September 10th is about my dad

I was sick a lot as a kid.  As a toddler I had an asthmatic condition that caused all kinds of problems.  Somehow I managed to get perfect attendance in kindergarten before resuming a pattern of illnesses on my way to chronic adult sinus issues. 

When you’re an adult you learn to play hurt, suck it up, and do what needs to be done.  As a middle-child in a family with four kids and usually a few other relatives my parents had taken responsibility for, it didn’t take long to learn that illness also meant opportunity.  It was a rare time when I had full attention, presuming a sister, cousin, or uncle wasn’t also sick.

I recall one time getting sick at school and Mom for some reason was out of pocket.  My dad had to be called at his office in downtown Atlanta to come pick me up.  He arrived about an hour later to get me from the elementary school clinic/office.  He sized me up, and realizing he wasn’t going to drive back downtown after taking me home, asked if I felt like getting lunch.

Most people get soup when they’re sick.  That day I got Melear’s Barbecue and Brunswick stew.  I may have requested seconds.  Dad could have been upset that I wasn’t apparently as sick as the school thought, but I had gotten him out of the office on an early spring day.  So instead, we spent the afternoon fishing.

Several years later I really got sick.  If I recall correctly I had both pneumonia and strep throat.  I was miserable.  With all the early teen melodrama I could muster I was sure I was dying.  My mom, a registered nurse, got concerned when I didn’t want to eat.  She had by now long since documented and chronicled some of my more unusual requests when ill.  She and dad continued to check, almost pleading, with what I wanted to eat.  I could sense the concern, even if at the time I couldn’t quite place it.

Eventually, I fixed on what I wanted.  And, true to my nature, I was unusually specific.

I wanted ice cream.  But, not just any ice cream.  I wanted peach ice cream.  And it needed to be Breyers brand. 

For the younger kids today who never understood the struggle of going two towns over to find a restaurant and didn’t live through 1970’s inflation when grocery stores had “generic” food that literally was white packaging with black letters that said things like “cola” or “cereal”, there was a time when getting a brand name was a rare luxury.  Haagen Daas was still foreign.  Ben maybe hadn’t met Jerry.  Breyers was the gold standard, saved only for special occasions.

After I articulated my request, Dad left to go to the store.  We lived “out in the country”, and the nearest stores were in our choice of towns about 8 miles away in three different directions.  I wasn’t expecting him back quick, but since I was dying, I began to look forward to my last meal. 

And I waited.  And waited.  Mom continued to check in on me.  I would rally a bit when the door opened for her to come in and take my temperature or try to get me to drink more fluids with some meds.  I would quickly crash back just as quickly when I realized my ice cream was still not there, and again begin to await the inevitable visit with death.

Several times I heard the phone ring.  It was dad.  More than once.  Again, this was in a time when cell phones didn’t exist, and Dad would have either been on a pay phone or having borrowed a store phone while he was out. 

Mom’s check ins became filled with excuses.  She was clearly trying to buy time. 

I, of course, began to get a bit perturbed.  Why was dad out running errands when his only son was clearly on his death bed, only hanging on for one last bowl of ice cream?  It made no sense.

Even when dad finally got home, Mom’s first few visits back into my room did not involve anyone bringing me ice cream.  It was complete madness.  I mean, I was likely taking my very last breaths, all I wanted was a bowl of ice cream, and somehow there were still other priorities beyond whatever extra errands delayed a simple grocery run. 

Eventually my ice cream appeared.  I took a few bites and….it wasn’t what I expected.  Then I knew I was sick.  My taste buds were failing me.  I remember questioning if it was Breyers.  I was assured it was.  There was ice cream.  There were peaches.  It just didn’t taste right.  Dad kept asking how it was. 

I didn’t want to scare him or mom any more than they already were, so I didn’t tell them then that it just wasn’t right.  There was almost no peach flavor at all.  My sense of taste was gone. The rest of me couldn’t be far behind.

Well…I got better over the next few days.  At some point Mom mentioned the ice cream and I let on that it just didn’t taste like I remembered it.  She chuckled a little bit and then let me in on what had actually transpired.  She wanted me to know, and I haven’t forgotten.

There was no Breyers Peach ice cream to be had in Fayetteville, neither at Big Star or at Food Giant.  Nor was there any at the Big Star in Fairburn.  I can’t recall which grocery stores didn’t have it in Riverdale either.  I don’t recall exactly how many towns dad went to before realizing that I had requested a seasonal flavor, out of season.

Dad, undeterred, was not going to tell me no.  Not when he didn’t have to, and not when the request was seemingly simple and something we could afford.  Instead, he improvised.  Breyers Vanilla and frozen peaches would have to fill the request.  It took a bit longer than expected for him to mince the frozen peaches and stir them into the vanilla, but he managed to get it done.  It was obvious after the fact, but not when I was asking for, and received, Breyers “Peach” Ice Cream.

September 10th is Dad’s birthday.  September 10th, 2001 was our first of his birthdays without him with us.  While many today are reflecting on the last day America maintained an innocence or normality before the September 11th attacks, that day was one where my family marked knowing we were missing a great man.   He was a protector and a provider.  He made every family member under his care feel safe.  On September 10th, 2001, we marked what we knew we had already lost.  It made the unspeakable horror of September 11th even worse. 

We gathered that evening as a family, still stunned from the days’ events.  Dad was a man of few words, and many of them often lacked tact or diplomatic skills.  What he offered in times like that was quiet strength that exuded everything would be ok, even if things weren’t going to be the same.  There have been many days I could have used his wisdom and reassurance since his death, but 9-11 continues to stand out.

Almost two decades later, September 10th is still Dad’s day.  I prefer memories of this day of the ones from the last millennium, when he was here to celebrate with us.  It was a time when we believed life was simpler, mostly because he was handling so much of the hard stuff.  Probably so much more than we ever knew about, and more consequential than chopping frozen peaches to mix into vanilla ice cream.  But on that one day, that was what mattered to him, because it was what mattered to me.

As such, tonight I had a fitting celebration in honor of a great man. 

Happy birthday Dad.

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