via Hear Your DNA
Our lives are but a blink of an eye in those of Father Time. As kids, our parents begin as our heroes, then fade quickly into supposed irrelevance when our teen years come about. We fight and argue over many things. If we’re lucky, our parents insist we treat them with respect, and they return it in ways we’re not then able to understand. While not soon enough for us, we’re quickly thrust into the adult world. Life teaches us the same lessons our parents drilled into our ill-equipped brains, and by our 20s, our brain’s wiring starts to make valuable connections.
My childhood was full of love, good times and largely devoid of hardship. My brothers and I were lucky compared to many of our friends. Mom and Dad had lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and countless personal struggles. Dad was 18 in 1945 when Harry Truman saved his life, making our lives possible. President Truman decided our nation had lost enough young lives, and ordered the atomic bombs dropped on Japan to end the war. Had he decided to allow the invasion to proceed, countless more young men and women would have died including Dad. He was to be one of the first waves of human warriors to clash with those defending their homeland, and likely would have perished in the battle. In fact, he was on a ship headed to Japan when Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered the advent of atomic warfare.
I’ve learned that in order to provide for my own family, certain sacrifices are often necessary. Perhaps it’s ingrained upon my DNA, because I never second-guessed any decisions regarding the well-being of my loved ones. In the early 1960s, Dad had worked diligently to provide for his growing young family, while also studying to earn his Bachelor’s Degree in Music from the University of Chicago. Their first child, John, was born big and strong, just like our father. He was a robust, happy lad and Dad delighted in having a son. Then Bill came along, and was diagnosed asthmatic. In Northern Illinois, he struggled, but gamely fought against this brutal ailment. When I was born, doctors insisted a pre-natal brain injury doomed me to physical and mental disabilities I’d never overcome, recommending I be placed in an “institution” and forgot about. Of course, Mom and Dad decided the doctors were simpletons, because they saw a grim determination in my baby blues. A few years later, Dan was born with Down Syndrome, and doctors again advised they abandon their child.
Mom and Dad treated each of us equally, and fought to ensure our success. Rather than pursue a promising career in music, Dad decided his four sons deserved his full devotion. Ingrained upon him over hundreds of years of ancestral DNA was a strong sense of duty to his family. He may have agonized briefly over taking his love of music to larger audiences, but his decision not only saved Bill’s life, but also taught each of his sons how deeply he loved us. We were what mattered most, not his musical dreams.
Dad finally admitted recently how ill-prepared he and Mom were to move the family across the country to the drier climate of Arizona to improve Bill’s quality of life. They basically packed up the largest U-Haul trailer they could with whatever possessions fit, and left behind everything and everyone they knew. We spent Christmas 1966 in a St. Louis motel room as a blizzard raged outside. I don’t recall much of that trip. I was six, and all that mattered to me was my hamster (Herman) needed to stay warm during the trip. Mom lent me her winter coat to drape over the cage with us crammed into the ’65 Chevy BelAir’s back seat.
It must have been their courage that encouraged me to leave home for Texas soon after I graduated. Bill lived there, helped me find a job and shared his apartment. It only lasted six weeks, as I realized the ties of home were too strong and loneliness drove me home. Mom and Dad insisted I enroll in college that fall. When I walked into the Newsroom of Central Arizona College’s student newspaper (The CACtus) and stated my intention was to be Editor, it stunned Advisor John Sowers. Something in my determined 17-year-old self must have impressed him, because he and the staff appointed me to the position. Drawing upon familial strength, I learned quickly and led our staff to many awards. Mom had noticed my love of literature at an early age, and constantly encouraged me to write. If she had lived a few years longer, she would have held my first book in her own hands.
Sons and daughters yearn to break free from their parents as adulthood beckons. We’re naturally inclined to independence if raised by strong people who believe in hard work and determination. Luckily for us, Mom and Dad were exactly the examples we needed to succeed. As Dan Fogelberg sang in Leader of the Band: “I thank you for the freedom when it came my time to go,” they must have felt the sadness we all feel when our children fly away. Yet they didn’t let anything show except pride and encouragement. It was always understood they would be supportive if I fell and needed to come home again. When my first marriage failed, I did just that. Their love and understanding helped me heal. After six months, I was able to face life anew.
I realized how valuable their lessons were by my mid-20s. We became friends, and I again found comfort in their wise counsel. No longer did I believe my adolescent woes were more difficult than theirs. Times may change, but humans repeat basic growth patterns. I’m now watching an Eagles concert from the 1970s. The faces of in that audience inspire images of Mom and Dad enjoying Big Band Jazz greats like Satchmo, Sinatra and Ellington. Sure, the music is different, but it was truly theirs, and gave birth to my generation’s various genres. Every other generation of musicians tend to revisit the standards left behind by masters of the craft, and the classics achieve immortality.
My sons have reached that tender age of newly-found independence I once reveled in. The elder apologizes for what he now believes are mistakes, but I gently remind him of lessons he’s learned. He need not be remorseful, because I recall my own youthful transgressions. I only hope he achieves his limitless potential, and realizes how he makes me proud in many ways.
When my daughter Anna found wisdom in the dawning of her maturity, she also apologized to me. I wept. She didn’t realize the immense pride I’d always had in her ability to adapt to very difficult situations she had already faced. My determination to provide her the stability my parents had given me guided me through those turbulent teen years. Her childhood wasn’t ideal, shifting between divorced parents of radically-different belief systems. In spite of this, she triumphed where others failed and became a successful and confident adult. Her apologies were unnecessary; all that mattered to me was her strength in conquering what I couldn’t protect her from.
