© 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.