A love letter to Big Red

I sat on the porch this morning and heard the woodpecker.  It’s not uncommon to hear woodpeckers around here but hearing a woodpecker first thing on Father’s Day fills my heart with love.

My Dad was a Clearwater Cop for  years.  His nickname was Big Red and he took that nickname very seriously.  He even had a western belt custom made, with the words Big Red burned into the back of it.   I remember he had a Coors Light belt buckle he wore, one he bought while visiting Aunt Genna and Uncle Gary in Colorado.  He was very proud of that belt buckle because it had a bottle opener on the inside.

My dad had a fondness for all things alcohol related.    Actually, he had a fondness for alcohol, which carried over into alcohol memorabilia.  He loved beer signs, beer hats, the collectable tin boxes that housed bottles of liquor.  He was like a frat boy with his booze memorabilia.

He was a lifelong alcoholic.  Oh, I’m sure he didn’t drink as a child but he moved away to college at 18 and, save for one six month stint in AA, he never stopped drinking after that.

My father and I had a complicated relationship before Facebook made that a popular relationship status.   I was his oldest daughter and I was the one living nearby, so it fell upon me to always pick up his pieces.    Girlfriend needed to go?  I was the one who drove to his house and moved every one of her belongings into the front yard while my Dad lay passed out in bed.    One one of his many trips to the ER he forgot where he’d had to pull my car over so the ambulance could pick him up, so I had to drive the streets I knew he traveled to work to try to find my own car.

And then there was the physical cleaning.   My dad was a hoarder and an alcoholic.   I’m sure you’ve seen those Hoarders shows by now.   Hoarding and addiction go hand-in-hand.    I was always trying to clean up his house and his life.

There was a lot of resentment.

But there was also love.

I remember every time we would leave his house, he would fill up grocery bags with canned food and dry goods.  He had no money to give us because it spent it all on alcohol and food.  Because he was born to a poor family that had just come through the depression, he swore he would never go without food and he became a food hoarder.   When he died, it took me years to finish eating all the canned goods in this house.    Because there was always so much food, he made sure to send plenty of it home with us.   If I was broke, I knew I could go shopping in Dad’s kitchen.

My Dad wasn’t big on communicating.  Oh, he’d talk about anything under the sun, just not about his feelings.  Sadly, I got this trait from him and will run away like my tail is on fire if someone wants me to talk about my feeeeeeeelings (and yes, that’s how I hear it in my mind).   But shortly before he died I remember having a long talk with  him.

It was early in the morning and I’d walked over to the convenience store to buy a gallon of milk.   The sun was just barely up but there was a heavy sea fog and you couldn’t see more than 20 feet ahead of you.  On my way back, I’d heard a red-headed woodpecker tapping away in a tree right next to the sidewalk.

I slowed down and looked for the bird.    Through the fog, I finally found the redheaded woodpecker.  I watched as he tap-tap-tapped away.  I’d move a little closer and he’d stop, look down, watch me for a moment and then resume tapping.

This went on for ten minutes.  Eventually I was so close I could see all the details on his little face.  I couldn’t believe this little redheaded woodpecker let me get that close to him.   Eventually I grew tired of holding a gallon of milk, so I said goodbye to the little bird and walked home.

My Dad was awake when I got home and sitting on the porch.  I put the milk away and sat down on the stoop and excitedly told him all about my experience with the woodpecker.

I’m not sure how it happened, but that morning the conversation turned to his life and what a mess it was.  I can’t remember the exact conversation but I do remember that it was an emotional conversation.  I remember telling him I loved him.    We were a family that never, ever said goodbye without saying “I love you” but we weren’t spontaneous “I love you” kind of people.  But that morning I remember telling him I loved him.

My Dad died shortly after that conversation.   His death wasn’t unexpected and yet it still caught me by surprise.    I remember going to the hospital that morning.  I don’t remember why we went- he was already gone.  Perhaps we had to sign papers or pick up his things.  As soon as we got home I kicked into “fix it” mode.    I cleaned and I carted trash to the streets.   My dad had three sheds filled floor to ceiling with junk he’d bought and found through the years.

