Burley Combs

February 5, 1942 - February 15, 2008

My Dad

Like all families, ours has had its ups and downs. Through it all, Dad was our rock. The foundation of our world was shaken when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor just before Christmas of 2001. It was then when I truly realized bad things happen to good quality people.

The dreaded tumor was removed on July 7, 2002, and he did remarkably well afterwards. Long hours in his hospital room and the waiting room gave us plenty of opportunities to share our favorite memories of Dad.

He had always been one of those "deal with it" males. You know the type. Loyal. Quiet. Strong. He was forever working on his "honey do list". In fact, I'm sure he'd have been bored out of his skull without that all important list. He'd always been one of those fathers you could call when you got a flat tire or you needed a loan—payable whenever. You know the type who knew beforehand to ask, "Whatchya do now?" Sometimes your situation earned a smile from him, but he always had the solution.

Childhood memories are scarce, but the ones remaining are treasured. Daddy worked hard, putting in his thirty years at a local auto manufacturer.

I can still remember Mom calling, "Girls, quiet down. Your daddy is sleeping. You know how he gets." My sister and I would share a look of understanding. "Yeah, Mom, we know. Grouchy." He'd growl about how noisy little girls could be.

I don't know how many years he worked midnights, but I can remember how he'd take my sister and me to the park on Saturdays.

We enjoyed family vacations and many trips back home to Kentucky where he and Mom grew up. His extended family could always count on Dad to be there for them. Whether it was for a holiday, Indianapolis 500 race day, a sibling in need, or back-breaking work, Dad was there for those he called family.

In my early years, country music was always playing in the background. Barbara Mandrell, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Conway Twitty, and Tanya Tucker, to name only a few. Even today, I can sing along to the oldies.

Daddy was a hand holder. Besides asking, "You doing alright, Peach?", he wasn't much on talking, yet when he took my hand in his big, rough one, life was perfect.

Oh, he was good looking, too. I can still remember how he'd get dressed up in a nice pair of slacks, dress shirt and slip his leather jacket on. Female heads would turn when he walked by. Everyone said so.

Now, when he drank, he'd loosen up. He'd talk to anyone. Often, he'd sing off key to us. Dad was no lightweight drinker either. His poison was vodka, straight from a fifth. Daddy had a dark spot in his past: he'd drink and drive. He'd crashed so often on the same bridge in Greenwood it was finally named after him.

Daddy was tough. One day, out of the blue, he quit drinking cold turkey and didn't touch a drop of liquor until the day he died. A few years later, he quit smoking altogether, too. I've often wanted his will power. I could use it when it comes to ice cream.

He didn't give up all his vices, though. When he could, he continued to play pool and gamble at cards with his family and friends. He'd been known to some as "eight ball" and he taught me enough about poker to know you can't beat a royal flush.

He also instilled a love for stockcar racing in his daughters and grandchildren. Nothing made me happier as a preteen than to see the driver I picked take the checkered flag ahead of Dad's favorite. I often doubled my allowance on a Sunday afternoon.

After dinner, evenings were often spent together watching his favorite television shows. Gilligan's Island. The Andy Griffin Show. Archie Bunker. The Jeffersons. Charlie's Angels. Dad had a thing for Jaclyn Smith.

As my sister and I grew into teenagers, Daddy's love for country music was still there, only he got to torture our friends with it, too. We still took vacations and road trips but now our friends were allowed to join us. Today, I still have the same best friend I had in high school and it's funny, now she enjoys country music. She says it's all thanks to my dad.

My sister and I grew up answering to the childhood names Dad gave us, Peach and Pineapple. We were taught morals and norms by a man with a quiet voice, gentle hand and an old work belt. Oh yeah, Daddy was one of those fathers that moms threatened you with, "You just wait until your daddy gets home".

He survived giving us driving lessons and chauffeuring us around. There were trips to malls, fairs and parties. He wasn't thrilled about our destinations, but Lord forbid if we didn't call him when the situation warranted it.

My favorite memories are of the late nights when we'd sit in the semi-dark with Daddy and he'd tell us about his life experiences.

Dad was deathly afraid of snakes. He wouldn't even handle garter snakes. One time when he was in the outhouse as a boy, a snake crawled up out of the hole beside where he was sitting. Another chased him clear down a mountain until his uncle laughingly yelled at him, "Turn across the mountain." Daddy did and the snake stuck to its original path.

Another time, as a young boy, he was dragging a fallen log out of the mountains for some spending money when he hit a nest of yellow jackets. He and the mule were stung so many times, he had to strip out of his clothes and run down the mountain buck naked. He'd been thankful cameras had been for rich folk back then.

There were stories of boys being boys, skipping school, firecrackers in back pockets, and switchings that were well deserved. My sister and I still laugh over them.

There were his old Army stories. He didn't go Airborne because his Sergeant on the first day of training said, "As the day passes the Army will separate the boys from the men and the men from the fools." Dad told him, "It's a good day to still be a boy. Because I'm damn sure no fool. I'm not jumping out of a perfectly good airplane."

He got his fear of flying coming back from the Hawaii Army base where he'd been stationed. He came across the Pacific in a storage plane where the guys were lined up against the walls as the equipment bounced around on chains in the middle.

During his retirement, we made new memories with him. These memories are bittersweet. We had five good years after the first brain tumor was removed before the second one appeared.

In October 2007, Dad collapsed again. The diagnosis was far worse the second time around. The tumor wasn't reachable by surgery. And soon what had been a single tumor became a cluster of three.

Months were spent battling the disease with chemo and radiation therapy. Dad didn't show any fear during this stage in his life. I, like a good daughter, followed his lead. I saved my tears for when I was alone. We all grasped at collecting all the memories possible.

And then the greatest man I've ever known was given a final life expectancy. While I couldn't take a breath and the oncologist had tears in her eyes, Dad took it with grace.

A few days later my sister and I were exploring Oahu, Hawaii, with Dad. He'd wanted to see the island one more time. While the island's beauty was captivating, it was something Dad said that I recall the most. "Life is too damn short. Be happy girls. Don't live with regrets."

His final weeks went too fast. All of us stole every moment we could with him. I can actually hear him ask his standard "What's your hurry?" if one of us had to leave. Or order one of us to "be good," as we were leaving. Hours, days, were spent in his company. We took short road trips. Old movies were watched. His favorite foods shared.

More memories were stored in hopes of lasting a lifetime. And finally, hospice was called in...

Dad was such a strong man, full of pride, dignity, and hope. Yes, Dad held out hope until the very end.

He will always hold a special place in our hearts and lives. While I couldn't possibly have asked for a better dad, the time he'd devoted to his grandchildren is treasured tenfold. I know one day one of them will say, "Mom, you remember when Grandpa did this or that?"

And I'll smile and say, "I sure do. That was my dad."

Thank you, Daddy, for all the good times and all the unconditional love.

Your loving daughter,

© 2009 Melissa Combs