When I met my beloved Stacey, my parents argued against our marriage. This disagreement was painful, because I knew after eight long years of loneliness, lasting love had found me. She was young yet wise in ways I was not. Her quiet resolve and steadfast loyalty was exactly what I had longed for. Stacey understood me, and did not expect I change to suit her. We fit together, and it made me sad my parents initially failed to understand how deep our love would grow. At that moment, I chose love over parental blessings, and 25 years later we celebrate a constantly-evolving and deep respect for one another. Mom and Dad eventually understood, and were rewarded with two more grandsons.
Now I’m mourning the loss of both parents, but I was lucky to have them a long time. I’ve become the “elder” in my immediate family, and it feels awkward. While sad after losing Dad last month, I am consoled by their constant belief in my ability to find the right in a world often plagued by wrong. They weren’t often wrong; I was simply a bit late to realize how correct their words became. When they erred, they recognized the mistake and tried to make amends. Each lesson they blessed me with has paid dividends I can’t entirely fathom, because some are yet to be realized.
As my seventh decade grows near, I join millions before me who are surprised by this fact. Wasn’t I young just yesterday? Why is physical strength squandered upon those lacking the mental awareness to treat it with respect? These questions are answered upon our realization we need youth’s vitality to endure the landslides maturity allows us to avoid. Knowledge comes with age and experience, and can only be self-taught. We listen to those whom we love and admire; their lessons may not immediately come to us. Throughout life, realization blinks and fades like a dimmer switch. Some lessons previously forgotten instantly awaken when need dictates their recall, but their source is easily attributed.
Youthful folk, you may think the incessant chatter of “old people” is an insult to your growing intelligence, but it’s actually borne of deep love and concern. Hear the lessons your elders offer from their own past. Instead of quickly dismissing their wisdom, respectfully bank it for future trials of which you’ll endure many. With luck, you’ll benefit from ancient family angels whose whispers are heard when your need to hear outweighs youthful arrogance.
Dad died a month shy of his 92nd birthday October 8, 2018. Losing him is freshly painful, but the lessons he taught keep live-streaming within me. His valuable insights light the path as my children seek their own wisdom through me. I feel Mom’s love as I do Dad’s every time I see or speak with my own children, and hold tight to the strength they gave me.
“Have fun every day,” Dad told me. It’s his most valuable of many lessons, and I promise.
It was an event I worked on with several other classmates, and I was truly looking forward to it. Not just to see old friends, but to hopefully re-examine possible new friends with people I may not have known as closely as I should. Florence High School’s Class of 1978 is a group of loving, talented and fun people that I am proud to be part of. Problem was, once I arrived, only part of me was there.
My father had died four days earlier, just hours after my arrival in Arizona.
While anyone one month ahead of their 92nd birthday is a gamble to see, Dad was expecting me. We spoke several times prior to my trip, and both of us were eagerly looking forward to it. I idolized him. He was a vital, strong and quietly unassuming gentleman. We became friends once my turbulent youth and sordid mistakes were behind me. He knew when to be my father, but also how to be a close pal.
A year before we moved to Florence on my eighth birthday, Dad flew me to Roosevelt Lake in his Aeronca Champ. We fished from the shore, enjoying the peaceful solitude afforded our 1968 visit. That night we spread our bedrolls under the plane’s wing and were treated to a starry vista I can still see. On our trip back to Mesa’s Falcon Field the next day, the Champ’s engine lost power. Dad glided the plane to a perfect no-power landing, a fact he didn’t tell me about for several years.
My parents removed me from Florence schools for two years, because Dad took a job 150 miles away and didn’t want to move the family again. My brothers were in high school, and Mom held the fort with four boys. I missed Dad. So the folks decided I’d live with him during the week and attend Bonita Elementary School. We’d come home on the weekends and spend the week at an isolated ranch. It was an ideal existence. Not only did I have Dad to myself, but he flew me to school every Monday, and back home on Friday. Of course I had to suffer Dad’s bachelor meals of beef stew out of a can, but those were easily the happiest two years of my childhood.
I’m listening to an old recording of Dad’s music. Throughout my childhood and a few decades afterward, I was treated to his splendid trained tenor as he sang old folk songs accompanied by his classic guitar. It’s soothing now, to have this scratchy old recording to remind me of that masterful voice.
My daughter picked me up at the Phoenix airport late Sunday night, and we zipped up to Prescott to the hospital. I had changed my airline reservation when my brother John called with the news Dad was on his last of 12 lives. There was a sense of urgency, but we were happy being reunited. Anna and I both realized, even though reluctant to admit it, this would be our final visit.
We walked into the Intensive Care Cardiac Unit of Yavapai Regional Medical Center, and my heart sank when I saw my giant reduced to a barley-living shell on his bed. He’d insisted on wearing his glasses so he wouldn’t miss a think during lucid moments. I kissed that man’s forehead and told him I was there, then sat down and held his incredible left hand. It had caressed a guitar, spanked me a few times, and written his name on checks hundreds of times as I watched the ink flow. Checking my tears and sobs, I looked across the bed at Anna, who held her Grampy’s right hand. Dad was game, not ready to give up yet. He’d suffered several more cardiac events over a few days, but he had fought and conquered death many times and his vitals remained steady all night. Somehow, I knew he wouldn’t pass during the night. Dad always loved his sleep, and loved to wake with the sun. We left for some rest, feeling guilty leaving John and JoLayne there because they had traded vigils with brother Bill for two days and were also exhausted.
