Four and a half years ago, my dad drowned in a boating accident. His untimely death was sudden and very hard to process, as most sudden deaths are. Years later, I still don’t believe that it actually happened. Today would have been his 63rd birthday and even though we had a less than desirable relationship, it was maturing and getting better in the last couple years that preceded his passing.
When death comes suddenly, we start to ask ourselves a plethora of questions.
What do I wish I had done differently?
Why didn’t I apologize for that remark I made that day?
Why didn’t we work harder, faster, to improve our relationship and our father-son bond?
What would I say if I had one more chance?
Why was our relationship so difficult for so long?
On July 31, 2008, there was a group birthday celebration for my step-brother and me at my dad’s house. It was supposed to be a joyous event. My sister, Genevieve, was in town and the whole bunch was getting together to celebrate a couple birthdays and to enjoy being together. During the party, my dad started acting weirdly. He was going off on tangents that he had done from time to time, but he was just acting…odd. It was like he just wasn’t quite right in the head, you know?
The evening was fun, amidst the oddities and the week progressed. That was a Thursday. The following Monday, I was driving to a meeting and I was going over my lecture in my head. Dad called and I saw that he was calling, I thought, “I can’t talk to you right now, I’ll call you back.” He called again a minute later. Again, now slightly aggravated, I didn’t answer. He was self-employed and sometimes he thought that because he wasn’t busy, that meant that everyone else must not be busy either. He left me a message and his message is one that will haunt me for the rest of my life.
“Johnny, this is your dad…I want to talk to you about something…I gave you money for your birthday…I would think you could call me back…”
Upon listening to that message, I copped a bit of a ‘tude’ because I felt like he was holding my return phone call for ransom for giving me birthday money; as if he wasn’t reason enough to return the call or that I might actually be in the middle of something. I didn’t call him back that day. I was going to wait and call him back when I was good and ready.
I forgot to call him back.
On August 17, 2008 as Tropical Storm Faye was approaching West Palm Beach, my dad thought it would be a great idea to captain his boat, alone, from the Old Key Lime House in Lantana, FL out in the open waters of the Atlantic in dangerous conditions to return his boat back to the dock in North Palm Beach. He made it as far north as The Breakers Hotel and something happened, he ended up overboard and his body washed ashore within a few hours after the accident. Palm Beach Police recovered his body and positively identified it as Jack Potrekus.
I wanted to see his body. I needed closure. I needed to be certain they hadn’t mistaken someone else for my dad. The crematorium worked with the medical examiner and got his body ready for viewing, post-autopsy. I rang the bell on the door of the funeral home/crematorium and a lady came to the door.
“Hello, I’m here to see…” and before I could continue, she interrupted me and said, “You look just like him.” I was numb. I’d been told my entire life that I looked just like my dad. She showed me where to go and said to take as much time as I needed.
There was a body in a box, front and center in a room full of silk floral arrangements and numerous folding chairs. It was as if there was to be a service or memorial; neither ever happened. As soon as I entered the room, I saw a prominently indicative feature of my dad that confirmed his identity from 50 feet away; I’d recognize that forehead anywhere. I approached his body after days of various people preparing me for what I might see since it was post-autopsy and it didn’t look like him. The forehead, no doubt; the rest of his face and chest..not really. I understand why it didn’t look right, but it made me doubt.
Maybe it was because I didn’t want to admit it. Maybe it was because I’d hoped he faked his death to escape the living hell he’d gotten himself involved in. Did he commit suicide? Was it an accident? We’ll never know.
My dad lived fast and furious. He sped when he drove, he never wore his seatbelt and he constantly did things that endangered his life. He made it to 58 before his need for speed stopped him dead in his tracks. One could read this and think that he died because he was reckless. Others may read this and think that he LIVED his life to the fullest. He certainly got every drop out of his life that he could in the time he was on this earth.
Today would have been his 63rd birthday and there would have definitely been a phone call of warm, loving wishes. I deal with the grief of his passing here and there; it comes and goes, more than four years later. What absolutely destroys me is the curiosity of what he was going to tell me. Was it the missing piece of the puzzle that would have given us all so much insight to what transpired? Was he planning to do something crazy and needed a confidant? I’ll never know.
I’ve learned to answer my phone whenever I can, no matter what. His love in life besides his family was his boat. He bugged me relentlessly to go out on the boat with him and my stepmom and I absolutely refused. Honestly, I didn’t want to be trapped on a boat with the two of them until they decided to come back in. On the other hand, I denied my father the potential combination of his two favorite things – boating and family. Everyone else in the family went many times – everyone but me. I put my own desires ahead of his all the time and I believe that because of my selfishness, I was taught a very huge lesson.
So how do we deal with grief? One day at a time? One hour at a time? As it comes? I think it varies for everyone but I would say that you need to deal with everything in your own way, whatever that is. Be honest, be true to yourself and do it the most natural way you know how. The one thing you should never do; bury it deep down. It will come out eventually and if you keep it buried deep within you, it ends up taking up way too much space – so much that it envelopes and becomes you. Is that who you want to be? Get it out, let it run its course and proceed with your life until it comes again. It gets to be a little less with every occurrence, but it’s a process like anything else.
Happy Birthday, Dad. You are missed by many, terribly.
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