are what we live for: to create, to cultivate, to laugh, to cry, to embrace, to hope, to love, and when someone so dear, someone who enriched us so much that it brought us to who we are today is absent from those gatherings, it can blunder us into sadness. We seem to have to engage in the obligatory happenings in the routines of death. We seem to have to engage in its sadness because death doesn’t hurt those that have died, it hurts the living. The living live with death. I think about what he is missing, what I am missing, and how he could have contributed to my growing list of memories, how my children could have benefited from his stories, or what conversations they might have had. I wish I had more conversations with him, heard more stories, took more pictures, argued with him more, loved him more, created more videos, shared more travels, had more meals, asked more questions, cried more, hurt more, laughed more, and just had more. More of everything!

unnamed-9You might ask how someone could harness so much love and pillar them up when they had given deep memorial grief. I choose not to stain my memories with his imperfections but to cherish his many contributions. It is also important to acknowledge who he was. He was an alcoholic. A functioning alcoholic. He sometimes made comments without thinking of their bruises; he was perfectly aligned with the temperament of hisunnamed-10 generation. This is not an excuse just a fact, and I am a child of an alcoholic father. That’s a hard and hurtful title to pronounce. I don’t shy away from such truths as it makes the best parts of him that much brighter, and my dad’s best qualities were pretty special. I am also a daughter of a wonderful man. He was a man of great intelligence, he was witty, charismatic, handsome, warm, kind and gentle, and he, Papa Doc, was very much loved by so many.

I don’t want to mar Christmas with the ill images of dad. I want to remember him with all the love and joy he gave, and he gave so much to this Earth’s table. He helped those young men at wartime, he contributed to a dental nation, he gave six children a home in the best way he knew how, he walked me down the aisle, he spent time with his grandchildren, and he cared about us. All of us. The Mexican culture has a belief -and one that I have adopted – that there are three deaths. The first death is when your heart stops beating, when you cease to acknowledge depth, awareness, sense, and time. The second, when you are placed and lowered into the ground. And the third, which is the most perilous and scary of all, is when you no longer exist in any one’s mind or hearts, when the memory of you is forever forgotten by all living souls. It is then that you are truly dead.

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My first Halloween in my new adopted home. (1969)
So, I choose to remember my father and keep his memory alive in this way: by re-telling and circulating his stories, by keeping photos of him out of the drawer, placing them around our home where the world can see, and by celebrating his death with a positive action in which I display the small fictitious town of Bedford Falls. I set up my village in his memory. I then proceed to watch It’s A Wonderful Life in his honor wiping tears away throughout the show. I do this on December 13 of every year.

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Bedford Falls
None of us are perfect, and I’m sure we all have something that resonates negatively with someone’s memory. If so, I’m sorry, and I hope my family and friends will remember the best parts of me. This is my attempt at keeping his memory alive. He was my father, my sole parental guide, and counselor. This is my way of passing on who he was and the best parts of him down to the next generation, to continue his life through memory and heart. It is a responsibility I believe is necessary. There are no archival links to retract to, and all I have are my thoughts and old photos of him; I don’t want him to die into the third death.

Yes, my father was an imperfect man, but I adored him. In my eyes, he is still a small girl’s hero today as he ever was when I was young. And by sharing my memory of him, by eternalizing him, especially on this day, December 13, he is still very much alive.

My Little Family
Me, dad, and my step mom, Cindy. (1987/8?)
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