The Cowboy In Me

When I hear this song by Tim McGraw I can’t help but think of my dad. It brings me straight back to 2002, and one of our car trips from Marshall back to Rochester. We were riding in silence, listening to the radio as we so often did on those long trips, and this song came on.

Dad: Turn this one up……

I did as he asked, and we listened as we drove down the highway. I immediately “got” why he liked this song, in his own way dad was a cowboy of sorts. And this song a reflection of dad’s life, in words…set to music, and delivered in the most perfect of ways by one of our time’s most talented musical artist’s.

I don’t know why I act the way I do

Like I ain’t got a single thing to lose

Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy

I guess that’s just the cowboy in me

Dad mostly did things his way. You could ask him nicely, or not nicely and often you would get the same response which was, if it sat right with dad, he did it, if not, he didn’t. Often, we were left scratching at our head’s at his stubbornness and determination for things that seemed, at times, pointless. Case in point, the farm. For years we wanted him to give up farming, it stretched him so thin and financially it seemed more work than it was worth. I remember Randy begging dad to let it go, and look into other options. Keeping up old and outdated machinery, the abuse to his body, the turmoil it caused at home, and the stressors that came with crop/market fluctuations seemed enough to send any sane person running.

But not dad. He loved farming. It was in his blood. There was something about the independence of farming that he loved, and certainly a peace that came with working the land and nurturing crops to market.

It seemed he almost dug in his heels harder when we would try to talk him away from the land that he loved. Truly, it was almost at times that he was “his own worst enemy”.

However, I could never find fault with him with his hesitation to give up farming. I knew that he loved it. And truly, I had so many memories and loved the farm myself. Much of my memories are of dad, dirty from a hard days work, or with grease all over his clothes and his scruffy hats. I loved when I would hug him and the way he smelled, a mix of sweat and dial soap. The working man’s cologne.  For so long after we lost him, I had a winter coat of his in my closet and I would go in there and smell him now and again.  Slowly it lost his scent….

When I was young I would follow him around the farm. He always seemed so strong and bigger than life to me. I remember him carrying pails of feed to the pigs. I would try so hard to mimic him when I was younger, although it was impossible for me to lift the 5 gallon pails dad used. He would often find me a couple small buckets so that I could also carry two. His patience was immeasurable.

Once when we were little, Lon wanted a drink of 7up but he couldn’t quite drink out of a cup yet. Dad was busy outside and had come in for a quick drink but soon he was engrossed in figuring out how to put a nipple on the end of a pop bottle. Somehow dad figured it out and the makeshift bottle of 7up was enjoyed by Lonny (against mom’s wishes initially). It was so cute that even mom got the camera out!

I got a life that most would love to have

But sometimes I still wake up fightin’ mad

At where this road I’m heading down might lead

I guess that’s just the cowboy in me.

Dad and I would talk on and off while he stayed with me, about various ideas and memories.  I remember once while sitting on my front porch with dad, a conversation with him that sums up this set of lyrics perfectly, and gave me a huge perspective to the going’s on in dad’s head.

He talked for the first time ever about when he was young and lived in California for a time, fixing planes. He said that he had big dreams, and had even thought about the military while he was out there. I never knew this about him. I never knew that dad had lived any where other than Minnesota. Suddenly, I saw my dad in a different light. I could envision him young, lean and blonde, and working under a plane on an engine (also a love of his, mechanic and auto body). I saw him there in the bright sun, a young James Dean, on a runway under a plane in sunny California. In that moment I realized that my dad’s life could’ve taken such a different turn.

That other life was not meant to be, as he was called home by his parents, to help with the farm.

Me: Do you regret that? Do you regret coming home to Minnesota?

Dad: Yes…and mostly no. I have all of you kids…..