Around mid-day, we returned. Grimly, I knew once I saw Dad’s vitals were a bit lower than when we had left, that October 8 would be his last day. Our brother Al Steinberg had come to spell John and Jo, who had business to attend to. Bill left for home to pick up his wife and son. It was Al, Anna and I who were left with Dad. We remembered funny stories together, because our lives have been blessed by Coomer Humor, and the master of it lay amongst us.
An hour later, the medical transport team arrived to take Dad to his home, where hospice awaited. He knew his death was imminent, because doctors had told him earlier there was nothing more they could do for him.
“That’s okay,” he had quipped, “at least I won’t have to pay taxes any more.”
We helped move him from his bed to the stretcher, and I winced because he did. It had to have hurt, even though we were as gentle as possible. Anna kissed him before they put him into that ambulance, but I did not. Expecting a long death watch, I just told him I’d see him later. We followed him home.
As the transport van passed Prescott Valley Airport, Dad’s breathing stopped. His strong heart, which kept going in the hospital even though it labored at 10-15%, finally gave out when he passed his favorite place. We had eaten there together when I visited in April, and was where his final flight in a small plane took place. When we rolled up to his home, John told us he was gone. It was still a shock, because I expected to say goodbye there. Dad had other plans… he likely didn’t want us crying over him as he breathed his last. So I kissed that man’s forehead one more time, and thanked him for the best childhood and friendship anyone could have ever hoped for. Crossing myself, I backed away and walked off for a good cry. Alone.
Two days later, Anna and I decided to return to Tucson. Dad knew I was looking forward to my class reunion, and expected me to go. That Friday, I realize now that I was still numb. Seeing my classmates was fun. We’ve all aged well, considering what we’ve all put ourselves through. The problem was, I wasn’t connected. I was simply numb. At the football game, I saw myself running around that track 40 years ago, a scrawny kid who would never have even walked if not for my parents’ stubborn determination to prove the doctors wrong.
Bravely fighting back tears in appreciation, I accepted condolences from people I hadn’t seen in decades. Florence is a small town… everyone already knew Dad was gone. People loved him, even if they’d had little contact with him. He was also gentle, but very strong. I wanted to do the gent honor by not sobbing when he’d expect me be have fun.
Although I could have used a few stiff drinks to settle my nerves, I also have a commercial license to protect. Dad’s lessons held; I drank in moderation not only because I have a responsibility not to drive under the influence. Once Anna brought my beloved Stacey and Zak from the airport, I felt free to imbibe. Still, I wanted to enjoy the evening with those who shared my childhood, so I limited my alcohol intake.
It wasn’t until I arrived home a few days later that I let loose. Grief consumed me, and I allowed myself an extended Irish wake for Dad. In the haze, it became apparent that I had failed to re-connect with my buddy Mark, who worked hard planning the reunion with Guy, Doris, Johnny and others. These people are some I cherish most, yet have grown apart from and I had wanted to have fun with. The strange thing about grief is that it is dulled by shock. Patrick wasn’t fully there with them… he was still holding Dad’s hand.
Once a gallon of tears were shed back at home, I pulled it together to return to my job as a bus operator. It requires all my focus and faculties so I can provide Portland passengers a safe ride. It’s another of Dad’s lessons: always treat those who ride as you drive with the most comfortable experience you can.
When I arrived back at the garage after that first day, I found a card of condolence from a manager with whom I’ve been acquainted since my employment as a bus operator began six years ago. Once again, I was moved to tears. Her concern wasn’t implied, it was genuine.
Nearly four weeks have passed now. Yeah, I miss hearing Dad’s voice cracking jokes and making me laugh. I remember his tenderness and love. Yet I’m very thankful for the gifts I’ve been so fortunate to have: the opportunity to thank him, and to say farewell. My classmates were loving and understanding, for many of them have already lost parents and other family members. They knew what I was going through. There was a toast to Dad by my classmates, but I had walked off to collect myself. Perhaps that was good, because I would have cried at this kind gesture had I been present.
We said good-bye to Dad the next day, and while it was difficult, we were surrounded by many who genuinely loved the old guy. We’ve been very lucky to have him so long. Now it’s up to us to continue his legacy of decency, dedication and fun. I only hope I’m up to the task, because he’s one helluva hard act to follow.
Albert Monroe Coomer
November 18, 1926 – October 8, 2018
It’s only been five days since Al took his last flight, but it seems longer. I’ve put off writing this because I had to go through mind-numbing agony before I could even attempt putting my thoughts down. Actually, I’ve always been a procrastinator, but that was a great excuse and I’m sticking to it.
What to say about such an amazing man? I revered him, calling him “Our Father Who Art in Chino.” I could recollect loving memories for hours, but if I get through the next 10 minutes, I reckon that’ll do.
The most prevalent thought among family members this week is this: Coomer Humor. It originated long before he came along, but Al practiced it daily. He sharpened and polished the craft before even meeting his five sons.
We’ve been eager and willing beneficiaries, sometimes victims, of the family humor. I imagine him sitting in the farmhouse parlor as a wee lad, listening to the radio programs of Jack Benny and others. His parents were lively people, intelligent and inherently good. Knowing Dad, it’s certain they were more than just a tad ornery as well. Obviously, he inherited an early-ingrained joy for life.
