With all of these friends and family gathered, part of me is looking through the crowd for my Daddy. He would put me at ease. He would know just what to say.
But while my heart keeps watching for him to arrive at this gathering, it’s my brain that knows: if Dad were coming to this event — to any event — he would have arrived before any of us. He would have helped arrange the chairs, carry in the flowers and hang the pictures. He would have made the iced tea and greeted everyone like the southern gentleman he truly was.
My Daddy was so many things. He lived such a full life, a good life, up until the end. And even the end — all things considered — could have been a lot worse. He got to die holding hands with the love of his life. I was glad for God’s grace in that.
I struggle in my heart, knowing he would not have chosen to live the last three years of his life with the horrible decline that is dementia. My head tries to be more rational. It was Dad who taught me that death is part of life. That was a painful lesson we revisited when each dog or parakeet died. Death is part of life, and — you don’t get to choose how or when you die. The blessing that comes with the curse of dementia is that Dad lost the ability to understand what was happening to him. And I’m grateful for that.
My eyes keep filling with tears when I think how I miss my Daddy. I keep reminding myself of the wisdom of Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
I assembled the video scrapbook of Dad’s life, so I was sifting through hundreds and hundreds of photos last week. The collection of photos and memorabilia is both heartbreaking and life-affirming all at once.
My challenge was putting everything into chronological order. I had to look at the kids and dogs in so many of the photos with Dad for an idea of what happened first — because Dad did not age. He looked the same at his wedding in 1988 as he did holding his first grandson in 1995, and his first granddaughter in 2001. Even now, with the DVDs ready for each of you to take home, I’m not sure I have it right.
I can tell you what you already know.
My Dad had the most solid moral compass of anyone I know.
He was faithful, and dependable, and he was, as Chaplain Tim Kerrick described, a “kind soul.”
He never asked a subordinate to do something he himself was unwilling to do. I never walked through an amusement park with Dad without him bending down multiple times to pick up other people’s trash. And this was regardless of whether it was his park or one he was just visiting. That was the level of pride he had for his industry.
Dad worked in amusement parks the whole time I knew him, and yes, as a kid, it was fabulous. I remember one of his offices contained an early model of the wave pool that is now standard at water parks all over the world. I was itching to play with my Barbies there, but Dad never allowed that. He took amusements very seriously.
Dad lived by the golden rule, and when he said he would do something, he did it.
I remember him teaching me to drive. We were having a nice chat, me behind the wheel and him in the passenger seat, when suddenly he directed me to pull over. I had no idea what was wrong. He informed me I had been speeding, and therefore I was done driving. There was no hollering, no shaming me and no negotiation. He had set a simple rule and was simply enforcing it. That’s how things were with Dad.
Decades later, he and Sherry met me and my family for a vacation in Salt Lake City. They arrived by plane from Dallas. We arrived by train from Syracuse. The train was scheduled to arrive at 2:45 a.m., and as is not unusual with Amtrak, our train was running more than an hour late. But there was a single person standing at the side of the tracks in the pitch black middle of the night when we arrived. My Dad had said he would be there, so of course I wasn’t surprised. He gathered all of our bags and proceeded to help some other travelers get to their hotels, as well. That’s the kind of man he was.
He was a young man when his father died of a heart attack. So he felt responsible for taking care of his mother after that. As she got older and less mobile, I remember him buying dozens of dresses and bringing them to her home for her to try on, and then returning those that didn’t fit. I remember him visiting her daily in the nursing home after she had a stroke.
In the 1970s, after his divorce, he fought for custody of my brother and me — and he won, at a time when dads didn’t seek custody of the kids, let alone win.
My Dad was soft-spoken and well read. He loved historical biographies, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Grover Cleveland, who is part of our family tree. That’s where the “Cleveland” comes from.
Dad was an avid fan of television nature shows long before there were cable channels devoted to such things. As children, we watched Marlin Perkins’ “Wild Kingdom” with Dad every Sunday, and we played a game where we’d name two animals, and Dad would explain which one would win in a race, and which one would win in a fight.
Some of his love of nature was nurtured in his childhood, I know. I remember as a child hearing stories from my grandmother about my Dad as a boy. She would go to his dresser to put laundry away and find frogs, snakes, lizards and mice in the drawers.
It was so fitting for my Dad to run an amusement park built around animals, called Lion Country Safari. He got to name the baby zebra when it was born. I’m sure many of you won’t be surprised by the name he chose: “Spot.”
I admired my Dad’s one liners and humor and his dry wit. I thought he knew everything, so when we drove by a cemetery and he would ask me if I knew why there were always fences around cemeteries, I thought I was going to learn something useful in his answer, which he delivered matter-of-factly: “Because people are just dying to get in.”
Well Dad wasn’t. He loved life. And, he was so practical in his desires to be cremated upon his death. He would rather the cemetery land be used for an amusement park, I remember him telling me.
Yes, he was practical. He was down-to-earth, and easy-going. But my Dad was also magic. (Yes, I am a proud Daddy’s girl and always will be.)
I was pretty sure he was special, but I was willing to concede that I might be slightly biased when I picked up the phone on Labor Day Sunday to call the Dallas Morning News and see if I could interest them in writing a story about my Dad dying. Now, being in the newspaper business for 25 years, I knew they don’t write news obituaries about very many people. Celebrities and elected leaders, yes, but otherwise, it’s a bit of a long shot. It depends on what else is happening news-wise, it depends on whether the newsroom is adequately staffed with someone to write the story, and it depends on how interesting the subject is. Well, the Dallas Morning News — one of the largest and most influential newspapers in America — saw fit to give my Dad 20 inches, which is an enormous amount of space in this economy, in which newspapers have slashed their news hole — and this decision was made on a short-staffed holiday weekend, during a time when the paper was jammed with articles about the Sept. 11 anniversary. Trey thanked me later for “pulling strings” to get Dad’s story in the paper, and I had to tell my brother I pulled no strings; Dad merited coverage all on his own.
