On this Father’s Day, I think of my father, Leonard Buller, gone 20 years now but still here with me in so many ways. My mind’s eye holds memories like snapshots — here’s a few:
This earliest visual memory is quite vivid: Mom was coming home from the hospital, and I knew that meant she was bringing the new baby home.
Except that the birth had gone horribly wrong, and my baby brother, Brian Craig, never came home, dying within 2 days. Most likely, Dad or someone had tried to explain that to me, but being 3, I didn’t really understand.
So when Mom and Dad walked in the door, I blurted out excitedly, “Where’s the baby?”
My father’s face looked as if he’d been hit by a ton of bricks, and he turned, slumping to brace himself against a planter wall, and hung his head. I don’t remember what was said or done then.
Maybe it’s lucky that I was too young to understand, or I might have been frightened by the sight of my father’s pain. But to this day, I can still see him struggling to hold himself up, nearly crushed under the weight of the loss of his son.
date uncertain, probably 1960
My big brother, Scott, and I were playing in the backyard. He’d been watching ski jumping on TV and decided to try it on our slide. Running down the slide and jumping off the bottom end produced no great thrill.
So, he tried it in reverse: running up the slide and jumping off the top. Now that was thrilling — for a minute, until he hit the ground and broke his arm.
I don’t remember Scott’s screams. My memory sees Dad running out of the back door and across the yard in his socks and boxers and undershirt to help his son. I’d never seen him move so fast.
Scott and Dad were so alike, they fought a lot for a long time. Scott pushed away hard, converting to Judaism in college, then changing his last name to Whitebird when he married. They butted heads and verbally lashed out at each other, savagely at times.
The name thing kept Scott and our parents estranged for years. In 1983, the birth of Scott & Joanie’s daughter, Jessie Rhiannon Whitebird, softened things enough that the Whitebird name was slowly and tacitly, if not enthusiastically, accepted.
Then, when Jessie was not quite 5, she got sick.
I mean really sick.
I mean brain cancer sick.
But this is not that story— I will try to share that story another time.
One day, when the roller coaster ride of hope and despair that is cancer treatment was spiraling downward yet again on its finally fatal descent, I found Dad sitting on his “perch,” a chair-stool at the kitchen counter.
He looked up, and for one of the very few times I remember, tears filled Dad’s eyes as he said of Scott, “Why does he always have to have such shitty luck?”
But the strongest memory of my father is not really a specific visual of him — well, okay, it’s a stream of visuals, not a single image, but an anecdote that embodies his spirit.
I’d moved out of the house to go college. Mom and Dad had bought the house in 1964 specifically for the mother-in-law apartment to accommodate Granny whenever she visited. Now, she was moving down to live with the folks full-time.
Scott and I were recruited to move her and her stuff from San Antonio. We drove 2 cars from Houston with a U-Haul trailer for the stuff and stayed overnight one last time at the big old boarding house, now finally empty of all tenants. That’s another story, too.
Come time to leave, I headed out on the highway first, in Scott’s car (our former family car), and he and Granny would follow a little later with the U-Haul in tow.
But driving east on I-10, I suddenly saw smoke pouring out from the hood and the car started losing power. I pulled off at the next exit — thankfully close — and rolled up to what I thought was a service station. Instead, it was a travel center with gas pumps, but no mechanic. So they had no one to help me, and, of course, I had no money to pay anyone anyway (college student, remember?).
I walked up to the highway to wait for Scott & Granny and the U-Haul to flag them down. There’s a funny story about that, too, but it’s already taking too long to get back to Dad.
So now we’re all at the travel center and call Dad in Houston— collect, of course — and he gets in his car and drives 90 miles to come rescue us. Looking back, well, of course, he did — his mother and his 2 sons were stranded along the highway.
But it was the way he drove out there right away, calmly fixed the car with a radiator hose he already had (“Carry these in your car so you can just fix it yourself next time,” he likely said in passing), and got us all headed back down the highway to Houston.
That was Dad.
They say men don’t express emotions well. Usually, what they mean is men don’t talk about their emotions. I have come to believe that’s because emotions may be too big for words. My father expressed love for his family every day in so many ways, through helping, caring, loving actions — I worry that words might belittle that love.