Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A favorite picture on Father's Day

A shorter version of this column appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald and Valley Times just after Father's Day in June 2009.

FOR FATHER'S DAY, I pulled out a favorite black-and-white photograph of my dad giving me a haircut when I was 6 years old. I was curious what I might see through the eyes of a son who recently said goodbye to his father forever.

In the picture, taken by
my mom in 1962, I'm looking straight into the lens as my dad, Bill, stands behind me, guiding electric clippers above my right ear.

Old photos are like magic, a way to keep the past present. So peering at the picture, I searched for some kind of message about my father.

And, in fact, I did discover something. But first let me tell you about my dad.

Born in 1930, he spent his early years in Buffalo, New York, where his father worked in a steel mill. His mother died when he was 3, though he didn't find this out until he was 12 or 13 when his father divorced a woman who my dad thought all those years was his mother.


Not long after my grandfather and his two sons moved to Venice, Calif., my dad, then 15, met a pretty 12-year-old at school named Janet. In time they fell in love and were married the night she graduated from high school.


Billy and his twin brother Bobby enlisted in the Air Force. While my uncle stayed on in the service, my dad became the first in our family to go to college, earning a master's degree. He became an English and history teacher and later a guidance counselor at a community college.

Fast forward through raising three children, touching the lives of thousands of students, seeing the birth of grandchildren and enjoying retirement.

And then one day he didn't feel quite right, and before we knew it, despite intervention and surgery, melanoma reached its fingers deep into my father's body.

On his final day, he waited for me to drive home to Los Gatos. I'd gotten a call that morning from my mom, her voice upbeat, leaving a message on my cell, saying something I don't remember now about my Dad, but something that let me know I needed to come home. This is a gift my parents have, an ability see and express the positive in all things. And given my dad's rough upbringing, it's amazing he didn't view life from a perspective of at least some bitterness.

My brother and sister were already home with our mom when I arrived. My dad's eldest granddaughter was also there, and in fact just a few days earlier all of his grandchilden had come from many miles to gather for a birthday party and to say what we silently knew were final goodbyes. On that day he lay on a hospital bed in my parent's bedroom. He perked up once or twice and smiled a little, and said a few words. But only a faint few.

Now my dad's breathing was labored. His eyes were half-closed, his jaw relaxed. He wasn't asleep, but he wasn't awake.

I sat alone beside his bed and thanked him for being a great dad and for all he'd done for us. And I said to him what he'd said to me so often over the years: "I love you."

Then I stepped away for just a moment, and alone in his room, in a move that would have impressed Houdini, he escaped the vicious grip of cancer.

What I discovered in the photo is the magic that comes from saying what needs to be said to those we love. And so instead of a black and white grief, I experienced peace. Instead of regret, I found strength.

Sure, I'm sad my dad is gone. I miss him. I wish I could call him up right now and say Happy Father's Day. I know he'd respond with a light laugh and a good word.

Yet even now I can hear his voice, and as the photo reveals, he's standing behind me, helping me to look and be my best.



Jim Ott said...

I received several email responses to this column. Many readers reported feeling a connection to the story, either through the reference to cancer or losing a parent.

My mother sent along both a touching and amusing response, which I share here:

"Jim, I just read your column. I have tears in my eyes but not from sadness. Dad was so proud of you, Bill and Laurie. He did love you and why I am crying is the fact that you knew that. And he knew you loved him. You are so right about how important it is to say what needs to be said to the ones you love while they are alive.

I too feel Dad's presence every day. There are so many things each day in almost everything I do that remind me of him. Starting in the morning when I make the bed--something we always did together--I put the opening of each pillow case to the outside of the bed. He always wanted them that way and now I do that and say 'just for you Bill.'

We laughed and teased each other about those kinds of things.

And the gravel driveway is always calling me to come out and rake it smooth like he did. I never knew he was going to wash the windows of the house until I saw his smiling face looking in at me. He just went quietly around doing the many things he always did.

I will miss him the rest of my life but the memories of his goodness, his strength and his love are so strong and lift me up each day."

My mom then replied to an email my brother (also named Bill) sent about the patched jeans I'm wearing in the photo. She wrote:

"Hi Bill, you are right about the jeans Jim is wearing. He would from the time he was a small boy in Hanford until we moved to Los Gatos just open a drawer--any drawer--and pick out a pair of jeans. If they happened to be yours, he would roll them up to get the right length.

You Bill, were very fussy about your clothes; you liked to look neat. You always kept your shirt tucked in and your socks pulled up. Jim never seemed to think about what he was going to wear. That is unless it was a costume: he spent days and weeks working on his costumes for Halloween or a movie he was making.

Hanford was so hot in the summers from May through October that long jeans were never worn. Each year I hoped the jeans would last until school was out. Then I would make them into 'cut offs.' Usually by the end of spring, knees were beginning to wear thin and I would patch them.

One time Jim's jeans got a hole before I had a chance to add the patch and I needed to patch them on the outside of the jeans, [something Billy would not allow.] I asked Jim if he would mind wearing a patch on his jeans for a few weeks. He looked at me for a few minutes and when he figured out what I meant he said, 'Well of course I will wear them. Why wouldn't I wear them? Who would care about something like that?'

I'm smiling as I remember.

Love, Mom"

she said...

divine inspiration! this picture, this post

what beautiful memories ren man. your dad a rare & wonderful person, husband, father, teacher..

wonderful to see families getting it write..

supporting, loving one another through the journey

saying goodbye with love.

can't count the amount of people i've talked to over the years who ache with regret

who did not express "i love you's" in words, deeds

before death robbed them of their chance(s)

but i read such love here, shared by your entire family; on time, in time

peace & great memories, heavenly rewards

"to great dads & happy father days!" love, ~s.

Will and Julia's Mommy said...

Thank you for sharing this story. I remember hearing that you lost your father earlier last year. I am sorry for your loss and also glad you have such fond memories. Always hold tight to those!