A few mornings ago, I lay in bed long before 4:00 and found myself crying as I thought of when my dad died. Now that the only sad part really is the enormous hole that he left, I will put it into writing.
I dreaded my senior year of college. I definitely wanted to graduate, but student teaching loomed like an opponent I would never be equipped to face. To make everything worse, I had to return to Florida three weeks before the usual time, which was three weeks of not watching the Alaskan fireweed rotate through its blossoms as it ticked off the days for us. Daddy and one of my sisters took me into Anchorage to put me on the airplane, but we made a couple of stops before the airport. One stop was at Carr’s to buy an alarm clock. I know I had an alarm clock packed away at school, but I must not have been able to rely on getting it out of storage once I was in Florida. Daddy and I looked at them together and chose a slim battery-run one that would fit into any pocket. He surprised me by buying it for me, and I remember happily thanking him.
It’s no use making up anything at the airport. All memories are gone except for boarding the airplane, turning around, and waving at my family. I can still see Daddy smiling and waving back. That is the memory that supported my hope for a closed casket at his funeral.
The first few days passed oddly at our student teacher orientation as we navigated our awkward way through not being teachers, not being students, and not being respected by anyone. That easily made us all pretty good friends, and I liked the good-humored group of girls I was usually with. I remember one ironic conversation we had during a time when we were working on our “masters'” bulletin boards or collating. They were talking about how unsuccessful they generally were as daughters in getting their dads to do what they wanted. I realized that my dad was different. I could not picture him denying us anything that we truly wanted, though (or because) we had been trained not to ask for things much. I did say something about this to the others, who, if they believed me, were jealous.
As was the Houghton custom, I got up earlier in the mornings than was actually permitted. At first, I would lie in bed for my prayer time. Each morning that week, I prayed that the Lord would be with my parents, extend their days, and give them a good many years of retirement on their property in the McCarthy area. The whole family visited McCarthy that next weekend, and this meant that we would be out of touch. I called on Saturday morning to check in before they left. After I talked to Mom, she put Daddy on. He said he had been thinking about me as he got ready that morning, and in the shower he had been singing, “Yes, God’s love…takes good care of Annalisa.” You don’t need much of an imagination to know how much that warms me all these years later.
I did a strange thing on Sunday night. I knew that my family was out of cell phone range, but I called them anyway. When Mom answered as she stood in the driveway in front of her cabin, we marveled and rejoiced at the shock of actually having a phone conversation while she was there. We didn’t talk long, knowing that it wouldn’t last, but when my dad learned that she was talking to me, he walked over to her, put his mouth to the phone, and said, “I love you, Annalisa!” The last words I heard in his voice.
A couple of mornings later, I was up too early, as usual. After my prayer time, I went into the bathroom to plug in the hotpot for tea. I needed something from the dayroom, and I quietly opened the door to the hallway. To my shock, the dean of women stood at the door with her hand raised to knock and wearing an equally shocked expression. She laughed at herself, but I was too preoccupied with wondering if I was in trouble to laugh much with her. She asked for Annalisa, and my heart sank a bit lower. Her face became very kind.
“Your family wants you to call them.” My heart broke through what I thought was the bottom floor and plummeted further.
I picked up the phone, but security had not turned on the lines yet. For what seemed like ten minutes, we waited for them to come on. Twice I asked her if my grandpa was ok, blabbering about how he was staying with my family. She simply replied that my family wanted to talk to me. The sickening suspense of those minutes returns every time the phone rings at a much-too-early hour of the day. Finally the phones came on, and I dialed through to my home. Mom answered, and for some reason, I was no longer concerned about Grandpa.
“Mom, it’s Annalisa. Is Daddy ok?”
“No, honey. We said goodbye to him this morning.”
I will be very old indeed before I forget her voice or those words. I reached for the wall, and Miss Baer stepped forward and put her hand on my shoulder. I think I was blowing long breaths through pursed lips, which still seems strange. Stranger still, that I would recall that. Mom told me what had happened, and we cried together. Then she passed the phone to Beth. All I remember from our exchange is her telling me with wonder, “Annalisa, he’s with Jesus.” Even through her tears, she was overwhelmed with the thought. I talked to my little sisters then, and I do remember them pleading with me to come home.
Things had to get very practical for a time. How was I to manage a quick flight back to Alaska? I cannot remember who made the arrangements, but I know that two of my sisters covered the costs, and I am still touched by their quick generosity.
My roommates were up and getting ready, probably living a nightmare as they woke up to find the dean of women in their room. They went to the academy as we finished travel arrangements, and Miss Baer sent me to the academy as well, saying that it would pass the time for me. Well, that was a mistake. I was fine in the student teacher room. I saw my friend Mike sitting at a table. He looked surprised to see me, but greeted me normally. After a moment, I noticed that Dr. Bowman had written on the board, “Pray for Annalisa H. Her dad died this morning.” Well, I hadn’t planned for that.
I was not fine anywhere else. I cried everywhere, making things awkward for everyone around me. If I could do it over, I would have just cried it out back in my room, but I suppose Miss Baer wanted to keep eyes on me.
On my way home at last, I found that I was basically all right throughout the flights, but takeoffs and landings made me cry every time. I spent the night at Erma’s house and took a taxi to the airport the next morning for the final leg to Valdez. I was surprisingly calm so far that morning. I remember seeing a friend of my mom and dad on the small plane and realizing that she probably knew nothing yet of what had made my world stop turning.
I do recall crossing the tarmac in Valdez, walking through the doors into the airport, seeing Mom and all my sisters standing together, and crumbling emotionally one more time. We held one another and cried in grief and maybe some relief to be together. Being with my family was such a comfort; being in Valdez, however, forced me to relent that Daddy’s death was reality. I realized that I had held onto an irrational hope that there was some mistake until we drove past the mud flats and into town.
I was going to keep that alarm clock forever, but about five years later, Ace found it and chewed it up for me. I cried over it at the time, I admit, but now it seems more a humorous connection between that sweet dog and my loving dad.