I went through everything.  It’s what I do.  I try to fix things.    There was no time for crying because there was stuff that needed fixing.

Months after my Dad died, months of not dealing with it, I left work early one day and went to the cemetary.  I remember it was cold that day, but it was a beautiful day, bright and clear.

I sat down near his grave and I cried.   For the first time I really cried.  Not the kind of crying you see in the movies when someone visits a grave.  Oh no, this was ugly crying.  This was heaving, sobbing, snot-faced eyes-swollen-shut crying.

I was sad.  I was sad that my dad was dead, I was sad that I’d ever gotten so mad at him that I’d wished him dead.   I was sad that this was the story of our lives and this was how our story ended.

Now I’m not big into woo, but that day I talked to my Dad and I begged him for a sign.  I begged him to show me something that would let me know he was ok.    I think I just needed to know he was finally free from whatever turmoil in his brain that led him to drink himself to death at the ripe old age of 53.

As I sat there crying,  I heard the sound of a woodpecker.    I looked over and saw a redheaded woodpecker in a tree right next to me.  I’d been sitting there for 45 minutes and hadn’t noticed that bird.    Suddenly a bird flew just over my head and landed in another tree nearby and started tapping away.    And then another one.

Within two minutes I was surrounded by redheaded woodpeckers tapping away in trees right next to me.

It’s not uncommon to see redheaded woodpeckers around here but to suddenly be surrounded by them?   Right after asking my Dad to show me a sign that he was ok?

I’ll take that woo.   Those woodpeckers that day brought me the first peace I’d felt since he died.   Those woodpeckers helped me stop crying and get up off the ground.   Those woodpeckers in that cemetary made me laugh out loud.

Those woodpeckers made everything just a little bit better that day.

Through the years, those little redheaded woodpeckers continue to bring a feeling of peace to my heart.    I remember having a particularly rough morning when I was still married but had no business still being married.  I was ironing my clothes and crying.  Suddenly I heard this loud hammering noise.     I stopped ironing and looked outside.

There sat a redheaded woodpecker on the eave of my house.  He wasn’t tapping away in a tree, he was perched on the edge of my house just outside the door a few feet away from me and he was hammering away on the vinyl fascia.  That little redheaded woodpecker was hammering on my  house and he got my attention.

And I stopped crying because I felt like my Dad was there telling me I was ok.

Since then, I’ve seen hundreds of redheaded woodpeckers and each and every one of them reminds me of Big Red.

The years have softened all the hurts.  It’s been 12 years and now it’s easier to remember the good and forget the bad.    I guess that’s just how life goes.

I’m glad I heard the woodpecker this morning.   I miss my Dad and I love my Dad.   And I just want him to be ok.  That’s all I ever wanted for him.

And now I’m off to the park to take a long walk.    Maybe I’ll see more redheaded woodpeckers.

And I’ll remember Big Red with love.



3 thoughts on “A love letter to Big Red

  1. Sweetpea I adore you. It is an honor to be an invited guest in these stories that are your life.
    You are a fierce lover of humans, and for that I am grateful.
    Love you, Dani

  2. I just found your blog because of your rescue of Cocoa and am so glad. I can relate to this as both of my parents were alcoholics and they both died in the past year. AND they were both some sort of hoarders. I got to clean out Mom’s apartment and her storage shed and will be eating her food and using her office and cleaning supplies for another decade probably (She died in May).

    I was so exasperated with her at times I did have moments of wishing she would die so have guilt over those thoughts.

    I love your blog. Thanks Jamie.

  3. Martha, I’m sorry for your loss. It is so hard and so very complicated. I, too, feel the guilt over thoughts I had and things I said. It’s a sticky, complicated, sad dynamic. I guess it can only get better with time.

    And thanks.


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