Nearly a century later, it’s perhaps difficult for some to imagine in these days of cell phones and internet. When he was a child in the 1930s, a vivid imagination was his iPad. While his passion for love, music and humor remained constant throughout his nearly 92 years, we also know his imagination was top-notch. It showed in his music when he developed magical arrangements for centuries-old folk tunes. It was prevalent in his humor, and even in his parental discipline.
When I was 16, he told me to do some chore I had put off. Having watched him spank both my older brothers when they refused to obey him at that age, I was prepared. His eyes begged me to disobey, that trademark eye-twinkle hard at 1 work. While a bit slow sometimes, I’ve always watched others and learned hard lessons from them rather than feeling their pain.
“Sure, Dad,” I said with a smile.
“What?” he asked, a bit disappointed. “Your brothers told me they wouldn’t do it and I couldn’t make them. What about you?”
“I won’t say it, and you can’t make me,” I replied. He laughed, put his hand on my shoulder, and walked me outside to whatever chore he needed done.
* * *
One night I snuck the car keys off his dresser and took off on an all-night joy ride with my buddies in his Volkswagen Thing. By the end of that night, the car wouldn’t start, the radio antenna was broken, and there was a fist-sized hole punched through the rear window. We had to push the car back into town, and simply left it in the driveway where it had been before. The next morning, Dad couldn’t get it started. Upon his return from work, he confronted me.
“Take the Thing out last night, did ya?” he asked. I was an open book; couldn’t lie well, even on a rug.
“Yes Dad,” I replied. “Sorry, we kinda messed it up.”
“Oh,” he said, his voice tinged with an icy tone, “I’d say you did more than that. What do you think your punishment should be?”
That was unexpected. I knew telling the truth would lessen the punishment, but his question tongue-tied me. It was worse than his simply meting out my deserved torture. Turns out, he already had a plan. Our gas line had broken and on top of my expensive misadventures, he was enduring cold showers.
“I wasn’t looking forward to that task,” he said, “and now I don’t have to… but you will have it done by the end of the week, I’ll bet.” This wasn’t a request, it was his command. Until it was complete, and another week afterward, I was not allowed to drive.
“Good thing you didn’t wake me up when you got home last night, or the punishment would have been worse,” he said. “But a note woulda been nice. Now, get to work, and don’t forget to put the tools back where you found them!”
After a few days of hard work, I was nearly finished. With a summer monsoon headed in and clouds of dust obliterating the horizon, I swung the pick down one final time. Unfortunately, I found exactly where the water and gas lines intersected. Dad came home to a muddy back yard, and all the storm had produced was dust.
“Let me guess,” he said as I came to greet him. “The gas and water lines intersect right there.” He pointed at the scene. When I told him I had to shut the water off, he sighed. That evening, he didn’t have just one martini; had a few.
* * *
“Have fun every day,” he told me often. “When life is hard, as it often can be, it’s very important to find something fun to do. That helps smooth the rough spots.” It’s this joyous and lighthearted sense he had that I share with you all today, for these wise words have guided me through some very dark times.
On the last day he was with us, he woke to see nurses buzzing around in their early morning routines. He thrust out his arms and exclaimed, “With all these beautiful women around, I sure could use some love!” Even though they had only known him a few days, they already loved him, and they each obliged with hugs. He kissed each on the cheek as well.
When told there was nothing medically possible to prolong his life, he took it stoically. In fact, he added the patented Coomer Humor.
“Oh well,” he said, “at least I won’t have to pay taxes any more.”
* * *
Thanks to Mom and Dad, my infantile prognosis of a life in an institution for the infirm never came to pass. One day this year on the phone, feeling mushy, I thanked him for not taking the doctors’ advice. He didn’t skip a beat.
“You mean Patrick, you don’t remember your time in the institution?”
* * *
Dad wasn’t much of one for long phone conversations. I called him about twice a month the past few years. After about five minutes, he would say, “Well thanks for calling…” I knew this to be his cue for ending the call.
One time this summer, I extended our call to about 14 minutes. He was patient, but every time he uttered the “Well thanks” line, I kept thinking of something else I wanted to tell him. Finally as we entered the 15th minute, he said it again.“I love hearing from you, but it’s lunch time. Thanks for calling!” With that, the call ended.
* * *
Dad taught my wife Stacey to drive. You all know what a lead foot he had. However, he was also a very deliberately safe driver, and pilot too. While he was cited several times for excessive speed, it didn’t dim his love for “flying down the road.”
Stacey’s grandfather Don Niedermann befriended Dad, both having been in World War II. As they returned from an airpark in Phoenix one day, Don nodded at the truck’s speedometer, hovering just below 100.
“Al,” he said, “I’ll bet than if you pulled back on the wheel a bit, we’d be airborne!”
* * *
When he visited us in 2007, he drove his new (red) truck straight up through Nevada to Oregon.
“Why’d you take that route?” I asked.
“Well, because they don’t care if I drive over 100 miles per hour there. Those California speed limits are too slow!” He then bragged about driving an average of 95 through the state.
A few months ago, one of those red light-speed cameras busted my lovely wife at 13 miles over the limit. When we told him, he laughed.
“Is that your first speeding ticket?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she replied sheepishly.
“Well,” he said laughing, “I think one in 25 years is pretty darn good. It’s a lot better than my record!”
* * *
I’m sure everyone in this room has several funny “Al” stories you could share, and I hope to hear many of them today.
