David Luther Black passed away late the morning of June 12, 2013 at his home in Santiago, Chile.
The past five days of my life have been the worst I’ve ever experienced.
I’ve travelled more than 11,000 miles and spent nearly 24 hours in the air going to, and coming from, a place I’ve never been.
But I would not trade those days for anything.
It’s all for my Dad, the Grandfather Dragon.
My trip—from Birmingham 5,000 miles south to Santiago, Chile—was likely my last chance to tell David L. Black anything and everything I’ve ever wanted to say, but didn’t.
This trip was to say goodbye.
Frail and declining, barely able to talk and unable to move, my father may or may not have understood that I had travelled so far to see him, face to face where he lay, in the bedroom of his home, 12 stories up in the polluted air of Santiago, only a few miles west of the Andes mountains.
At one point, when asked if he knew who I was, he said he had no idea.
I will never know for sure, although my best guess is that he knew I was there, at least part of the time.
Although physically apart my entire adult life, my father and I have always been close. We each had our own lifestyles, work and preferences about where to live.
E-mails and phone calls between us were routine. On special occasions—maybe once every year or so on average—I would get to see him. A few times, I might get to see him more than once in a year…quite a treat. Only while I was a child would we live in the same city. After that, never again.
Are you one of those people whose father was always close by? Perhaps a few blocks or a few miles away? If so, I am envious.
Christmases and birthdays were almost never spent together. But presents always showed up; he never forgot. His marriage to his Chilean wife saw him relocate from Washington, D.C., and later Miami, to Santiago several years ago.
With his health declining, I wanted to be close to help. His decision to move to South America was not one I embraced comfortably. But it was his call.
During the few days I spent with him in Santiago, I didn’t hold back on anything I had ever wanted to say.
I told him how thankful I am to him for all the things he has made possible in my life (that brought an unmistakable grin from ear to ear).
But as I reflect back on the man who has been a continuous part of my life for over half a century, I realize that I have to let go of someone who has been much more than just Dad.
He has been my constant friend, my cohort, the person with whom I could always share stories of the exciting or mundane.
My childhood is full of great memories with my father that I get to keep for the rest of my days.
From spending time on the Texas coast, to going to church in my hometown of San Antonio, to all the times he took me to Jim’s restaurant to get my favorite hamburger, the number 6 (hickory sauce with onions).
There were countless tennis matches we played (including during a vacation to Bermuda), and trips to the bowling alley on San Antonio’s Austin Highway.
Like his son, my father was a prolific writer. As a child, he would tell me dragon stories before bed. These were stories he always built around me and my childhood cat, Smudge.
In the stories, a young boy named David and his cat, Smudge, made friends with powerful but friendly dragons who never had contact with any other humans, but helped fight evil or alleviate problems for mankind’s benefit. Not a story went by without dragons shooting out fire and smoke in a blast always titled, “WHOOSH!”
Nearly every story drew wisdom and lessons learned from a much older, wiser fire breathing Grandfather Dragon who, despite his advancing age, was all knowing and all powerful.
During the last several years, Colleen and I convinced Dad to write a few more dragon stories and send them to us. Whenever a new story arrived via e-mail, reading it—devouring it, really—was a treat for both of us.
Dad played a huge role in my start in the broadcasting business, helping me get hired for my first real summer job as a 14-year-old disc jockey on radio station KVOP in Plainview, the small Texas panhandle town where he grew up.
Dad arranged for me to live with his mother that summer in the same house where he grew up. Still too young to drive, I rode my bicycle to work. But that was okay: I making $1.35 an hour and was a DJ on the radio. I was on cloud nine. It didn’t get any better than that.
Dad stood by me when I made all my life’s decisions, be they good ones or poor.
Yet, despite having plenty of opportunities to do so, I cannot ever recall one time when he was critical of me for something I had done.
I can’t count the number of times he would tell me how proud of me he was for various accomplishments.
If I shared the news of a previous Client contacting us in our real estate business to help them with another sale, he would typically respond by saying something like, “It’s obvious that people in Birmingham know what a good job the two of you do.”
Last summer, I received what I suspected then would be a fabulous gift.
My father came to the states and stayed with us in Birmingham for almost three weeks. It was a wonderful visit. This was the longest time we had spent together in over 30 years.
He needed time to unwind, and that’s exactly what he did. More than anything, he loved sitting in our home’s screened porch, enjoying the view of nature, and petting Fisbo, our six pound poodle, who was thrilled that ‘Grandpa’ was visiting, since that meant another available lap to occupy for getting attention.
Dad told Colleen and me he felt ten years younger as a result of his stay.
We urged him to stay longer (the Father motel is always open, I assured him), but he said he had to go back to Chile to tend to matters there. With his difficulty walking, I cringed at the thought of him having to endure twelve hours of flying, making connections, clearing customs and waiting in lines.
He said he would be back, but seeing him struggle more and more to even walk, I wondered whether his stay with us then would be his last.
As my father’s years advanced, his stay in Chile seemed to come at more and more of a price. He told me of trying to join churches there, but never feeling welcome as a foreigner in such a vastly different culture.
In many ways, I sensed he felt lonely.
I tried to keep in regular contact. Discussions often focused on how much fun it would be to see him again. “I’m sure looking forward to getting back and seeing you two,” he would say.
While staying with us, he began attending services at The Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, a small church only a few blocks from our home. The Rev. Lee Lowery, a friendly and welcoming pastor there, helped give my Dad the spiritual nourishment he had been unable to find elsewhere. It gave me peace to know he had found this respite of compassion.
Knowing that his remaining days left are likely few, I declared June 8th as Father’s Day in Chile. I opened the card I had written and read it aloud to him at his bedside:
You will always be my father, and I will always be grateful
for what you have made possible in my life.
Thank you for being my constant friend and guide.
As I write this, how much more time remains—be it days, weeks or longer—is not for me to know.
I owe him so much. I knew I could never forgive myself if I didn’t try to see him one last time.
“You better get here as soon as you can,” family members said.
As our American Airlines Boeing 767 shot across the equator at 500 miles an hour in the middle of the night last week, I prayed he would hold on for me to get there.
I kissed his forehead.
I will never forget you, I told him.
And in a turnaround from what I’ve heard all my life from him, I told him how proud I am of him.
I cannot begin to describe how much I will miss him.
While sitting by his bed, watching his body struggle with every breath and holding his hand and stroking his forehead, I heard an unmistakable, clear-as-day sound I absolutely did not expect.
If you need to slip away, that’s okay, Dad.
I love you, Dad.