Monday, February 26, 2007

The Other George Smiley

Patty here…

Thursday, February 22nd was my father's birthday. My George Smiley was born in Missouri, the youngest of four brothers. His mother died when he was two and he and another brother were given up for adoption by their birth father because they were too young to work. When he was three, George’s adoptive father died and his life plunged into darkness. At sixteen he left home, traveling to the state capitol to locate his adoption papers, which he meticulously copied by hand. With that information in his possession, he set off to find his brothers and his birth father, wandering west, riding the rails and working at odd jobs to survive: farm hand, laborer, gas station attendant.

George mostly kept his emotions to himself but if you bothered to look, you could often see the pain in his eyes and in his furrowed brow. He never told me he loved me but by all accounts he did. There was a lot I didn’t know about how he felt, but there was one thing I knew beyond a doubt. He trusted me.

My father never graduated from high school. He was blue-collar all the way. But he was smart and he never feared to try the impossible. I often teased him that John Le Carré had stolen his name and used it for the hero of his spy novels. He used to smile, even though I knew he had never heard of John Le Carré and would never read one of his books. In fact, I never saw my father read any book, but he was proud when he learned I’d written a novel that would soon be published.

On April 16, 1999, I received one of many faxes my father sent to me over the years. This one outlined his last wishes. It read: “I want my ashes flown to Hawaii and spread over the blue Pacific in the trade winds to float in the cosmos over time forever.” Over the years those faxes became more passionate and poetic but the destination was always the same—Hawaii.

He’d never been to the islands, and I wasn’t sure why he wanted to end up in a place he had never seen, but he did and that was good enough for me. The last time we discussed the subject I remember looking him square in the eye and promising that no matter what happened I would honor his wishes. The only problem was I never expected to act on that promise, because I didn’t think my father would ever die.

In December 2002 I was visiting my parents. My father had been ill for a few days, nothing serious his doctor said. In fact, he didn’t even want to go to hospital. I had to convince him to do so. One night I stayed late, visiting with him. He was in bed. He was cold. He hated being cold. I tucked the blankets tight around his neck and put my hand on his forehead, like my mother had done to me when I was a child.

“I’m in trouble,” he said.

I was puzzled because his tone was so matter-of-fact, so I asked him what he meant. He wouldn’t say more. He just repeated the words, “I’m in trouble.” I assured him he’d be okay; the doctor had said so. He responded with “Everything is in your hands now.”

He died the next morning while I was at Wal-Mart buying him a pair of slippers. As he had instructed, I arranged for his cremation, but a year passed before my mother could bear to part with his ashes.

George was a veteran of World War II. He didn't talk much about those experiences, except to Will whom he adored. The feeling was mutual. Will wanted an honorable memorial service for an honorable man so he arranged for a Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence and Special Operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet to take us out in his private boat where we held a traditional military burial-at-sea ceremony at the mouth of Pearl Harbor not far from the Arizona Memorial and the Missing Man Formation sculpture at Hickam Field where one of his brothers had been stationed for a time.

Performing the service was a retired Navy man who was also a lay minister of the Lutheran Church. Before the committal, I said a final goodbye to my father, fulfilling the promise I’d made to him so many years before.

I threw two orchid leis on the water and watched as his ashes floated out to sea, kissed by a warm rain, drifting “over the blue Pacific in the trade winds to float in the cosmos over time forever.” A moment later a honu broke the surface of the water.

In the Hawaiian culture a honu represents the cosmos.


P.S. CONGRATULATIONS to Our J!!!!! Her fourth novel MESSENGER OF TRUTH has just been nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Novel. I'll be at the awards ceremony in May, cheering her on!

Here she is with one of her horse pals (not Sara). I'm sure they're all celebrating right about now.


  1. Patty, thank you for sharing your memories about your father. I'm very sorry for your loss. He sounds like a good, solid, dependable man.

  2. What a remarkable man! You were lucky to have so many years to know him. And you were both brave and kind to have honored his last wishes so well.

    A fine father. And a fine daughter.

    (And yes, congrats all around to Jackie!)

  3. Thanks Deborah. My father was an original, as all of our fathers are. The loss of a parent is a milestone in most of our lives. Over time it's illuminating to see which memories our mind-filters screen out and which are allowed through.

  4. Thanks, Louise. While writing this post I was reminded of the poignant stories you tell about your mother.

  5. Wonderful remembrance of your father. Heartfelt and powerful. He would have liked it.

    And great news re Jacqueline!

  6. Oh, Patty, your post has had me in tears. What a beautiful remembrance of your father, and what a poet he was. Thank you for this. There is something about your story that reminds me of my own father, so it has really touched my heart.

    And thank you so much for your congratulations. I am as surprised as can be, but it will be great to see you at "Malice." And the horse in question is Ben, my brother's draft horse. He is a real giant - about 2300 lbs - my brother doesn't drive him any more, but he does ride him!

  7. What a beautiful story, Patty. Thanks for sharing it.

  8. Damnit! It's not nice to make me cry at the office!

    God bless you, him, and yours.


  9. And now you have a father out there, in the cosmos.

  10. Draft horse? Does that mean he likes a beer now and then? No...I suppose not.

  11. Patty, this was so lovely. Your father sounds like a truly fine man, and I know he's got a daughter to be very, very proud of.

    I don't know if anyone told you this during the ceremony at sea, but since you mentioned that it was raining I thought you should know it's a Hawaiian tradition that rain during a funeral means the gods are crying over the death of someone they cherished.


  12. I hadn't heard the rain story before, Cornelia, but I like it. Thanks for telling me and for all of your kind words. I feel lucky to be hanging out with you guys.

  13. Most beautiful, Patty. And I love the photo of him, you, and the sea turtle.

    And congrats to Jacqueline!

  14. What an absolutely lovely, gentle remembrance of your father, Patty. I've joined the tearing up crowd, too.

    The more goes 'ashes to ashes' and returned to dust, but I like to think that we are 'stardust'. Isn't there a song about that? :-) Also, the warm waters of our planet are the source of all life on our little bit of the universe. I think he chose well. If you've a mind, go visit the website of artist John Pitre whose heart belongs to the cosmos and the endless waves around Hawaii: it's what I pictured somewhat, when I read your post.

    Congratulations, too, Our J.!! I loved Messenger of Truth, and it made me tear up too. :-D

    We're back from Dallas, now. So I'll just go back to lurking and reading last weeks posts.


  15. Naomi, that picture of my dad at the park on the swing is one of my all time favorites.

    Marianne, so glad to have you back. We missed you. And thanks for the link. I'm going there now.