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My Father’s Final Lesson

Before my father died, I recorded his life story. I couldn't bring myself to listen to it until more than a year later. When I did, I finally found what I'd been missing.

If you’re going fast enough, driving across the Llano Estacado at night feels like free-falling into an endless abyss. That, at least, is how it felt to me as I pressed on the gas and left the neon glow of Winters, Texas in my rearview. The lack of sleep didn’t help, nor did the fact that I had spent the past 20 days traveling alone. By the time I was en route back to Austin, I had added more than 3,000 miles to my odometer. It was my first solo adventure. Then again, everything felt like a first in the months that followed my father’s death.

While memorable, my journey still felt incomplete. I still hadn’t done the one thing I set out to do. Now, three hours away from home, I knew it was time. I picked through the detritus and dirty clothes in my car and found my phone. My hand quivered as I thumbed across the screen to“Voice Memos.” I rolled my window up, sealing myself in silence, and pressed play. It was December 15th, 2016, exactly 390 days since my dad passed away. His voice was pure warmth.

“Okay, Davey,” I hear him say, “You ready to start?”  

***

A month before, I’d quit my job. I had no prospects, nor any idea of what was to come next. The one year anniversary of my father’s death was fast approaching and I needed to do something to grapple with it. So, two days after Thanksgiving, I jumped in my car. I didn’t know where exactly I was going; all I knew was I was heading West in search of some trace of my father.

I stuffed a couple crucial things into my bag, including a couple pictures of my dad, several books he’d written, and a journal. The books, all bearing handwritten inscriptions from him and whose texts I’d looked over years before, were especially precious. As a longtime writer, historian, and college professor, he had conducted countless interviews with grizzled ranchers, old Texas lawmen, descendants of historic cowpokes, powerful statesman. He spent his life listening.

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He also wrote the history of more than 50 Texas counties for The Handbook of Texas, authored several other books, and taught college courses about World World II and the Vietnam War. He may not have been a native of the Lone Star State, but he had an especially keen interest in its history and the people who shaped it. That first day of the drive, I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the sunset over the West Texas plains, the sound of his cowboy boots clanging along in my head. This trip, I thought, would be the adult father-son adventure we never got to take together — and hopefully return me home with a heightened understanding of my life and my dad’s place in it.

This trip, I thought, would be the adult father-son adventure we never got to take together — and hopefully return me home with a heightened understanding of my life and my dad’s place in it.

I drove nearly nine hours and more than 500 miles that first day before finally stopping in Roswell, New Mexico. I checked into my room and showered, then flopped onto the bed and cracked the first of my dad’s books: Farmers, Ranchers, The Land And The Falls: A History of the Pedernales Fall Area, 1850-1970. Inside of it was a short note dad had written to my grandfather, Jack “Red” Leffler. It had originally been his copy.

“For my Dad, who trusted me with his name, hoping I would use it well.

Much love,

John”

I immediately burst into tears, unable to even reach the book’s foreword. This wasn’t how my life was supposed to go. The youngest of four sons, I had an amazing childhood. We weren’t rich and fought as often as any family with four boys would have, but I grew up in a stable household grounded in love and honesty.

All considered, things were great. Then came New Year’s Day two years ago. My dad gathered us and told my mom, my brothers, and I that doctors had found a massive tumor in his neck. Remaining calm, he admitted he’d already known for nearly two weeks but decided to wait because he didn’t want to spoil the holidays. I remember awkwardly looking around for some type of indicator of how to react, but nobody knew what to say, let alone what to do.

“Guys, it’s going to be completely fine. I promise. Really, it’s no big deal,” my dad told us. I’d wanted so badly to believe him.

***

After the first rough night in New Mexico, the open road began to lift my mood. I spent the next two weeks reflecting on the two grief-filled years in ways I never had before. The freedom and solitude played a huge part, but it was the nature I encountered that truly helped me open up and let go.

In half a month, I visited several of the top National Parks in the country, including the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Utah’s Arches, Zion, and Bryce Canyon. Each presented its own unique display of snow-capped red rocks, majestic peaks, and otherworldly formations. Hiking there was lonely, but with each trail I climbed and peak I summited, I felt more in-tune with my father — an avid outdoorsman and Boy Scout in his early days — and the rugged world he’d captured in his writings and research. This ease translated into confidence and vulnerability, allowing me to read through his books and look over his pictures each night without shedding a tear. It was easily the longest I’d gone without crying myself to sleep since he’d died.

Before I knew it, November had bled into mid-December and it was time for me to head home.  I was nearly 15 hours into my 17-hour drive home to Austin when I finally began to listen to my father and I’s conversation. I’d been terrified of listening to this recording ever since Dad had passed away, afraid of opening the wound I’d worked so hard to hide from the world. The time had come to change that.

