Lee Lessard grew up in the Navy Yard section of Dracut and still lives in town with his wife, Karen. He retired after 34 years as a manager with Bristol Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Co., and has two children and four grandchildren.
My father's birthday was in June, as is Father's Day, so I guess it's only natural that memories of him percolate to the surface every year around this time. It's hardly believable to me that almost 50 years have passed since the event, but I can still vividly recall the day he died.
He was at home in bed, in the house he had built with his own two hands. My mother had me released early from school that day, something she had never done before. Yet I fully comprehended the significance of the act. I knew I had been summoned to be there at the end.
My father was not one to give up in the face of adversity, but at that point he had probably fought death too long; the cancer ate away at his vital organs as if some internal demon had taken possession of them.
He became almost unrecognizable to me. I remember sitting by his bed that day, a foreboding rattle emanating from his chest and the smell of death in the air. This was an experience 16 year-olds are not wired to witness, much less deal with.
Then suddenly he was gone, and with him the end of any additional memories that would be forged between us. I remember staring at his exhausted and broken body trying to absorb what had just occured and thinking to myself:
I suppose every boy believes his father is the wisest, bravest man on the planet, but as I entered my mid-teens -- just about the time that dreaded disease began to ravage his body -- I morphed into a rather indifferent, self-absorbed post-adolescent. Not a single tear did I shed that day.
His death meant he was never to know what was to become of me. Never have the chance to know me as an adult, or the opportunity to be a grandfather to my children. But the day he died I didn't think a whit about the influence he might have on my life, or how the shadow of his existence would shape me as a person. I never said a goodbye to him. It never occurred to me.
My father had no interest in organized sports; we never had a game of catch with any kind of ball. But we did spend time together other ways. I was his on-site helper on the biggest project he would ever tackle in his life: the construction of our home. It was my job to hand him nails, hold a board in place, or stack bricks where he needed them.
But while he worked, he loved to relate tales from his own childhood. Stories of death-defying games of tree tag, or how he would build homemade kites so enormous they would drag his little brother along the ground when a gust of wind came up. He taught me how to use a bicycle tire repair kit, establishing my place as the neighborhood go-to kid for flat tires.
He "taught" me other things. Like the time he took me in tow to the local farmer's house, 50 cents in my hand, to pay for the "cow corn" I had pilfered from the farmer's back field and had tried to pass off at home as a legal transaction. As I watched him work during those years, I learned things that, 49 years later, are still useful to me.
My father was not a carpenter, electrician, or plumber by trade but he built our house through sheer doggedness. It took him years. If he didn't know how to do something, he would figure it out. "That's why God put that squash between your shoulders," he would tell me in a voice intended to get my attention.
He dug the basement with a pick and shovel, splitting the boulders he uncovered with a crowbar, sledge-hammer and chisel, then rolling the fragments into the wall when they were small enough to move by hand. Another life lesson: Hard work and perserverance pay off.
I also remember the little things just he and I would do together. Like our annual trek into the deep woods behind our house in early December to cut down our Christmas tree. It was usually a scrub pine, but it was amazing how attractive it would be once the lights and ornaments were added.
I wish I had said something to him during those last days. I wish I had told him what was in my heart, except that in that time and place I had nothing to say to him.
I like to think I would have paid homage to him at some point; let him know that his life example had not been completely lost on me. I like to think he might even have been proud of some of the choices I have made in my own life journey.
But I still have those lessons and memories. And for me, that's enough for now.