Saying goodbye to my father, a colorful character.

© David LaBelle

There are things we know.

Things we think we know.

And things, many things, life teaches us we do not know.

My father died last Tuesday morning at the age of 89.

After months of suffering and clinging to life, mostly without complaint, he breathed his last and left this world.

I thought I knew how I’d feel when he finally passed, and thought I’d made peace with his dying. 

I was wrong. 

I’m still wading through waves of conflicting emotions.                                                           

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Charles LaBelle in early 2018

 

I loved my father deeply and unconditionally.  But sadly, for much of my young life, it wasn’t so. 

With narcissistic tendencies, he was a hard person to live with, for my mother or any other woman who tried to keep company with him.  If someone didn’t do a thing the way he thought it should be done, in the time it should be done, he often flew into a rage.   

For most of his life, my father was difficult for anybody to live with.  He was quick tempered, easily-offended, demanding, insensitive and insulting, threw violent tantrums and could be unapologetically cruel and cutting with his words.  In short, he could be unpredictable and scary.  As a child, I lived in continual fear of him and often wished he would leave or die.  I couldn’t see the good, the caring and the sacrifice he brought to our family, only the selfishness and aggression.

Like many of us, my father was a puzzling contradiction.  He could be crude and insensitive, but he could also be tender, funny, charming, compassionate and giving.  I often wished he would be consistent, one way or the other.

Like most children, I wanted his love, his affection, his approval.  I wanted him to go fishing with me, play baseball or show interest in my dreams.  I played baseball for 10 years and only once did he show up at one of my games, for two innings. In contrast, my mother was always there. 

But there were good times when taught me to shoot, hunt, body surf, drive a car at 13 or find and dislodge abalone from rocky ocean ledges in low tides.  And I have fond memories of sitting behind him, my arms wrapped around the waist of his leather jacket during overnight motorcycle excursions to places like Death Valley or Lone Pine, Ca.  In my teens, I rode along side him on my own Triumph motorcycle. 

I loved those times.

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My dad around the age of 19.

 

Chuck LaBelle was a maverick, a curious risk-taker, a gambler with the courage to buy a frog farm and load his wife, three children, dog and a goat in a truck for a move 130 miles away from the security of city and home parents, siblings, friends and job in Costa Mesa, California – to the unknown in rural Oak View.  Never lazy, he worked tirelessly disking and plowing the rocky soil, lifting boulders, pulling tree stumps and planting gardens and a small vineyard.

He was endlessly curious and resourceful.  He dried fruit, made beef jerky, raised bees, seined crawfish from rivers and creeks to feed frogs, learned to weld and repair anything needing to be fixed, and with help from his father, added two rooms on our small house, then built a 100-foot-long steel Quonset hut which mostly housed tools, machines and motorcycles.  He even made and poured the cement for a work area in front of the building, then poured cement for and built a front patio with flagstones he found.  And a good mechanic, he could pretty much fix anything.

My dad was always a practical, “get things done” guy, who often abandoned caution. I remember being asked, along with my siblings,  to sit on the back of disk while it bounced and dug into soil.  I had a few close calls.   Several times, when I was probably only 13 or 14 years old, I was expected to drive a disabled car many miles while my dad pulled me with a towing chain.  Sitting on pillows, so I could see over the dashboard, all I had to do was steer and keep a slight touch on the brake pedal to avoid slack on the taunt chain or crashing into the back of him.   

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Even when forced to use a walker, he still love to target shooting with his grandchildren

As long as I can remember, my father abhorred authority or any type of government interference. He despised “foolish” codes, permits or regulations.  Without a seatbelt, he’d drive 80 miles per hour with a tall, open can of beer in one hand. He didn’t have patience for slow restaurant service, cold food or lukewarm coffee and often got up and left angrily before any food arrived.

 

And he hated traffic, which is one of the reasons he left southern California and moved to Concho, Arizona, the middle of nowhere.  “I don’t want to live in any town that has more than one stoplight,” he assured.

Never one to sit still, until the last year of life when walking and even standing became nearly impossible, he made a living buying and selling at swap meets his last 40 years.  He was a serious packrat, a hoarder, filling sheds with tons of “good stuff” he planned to sell but never did.  It will take months to sort through the tons of decaying items he has squirreled away.

My dad was intelligent, hard-working, resourceful, quick-witted and possessed a great sense of humor, to the end. (It was both a blessing and curse his mind remained sharp while his body deteriorated.)

He loved old cars, old westerns, old music, and mysteries of the heavens and oceans. Always curious, always swimming against conventional thinking, he believed in UFOs and extraterrestrials, and vehemently asserted our government kept evidence of their existence hidden from the public.  His face would redden and veins on his bald head bulge if he sensed any sign you doubted him.  A lifelong fan of Edgar Cayce, he also believed in reincarnation, sure he would live again, and come back in some other body or form.  As a child, I remember him trying to hypnotize my mother and me, separately, hoping we might reveal details of our former lives. 

He was nothing if not colorful. 

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For most of his life, my father was fiercely independent. His life was on his terms and he didn’t seem to understand the effects of his behavior on others.  As he aged, I saw a different person, a vulnerable, loving, more accepting soul who realized he needed help, learned to ask for it and even sincerely thanked those who helped him. Though he still had his moments and could be quite demanding, he became a kinder, more gentle soul, a father I learned to appreciate and love deeply. 

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Bracing himself for the end 

Though he could be difficult and unpredictable, one thing he never wavered in was his acceptance of me as a documentary photographer.  Not once in five decades did he ever ask me not to photograph him, regardless of how uncomfortable or embarrassing the moment might be.  I always appreciated this because it allowed me to record real, unrehearsed storytelling moments. 