***

“Why don’t you start by telling me your name and birthday,” I hear myself ask on the recording. My voice sounds haggard but hopeful. I can still remember how much I needed that conversation to work out. I just wanted to have something to look back on, a memento to make sure he never became just a name or face to my future children.

“Alrighty. Name: John J. Leff-lah. Date of birth: November 2, 1953.”

I bite my lip, picturing my dad as he was that day. It was November 10, 2015: eight days after his 62nd birthday and 10 days before he died. He was wearing a loose-fitting button down and blue jeans, his shaggy, thinning brown hair tousled on his head. Slightly slumped in his favorite chair in the living room of my childhood home, he looked frail but resilient. He was in hospice care at that point and I was grappling for a piece of him, however small, to hold onto as he slipped away. In hindsight, I should have known how close we were to the end, how truly numbered our days together were. But it was hard to keep track of time during those final few months. And it was even harder to tell what was real and what wasn’t.

I shuddered involuntarily as the first few minutes played, hitting the pause button to momentarily escape his brittle, exhausted voice. I was already teary-eyed, but not because of what my dad was saying. It was how he was saying it. As he struggled to remember and articulate simple details of his early life, I have to remind myself this isn’t really him. He was in agonizing pain, riddled with cancer from his neck and collarbone to his hip and elbow. The nurse, towards the end, recommended that we up his medication dosage, leaving him in a heavy trance. Medically speaking, he was as “comfortable as possible.” There are few hollower euphemisms in the world.

This wasn’t how our conversations used to be. Dad was always an open book as a father and friend and, while we hadn’t sat down to swap stories in this manner before his health deteriorated, he loved telling us about his early adventures. A harrowing but hilarious encounter with a bear while illegally camping in Yosemite National Park; bribing a Mexican police officer with cigarettes in the 1970s while his Spanish-deficient best friend begged not to be taken to jail; gleefully reminding us about the fact that my Brooklyn-born mom  — who he’d met in Portland, Oregon after he volunteered to teach her how to drive — still drives with two feet. His laugh was long, loud, and infectious. Nobody liked their own jokes or anecdotes more.

Why hadn’t I ever asked my father about this before? Why had I waited until he was on his deathbed to ask about his life rather than always making it about my own?

Five minutes into the recording, I smile as dad responds to my questions and describes his first memories as an army brat born on a base outside of Sendai, Japan. As the eldest child of an ambitious military man in the dawn of the Cold War, he moved all over as a kid. No place was permanent and nothing came before the army. Over the first 10 years of his life, he lived in North Carolina (Fort Bragg), along the Georgia-Alabama border (Fort Benning) and finally, in Mainz, Germany. Mainz played host to some of his most formative memories, including his first game of catch with his father and seeing the Berlin wall during a family trip. Relations with the locals were shaky there, though: the teeming animosity between neighboring German children and their adolescent occupiers boiled over at times, leading to yelling matches and scrums. Recalling this, he laughs weakly. He didn’t blame the neighborhood kids for hating the Americans, even the young ones like him. They had lost their homes, seen precious centuries-old architecture blasted into pieces, and were surrounded by foreign invaders. His compassion was one of his best traits.

As dad recounted the arrival of his oldest sister, Janet — the first of five younger siblings — guilt began to creep into my mind. Why hadn’t I ever asked him about this before? Why had I waited until he was on his deathbed to ask about his life rather than always making it about my own?

Before long, all the memories I’d tried to forget came screaming out of the corner in which they ’d been placed. I remember sobbing in my car senior year of college, trying to explain to my best friend what it’s like taking your dad to chemotherapy. Pushing dad’s wheelchair around the house he’d practically built with his bare hands; arguing with my brothers over the details of our father’s memorial in the neighborhood park in which we’d grown up playing. Looking into the once-vibrant eyes of the man who raised me and seeing nothing but exhaustion, pain, and inevitability. Realizing my kids will never meet him. Wishing I could die. I let it all crash on top of me, a wave of nausea and twisted relief.

***

The road blurred, but I pressed on. I wiped my damp face on my shirt and then I suddenly heard on the recording my mom enter the living room. My dad’s mood immediately perked up upon her arrival, his desire for her companionship especially strong in those final days. They were from different worlds — dad the eldest of six children with deep American roots and the son of a prominent army officer; mom the youngest of two daughters and the child of a New York City postman whose parents were Eastern European immigrants. That didn’t matter. They were both intelligent, passionate people who, while not overly gregarious, made friends everywhere they went. I glanced up at the dashboard after hearing mom leave the room, smiling at how happy they were together.

