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Death of a Stepfather: A Eulogy

Dennis Lee Hughes, 64, passed away from a heart attack July 9th, 2008.  He didn’t die peacefully in his sleep.  He died face down in the dirt.   He was digging a hole in the backyard, working hard on a home remodeling project in 95 degree heat. Stupid son-of-a-bitch.

My mother dragged Dennis into my life.  I was gangly twelve year old boy completely under construction.  By that time he had lived an entire life.  He’d served six years in the US Navy as a missile tech on a nuclear sub.   He’d been married and then divorced with three kids.  He’d worked as a TV repair man, an auto mechanic, an electrician in a coal burning power plant and finally a computer hardware tech. 

I instantly liked him.  He had a goofy smile, broad shoulders, and an aura of confidence and competence. He also had a blue Datsun 280Z widely worshiped at the time as the pinnacle of cool.   It had been four years since my father died and I was filled with an aching and optimism for a new father figure.  I even changed my little league football jersey scrawling “Hughes” on the back with black marker.  As the oldest of all kids it was my opportunity and Brady Bunch nirvana to be the ringleader and crime lord of the combined gangs of Jon, Jeff, and James and Dennis Jr., David and Dyan.

Unfortunately optimism and opportunity don’t always live up to expectation.   Dennis never attended a single football game.  To make matters worse, after my father passed, I was used to running the show and being the “man” of the family.  When Dennis married my mother that changed.  I did not accept the demotion.  If there were two people on this planet with more opposite communication styles than Dennis and I, I haven’t met them.  I was an artistic, dramatic and angry kid.  Dennis was mechanical, practical and literal.  We did not understand each other. 

One thing was clear to Dennis; I was an unruly plebe in great need of some Navy discipline.  He made it his mission to institute a rigorous course.  I became a one kid workforce.  I was the house painter, hole digger, drywall sander, grounds keeper, flashlight holder, tool caddy, and clean up crew.  Dennis had a right way-wrong way approach for every step of every process in every procedure and his attention to detail bordered on obsessive. 

Here are some colorful examples; once after spending the day painting sections of the house a lovely lime green, I spent the night scrubbing microscopic flecks of paint off of the cement with a wire brush until he was satisfied.  There were the agonizing impatient hours with him building a Z80 kit computer. I had to rewiring and resoldering every connection three times before it was done correctly.   Before he let me touch the DEC Rainbow computer he brought home from work, he insisted I read every word in every manual about the computer and its’ extensive suite of software.  But the absolute topper was the intolerable innumerable and miserable hours working in snow and then summer heat on the undriveable pile of junk 64 Ford Falcon Sprint he bought as for five-hundred bucks as a father-son “project.”  

Despite years of this discipline program I never gave in and neither did he.  We clashed and clashed and clashed.  The more I rebelled the worse the confrontations and punishments became.  Finally, I was a senior in high-school.  The tensions built up over the years verged on cataclysmic.  Now I was now 6’7” 205 pounds and I figured I was finally big enough to take him.   I had it all planned out in my head, a final mythological confrontation.  I would best him in a fist-fight and claim my independence.  I summoned my courage.  All the frustrations and anger gathered around me like hurricane spinning up to category five. 

Then it happened.  Dennis had his first heart attack.  Oddly enough he was 41 the same age that I am now.   He was in the hospital and my mother took me to see him.   I remember Dennis slumped back in the bed looking gaunt, frail and for the first time in my experience, afraid.  I stood behind my mother and as far away from him as I could.  I was angry, frustrated and frightened.  I didn’t know what to feel.  He called me close to him and took my hand.  He looked deep into my eyes and said, “I want you to know that I love you.”  I knew with a burning certainty in my heart that it was true.  Those simple words made a tiny pinprick in that giant balloon of frustration.  The balloon didn’t pop, but the anger started to leak slowly from me.   It was at that moment he became not Dennis, but my father, my Dad.

A few months later I moved out the house and went to college.  I know that Jeff, James and Jason each in turn experienced their own version of the discipline program as they came of age.  Dennis Jr., David, and Dyan received a taste of this as well when they were with us on visitation weekends. 

With time and distance Dad and I were able to establish a new mutual respect.  I was rewarded and with tales of his childhood and military service.  I discovered that he was awarded the coveted “Submarine Warfare Insignia” from his time in the Navy.  I saw his delight in taking on new projects and being the neighborhood handyman.  He enjoyed listening to jazz music, tinkering with new gadgets, and eating peach pie.  He was always there for me at a moments notice to repair my car, TV, vacuum cleaner, microwave, lawnmower, cracked plaster and leaky plumbing.  Once when I was so poor that my apartment didn’t have a closet he even engineered a crazy three tiered PVC pipe clothing rack.  

As an adult I took responsibility for improving our relationship.  I learned to communicate with him in his language rather than expecting him to learn mine.  I also learned what was probably obvious to everyone, but so invisible to me.  Every repair, building project, and impossible technical rescue translated directly as “I love you.”  Now when I look back at what happened when I was growing up I understand the events from a different perspective.  

The time spent scrubbing the cement with a wire brush and redoing every step three times and this seemingly insane detail orientation translated into “when you love someone you don’t cut corners, you do the very best you can.”   It taught me that love can be shown in the details and not just the grand gestures. 

Building that Z80 computer and the time spent learning the DEC Rainbow computer taught me computer fluency and translated into actual employability and a now thriving career.  

How about the innumerable hours working on the pile of junk 64 Ford Falcon, and then the 76 Ford Granada and finally the 82 K-Car station wagon?  Well that translated into…buy a Toyota.

Dad has been in my life now 30 years.      He spent his short retirement remodeling the house in order to create an apartment for Grandma Betty and then working on expansion of the second floor for my mother.  I know that he was happier than I had ever seen him.  He spent endless hours planning every detail, doing much of the work himself, and making sure the project was done “the right way.”   That’s why he was digging holes in the backyard in 95 degree heat.  Stupid son-of-a bitch.  It was his final giant way of saying, “I Love You.”  No translation needed.

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