When I last saw him in June, I made few pictures.  In fact, several times I need to turn my eyes and the camera away because the scene was too painful.  But I wanted to record this vulnerable moment, this summarizing contrast to most of his independent life. 

Knowing he approved of me photographing gave me the freedom and courage to make difficult pictures during sensitive times in his life.  It was one of his gifts to me. 

                                                                …

Never one to openly share deep emotions, you’d have to ask and then tactfully fish for personal things you wanted to know.  It wasn’t until his 80’s I learned much about his childhood, his teenage years or his love for my mother.

A few months ago, I asked him if there was anything he wanted to do or accomplish before he left this life.   He smiled and said, “I just want to live longer.”

Three days before he died, I told him again how much I loved him and thanked him again for the rich life he had given me.

I miss him already. 

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27 thoughts on “Saying goodbye to my father, a colorful character.

  1. This so true of the smart but not all the tools…..just like me but I’m not there yet…your Dad trusted you…that’s all that counts

      • You know me perhaps….we are strangers who maybe on the same road….just a nod of “high there” and keep on…..that is what we do….just keep on….the path to Christ is a narrow one….hope my kids look at me and just say some day……”I miss him”…all in this kettle of soup of life….your pictures are better than a thousand words…Mel

    • Very touching. I remember him calling you one evening and telling you he was having his all night garage sale.You said then that he walked a different path.I have always remembered that and you my friend.Lot of water under the bridge. My blessings to you and your family for your loss.

      Your brother in Christ

      Gary Franklin

      • Thanks for writing, Gary. Yes, millions of gallons of water under our bridges. I truly am thankful our loving God taught me the meaning of love and forgiveness. – Your brother in Christ.

  2. I am sorry for your loss. This is truly beautiful and well said. My parents are still around und and just because I read this I will give them more hugs and attention. Thank you
    Patti

  3. I am so sorry to hear of your loss. You have painted such a beautiful picture of your dad; what a blessing and heritage to you and your family. May our Lord fill you with His peace during this time.

  4. Gosh David, that was a beautiful tribute to your dad. He must have been so very proud of you and what you have accomplished in life. . . maybe seeing just a little of “himself” in “you”, and loving it (the softer side maybe, that he surely wished he could have expressed more often, throughout his life.) He leaves us though, as did your mom before him, knowing that they both live on in “you”. Find comfort in that and Thank You for a very enjoyable read.

  5. Longtime fan here. I lost my father this week as well. He was 88 and our story is similar to yours. I posted an essay on facebook about a tree that is my tribute to a complex fellow. Take a look, we are friends. Your book has been sewn into my career. Thank you.

  6. As usual, Dave well written and presented. Yes, the feeling of wanting to share with your father the things you like and love daily never goes away. So, sometimes one just has to keep it in your heart. Many condolences to you and your family. RS

  7. I’m so sorry David.What a Beautiful story and shots. My mother is aging as she is almost 80. She has a similar temperament as your father and has been very difficult for my brother and I to deal with throughout our lives. She is bi-polar and one never knows which ‘Babs’ we will get at any given time. But, like you, I have finally accepted her for who she is and I have let go of my anger towards her. As I watch her age it is difficult for me to accept the fact that one day she will be gone. This has softened me, and I take pleasure in her company no matter what her temperament is. I find joy in her ranting. I listen to her with great pleasure somehow unaffected by how disturbing she can. But, like your father she can be caring and kind. She has remarkable artistic talent too. She acts tough, but she is extremely insecure and vulnerable. I appreciate every moment with her however fleeting as I know deep in my soul how finite this life is.
    Sincerely,
    Lisa Vincenzo
    P.S. My son is attending K.S.U. next year as a film major. I so wish that you were still there. Your joy and humanity need to be experienced by all. This world is better because of you. Much love, and may all good things come to you.

  8. My god that was beautiful. I often think of my own obituary. What will they say. I’ve told them that I don’t want it to be short and it most certainly can be funny and full of lies…. she died while skydiving naked comes to mind. What will it say? I’ve nominated 2 people but maybe 3 or 4 will be needed to get the job done. Tell the story of my life, I will instruct them for all the world to see. Maybe you can tell them how to write it because I want it to be just as beautiful as this.

  9. Dave,

    Such a great tribute/post/read… gave me something to consider about my own parenting and childhood. It’s amazing how parents can help us become better at parenting even when parents are flawed.

    You may know, that I have already cleaned up after parents and grandparents. It sounds like you have some actual work in Arizona. If you want some company, let me know. I would enjoy spending time with you.

    bf

    • Thank you, Bryan, what a kind and generous offer, but am in Athens, Ohio now. My brother lives the house and is slowly getting things in order. But what a thoughtful gesture. Maybe we will get the chance to hang out down the road?

  10. Thank you little brother! I’m so glad we made the trip to see Daddy a few months ago. Your words about him are so right on. I’ve spent so many hours trying to understand why he wasn’ the daddy I/we needed growing up but now realize he was a unique and complicated man who couldn’t be who we needed. He was a hot head and not a nice person in my eyes until he became vulnerable. I spent my 43 year with United airlines collecting letters from passengers who wrote in telling the company how great my work was hoping to show Daddy someday so he would quit putting me and my job down. David, you are so talented with words and you have told the story of our lives so truthfully! We had a very unusual childhood but Daddy must have cared..It was easy to love him the past few years. Love you, Fayemarie

    • Thank you for sharing, big sister. I, too, am thankful we could visit him together during such a critical and vulnerable time in his life. It saddens me for you he did not do a better job of expressing how proud he was of you to you. He loved you deeply, as he did each of us. Finally, thank you for living above difficult emotions and extending your love to him in so many ways. I love you and thankful you are my big sister. -David

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