Like I said, we all know my Dad was special. But I still think of him as magic, with supernatural powers.
How else to explain the phone ringing extra early one Sunday morning in 1984? I was in college, working at the Dallas Times Herald on the weekends, and Dad was on a trip. He called that morning and the first words out of his mouth were: “Are you OK? What happened?” How could he have known I was mugged at gunpoint when I got out of work at 2 a.m. in downtown Dallas? He sent his pal Chuck Hendrix over to look after me until he could get home, and Chuck arrived ready to go knock some sense into the guys who dared attack Cleveland’s daughter. That’s the kind of loyalty Dad enjoyed from the friends he chose.
But it wasn’t just incidents like that that made my Dad magic. It was more the collection and variety of little things, the minutiae of every day.
Dad knew how to stop wood floors from creaking.
He knew the secret to great mashed potatoes.
He knew which product was best for killing roaches, and what would take grease off dirty hands, and which spices were appropriate for which kind of soup.
He told bedtime stories without reading from a book. There was a particular poem, dozens of stanzas long, which he recited so frequently — or maybe it’s magic — that 40 years later I can still recite it.
He knew how memorable it would be for me and my brother to watch our family dog give birth.
Somehow — like I said, magic — Dad created a world for my brother and I in which, when we misbehaved, Dad telling us we disappointed him hurt way worse than any spanking.
He taught us we could do anything we set our minds to.
He knew what to say when I called telling him how lucky I had been to win a fellowship to intern with U.S. Rep Dick Armey for a semester in Washington, D.C. Oh, he was proud, but he told me it wasn’t luck. “The winds favor the ablest sailor,” he said.
He believed in Mother Nature. As a boy, he tossed seeds he spit from a watermelon into a pile of dirt and returned in July to find a melon that was bigger and better than any grown by a neighbor woman he saw tending garden every day.
He knew how to read the clouds and smell the air and predict the weather almost like it was magic. He taught me the pure beauty and peace of a thunderstorm.
He gave the best reason I’d ever heard for not drinking to excess. Dad said he just didn’t like the feeling of losing control.
He knew, and insisted I learn, how to change a tire on a car, and drive on snow and ice.
He knew how to dice an onion perfectly, and without crying.
He knew which snakes were poisonous.
He knew how to communicate with mockingbirds, and dozens of other birds, too. And animals sensed something about Dad that let them know he was no threat. Many mornings, he had coffee on the porch swing, whistling to his mockingbird, with Cuervo and Tag near his feet.
He knew how to pick Secret Service agents out of a crowd. That’s how I obtained Gerald Ford’s autograph when the President visited the State Fair of Texas.
He knew how to navigate Caddo Lake without a map. Caddo is Texas’ only natural lake, and it is notorious for leaving boaters lost. I’m still not sure how Dad did that. Like I said, he was magic.
Dad knew that my brother and I needed to maintain a relationship with our mother, that forgiveness was important not so much for her — but for us.
When my high school girlfriend from Joplin, Missouri visited me in Dallas, Dad knew just where to take us when I said I wanted Christina to see real, live hookers.
Yes, Dad was familiar with the rough streets of Dallas. When I was a newsroom clerk for the Dallas Times Herald, one of my chores was making the dinner run, usually late in the evening. One night I got lost and, not wanting to admit my mistake to my employer, I found a pay phone and called Dad. I had no idea what street I was on, but I described the landmarks and stores around me. It took my Dad about one heartbeat to give me instructions: “Hang up this phone, get back in your car, lock the doors, and drive away from there as quickly as you can.”
Whenever Dad drove my car — any car, from high school up until his last trip to Syracuse in 2006 — the next time I got behind the wheel, the tank was always on “full,” like magic.
Whenever one of my children would start fussing in a restaurant, Dad would take him or her outside. He would return a little bit later — like magic — with a new, non-fussy baby.
Dad lived his life in an unassuming way. He wasn’t preachy. Yet, we learned from him all the time. He was always teaching.
Take, for instance, the day in April 1995 when we were coming home from the hospital with Nicholas Cleveland. Dad was with me and my husband as we wrapped up our newborn — now a 16-year-old high school junior — and headed to the hospital elevator. We pressed the button, and dad said it was time for Nick to learn that what comes up, must come down.
And I guess that’s a pretty good lesson.
It gets me thinking about how we must take the good along with the bad, and about how death is part of life.
If Dad had been given the choice, he would not have chosen Alzheimer’s. I think I know what would have appealed to him more.
I think back, it had to be 25 years ago. Sherry was trying to keep Dad eating healthy. But she was away on a business trip, and so Dad — this was all his idea, though I admit it took no arm twisting on my part — conspired with me to gather the ingredients and go through the complicated steps of this secret recipe he had obtained. Well, Sherry arrived home early and caught us, chocolate-handed, digging into a decadent concoction known as “Death by Chocolate.”
I’m quite sure that Dad would have approved of us remembering the good times and toasting him with chocolate.
So, Dad, here’s to you. We won’t cry because you’re gone; we will smile because you were here.