I understood. How do you look back over your life, without removing parts that are so vital and come up with any different answer. Of course, the road dad’s life took saw him through heartaches, too many if you ask me.  First, losing his wife Joann so young, and then an infant son, Douglas. Then losing my brother Daren in a traumatic car accident. He had some struggles with some serious losses as a farmer, and then through all of that, still not to find his “calling” in a career. It seemed that dad was always searching for a career to love, other than farming that could support his family. And finally, marrying my mother. I know that there was love there, but through the years, they never made any part of their relationship easy.

The last months of dad’s life were hard for him after he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. He didn’t see that end, not at 63. He was angry. He had wanted so much more, and he thought that he had more time, a lot more time, to accomplish the things that had alluded him for much of his life. He had finished school for auto body, that was his dream, to have his own shop and be his own boss. The idea that he could transform cars to their former beauty was something he longed for. That dream alluded him to his end.

He also hated the idea that he was at the mercy of a fate that was both too familiar, and yet unfamiliar. Dad resolved to his fate, but he did not do so acceptingly.

And yet for all of that, I believe that his life was rich. I remember the times we laughed, and all the times we came together as a family. Dad had the best humor, and the most sarcastic! If there was an awkward moment, or a situation that needed lightening, dad found a way to to shed some humor on it. (I am not sure what Lon is laughing about below, but dad is delivering it in his normal straight faced, sarcastic way for sure!)

Dad’s humor was always unpredictable and impeccable, like the time when mom fell and broke her foot, badly. She was on her way home from the hospital thrift shop and then fell just outside our house.  It was winter of course. My dad, my sister Ally and I were all in the ER here at Mayo waiting for mom to have surgery (it was broke so badly they wouldn’t touch it in Marshall) and mom was in pain, and we were all just standing there awkwardly and finally….

Dad: Well you know, had I gotten to mom first, I would’ve drug her to the hospital and said she fell there…. <dad already thinking ahead to the bill>

All of us (including mom): <bust out laughing>

Dad: <quits laughing, now looking a bit guilty>. I maybe shouldn’t have said that <holding back a little laugh>

I look over to see the ER nurse looking at dad over the top of her glasses, clearly assessing if he is an abuser…. <I giggled harder>

We had a surprise 60th birthday for dad. To this day I laugh at how much we GOT him! He was so fooled! I was home in Marshall and mom said that she wanted to go out for breakfast before I headed back to Rochester. That was our ploy as we pulled into the hotel…..

Dad: What are we doing here?

Me: <I am prepared with a story> They serve an all you can eat brunch breakfast buffet here on the weekends now…..

Dad: <I am positive I can imagine he was thinking ‘all you can eat for one low price…NICE!> Oh….I didn’t know that they served food here….

Me: Yeah, Heather (my Marshall friend) was telling me that they started it recently and that it was good…..

We led him into the “dining room” where the buffet was “served” and as he turned the corner it was full of friends and family!

Me: We got you dad….we surprised you! <below picture>

Dad: That you did! <smiling big in his humble way>

He spent that entire day visiting, remembering and laughing with those closest to him and enjoying the things that mattered most!

He felt so honored!


Dad’s dancing girl shirt!  Oh man BEST SHIRT EVER!!  This was dad’s “good, dress up shirt” and literally, he wore it to any event deemed “dress up”.  I am not sure where they got it, but mom LOVED this shirt.  Grandma hated this shirt.  It had 60’s dancing girls for a print and grandma thought it inappropriate to wear to most events.  I am fairly certain this is WHY mom loved this shirt as much as she did.  I am so sad that I did not grab this shirt and make something from it.  

Speaking of dancing, my dad LOVED to dance.  Both my parents did and they danced so easily and sweet together!  It was almost weird to see them hold each others hand and dad spin mom around so softly when they would dance.  I loved watching them dance.  Dad would also get us girls out whenever he could.  I also loved to dance with dad.  I can say that I can dance pretty okay as a partner because of dad!

