My father's obituary: A horseman to the end
© St. Petersburg Times
Sometimes in a time of confusion surrounding a death, a single moment suddenly becomes defining.
I was giving a Gainesville funeral director details for my father's obituary last week and, when asked his occupation, I responded, "horse trainer."
Later, glancing through the documents, I noticed that my 79-year-old father's occupation was listed as "retired horse trainer."
"Actually," I informed the funeral director, "my father was showing horses eight weeks ago."
And that was what he had done all his life, from his early teens in Miami through a 60-year career that took him throughout the country training show horses and teaching people, usually children, how to ride them in the ring.
He trained several world and national champions, made winning horses out of some that were being considered for destruction and taught thousands of children and young adults how to ride in equitation and harness class competitions.
He loved every second of his career, even the bad parts, and, unlike many of us who make compromises, he never deviated from that love and that work.
Training show horses is not a high-paying profession. I can vaguely remember, before he and my mother were divorced when I was 3, living in houses that did not have indoor plumbing. With only a few exceptions, my father lived in mobile homes, sometimes in the back rooms of stables, sometimes in his truck or horse trailer.
Sometimes, very rarely, he would have a wad of bills in his pocket big enough to choke one of the magnificent beasts that occupied so much of his life. Then again, once when I visited him while I was en route to Vietnam, he and his wife had to take back bottles to collect the deposits so they could have the lights turned on. He was so nonchalant that I didn't learn that part of the story for 20 years.
That was also the last time I got on a horse. I had learned to ride, well, at least to stay in a saddle, when I was 3 but learned quickly how much I had forgotten as the horse promptly threw me.
With great mock severity he begged me never to get on another horse in front of any of his customers or students, whom he promptly informed that I was adopted.
We did not have a typical father and son relationship. We didn't really meet until I was 18 and looked him up, much to my mother's displeasure. For nearly 40 years after that we had a relationship that consisted mostly of a phone call once in a while and for the past 15 years or so, getting together for Thanksgiving dinner every year.
It became obvious about five years ago that his health was failing. He could no longer make it through a 1-mile after-dinner walk around Cedar Key that we had gotten used to taking. A year after that he had to stay in a one-story motel because he could no longer climb stairs and, by last Thanksgiving, his heart and lungs failing fast, was unable to walk across a restaurant to the bathroom without stopping to rest twice.
Yet, riding an electrical scooter with portable oxygen strapped to the back, he continued to take horses to shows and, more hoarsely than before, shout instructions to students in the ring.
When he entered the hospital around Christmastime, we began a period in which we had more contact, during hospital visits, than we had, total, in the previous 30 years, and we maintained the same casual, joking relationship that we always had.
The last time I spoke to him he was in the company of an attractive female former student and I chided him for not having introduced me to her and others during my single years.
"That's because," he deadpanned, "I never liked you."
It was a standing joke between us and a fitting way for us to take our leave, acknowledging that all really was okay between us.
He is being buried today at Florida National Cemetery near Bushnell, and I, mindful that life on earth is finite and best lived to the fullest, will be thinking that during a brief graveside service.
It really is okay.
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