Yet we’re gathered here to say goodbye. For now, anyway. Please leave here firmly resolving to carry his humor and love forward in our own lives. It’s one valuable and lasting tribute we can give him.
John and Jo, Bill and Luly, Stacey and I, Dan and Susan, Al and Allee, we all know firsthand what a truly humble soul he shared with us. He adored his grandchildren and great grandchildren: Anna, Paul, Michael, Zakary, Justin, Andre, David, Quinn and Bryce, and they each cherished him as well.
Let us all resolve to have fun every day, in fond remembrance of our beloved Albert. He’s now with those who left before, but he’ll always remain embedded within our souls. Peace and love be with you all.
It’s been a week now since “Our Father Who Art in Chino Valley” left behind a legacy of love, humor and integrity. I’m still numb from losing him, but feel my hero’s spirit is smiling down upon this heartbroken soul.
My love for him poured out as I wrote his eulogy. It was vital to encourage laughter from those who were there to mourn his loss, because he was brilliantly funny. He would have liked that, because he preferred joy over mourning. Over the past few years, I called him every few weeks. I’ll miss hearing his voice. He always knew how to make me laugh, especially when I was carrying heavy burdens I didn’t want to explain. My voice surely gave me away, and he’d instantly pick up on it, cracking wise tidbits sure to elicit laughter. Even my darkest mood would vanish after talking briefly with him. His soul was magic, and I will miss him until we meet again in 30 or so years.
A few weeks ago, I called him on my way to work.
“Don’t go anywhere before I get there,” I told him. I was half-joking, but he was 91 years old. Nearing 60, I know how precarious our soul’s hold on these earthly bodies is. He had used up about 12 lives already, and I looked forward to spending more time with him during my 40th high school reunion trip. Somehow, I knew it would be my last chance.
“I’ll wait for you,” he said with a laugh. I didn’t fully realize how prophetic those words were.
The next week, he received a new exercise machine for his room at the old folks’ home he’d just moved to from the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Prescott, Arizona. The guy had exercised every day he was able, and by golly he wasn’t going to let his heart function of 35% stop him. However, he couldn’t see very well and couldn’t read the fancy contraption’s instruction manual. He didn’t set the resistance level, just tackled the machine like every obstacle he ever met: balls-to-the-wall and 180 percent as usual, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes.
For my 58th, he called as usual and sang Happy Birthday to me. He was a trained tenor vocalist and classical guitarist, and it’s a family tradition that we all sing this greeting as horribly off-key as possible. Dad was hard of hearing, and this year his voice was actually beautiful. Wish I had let him go to voice mail now, so that I could listen again. And again…
The next day, he confessed to my brother as they smoked their weekly cigar that he hadn’t been feeling very well. John took him to the VA hospital where doctors determined he’d suffered at least one heart attack. That kicked his ticker down to about 25%, and endured more attacks in his hospital bed. John called to say Dad was failing. There was nothing more to be done.
When doctors gave him their grim prognosis, Dad simply cracked, “Oh well, at least I won’t have to pay taxes any more.”
I arrived at his bedside in a panic the early morning of his last day, having changed my airline ticket to beat all speed records to get there (safely). He looked tired and spent. By then, his heart had deteriorated to 15%. A month shy of his 92nd birthday, I marveled at how young his hands looked. They had amazed countless audiences on his classical guitar, rested on my shoulder consoling me, or gestured as he told amusing stories. Since I didn’t want to remember his suffering face in those last hours, my camera turned its lens to those wonderfully-gentle digits intertwined with my own.
Dad always adored my sweet daughter, his only lady grandchild. When my bladder reached its limit of too many sodas, I reluctantly left to relieve it. In these few moments, Dad awoke from his morphine-induced slumber to assure Anna he loved her too. When I rushed back in, he had already lapsed back into peaceful sleep. As if trying to reassure me, he gave my hand a weak squeeze. My solitary tear dropped onto his torso as I told him it was okay, I was there and he should just… rest. I kissed his forehead and sat back down to resume my vigil.
As Anna’s head began to droop with exhaustion, I decided Dad was stable enough to steal a few hours sleep and rejuvenation. Taking the chance, we left the hospital. Upon our return later, Dad was still hanging tough. John told me he’d had a few lucid minutes earlier. He awoke to see the bustle of nurses in his room. Always the flirt, he spread his arms wide.
“With all these beautiful ladies around, I sure could use some LOVE!” he said. Although they had only known him a day or two, these sweet professionals responded with hugs. He kissed each of them on the cheek. His mere presence inspired those around to love his gentle soul which enveloped anyone nearby.
Dad was so loving. It wasn’t a trait… it was just him. He loved us individually and collectively. His quiet dignity was balanced by a generations-old simplicity and strong work ethic. He told me many times there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish if I worked hard and believed in myself. I’ve always been one to reach higher than I deserved, and usually able to reach heights others told me were impossible. If not for him and Ma, I wouldn’t be writing this tonight. Music was his love, writing has always been mine. This intense love for my wife and children is a direct result of his DNA. To work hard and earn respect is due to a lifetime of his unconditional love and intuitive discipline.