Girl, I know there’s times you must have thought

There ain’t a line you’ve drawn I haven’t crossed

But you set you mind to see this love on through

I guess that’s just the cowboy in you

Farming pulled dad away from us often. More often than that he missed important events, or we were late and my mom frustrated and embarrassed. I remember the arguments. I remember the ultimatums, the farm or his family. Each time, dad’s answer were his taillights as he drove away.

Somehow though, my parents stayed together. It was as though divorce wasn’t an option although, at times I probably wished it would’ve been.

I believe that there is truth in my sister Roxy’s romantic idea of my parents, at least in part. There was love there, they just couldn’t quite get the friend thing down….until the last few years.

<And the chorus>

The urge to run, the restlessness

The heart of stone I sometimes get

The things I’ve done for foolish pride

The me that’s never satisfied

The face that’s in the mirror when I don’t like what I see

I guess that’s just the cowboy in me.

My dad settled on driving semi cross country when he wasn’t on the farm, as a way to make ends meet. Not a surprising occupation for a man that found solace behind the steering wheel of a car. He alluded to this on one of our many trips to and from Rochester when he was ill.

Dad: I always liked driving, it gave me time to think.

Me: <bust out laughing> No kidding?

Dad: <his quiet laugh>. Yeah, I guess that was obvious.

Me: I like driving too.

Dad: No kidding? <we both laugh> Out of all my kids, you are the most like me……..and the most unlike me.

Me: What do you mean?

Dad: You are restless, and settled all at once. I was mostly restless…..

Me: <thinking I am pretty restless>

Dad was a restless soul, and I also understood that part of him. I have always had that same restless spirit. The one that finds me dreaming, and looking ahead with the cart well before the horse. The need to always be moving, somehow the movement itself bringing me comfort. The need for distance, when life seemed overwhelming. At times running, not knowing what I was running from. I know that dad felt that same way because we talked about our restless spirits those last months he spent with me.

I love this pic. Dad’s motorcycle at the time, and a combine (with me mothering Lon, in my underwear!). That was my dad. There is no more poignant picture than this one to describe my restless, grounded dad.

And then we talked about our ‘Achilles’ (other than our knees) and that was our unrelenting pride.  We both agreed we hated getting backed into a corner and when we did, we usually hardened our heart to the pressure of the situation.  Probably a survival mechanism of sorts, but most often not beneficial.

In spite of our ‘Achilles’, my dad was one of the softest people I have ever known. Once when we were young, we were horsing around in the back seat of the car (aka bsb: before seat belts) and dad kept warning us to settle down and be quiet, that he needed to concentrate on driving.  I envision this whole scene doing down like a Twilight Zone episode… funny now!

Dad: this is your last chance….<already said “last chance” like 6 times>

Us: <continued on goofing around while ignoring him>

Narrator: <in Twilight Zone voice> it would not be there last chance….

Dad: this is your last chance….. <we neglected to catch the lowering of the voice, the “dad growl”…>

Us: <continuing to horse around>

Narrator: <in Twilight Zone voice> what they don’t realize is this was their last chance….

Suddenly, the car swerved to the right, while stopping quickly (oh..oh!) and at the same time his long arm and big hand swept across the back seat. We all saw it coming and ducked to get away, and as we ducked we all clanked heads. We all came up crying, both because we bumped heads but mostly because dad never did that before.  Dad just lost his never ending cool, calm and collect?  We sat stunned…

Dad: I warned you all repeatedly to be quiet and to sit still…..

Us: <crying….>

Dad: Well, I warned you all, and if you would’ve listened I wouldn’t had to get mad….

This continued for some miles, dad feeling bad (continuing to explain to us why he got angry but really wanting to probably hug us), us crying and the whole situation putting a damper on our road trip. The funniest part to this story is that dad never did actually hit anyone of us. He missed us all! But that’s karma for you, we were being naughty and not listening, and we all smacked our own heads. 😉 We did listen after that though, well….a little better.

