Remembrances of my father

In the middle of the picture, a small girl with pigtails is seated on a bed looking at a book held by a man to the right. He has dark hair and dark-rimmed glasses.

Thank you for joining me in my testimony of my dad’s life. Here I offer my reflections as one compassionate witness to his life and his contributions to my life. There was no public notice of his death in 2019 nor a funeral for his community to engage in collective mourning. These important rituals would have made both his life and his death a reality and helped family, friends, and co-workers to make meaning of his relationship to us. I have no physical mementos of him, only photographs and memories of what I recall of the facts of his life, what he seemed to enjoy, and what mattered to me about him.  

My father was Walter Leroy Dowell, born January 25, 1948 to Leslie Garland and Myrtle Marie Hillery Dowell. He has an older brother, Leslie Garland Jr, and older sister, Janice. He grew up near Buffalo NY. He died of bladder cancer September 20, 2019, almost six months to the day since his cancer diagnosis, near Philadelphia PA. He was 71 years old. He was married to my mother, Patricia Horr Dowell, for 48 years. They were married on June 19, 1971. They had two children, me (Katherine Marie) born in March 1974, and my sister (Amanda Marie) born in May 1981. 

In the middle of the picture, a small girl with pigtails is seated on a bed looking at a book held by a man to the right. He has dark hair and dark-rimmed glasses.

My father went to college at Cornell University and received a masters degree in electrical engineering in 1971. He belonged to the baby boomer generation and he went to college during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. I am guessing his pursuit of a college degree and his very thick glasses kept him from being drafted. I remember him reminiscing about the student takeover of Willard Straight Hall in 1969. He met my mother in the Cornell marching band – he played the saxophone and she played the oboe; they married in 1971 and had a small, family reception at Taughannock Falls Inn.  

They moved to Hatboro, Pennsylvania where my dad worked as a civilian software engineer for the Navy base in Warminster, the Naval Air Development Center (NADC). He talked about AWACs projects a lot, the airplanes that have giant radar dishes on them. I remember going to an open house day at the base; we got to be inside “the centrifuge,” a G force testing room for pilots and astronauts (imagine a big circular room with an elevated chair on a long arm that whips around). When the base was downsized, he lost his government pension, and his division spun off to an independent contractor. We went to several annual company picnics when I was a kid; I thought these picnics were a blast because there was a clue-based road rally to the picnic site (I got the sense he loved that) and a volleyball tournament where I played with the adults. The company he worked for was reorganized and renamed multiple times. I had a hard time remembering which email to use when my computer would try to recommend all the possibilities. My dad worked in versions of the same work and approximate location until he physically couldn’t work anymore due to his swift-moving cancer. My dad worked his ass off in our one-income family to pay for a three-bedroom, 1.5 bath 1940s Cape Cod-style house in a suburb of Philly, with private schooling and college for us two girls. 

My father’s work often meant trips to Washington, DC, and we occasionally went with him. I have many fond memories of exploring the National Mall, the National Air and Space Museum, and the Natural History Museum with my dad. We went up the Washington Monument at night. Those trips are part of a connection I feel with him about space-related things. He helped me research a paper about the Apollo 1 disaster (coincidentally, there is a memorial to one of the astronauts from that fatal mission, Gus Grissom, a few miles south of where I live now in Indiana). I was in sixth grade when Halley’s Comet made a close pass in 1986; we woke up at 3am multiple times on his work days to hang out in dark fields with amateur astronomers and their telescopes to see the comet. My childhood was in the Space Shuttle era and my dad and I would watch launches and landings together on TV. I was in sixth grade when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, also in 1986. On the last trip I had with my dad in 2015 (which was also the last time I saw him in person), my son came with me and we went to the new Air and Space Museum by the Dulles Airport to see the Space Shuttle Discovery. Space has this mixture of excitement, hope, possibility, wonder, awe, and tragedy wrapped up in it for me. And it will always be connected with fun, adventurous experiences with my dad. 

My father was an electrical/software engineer, so you can imagine he was very interested in computers. We had a Texas Instruments TI-84 computer at home, which was pretty rare at the time. My dad could upgrade that computer himself. We played a lot of video games together. I wrote all my high school essays on that computer, saved to cassette tape; I remember him helping me write down the manual, multi-digit codes for italicizing or bolding text and inserting carriage returns. My first experience with an Apple/MacIntosh was a personal computer my dad brought home from work; he taught me and my sister how to draw using LOGO. I think his ease and experience with computers gave me confidence in using a personal computer since middle school in the 1980s.  

My father loved the outdoors. We went camping a lot – tents, lean-tos, cabins, the green VW stick-shift van. Western Massachusetts, Ithaca, the Adirondacks, Vermont, Nova Scotia. He would watch for hours as the beavers worked in the pond in West Adams, MA. I remember tenting in our backyard and watching millions of fireflies in the middle of the night. We went canoeing a bunch, too. I have to imagine his interest in the outdoors lit my own spark for the outdoors as I see with my comfort with nature and my pursuit of an ecology degree.

