I think about my dad every day, even now that it’s been 16 years since he passed away. This is an especially hard time of year because the last time I saw him was at a family dinner celebrating my birthday (November 12). I wrote this blog six years ago. It’s probably not the best thing I’ve ever written, but it’s the thing I’m most proud of. Re-reading it tonight brought back a lot of emotions and allowed me to pause and reflect on how my thoughts and emotions have changed over time.
In truth, they haven’t changed much at all. My own mental health struggles have intensified in the years since, and I’ve written about those (see this and this). But my memories of dad largely remain the same. Since this is a long post as is, I’ll leave the intro brief. I updated this in terms of my number of kids and details like that, but otherwise this is my original post from 2014. For those who knew my dad and those who didn’t, I hope this gives a good glimpse of both who he was and how depression can look, especially to those who have never seen it up close.
One of my earliest strong memories of my dad involves a game of catch in the backyard. I had just started playing baseball and was only beginning to be proficient at catching a ball from more than a few feet away.
Dad was rolling me some ground balls, lobbing a few fly balls, and tossing a few soft liners, one of which hit me smack in the nose. I started crying, but the main thing that has remained in my memory was dad’s reaction. His eyes got huge and it was obvious that this event affected him way more than it did me. Of course he had no reason to feel guilty; he hadn’t thrown the ball hard at all and it was a sheer accident. I don’t even remember if I got a bloody nose. But he was shaken up for the rest of the day. Causing the slightest bit of hurt to anyone — especially his children — was something dad could never abide.
Delbert Kenneth (Ken) Franklin was the antithesis of the overbearing parent. He never pushed us to do anything we didn’t want to do, and he provided 100% support and 0% criticism in everything we did. I’m not saying that’s the best formula for perfect parenting, but that was the only way he knew how to be a father.
My siblings and I had varied talents and interests. I was pretty much all about sports and writing. My brother was an incredibly talented musician/dancer/singer. My sister was something of a hybrid, an All-State athlete with artistic and journalistic skills to boot. Dad, a former athlete with a Master’s degree in music from Oklahoma City University, had the ability to give each of us 100% of himself in all of those areas. He was the loudest cheerer at Allison’s cross country races, the first one to give a standing ovation at Andrew’s musicals and the first one to want to read my newspaper stories and tell me how good they were.
He never got onto a ref for a bad call or onto a coach for more playing time. Part of that was being the most non-confrontational person I’ve ever known. Part of it was having more unconditional love than anyone I’ve ever known.
I can only remember him raising his voice a handful of times and never saw him even close to raising his hand in anger, despite his three kids giving him ample reasons to do so.
In my mind, there was never a question of which one of us or our hobbies dad loved more. They, and we, were 100% equal. This is something I once took for granted; now I recognize how special it was.
The same can be said for dad’s work ethic. Five days a week for 25 years, he came home drenched in sweat after walking several miles in the Oklahoma sun with a heavy mail bag on his back. I can still instantly conjure an accurate nasal memory of the smell of that sweaty postal uniform. The job was taking a toll on him physically and he hated the politicking that kept forcing him to change routes, change start times, or do more work in less time than he felt was physically possible. But he clocked in every day, and when I would meet him for lunch at a fast food place that was on his route, the other mailmen eating with us inevitably told me that they envied dad’s always-sunny personality. Some of them made fun of him for it.
That always-sunny personality could sometimes be pretty annoying. When we went golfing, he would be optimistic that the balls I shanked all over the course would turn out to be good shots. He’d yell “Bite!,” “Get legs!” or “Turn over a little now” as soon as it was obvious to everyone else that I’d be nowhere near the green. He always thought we’d be able to find the ball that I’d hit into the middle of a dense forest, long after I was ready to give up and move on with the round. Still, those once-a-week golf outings were special times for me, and I’ve hardly played in the 16 years since then because golf just isn’t the same.
Now that I’m a father of four with a wife and a mortgage, I recognize the sacrifices that my parents made to give us the best upbringing they could. Mom and dad could have driven nicer cars, gone on more dates or put more money toward their retirement, but instead they spent that time and money on their kids.
For dad and I, that meant playing golf when the weather was nice and going to baseball, football and basketball games together. Dad was a huge St. Louis Cardinals fan and I rebelled by cheering for the Chicago Cubs, a decision that has so far cost me a couple World Series celebrations. But in the middle of the steroid era, we drove to St. Louis for a three-game series between the two rivals. In the car, dad said he hoped to see Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit three home runs each and the Cardinals win two out of three. I told him he was delusional, then watched Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit three home runs each and the Cardinals win two out of three. I saw it as a crazy coincidence, but dad didn’t act surprised at all. He always expected the miraculous. He always had faith.
