My father, Don Gillis died on this date, January 10, 1978. He had serious heart problems, and as a typical Texan man who loved his steak, bourbon and cigarettes it’s not a surprise. He went for a walk, my mother and I, not quite 9 years old, went to pick him up and he died in the car while telling a joke. As you can imagine, a hard day.
This day still is a bit hard for me. That’s natural, I suppose. Grief isn’t something that truly disappears. It’s more like a ripple in an ocean. It begins as a backwards tidal wave with the strength of the pain at the beginning. But even so many years later, there are eddies, or splashes of grief that wash up now and again.
He was a very funny man, my father. A Christian, a composer, conductor, teacher, producer and writer. He believed in peace. He used humor and storytelling to help educated his students. One of his books was called “Teaching As A Performing Art” and I often think that advocacy and social justice work can be so too.
He was well loved, though he suffered from deep insecurities. I didn’t get to really know him as an adult, but I’ve had the benefit of reading personal works of his which read much like my own personal journal entries. He wanted so much to do things well, to be loved, to love, to make goodness. He worried that he didn’t.
He never reached a true fame, probably because he wasn’t a cutthroat kind of individual, playing politics over people. He cared about the outcome, yes, but he cared about the process along the way.
He loved my mother (I got to see a few of his letters to her as well, steamy and romantic!). I always remember him treating her with love, kindness, good humor and sweetness. He loved me too, though I was a surprise baby, late in both their lives. I think I offered him something. I hope I did. The picture above shows me coming to his composing table, asking him to draw kitties for me. He’d always stop, and I can only hope that my interruptions didn’t alter his symphonies, to draw for me.
Mostly, I wish he’d gotten to know me and that I’d gotten to know him. But, of course if he had, I might not be the person I am today. The scar tissue left by his death, and the subsequent difficulties faced by my mother, helped mold me into this person, and I’ve done copious work on figuring out that scar tissue and what strength and weakness it’s given me.
I’m good at the things he was good at-producing, writing, music and theater, listening to people, humor, love. I’m still working on all the stiffness around the scars left, I’m too cautious with people sometimes, though I seem outgoing, I’m weirdly shy inside. I’m not nearly as cutthroat as I should be, or maybe I’m fine the way I am. I want to take the things his given me and make the most of them. To be like him, a good person, a good human, and a funny one at that.
He was a good man, my father, and I carry things he’s given me.
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