In the foreground, a girl of about 6 with braided pigtails is sitting in a canoe with a lifejacket on. A man is behind her at the front of the canoe, turned toward the camera. He has an oar in his hands. There is open water behind them, with a sailboat and land in the background.

My father was always involved in music. He played saxophone in a marching/concert band, the Tri-County Band. When I was little, I attended their July 4th fireworks concerts every year. I later joined the band as a clarinetist and we played some concerts and did some parades together. He took me to Saturday morning children’s concerts by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Ask me about the time the conductor had a heart attack on stage during a performance of “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. We would ride the train together into town, get lunch, and attend a concert and then ride back. He definitely dozed on the ride back. I think he got excited when I started getting into the Beatles in middle school. When I was older, he would take me to my Saturday classes at the Curtis Institute of Music. He went to many of my orchestra concerts and musical productions. 

There are other little glimmers I have of my dad. He could fix the VW Beetle by himself and he patched the rust on our rust-orange 1977 VW Rabbit. He took me to Cecil’s Pizza sometimes and we’d go eat it by the nearby high school track. He went roller skating with me in elementary school. We often went on a weekend morning trip to the bakery to pick up a pan of fresh-baked cinnamon buns; when we got home, he would read the paper while I read the comics section. He spent a tremendous amount of time and energy helping me with a science fair project that was near the edge of my capabilities; we printed out the research paper (which seemed to be the length of a dissertation) on a gigantic printer/duplexer that had its own room at his office and was terribly loud. He loved playing with kid construction sets, first with my sister and then with my son and his Legos. He got a kick out of Bully Hill Winery in upstate New York. He loved chocolate-covered cherries and watching first generation Dr. Who, Fawlty Towers, This Old House with Bob Villa, and Jeopardy. 

These are vivid snapshot memories I have of my dad. They are quiet, simple, still, reserved, a little distant, and generally peaceful. But they reveal what I miss and regret about my experiences with my dad. I don’t have other people’s meaningful moments with him for me to see him as a more complete human being. I see him with my adolescent mind, leaving me with no information about his narrative or emotional experience. I don’t know about his version of his story; he never told me stories about his life. I don’t know what mattered to him, what set his spirit aglow, what he wanted for his life, where he wanted to go, or what was non-negotiable to him. I don’t know how he felt in and about these moments we shared since we weren’t emotionally attuned or communicative with each other. In the pictures I have of us, he always has an impassive, inexpressive face. Not angry, mean, or disappointed; just…emotionally distant. I don’t know if he felt proud of me, if he was honored to be my dad, or if he enjoyed my company. These are things I probably won’t get to know.

I feel grief for those things I don’t know about my dad, things that would foster my ability to see him as a whole and unique human being, separate from our father-daughter relationship. I grieve for the securely attached and attuned relationship I wanted but never had with him. I grieve for the protection I think he should have provided. I grieve for the things I wish he had shown me about myself: my own power and fire and my inherent worth and right to dignity as a human being. I grieve for the false hope that I will somehow, someday get that deep sense of belonging with my family that is beyond the things we did and experiences we had together, as benign and pleasant as many of those experiences are. I last talked to my father on the phone in the summer of 2019 as he was recovering from surgery. 

The day he died in September 2019, I was hiking with my family at Griffy Lake. On our way back to the car, two people were at the side of the lake struggling with something. I saw it was a snapping turtle tangled in weeds. With my sandals and sundress on, I and one of the strangers (whose name was both unusual AND the same as my revered music teacher) were entangled in each other as I grabbed the turtle by the shell and used scissors to untangle it from the weeds. As soon as it sensed its freedom, the turtle took off underwater. I have a scar on my hand from that day, not from the snapping turtle, but from the really ferocious case of poison ivy I got from trying to help it. I learned later that night that my dad had passed. 

My relationship with my father wasn’t always what I wanted or needed or what I thought it should have been. I probably wasn’t always the daughter he imagined he would have either. These “shoulds” have been the tethers that keep the turtle from being free. The “shoulds” have kept me from growing through and past that adolescent father-daughter relationship, from recognizing my passage into elderhood as a daughter whose father died. The “shoulds” have prevented me from “taking what I need and leaving the rest,” as people in my therapy group say. I don’t feel him watching over me, as sometimes people pray for others who are grieving. I don’t think I want that from him in his next soul journey anyway. I want him and his soul to be free and unfettered. I believe that turtle was carrying my dad’s spirit to his next journey, liberated into the wild. 

With this remembrance, I am nurturing my acceptance of our father-daughter relationship as it was, the reality of who he was in relation to me, and the reality of what he was capable of. His journey on earth has subtly guided my sense of my place in the universe. I carry echoes of him in our shared sense of wonder and beauty in music, nature, the stars, and simple everyday joys. And honestly, that’s quite a lot to know about both him and myself.

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