Although that series certainly ranks near the top of all of my “dad memories”, for me nothing will beat the games.
My family was always playing games; that’s what we did. Board games, card games, dice games, you name it, we played it. I couldn’t even begin to guess how many different games we played over the years. Dad and I liked playing games more than the rest of the family, and often it would be just the two of us.
After I moved out, I loved to come home, get a free meal, and spend the evening playing cards with mom and dad. For mom, one or two games was enough. But dad and I would play until he had to go bed. It wouldn’t even be a discussion. One of us would pick up the deck, shuffle and deal. I usually didn’t know which game we were playing until dad quit dealing. Four cards was a quirky but fun game called casino, six cards was pitch, eleven cards was gin rummy, etc. We’d talk about sports, school or work until the game neared its end, then all our attention was on the finish. Dad loved dramatic finishes, which was annoying when he won. But he would show the same enthusiasm for the game if he lost on the final play. I can still picture our post-it notes filled to the max with scores from various card games. Dad always wrote and circled the letter W under the name of whoever won, although we never made any effort to keep track of who was winning the games long-term.
Then there was the laughing. Always the laughing. Slapstick was by far his favorite, although he could laugh at just about anything, especially himself. There was no mistaking or hiding that laugh. No restaurant big enough to keep everyone in the place from hearing it, no one else’s laughter over the same topic loud enough to not be drowned out. If a moment was bereft of laughter, he’d pick up some random goofy object, put it on his head, cross his eyes and make a Three Stooges face until you laughed. And if you didn’t laugh, he’d laugh so loud that you couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that he cracked himself up so easily.
When I was 16, I bumped into a car in a parking lot. I was a straight A student who had good influences for friends and never got into trouble. I didn’t want to get in trouble for this either. So I panicked and drove off. Luckily, someone spotted me. I fessed up and got a good lecture (and probably a grounding of some sort) from my parents, and then I had to call the person whose car I hit and apologize. That lady was understandably upset and gave me another good lecture which included calling me a few not-nice names. After all of that, I felt like a loser. I’ll never forget hanging up the phone and walking over to my dad, who was standing in the middle of the living room, about to go upstairs to bed. I wrapped my arms around him and just started sobbing. Dad wasn’t real good at giving life lessons or expressing his emotions, but he let me hold on to him as long as I wanted, then he told me that I was a good kid and he loved me.
That was quintessential dad. In that moment, I didn’t need advice or a scolding. I needed a dad that would hug me and tell me he loved me. Luckily, I had that dad.
I was already moved out and in college when I got a call from mom that dad was in the hospital. He was dealing with depression and anxiety. That didn’t make any sense at all. Dad was never anything but happy, relaxed, carefree. He pretty much let mom make all the day-to-day planning decisions and just went with the flow without complaining. I remember seeing him cry when his mom died — and that was about the only time I saw him cry. I dismissed the whole thing out of hand, but I did go to the hospital to visit him. He was acting weird, and showed me a drawing he had made of an apple being eaten by worms. He told me that it represented his heart, which was corrupt and bad just like the worm-riddled apple. I looked at him and the drawing in disbelief, told him he was the most loving person I knew and that his drawing was in no way reflective of his heart. Then I got out of there as fast as I could. I refused to believe that this person was my father. I assumed that in a short amount of time, he’d snap out of whatever this was and go back to being normal. Then I could forget I had ever even visited him at the hospital or that he had made this weird drawing. Let’s just get back to normal. Give me my dad back. That’s basically what happened. He wasn’t in the hospital very long, and when he got out he was back to being my same old dad. Happy, laughing, talking sports. At least 95 percent of the time. When I was around, anyway. I wanted to get as far away from that other dude as I could. I didn’t want to lend any credibility to this poisoned apple business, didn’t want to talk about it. Occasionally I’d ask him or mom how he was doing. I knew on some level he was still struggling, but it didn’t make any sense to me and I just kept thinking (hoping, really) that it would go away. It was awkward. I told him I was interested in learning how to play guitar, and he bought me a really nice Taylor acoustic for my birthday. (More than 15 years later, I still get compliments on the guitar). Dad was a good guitar player who, prior to meeting mom, had made a living playing and singing in various bars and clubs around town. He taught me the basics, then wrote down the chords and lyrics to his most popular song, one for which he was offered a decent sum of money (1970s money anyway). On the top it said, “By Ken Franklin.”