When he was hurt, defeated or offended, he held it tightly at his heart (our Achilles). Yet, I learned forgiveness and fortitude from him like I had from no one else. He carried his hurt, but in a way in which life went on. I understood that part of him, as I am similar.

On another trip.

Dad: I should’ve probably quit farming years ago. I just didn’t want to admit that I failed at it.

Me: You didn’t fail dad.

Dad: I did. Pride can be both good and bad…..

Towards the end of dad’s illness I would linger around by the bathroom when he was in it. I was afraid he would fall, as he did once before (damn area rug). As I stood outside the door, I could see him through the crack of the door, staring at himself in the mirror. He just stood there and stared. Dad had changed so much by then, he was thin, pale-ish yellow and so frail, such a departure from the robust man he had been. I know he was willing himself to accept the man that was looking back at him, and what was to come. I don’t believe that acceptance ever came, but his strength, that never wavered. He was stoic to his end.

I adored my dad. No matter how old I got, if I knew that dad was going to be around, I was always excited. When I traveled home, and if he was home, I longed to see him. There was never too much of him for me, not ever. There was a comfort I got from him that has never been matched by anyone else.

I wanted so badly to make dad proud of me, at times I failed him.  Many years ago, I quit high school just before I was set to graduate (I would’ve had to attend summer school). It is a complicated story, it can be summed up that through the years I stayed home a lot to help around the house. School was a struggle for me as I missed tests, assignments, etc. I always felt out of place and behind. Most of the time, I simply felt “dumb”. I passed each year only because I barely met the attendance requirements, and because I tested out of each years SAT’s, so they let me proceed to the next year (and they had a pretty good idea of the chaos at home).

Needless to say, it broke my dad’s heart when I didn’t graduate. And that broke mine. I could’ve completed my GED but instead, I enrolled in high school in Sioux City (where we lived at the time), and took a night class (I was pregnant with Darien when I started). Halfway through my pregnancy we moved to Yankton, SD, and I completed my high school education there. The teacher I had in Yankton was beyond amazing. I will never forget when I completed my first class there…..with an A. I received my grade and my eyes welled with tears (pregnancy hormones you know) and I looked over my paper at my instructor who winked at me and said, “not so dumb after all, huh?”

The beautiful part to this story is right there, with that ‘A’, I felt empowered about school for the very first time in my life. Once I graduated from high school (the same year as my little brother Lon 😉 I decided to continue with my education in college. I am almost certain I never would’ve went to college if my life had not gone the path it did.

The more beautiful part to that story was surprising my dad with my high school diploma (he had no idea). He held my diploma in his hand and he didn’t say anything, not a word. He couldn’t, he was choked up.

Eventually, I became a nurse. You would’ve thought I had become the president of the United States🤔 <hmmm> for how proud dad was when he would tell people my occupation.  Dad always had such high hopes for me, and after a few missteps I held to some of his high hopes….

When I was young, the local newspaper was running an ad featuring “future lawmakers of America” as a title, and parents could send in a picture of their child (sort of like the cutest baby contest pics that many papers run) to be featured. My dad insisted they put my pic in there. My mom told me that dad was so proud to have his first little girl, and that he was sure I would run the world with my spunky attitude. I’m not sure spunky is the right word, but I did learn determination as an example set forth by my dad.

I have rarely done anything the easy way, neither did my dad. In fact, I’ve made more mistakes than I can count, some more than once just to be sure it was a mistake you know🤨 . That again is where I am similar to dad. Often it seemed that neither of us chose the easier route, or the better route but we always walked the path we chose and when we could, made right the mistakes we made and held strong under the consequences of our wrongs.

Case in point.

When I was in high school I got in some trouble (drinking and driving) that required a little time at Woodstock (and NO not THE Woodstock, haha, a little town in MN). <I think dad meant future lawbreaker when he put that picture in the paper so many years before 😞  >

I had to stay there for a few days and on the way there I barely spoke. I was scared beyond belief. Dad knew it. He tried to make conversation, but mostly I just sat there. I felt like he was dropping me off at a concentration camp.

