My dad, Douglas Wayne Easterling, was born on January 23, 1953, the youngest of four children and the third boy for Howard and Pearl Easterling of Glen Rose, Arkansas. He would have been 64 this month. I am writing this post strictly from my own recollection of events and stories I’ve been told. Because of this, everything contained in this post may not be entirely accurate. (Note: I have worked on this post on and off for the past four weeks in preparation for posting today because I knew it would be emotionally draining and would take some time to write.)
Dad died of brain cancer on July 13, 1985, at 32 years old. He was diagnosed with cancer when I was a baby and went into remission for a while after treatment. Then, when I was a young girl—about three—it came back with a vengeance and killed him. There is absolutely nothing nice I can write about cancer. There are reasons why bumper stickers exist that read “Cancer Sucks” and “F%&# Cancer.” It does not discriminate on who it hits. I had turned four about a month before he died, which is how old my daughter is now. I’ve always thought that his first remission experience was God’s way of letting me remember him, though I won’t understand in my lifetime why he had to die so young. I’ve lived longer than my dad did and this year, he will have been gone longer than he lived.
As a child, he was quiet—not the quietest of his siblings, but perhaps a bit shy. He was mechanically and musically gifted. He would get in trouble sometimes because he liked to take things apart to see how the items worked. Musically, he could play piano and guitar by ear. I think he could play other instruments too, but I am not sure how many. His guitar is one of my most prized possessions, and I so wish I would have inherited his musical gifts, but I only inherited his love for music.
In high school, he started dating my mother, who was a grade below him. I can imagine they were quite the popular couple. He was handsome, and she was (and still is) beautiful and was a cheerleader. He played his guitar and worked on cars, another of his loves. He was a bit rebellious and got in trouble drag-racing on Highway 67—the road that runs right in front of Glen Rose Schools and the house in which he lived. Apparently, my grandfather would take the wheels or spark plugs from Dad’s car as punishment after racing—maybe both, as I have heard both stories from relatives.
He liked science and astronomy but decided to go the blue-collar career path after high school rather than go to college like his father and brothers. I found a cheat sheet he made for a test tucked inside a senior memory book that he never filled out, so he wasn’t perfect. When I found it and showed it to my grandmother, she was in denial and swore that it must have been a study sheet because her Doug would never have cheated. What do you think? I love how it fits in my hand and follows the curves exactly.
He smoked cigarettes until I was born and worked in the steel industry. He wasn’t a large man; he was muscular and between 5’7″ and 5’8″ tall from what I’ve been told.
He and my mother were married in May 1974, three years after he had graduated from high school, two years after my mother had. He was 21; she was 20. By today’s standards, they were very young, but by the standards of the time, they were right on target. At first, they didn’t want children. I am not sure what made them change their minds, but for obvious reasons, I’m glad they did. Mom told me I was very much wanted and planned. I was born in June 1981.
I have a lot more appreciation now for the photos I have of my father and me when I was a baby and small child. I have exactly 11 photos, which I posted above, in my possession and they are so precious to me because they’re finite. The last photos I have of us were when he was sick. I can tell by the frailty captured in the photos. I don’t remember him being frail; I remember his presence and the marked absence of it after he was gone.
I only have a handful of memories involving him. I didn’t know that I should have tried to remember every possible moment.
- Eating a meal at my Meema’s house. Dad and I were sitting together at her low bar, and I wanted to get up and play, but I hadn’t finished my food. Dad told me that I had to finish eating before I could play and I argued with him, saying that my stomach didn’t hurt, so I wasn’t hungry anymore. He told me that his stomach didn’t hurt anymore either, but we both had to eat to stay strong.
- I remember the feeling of lying beside him on the couch so he could read to me. I don’t remember which books, so I think this memory is a compilation of several memories. Having the picture to solidify it helps. Mom tells me I was a daddy’s girl whenever he was around.
- I was watching from the hallway in our home while my mom was trying to help my dad in the shower. She was putting toothpaste on his toothbrush, but he kept rinsing it off under the stream of water. Mom kept telling him to stop, that he needed to brush his teeth. (Note: I think this was when the cancer was affecting his thought process.)
- One evening, having noticed that my dad could no longer walk, I found crutches in our closet and proudly dragged them into the living room where he and my mother were sitting. I told them that Daddy could walk again with the crutches I found.
- I remember a lot of activity happening in our home on July 13, 1985. My mother’s parents were there, and I think my Aunt Diana was there too. The adults were distressed, and I was walking among them. My grandfather took me outside to play on my swingset. I was wearing my favorite dress. It was white with royal blue trim and little blue flowers on it. It had a puckered top and little cap sleeves. Somehow, I got back inside, and my mother held me up to my father’s hospital bed, which was in our living room. She told me to say goodbye, but I was afraid, so I just waved. After she had put me down, I ran to my room to get my teddy bear I think. I stopped in the middle of my room and looked out into the hallway and watched two men in uniforms carry my father out on a stretcher. After that, I got upset and started crying. My mom (or maybe my aunt) carried me to my mom’s bed with my teddy bear, and I guess I went to sleep after that.
After that, there were only stories about my dad. There were no new memories that could include him. I remember being at my Granny’s (Mom’s mother) house after my dad died. It was the day of his funeral, which I did not attend because I was too little to understand. I stayed with my Aunt Diana, Mom’s sister, who couldn’t go because her immune system was lowered due to her own cancer treatment. (My aunt kicked cancer’s ass and is a 30+ year survivor.) Mom told me recently that one of her biggest regrets is not taking me to his funeral.