I said with a laugh, “Dad, why did you write your name on the top here? Are you afraid I’m going to take this song and claim it as my own and become famous without ever giving you credit?” He just smiled and shrugged his shoulders. I thought it was weird. Makes more sense now. Also weird was how dad started bowing out of our card games half the time. I was driving more than an hour to have dinner and hang out with my parents. Mom always went to bed at 8 p.m., but I expected to get a couple more good hours of card playing out of dad. Sometimes that would happen like normal, but sometimes he’d play one or two or zero games instead of 20 and go to bed at 8:30. Said he was more tired than usual lately. Makes more sense now. What does depression really mean, anyway? Aren’t we all sad sometimes? I never thought there was any chance dad would hurt himself. In my 25 years I’d never seen dad hurt a fly, never do anything but walk away at the first sign of conflict.
Our family got together a couple of days after my birthday to celebrate with a dinner at Red Rock on Lake Hefner. I brought my girlfriend Missy, who dad always loved. She enjoyed a good laugh almost as much as he did. After the dinner, we all went back to mom and dad’s house. I said good night to mom and she went to bed. It was just dad and I in the living room. I asked him if he wanted to play cards. He said no, he was heading to bed also. He told me he needed me to pray for him, that he was having some bad thoughts. For someone who never shared his personal feelings and emotions at all, who in fairness didn’t even know how to share his personal feelings and emotions, this was a massive statement. But I refused to carry its full weight. I didn’t want to talk to the guy with the weird drawing. Let’s just get back to normal. Give me my dad back. I assumed that his (and all) depression was a temporary feeling that would eventually subside. Suicide is for people who don’t have moms, dads, kids, friends or co-workers who love them. I refused to even consider the possibility that this was a serious medical issue that was relentlessly attacking my father.
On top of all of that, I was the son of a man who never shared his personal feelings and emotions. I’m not good at it either, and I didn’t know what to say. I know I told him I would pray for him, and I know I did pray for him. But I had no clue what was really going on and I have no idea what I said or prayed in that moment. I decided to go ahead and drive back to Lawton that night. It was a Sunday, and I had to work Monday afternoon anyway. In the doorway, after my little chat/prayer with dad, he gave me a huge hug. It was just like the one he had given me nine years before, when I hit-and-ran in the parking lot. We were standing in almost the exact same place in the house. Again, he squeezed me tight and told me he was proud of me and he loved me. I told him I loved him too. It was the last thing I ever said to him.
Mom called me early Wednesday morning — November 17, 2004. Told me dad had abruptly left the house before dawn, still wearing his pajamas. She didn’t know where he was, maybe I should come home if I could. I left my apartment without changing out of my pajamas. I didn’t pack anything, just hit the highway. My brain was going a thousand miles an hour, but within minutes all the clues started coming together and I knew I’d never see him again. I didn’t know how he’d done it, but I knew he did it. What was an impossibility days earlier was now a certainty. While driving 90 mph up I-44, I slammed my fist against the steering wheel. Again. Again. Again. My hand hurt. I yelled at the top of my lungs. I was pissed at him. At myself. At him. My throat hurt. My heart broke. By the time I got to the house, my siblings were already there. They held out hope of finding him. My mind wanted to believe that was a possibility, but my heart knew the truth. A friend of the family called to say they saw a car that looked like his parked next to a pond close to our house. I drove over there with my brother-in-law, saw that it was indeed his car parked askew near the pond.
“He’s in there,” I said, never more certain of anything in my life. I didn’t want to be there one more Godforsaken second. I got back in the car and drove home. My brother-in-law talked to someone, and soon enough a firefighter dive squad went in and got him. They fixed him all up at the funeral home. The rest of the family went to see him. I refused. A family friend told me to reconsider, that this would be my last chance, that it might help bring some closure, start the healing process. I still said no. I wanted that bear hug and those I Love Yous to be my final memories of him. I still don’t regret it. I couldn’t handle the funeral. Every single seat in the church we grew up in was full. The choir loft was full. It was so humbling, an awesome tribute, to know how many people my dad had touched. It was also maddening, knowing he wasn’t supposed to go this early. What if he knew he had impacted all these people? What if he knew all these people loved him?…Every emotion imaginable flooded me the moment I walked in and saw the crowd. I was supposed to be strong for my mom, who was clutching my elbow as we walked down the aisle. I wanted to be strong, but I cried uncontrollably the entire time. Later, our family drove to Sulphur, Oklahoma, a beautiful place with a bed and breakfast mom and dad would often go to. I took out the Taylor and played this song as we scattered his ashes.