At this point, it’s 12:00 a.m. on the dot. I thought back to all the little moments that defined his final two years with us. Things were dark then (I can’t count how many times I broke into hot, angry tears while driving into work or leaving my parents’ house) but they brought our family closer together than ever before. To this day, our joint efforts to combat the cancer, the endless stream of hospital visits, and the growing pile of patient gowns that slowly engulfed my father was as impressive an act of unity and resilience as I’ve ever seen.

To this day, our joint efforts to combat the cancer, the endless stream of hospital visits, and the growing pile of patient gowns that slowly engulfed my father was as impressive an act of unity and resilience as I’ve ever seen.

The seconds tick away, leaving only a few minutes left of our talk. Just as I’m beginning to wonder if there’s anything left to be gleaned, dad blindsides me with this:

“… I may have never become a historian if it weren’t for..”

His voice became muffled for a moment, drowning out the end of that loaded sentence. I fumbled for my phone, scrambling to rewind the tape. History had always been my dad’s passion, but I’d never thought to ask why. I scrolled back 45 seconds and turned the volume all the way up. He’s in the middle of describing what it was like driving around Germany as a child less than two decades removed from World War II. The place was decimated.

“In Mainz and a lot of small towns, they had cathedrals that were a thousand years old — and they got bombed to the ground. Can you imagine that: being in a town that old, with that kind of tradition and that kind of pride, and having it burned to the ground?” he remarks.

“N-no, god I can’t even begin to,” I hear my voice croak.

“That’s what really sticks out in mind, these bombings,” he continues, sounding clearer now than at any point in our conversation. “In fact, I may have never become a historian if it weren’t for those memories.”

He continued on, explaining how that drive had sparked the early interest in history that pushed him to get his master’s, his doctorate, and professorships at multiple universities over the final two and a half decades of his life. That experience inspired little 8-year-old John to become the man I grew up idolizing.

“Dad, that’s incredible. I had no idea that’s where it all came from,” I managed to say, as stunned then as I am now.

“Well, there you go,” he said casually before reciting one of his favorite phrases. “Better than a kick in the butt with a frozen boot.”

And there it was. Dad’s latest lesson to me, punctuated with one of his trademark sayings. I took my foot off the gas and pulled over to the shoulder, letting the car slow to a crawl. No one’s around for miles anyway, I think to myself, struggling to compute what I’d just heard: my father describing, in detail, the exact moment that birthed his greatest obsession in life.

The recording hits 0:00.

***

Less than a week after we spoke, my dad’s eyes went empty and he fell into a trance from which he’d never emerge. After four days of “actively dying,” as the nurses called it, he passed away at 3:15 a.m. on November 20th, 2015 — 15 minutes after I’d left his side to crawl into bed. I barely missed him.

For a long time, I believed I had failed my father. I looked back on stupid arguments and times I’d acted selfishly during his illness. But beyond that, I thought I hadn’t properly preserved his memory, character, and, really, his essence. The guy was a historian, after all; he deserved to be remembered for the life he lived, not the way he died. I couldn’t find a way to forgive myself for it.

My dad spent his entire life talking with others about their side of things. But in his final act, he let me step into his shoes and ask the questions.

But as I sat in my car at 12:07 a.m. in the middle of West Texas, surrounded by wilderness and darkness, I realized I’d had it wrong. I’ll never get another chance to speak with my dad, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still guide me through nights like this when I’m alone or hollow. More so, he isn’t going to disappear from my life or lose his ability to teach and inspire — he’s just going to do it through different mediums, like this recording, his writings, his stories, and, especially, his sons.

My mom loves to talk about the different things that made dad such a unique person. It used to make me sad, just the latest reminder of his absence, but that’s now changed. He was an incredible husband, a fiery teacher, an eternal optimist, a staple at his kids’ seemingly endless sports events, a man who raised us to never look down on anybody. Instead of pitfalls, he saw potential. Instead of problems, he saw situations to make light of and tales to later tell. To him, every conversation, every interview, every little exchange was a chance to learn from those around him. His appetite for knowledge and desire to connect with others fueled his every move. The world doesn’t forget those kinds of characters.

Approaching headlights in my rearview signaled it was time to continue home. I had another two and a half hours to go and was out of coffee. I closed my eyes and exhaled slowly, tossing my phone aside before cracking the window again and hitting the accelerator. As the road whizzed by, something beautiful dawned on me: my dad spent his entire life talking with others about their side of things. But in his final act, he let me step into his shoes and ask the questions. He taught me the importance of listening, of empathy. And he reminded me to never take a chance to learn from someone for granted. Most importantly, he got to tell his story — if only for a few minutes.