As a wee lad, I enjoyed many hours in a small airplane as Dad flew me to school every week. When I was 13, he rented a Cessna 182 and flew Mom, Dan and me as far as Detroit on a two-week odyssey visiting friends and family. For my eighth birthday, he flew us to Roosevelt Lake in Arizona, where we fished and slept under the ’47 Aeronca Champ’s wing. As careful in the air as he was on the roads, he was always scanning for a possible landing spot if he lost power. It was vital to constantly look for Plans A, B and C. To him, safely traveling was paramount. This lesson remains within me.
When I was 10, he taught me to drive on dirt roads in the Sulphur Springs Valley where we were roommates for two years. His lessons remain as I drive a 20-ton bus with a full load of passengers for a living.
“Drive with your passengers’ safety and comfort in mind,” he told me. “Don’t show off; you drive crazy when you’re alone so you don’t have to answer to anyone but God if something goes wrong.”
Dad wasn’t just religious, he embodied the teachings he learned over a lifetime. He loved but didn’t judge. He knew we all make mistakes, but forgave easily. People who needed help could ask and he’d oblige. Preaching he left to professionals. He just practiced the Golden Rule: treat others as you hope they would you. Generous of soul, never did he blink when I sheepishly asked his help. He was there for me even when I didn’t realize it. Although I’ve done many things I’m ashamed of, his love for me always shone brightly. He bragged about me, even when I was ashamed to walk upon this Earth. Once when I believed there was nothing left living for, he took me on a hike and showed me that yes, there was much happiness yet for me to live. Not only did his love for Ma give me the gift of life, but he kept me from listening to my inner demons when darkness threatened.
Even when Dad’s heart labored at 15% capacity, it beat with a steady determination I had witnessed throughout life’s cherished ups and agonizing downs. I counted every beat on the monitor, because Dad nourished me an entire lifetime. I wanted to see its last tick in our time. He had endured the Great Depression, the loss of his father when he was 13 and had to take over the farm. Between each pregnancy, Ma lost our brothers and sisters via miscarriages. In order to save my brother Bill’s life as he suffered the agony of severe asthma, he gave up his musical career in Illinois to move us to Arizona so his second son would live to amaze us all with unmatched brilliance. Dad survived World War II, a tire blowout on a motorcycle, being hit by a car going 50mph as he rode his bicycle, two forms of cancer, a five-bypass heart surgery that ended his flying days, hearing loss that kept him from playing his beloved guitar, and the loss of his dear Patricia. Still, he kept living, laughing and enjoying this dream we call “life.” I marveled at his dogged determination to keep having fun, even in the face of events that would kill most of us.
Al Steinberg (our brother from another mother) helped Anna and I assist the medical transport team transferring Dad from his hospital bed to the stretcher when it came time to take him home the final time. Unplugged, Dad was left to his tired body’s depleted resources, and although we were as gentle as possible, this had to hurt. His breathing was labored, but he hung in there. Before they placed him in the van, Anna leaned down and kissed him several times. I let her do this alone, as I figured my final goodbyes would be said later. As I watched through my tears for her pain, it was without knowing I’d never again see him alive. We followed the van a few minutes later, planning on helping Dad into his hospice bed upon arrival. As we rolled into his driveway, John met us in tears, shaking his head… no. He had died in transit, passing his favorite place… the Prescott Valley Airport. He went on his own terms, flying home to his beloved wife and all those who had passed before.
We all kissed his lifeless forehead. Dad was finally at peace, having fought numerous battles to keep that gentle heart beating. My sobs weren’t for him… but for the empty space his absence created as he left. As I kissed that still-warm beautiful face, I thanked him for being who he was, for being a wonderful father and friend. I said a prayer for his loving soul, and patted him a final time, as he had gently done to me throughout this wonderful life. He was gone, and I was suddenly more alone than I’ve ever been.
My tears aren’t for his death. They flow abundantly because I miss him. It’s now up to me to find the courage he had to endure life’s challenges with his steely determination to persevere, to constantly create goodness. To be kind to people who are in need, to love my family above my own existence and work hard to ensure they have whatever it is that sustains their beloved souls. To strive toward new heights with my art, while remembering those who appreciate whatever is offered through my humble words. To have fun every day, as he taught me.
Many times I’ve written tributes for Dad. I hope he knew how vital his love was, how much it sustained and encouraged me to do the right things decency requires.
Dad had big feet. While I’m not worthy to walk in his shoes, my life forevermore will be dedicated trying to fill them. So with my tearful smile, I pledge to give it a good “college try,” as Dad would say. To do less would be dishonorable to the only hero I’ve ever had.
Rest in peace, Albert Monroe Coomer. You deserve better than I could ever hope to be, but I’ll keep trying. Thanks Dad, for everything. I loved and admired you every day, and always will. Rest in sweet, everlasting and blissful peace.
— Patrick Brian Coomer
It had to happen. Eventually. We’re all subject to abuse as bus operators, every day we’re behind the wheel. Forty-something incidents in 2016, 93 in ’17, and now I’m Assault #50 as 2018 rolls toward its last half. Portland transit workers, from maintenance to road supervisors and rail/bus operators are vulnerable targets to the mostly mentally ill aggressors who ride.
She kicked me. Not hard, mind you. A three-legged ancient Chihuahua could have at least caused a slight bruise. Still, it was an insult to all who share this profession. All I did was wake a sleeper while my trainee serviced a stop. I was worried because this passenger was reclining along the very back row of seats. She could have rolled off and suffered injury in case of a necessarily sudden stop. Protecting not only the sleeper but my trainee as well, it was my decision to wake her.
“Get the FUCK away from me, asshole,” she screamed. Then the kick to my shin. “I can sleep or do whatever I want, you can’t tell me what to do!”
