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Stories My Father Told Me

 

I heard the sobbing the instant my mother lifted the phone from its cradle. "He just died," she gasped. "He just died."

My father. After 16 years of more medical indignities than the human body should ever endure, after living Shakespeare's direst portrait of old age -- sans teeth, sans eyes, sans everything -- my father died. He just stopped breathing.

Thus my world lost its first storyteller, its prime mover of words. I think he read to me the day I was born. He lulled me to sleep with passages from Julius Caesar and Army regulations, poems by Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Allen Poe and every fairy tale he could find. I learned about the written word seated on his lap, following his forefinger down column after column of type.

My father lived by the most rigid standards of military conduct, but he rubbed his crayons outside the lines. Seduced by spread sheets and impatient with make-believe, nevertheless, my father was the one who colored the prince green in my Sleeping Beauty coloring book. When he made up a story to cover this outrageous fit of non-conformity, he inadvertently introduced me to the notion of other realities and universes which measured beauty and worth far differently than my own.

No one else in my family could ever tell a joke all the way to the end. They always blew the set-up. My father knew the secret of delivering a punch line and kept cracking jokes until his mind crumbled. Even then he tried to smile.

Part of me still can't believe that he died so quietly. For so many years he clung to life like a mountain climber, finding hand- and footholds invisible to lesser mortals on level ground. I guess part of me half suspected that he would overcome age and illness the same way he overcame every other obstacle life threw at him. My father went from orphan to Army colonel. How hard could living be?

But all stories must find an end. The strongest voices falter and crack. But I cling to the hope that every ending holds the seed of new beginnings. I want to believe that somewhere among those other worlds my father introduced me to so many years ago a new storyteller will soon be born. And maybe, if Chance likes a good joke, that storyteller will color the hero in his or her or its child's coloring book pink or yellow or brown.

Thanks, Dad. I hope that other child finds you soon. It makes missing you a lot easier to bear.

Jean Marie Ward

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