My Dad


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Gary Howells, 1950I have dreams about him all the time. In my dreams, he’s always healthy, accompanying me on some sort of journey. I also know that he’s the only other one in my dream who is fully present because I can reach out and touch him or hear him breathing. If there is anyone else in the dream, they are always shadows, ideas of a people, but not really present. But my dad is with me. But then, sooner or later, I realize that he really isn’t there, that he’s gone, that I’m dreaming.

I’ve wanted to write something about my dad for a while but I haven’t known what to say. I feel like I’m not the most qualified person to talk about him, to sum up his life. I know that may sound silly but sometimes I think there was a lot about him I really didn’t know and that we were so different, and not just in the obvious ways. He was an outgoing, social person and had many friends and acquaintances. He made corny jokes. He liked to put people on the spot. He was opinionated and intolerant of ignorance and thoughtlessness in others. He could be incredibly kind, taking time to give a helping hand when others needed it. But he could also be oblivious at times, like any of us, to how his words and actions impacted others around him. He would tease when he was uncomfortable or didn’t understand somebody’s point of view. This could be difficult for me, especially when I was feeling shy and introverted, traits that I always felt stood in stark contrast to his personality.

But the last years of Dad’s life were the most precious to me. Even as his illnesses became more serious, he and my mom took more time to live a full life, be open to new experiences, travel to new places and our family became closer and more honest with each other.

In 2004, as Vince and I were getting ready to open our cafe in San Francisco, I would often call Dad for advice. After all, he and my mom had many years of experience running small businesses and no shortage of opinions. A few weeks before we opened, though, his health declined and he was hospitalized. I flew home and visited him and was shocked to see him transformed, not sure if he would make it through my stay. But he told me that seeing me again made him rally and within a few days we had him home again and I was back on a flight to finish preparations on the cafe.

Less than an hour before our grand opening reception was set to start, I got a last minute surprise. Mom and Dad came through the door of the cafe, grinning from ear to ear. With our friends Linc & Tim’s help, they had secretly flown to San Francisco, even though my Dad barely had the strength to get from the hotel room to the cafe for the party. I can’t imagine a bigger gift and honor from my dad. The reception was a big hit and Dad stayed for the whole event.

My parents stayed in California for five days, going up to Sonoma County for a few days on their own, looking at the ocean and sitting among the redwoods while Vince and I got the cafe up and running. When they returned to San Francisco four days later, Dad was noticeably quieter and weaker. And I was frazzled and stressed with the business. I wanted to spend time with him, but he wanted to sleep and be quiet and I was busy. When I dropped my parents at the airport, I knew that I probably wasn’t going to see my dad again.

My parents returned to Illinois without incident, but my dad continued to weaken. A couple of days after the trip, a hospice worker came to my parent’s home to install a hospital bed in my parents’ bedroom. By Saturday, five days after returning from California and 10 days after surprising me at the cafe’s opening, my father died.

I can’t thank him enough for everything he did for me.

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