Sixteen years. Can it have really been that long? A lot has changed in that time. Dad got to walk Allison down the aisle, but he didn’t get to meet her three awesome kids. He didn’t get to see the miracle God worked in Andrew’s life, meet his wife Jordyn or their four kids. Didn’t know I married Missy or get to meet our kiddos, all of which are displaying the same zeal for laughter and life that he had. He didn’t know that I now play card games for a job, that all of those hours we spent with post-it notes at the kitchen table were in fact crucial training sessions for a future career. Who’d have thunk it? I think about it now, at least once a week while sitting at the poker table, and I can’t help but smile.
I’m not going to lie, I still get mad at dad sometimes. For missing out on all the things I just mentioned. For not being there for mom. For ruining golf and slapstick comedy for me. For not playing guitar with me. For not playing Chutes and Ladders with my kids. For making me feel guilty for being so incredibly ignorant and not doing more. Ultimately, however, I know that I’m just a kid in the backyard who took a baseball to the face. He never meant to hurt me. I understand now better than ever how lucky I was to have such a loving and committed father, who was there for every milestone in my life while he was alive. Who busted his tail to put food on the table and allow us to have the experiences in life that we’ll never forget. Other kids had nicer cars, nicer clothes. I shared a clunker with my sister but got to watch Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit three home runs each in one weekend.
I still cringe when I see or hear people make jokes about suicide. You know, the whole finger gun to the head and pull the trigger thing. It’s ignorant, just like I was until it hit me real close to home. This is a serious thing, yet it seems like the public and even the medical community is centuries behind in dealing with it. Just like cancer can make a strong person weak, depression and other mental health issues can slowly or quickly damage an otherwise healthy person. I hate telling people that didn’t know dad that he committed suicide, because I think it gives the impression that he was moping around the house all the time, when nothing could be further from the truth. He loved and appreciated the small details of life as much as anyone I’ve known. He was healthy, he got sick, it kept getting worse, and eventually the disease won. I’m not going assign a certain percentage of blame to him. I know who he really was.
My deepest fear is turning into my father. The first time I experienced depression was two years after he died, on my honeymoon. I had no idea what hit me. I couldn’t stop crying, wasn’t eating and didn’t want to leave the hotel room despite being in the Arenal Volcano Mountains of Costa Rica, one of the most gorgeous places on the earth. This was obviously a sucky situation for Missy, who didn’t know what to do. She’d been married for 24 hours and her husband was already losing his mind. All I could tell her was that I loved her and had no regrets about marrying her. Those things I knew deep down in my heart. But that was all. I had no idea why I was so sad. Maybe it was because I never really dealt with dad’s death head-on, never got counseling. Maybe it was because all the people at our wedding reminded me of all the people at dad’s funeral, such an unexpected outpouring of love that I wasn’t equipped to handle. Whatever it was, it went away after about three days and the rest of our honeymoon was awesome. In the eight years since then, I’ve had a few other, less severe episodes. Not many. I don’t like talking about it, not even with Missy. I’m not good at it. I don’t feel like I need medicine all the time for something that pops up less than once a year (so far), and I don’t trust the medicine out there anyway. I personally know a lot of people who have been tremendously helped by the medicine, but I also know at least one person who got significantly worse. So I do nothing. This is probably exactly the same thing most people do, up until it’s too late.
Or almost too late. In some ways, I already am turning into my father. I’m pretty easy going, I’ll usually go along with whatever my wife wants without complaining. I got begged into getting a dog about whom I am at best ambivalent, yet I’m the only one who feeds him and takes him to get his shots and haircuts. I spend my free time reading nonfiction and watching sports. I’d rather eat at home than go out, and I’ll eat just about anything. I sweat like a faucet when I work out. I laugh a lot, don’t cry much. Still not one to talk about feelings and emotions. Does that mean I’ll be fine for another 20 years and then it will hit me like it did dad? Was he struggling with it hardcore the whole time and just hiding it up until the end? Will I learn from what happened to him and do something different? Has the world around us changed, making it easier to deal with these issues and get help? Or is it harder now? These are things I think about.
On Monday, November 17, 2014, Addison bounced up to me and asked if we could play a game. Please? Please? We played Memory, letting Myra play too although she didn’t know what was going on and kept trying to turn all the cards up even when it wasn’t her turn. Maddux tried to eat a card. Addison loves playing games with me as much as anything. Hide and Go Seek is her favorite, but she’ll play anything I want for as long as I want to play it. I’ve even taught her a card game or two. We always play by the rules and I never let her win. I help her make the best strategic decisions, but what’s really important to me is her attitude. When she played T-ball and soccer this year, I didn’t care how good she was or what the refs did. I wanted her to give 100% and then I told her how proud I was when the game was over. This is the only way I know how to be a father to my kids, because it’s exactly the way my father taught me. And if I can show my kids half the unconditional love and grace that he showed me, then maybe turning into my father isn’t such a bad thing after all.