I stepped back after this, surprised at the sudden outburst. My Irish blood began to boil. The authority figure on board, sole representative of my transit agency, suddenly embroiled in a controversy. All eyes on me.
“You just assaulted me!” I said loudly, for all to hear. “You’ve kicked a bus operator, and now you need to get off the bus. NOW!”
“You assaulted me, asshole!” she screamed.
I hadn’t touched her. Liars, especially in front of 30 witnesses and several on-board cameras, get no consideration from me. None whatsoever.
Backing to the steps leading to the rear of my bus, I repeated myself.
“Leave the bus now,” I said in measured tone. “You can get off voluntarily, or in handcuffs because I’m calling the police. Your choice.”
Flames of fury followed my stroll back to the front of the bus. Trainee had been rolling along like a pro. We were on time, at a point where any other newbie would have surrendered the seat so I could make up late time. I was proud of this driver, but still had to follow procedure and call Dispatch. To do otherwise would have been foolish. Wasted Wanda was still going off back there, her language that of a drunken river rat.
Calmly explaining the situation to an ever-patient dispatch sister, I realized all eyes were on me. All part of the job, a public servant displaying authority during a stressful situation. You see, if someone causes trouble on a bus, it’s an operator’s duty to remain calm and professional. My backing off Wanda was the best way to de-escalate. Taught to be a gentleman by my beloved father and a professional operator by my trainers, the last thing I needed was to further engage her. Dispatch asked for a description of the law-breaker, which I provided. All the while, I ignored the illiterate threats and insults emanating from that wicked passenger’s tongue.
Usually, speaking with Dispatch on the radio is the perfect opportunity for trouble-makers to exit the bus. It’s a clue of the mayhem to follow. Wanda seized this moment, storming forward toward me with a stream of screams as silent passengers made way. As she neared, I turned my back to her. My insult to hers, I wouldn’t give her a moment her misplaced belligerence begged. After she exited, I instructed my trainee to shut the doors, which sounded like a query to my beloved sister on the radio. She advised that very action as he flipped the door switch closed.
At this point, Lady Dispatcher asked if I was going to press charges against my assailant. Here’s where I waffled. You see, I was once married to a very abusive woman. Long ago. Still, I suffer trauma whenever reminded of that relationship. The victim of severe mental and physical abuse during that marriage, I never had her arrested. Back then, it was usually the male hauled off in chains. Husband/victims were rare, and I feared my wife would accuse me of exactly what she had done to me. That, and shame for my circumstances, made me feel cornered into a protective fetal position. Cowering was un-manly, but in my mind, I remembered Dad’s lessons to never hit a woman. Even in self-defense, my legal status was unstable.
I decided not to press charges. Told my radio lifeline I would not pursue legal action. All I wanted was for her to leave. Out of my life. It was my trainee’s last day of Hell Week/Line Training. My passengers had already been delayed about eight minutes and only wanted to get home. My very last thought was for everyone else rather than myself. Sister Road Supe met up with us a few minutes later, and I steadfastly refused to press charges. Dispatch cleared us to roll, so we did.
Today, I chose not to work. Reports written, dinner digested and my mind left to roam, the anger returned. Full force fury. Then, I tried to put myself in Wanda’s shoes. Here I was, a large male authority, waking her from slumber. Perhaps she had been a victim of abuse, and waking to my presence awakened another sleeping beast. Did she feel threatened by me, lashing out with her foot as a protective measure learned from past experience? Instinctive self-defense, perhaps. Part of me felt empathy, even though I was still seething from her abuse. In the moment, I felt responsible for what happened.
You see, just a few hours earlier, I did follow procedure. A man was asleep at the end of the line, and I slowly made my way toward him, making noise and telling him to wake up. It happens sometimes, as hard-working people find time on the bus to catch a few winks of much-needed nap time. Usually they miss their stop and are embarrassed, apologetic even. Not the case with this guy. Since he didn’t awaken as I made my way toward him, I got louder. When I was a step away, I saw that he was holding a large, very sharp-looking knife. An eight-inch blade, cradled in his lap. Images of last year’s knife murder on our light rail system instantly flashed in my mind. Quietly backing away, I returned to my radio and requested assistance. A supervisor arrived, followed by police. He left the bus without incident and sans weapon, which had fallen to the floor before he was awakened by the officer.
Why would I then, not two hours later, feel empowered to roust a female passenger? How could I know she wasn’t armed? A bit of misplaced male arrogance, that’s why. Sheer foolishness, as well.
Social media commenters chastised me for not requesting a supervisor to meet me en route to wake the second sleeper. I felt it more important to safeguard a passenger on my own rather than wait for a supervisor. I didn’t expect the sleeper’s response. A Canadian operator was murdered a year ago when he roused a sleeper at the end of his line. You can’t always tell if any passenger is armed and prepared to kill. There are no guarantees I’ll return safely home after a shift, even if I do follow proper procedure. Regardless of these considerations, I am the victim of an assault, albeit minor in comparison to others.
As a fellow human being, I wish my assailant well. Well away from me, that is. Still… it’s an occasion to remember and learn from. I was lucky this time.
My first week of fourth grade in a new school, I saw a girl who seemed the most lovely creature I’d ever experienced. At nine, girls were more of an annoyance than something to be noticed. But Debbie was entrancing, and held me in her spell.