One of my mom’s friends, Dorothy, brought me a present that day—a miniature toy blender which I played with for several years. Everyone was upset, all the adults were acting strange, and my Meema was there. Everyone was surrounding her and leading her around like she might break. I know my mother was there somewhere too, but I don’t remember her there that day. It was very much like a scene in a movie where the little kid who’s lost their parent is hiding under the table looking at all the adults’ legs. Everything was surreal and seemed so far away, like a dream.
People told me I looked like him since I shared his emerald-green eyes and crooked smile. They told me he was kind and had a dry sense of humor. My cousins told me he was a kid at heart and would always play with them. He worried a lot, just like me.
Years ago, I found a cassette tape that my dad recorded of him and his brothers while they were driving to a Razorback game. They talked a lot about nothing, really, basketball scores. Dad was a basketball player in high school and was still a fan. As I listened to the voices, I recognized my uncles’ voices. It was the third voice that I listened to the most—one I didn’t recognize because it had been forgotten with time—my dad’s voice. Listen to this excerpt by clicking on the player embedded below. His voice is the one that says “I wanna let you boys in on it.” My uncle, Howard Jr. says “Prayed for ‘um” and lectures my Dad about going to church more regular.
I have played the “what if” game so many times. What would my life have been like if my dad had never gotten cancer (or the treatment had worked) and he hadn’t died? Would he and my mother still be married? Would I have siblings? Would I be the same person I am now? Probably not. A lot of my life has been shaped by the pain of his death and later the influence of my wonderful stepfather, Ronnie, who I will write about soon. My stepsiblings and younger sister are in my life because my mom remarried after my dad died. In one selfish fantasy world I dreamed up as a child, my mom and dad divorced and she still married Ronnie so I could keep both dads. I thought about that a lot when I graduated high school. At Glen Rose, we were each given a single red rose upon receiving our diplomas. On my way home after the ceremony, I stopped by the cemetery and placed that rose on my father’s grave.
There have been several times in my life when I’ve felt like my dad was watching over me, like a guardian angel. Sometimes I find one of his graduation name cards in a random place, even though I keep them with his empty senior memory book. I found the one pictured when I was sewing up holes that Meredith cut in her shirt. I was really frustrated and angry with her but didn’t lose my temper when I reached into my desk drawer to get a needle because the card was sitting there waiting for me.
One time, during an especially hard time when I was in college, I was alone and was crying so hard I couldn’t stop or even catch my breath. It was the only time in my life when I felt like dying was the only way to stop the pain. That night, in my mind, I wondered if there was any reason to go on living. So I asked the questions, “What’s the point? Why shouldn’t I just give up?” What happened next was I felt like someone hugged me from behind and instantly I was able to stop crying. I felt like it was my dad. Was/Am I crazy? Maybe. But sometimes things happen we can’t explain. It was enough to shake me up and make me get help. Up until today, only a few people knew about that. I used that memory as the basis for a scene between Caroline and her stepmother, Margo, in my novel, Caroline’s Lighthouse. I used my dad’s first name to be the modern-day Caroline’s last name. The best fiction has some elements of truth in it.
There are some times more than others when I miss my dad, like when I got married. It’s not conventional, but I included my father’s name on my wedding invitations. Jonathan and I were hosting the wedding ourselves, so the invitation had a listing of our names and our parents, so adding “the late Doug Easterling” to the invitation seemed fitting. I don’t really care what rules of etiquette that violated. It was important to me. Also, in the picture collage we displayed at the ceremony, were pictures of my dad along with my stepfather and the rest of my immediate family. He’s always been part of my life as much as the Easterling name is ingrained into my soul.
I see my dad in my children, especially my son, Douglas Andrew, who we call “Drew.” I had told my husband from the very beginning of our marriage that it was imperative to me that I name our first son, should I have one, after my father. I show Drew pictures of my dad all time and tell him about Grandpa Doug who is in heaven. My mother tells Drew about him as well and how much Drew is like him with his love for science and taking things apart. We’ll do the same for Meredith when she gets older since we predict she will continue her love for music and her affinity for playing her musical instruments, which currently include a guitar, a xylophone, and a keyboard.
The death of my father is beyond my understanding and a prime example of how life isn’t fair. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have lost my dad until I was much older and he was an old man who had lived a full life. In a perfect world, my mother wouldn’t have become a widow at 31 years old. But our world isn’t perfect, and God’s plan is mysterious. I am so thankful for my dad’s brief life. I’m here because of him. My children are here because of him, and their future children will be here because of him.
Now that I am a mother, my mind sometimes wanders into that dark place of pondering my own mortality. I think of how it would feel to know I was dying soon and would have to leave my children behind. Those thoughts take the breath out of me. I wonder if Dad knew he was dying and if he did, how that must have felt to know he had to leave my mother and me behind. I can’t fathom that and would never want my story to be my children’s story. Thinking about all that also solidifies my assessment that my mother is the personification of strength.
The intent of this post was not to be depressing, though I think I’ve cried more while writing it than I have in a while and I’m a crier. I usually try to avoid doing so in front of other people to the point of making my jaw ache to hold back the tears sometimes.
We’re all compilations of what’s happened to us. I don’t really understand death, and I’m no expert on grief. I have no great insight about life other than to say that our bodies are much more fragile than our spirits. But I do know love. And loss. And pain. And more sadness than I would ever wish on anyone. I also know peace, fulfillment, forgiveness, and exhilarating joy. And I think that who my dad was and how strong my mom was after his death are big parts of why I know all of those things.
So, if you knew him, please comment and tell me something you remember about him. It would mean the world to me.
-Brandi Easterling Collins