Dispatches | March 23, 2007

My stepfather Joe Ozark died on March 4th; he was seventy-five.  Three ex-wives, three children, three stepchildren, and scads of grandchildren, I’d say he had a full life.

He’d been sick for awhile so his death didn’t come as a shock.  He also had premonitions of his death and had made a farewell tour of some of his old haunts, namely the resort he once owned on Table Rock Lake.  And we had talked, both expressing our love and admiration for each other.

So I’d been expecting and dreading his death for sometime.  What did surprise me was my level of grief.  Childishly, I felt abandoned, vulnerable.  Now I was on the frontline unprotected by a parent.  I was also surprised by the flood of memories, so much time has passed, and old injuries, too many beloved friends gone.  His death brought to the surface silt I thought long ago had settled.

My family cremates, so I had two weeks of class and work before his funeral, where I could openly grieve.  When I told my husband that I worried that I might cry in the middle of a class lecture, he said, “You teach at a woman’s college.  They’ll love you even more for it.” 

The loss of my stepfather reminded me of the importance of friends.  One of my colleagues at Stephens put a big stuffed duck and a sympathy card on my desk in my office.  The night before the funeral, my two best friends from college showed up at my hotel room in Skokie, Illinois, and took me out for a night of drinking (I kept it to three glasses of merlot).  And many of the interns and staff at The Missouri Review took over my Murry’s dinner duties, just in case I didn’t make it back in time from Chicago.

Our Murry’s fundraising dinner was one of the best.  Rodney Jones, a man with perfect comic timing and a deadpan delivery, read several poems from his prize winning collection Salvation Blues.  My friend Ron Mitchell joined us from Evanston, Indiana where he teaches and edits the Southern Indiana Review.  And my stepdaughter Caitlin and her husband Josh brought their five-month old daughter, Emlin (you’ve got to indoctrinate them early). 

A couple of months before my stepfather died, he sent me a puzzle that he bought at The Shepherd of the Hills.  When I was in college in Branson, I  had a part in the outdoor drama.  He thought the young woman pictured on the puzzle was me.  It wasn’t.  I’m not sure what to make of that, except to be happy to be mistaken for someone so young and beautiful.  His gesture, sweet but a little off, seems like a perfect anti-epiphantic moment in, say, a Carver or Beattie story.

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