Fitting into a new school for the third time in as many years was my main goal, so Debbie took a back seat. Besides, single-digit-aged boys have little use for romance. Still, I cultivated my secret love for this willowy, pretty girl over the next few years. We were in different classes and didn’t see each other except at recess. Well I saw her anyway. She never seemed interested in the “new kid in town.” Perhaps, I reasoned, she was just fickle.
Fast forward to Eighth Grade Graduation and the requisite dance afterward. As it probably remains so today, there were boys on one side, girls on the other. The most popular found the bravery to actually make it onto the dance floor, where they clumsily learned to groove to the music. I was more interested in the band, The Apple, which featured my brother Bill playing flute. Too nervous initially to make my move, I used every bit of energy to appear cool, disinterested. My eyes kept swiveling toward where Debbie sat, surrounded by her friends who ignored the many male glances in their direction.
Thinking of how lovely Miss Debbie looked, her hair carefully brushed and framing her delicate face, had my heart pounding. Four years I had hid my feelings for her. No more, I decided. It was “go time.” Now or never. The “now” part turned into 20 minutes. Each second seemed an eternity as my soul’s competing angels argued. “Ask her,” Lefty demanded. “What if she says no?” Righty asked. On it went, until I finally stopped that heated debate, balled my fists and punched the air, Ali style. I was just gonna do it.
Striding across the cafeteria floor, dodging a growing number of clumsy dancers, I kept my eyes fixed on Debbie. She saw me, her mouth dropped open, and she quickly turned away. Her friends saw me too. They giggled, prodding Debbie to look up as I arrived in front of her.
“Hi Debbie,” I stammered. “Want to dance?” Those were, to that point, the hardest words I had ever spoken. More giggling, but not from Debbie.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Carrie, the main character had a way of freezing people as she turned to stare at whoever pissed her off. Debbie’s head turned toward me in this fashion, her face frozen in a grimace. Her eyes narrowed into slits, her jaw clenched. Then she answered.
“I… wouldn’t dance with you… if you were the last person on Earth.” She seemed to hiss, rather than speak. I half-expected her to growl and spit as well. Her friends gasped, one of them uttered a nervous laugh.
“That was mean,” one of them whispered to her, looking up at me with a sort of apologetic smile.
Stunned, my mouth opened to reply, but no words found the sound. Turning away, everything seemed to move in slow motion. It felt like a hundred eyes followed as I walked straight to an exit and into the night. Humiliation burned my eyes to tears, and soon I was running. Four years of being nice to her, holding doors open, smiling her direction whenever our eyes met, had been wasted. What kind of person could do this to another? Nobody had ever been so cruel to me.
I should have danced with Lovely Louise instead. She liked me, even though I wasn’t aware of it. She actually smiled back whenever our eyes met. Louise was sweet and kind. Debbie had morphed from the fantasy girl I had imagined into a cruel little weasel. It didn’t matter at that point.
After a summer of recovery, high school beckoned. A different girl was now on my radar. She was much sweeter, and beautiful. I hadn’t noticed her before, and the chase began. I was much more cautious. We exchanged notes, as puppy lovers do. Smiles, flirty winks, forced laughter at each other’s jokes became more frequent. At a basketball game, Eloisa and I sat together. I had just showered after our freshman game, even though my time was mostly spent on the bench.
I didn’t dare try to hold her hand, but we were having fun. We were entranced by each other. Drinking in her loveliness, I was close enough to smell her sweet scent. My hormones raced, my lips ached to meet hers. As the game ended, we made for the door. I didn’t know we were being stalked. We should have moved faster, but the gym doors were narrow and prevented a quick escape. Finally outdoors, our hands brushed. She entwined her fingers with mine. We walked toward the parking lot, making for Main Street.
“Patrick, let’s go home now,” the voice said from behind. I froze.
It was Mom. She had been watching her hormone-charged son making moves for nearly two hours. For whatever reason, she didn’t approve. Eloisa was a sweet girl, but she and I had definite makeout plans, and Mom knew it. Her 14-year-old virgin, she decided, wasn’t quite ready for young love.
Turning to face her, I gave her a sly grima
ce, as if to say “Ma, I got this… please?” What I said was, “I’ll walk home, we’re going to hang out with…”
She didn’t let me finish. “I said we’re going home. Now. Come on.” That was it. Nobody, not even the school board or governors argued with this woman. She was battle-ready, and I heard it in the tone of her voice. It was probably the most humiliated I had felt since Debbie rejected me four months earlier.
Looking down at gorgeous Eloisa, I shrugged. She looked disgusted, snatched her hand away and stormed off. Mom’s plan worked; I never had a chance with her afterward.
As a parent, I learned later that Mom may have been a bit heavy-handed but she knew the dangers we faced. Teenage pregnancy must have been her main motivation. She probably smelled the fiery pheromones floating between us. Whatever made her tear us apart was of no importance at the time. I was mad at her for weeks. Twice in one year, my love life had come to devastating ends. It would be months before I made moves on another girl, but I had matured since then. My libido was a raging inferno, and it was later satisfied with one even sweeter than I deserved.
Debbie, wherever you ended up, I hope you found love. And compassion. I also hope your manners improved. Sweet Eloisa, I’m sorry but nobody in their right mind would disobey my mother… not even a testosterone-charged, beloved son. Hopefully, you also found your heart’s desire.
As for me, I am loved more now than I could have ever imagined at that tender age. It all works out. Puppy love, it turns out, is best spent on canines.