We pulled up (late) and I sat in the car.

Dad: You have to go in Carla.

Me: <saying nothing, choking back tears>

Dad: It will be ok.

Me: <choking back MORE tears>

Dad: Want me to walk in with you?

Me: <shaking my head yes>

We walked in, we found the office to check in. They stamped this piece of paper and it was official, I was behind enemy lines, and terrified.

Dad started to leave and I followed him out of the office.

Dad: <stopping> It’s okay Carla. You can do this. It’s a couple days (no it’s THREE dad!!) and then I will be back for you. I promise.

Me: <fighting back tears, now….I start crying>

Dad: <walks up to me and gives me a hug, the ole’ one armed lean in, but still a hug>

Me: <it’s official, dad never hugs, I’m never getting out of here….MIA>

Dad: <laughs a little>. Carla don’t look so sad. It WILL be ok. I have to go now. You will be ok! You have to do this, be strong….

As he walked down the VERY LONG hall, I stood and watched him go. I wanted to run after him. He would stop and turn every so often, and wave. As he went to go through the door, he waved again…..”it’s ok!” He called over his shoulder.

He left me….

It really was okay. Within a few hours I met new friends and the three days flew by.

He came to get me (late) as promised a few days later and I jumped in the car smiling….

Dad: I see you lived…. <laughing>. I knew you’d be just fine.

Many years later, on one of our many to and fro car trips, he admitted that he sat in the car debating if he should come back in that day and insist on taking me home. He said he drove home slowly and worried the whole way…..

Oh dad….

My dad will always be my “first love”. He is the man that for all my life has totally filled my heart in a way that I can never explain. He is my dad.

Today, September 6th, 2018 is my dad’s 80th birthday, a milestone of sorts for many people who reach that age, but for my dad it will always be unattainable.

Looking back, I can’t believe that it has been more than 15 years since he has been gone. I realized this the other day as I was sitting with Bruce at his chemo appointment. He was asking me what I was going to do my next post on, and I said that I did not know.

Me: Maybe my dad, it’s his birthday in a week…..

Then it hit me. This would be a milestone birthday for him.

This is a pic of his last birthday that we had with him. He was just 64. I love this one, I feel like he is standing there taking in his family and enjoying all the life he brought forth.

I had always envisioned my dad rambling around on the farm that he loved, and maybe even loathed, into his 90’s. All of us did. We never imagined that we would lose him as young as he was. If we were surprised, dad was thunderstruck.

This sentiment he would say again and again….throughout his life.

Dad: I thought I had more time…..

For most of dad’s life, he went about it with the idea that there would always be more time. Time to do the things he dreamed of. Time to take his boys and grandkids fishing. Time to work on old cars. Time to be with family.

Time to be finally be on time 😉

Don’t we all do that? And that is really what life is about, expecting tomorrow. He lived his life that way. There is something really cool about that, almost liberating. The idea that there is always time, and that things will work out.

I learned that from him. I always believe that there is time (which is why I am often late), and that things will work out (which they usually do).

For all the times I have experienced loss in my life, I find that I don’t settle on it long. I don’t often worry about what tomorrow will bring, because it will bring what it will. I have never worried about “the fall”, the same as my dad didn’t. Maybe one day that reality, time running out, will also be the thing that will give me pause, as it did my dad. However, as with all things in my life, I learned a valuable lesson from my dad. I learned that life will lead you down whatever road it has chosen for you, and you either walk that path head up and strong, or you weaken under it’s reality.

Dad taught me that even though not everything is always understood, you can still meet it with strength and dignity.

That was my dad, strong to the end.

We ride and never worry about the fall

I guess that’s just the cowboy in us all.

Happy Birthday dad-because I am forever your little girl.


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