The Last Great American Whale

They say he could split a mountain in two
That's how we got the Grand Canyon. 
Last great American whale  
— Lou Reed, New York

I met Gary Edward Whale — known to me as “Dad” — on January 31, 1983. We didn’t talk much that day — I was busy learning how to breathe and cry. There was a lot going on. 

When I got older, I became super tight with Dad. We played video games, watched movies, played and watched football (Cowboys!), basketball (Chicago Bulls — Jordan and Pippen-era), and baseball (Rangers) a lot. He really loved golf, and while I often fell asleep when it was on TV, my affinity for the sport was driving the golf cart while he and my Uncle Larry played. 

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Not sure how many know but Dad was legally blind (completely blind in one eye and couldn’t see peripheral vision in the other) and mentally handicapped from an amalgam of a stroke, radiation from a benign brain tumor, and having his head cut open to remove that brain tumor when was about 33. He was not expected to live much longer, but he crushed the odds and lived over 30 years past his expectancy. Pretty amazing. 

He lived for over 35 years with these disabilities and never lost his smile or faith, at least for and in front of his kids. Dad went from being a star athlete (full ride to UT for his dynamite football moves) to someone who needed help getting groceries and a haircut. He never complained about these small-tasks-to-others-but-big-hurdles-for-him, and he wasn’t embarrassed to have to push a grocery cart from his house to the store and back, either. We did this with him a lot. It was fun, sitting under the cart and riding along even when I was too big. 

My dad’s abilities were limited, and he didn't have a lot to work with, but he gave my sister and me an unforgettable childhood. He was learning how to be a parent at the same time he was learning how to live with his disabilities while re-learning how to read and write, and do math. Can you imagine having to tackle all of that at once? Pretty amazing. 

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I knew about Dad's disabilities, but I didn’t take them into in-depth consideration until after he passed away. He was always just Dad to me. Most of his adult years were spent sitting at home — he couldn't just get out and drive somewhere to meet friends — and daily life offered him TV and (really good) neighbors to occasionally chat with. Thankfully he was a huge sports fanatic, and there was always something on one of the channels. 

Dad could not work, but he could not sit still, either. When we first lived in apartments, he volunteered to help the maintenance men paint doors, fix things, mow — whatever he could to move around and be active. When Dad bought his first house, he was always trying to work on something or would walk five to ten miles a day. He had every opportunity to feel sorry for himself and make everyone else pity him, but he never took that liberty. He conversed as best as he could and had as much fun as he could with Hollie and I. (Hollie is the sister. She's older and much wiser, but I'm prettier.)  

Dad would walk miles to a video game store to get me a Nintendo game (Google this, Rylan, game systems will probably be in museums next to the dinosaurs by the time you read this) and he would do whatever it took to make our childhood dreams come true. He learned to cook our favorite meals, subscribed to tv and movie channels we loved, and he made it a tradition to watch TGIF every Friday when were with him (Full House, Step by Step, and Family Matters were our jams). Not one of our birthdays went by that wasn’t extravagant, and my dad did what he could to make us feel special. Elite, even. Dad was super cool, and I don't know that I ever told him this fact. 

Dad was stronger than I could ever possibly imagine and it's frustrating I didn’t realize it until after he passed away. I'm ashamed that I didn’t think much about it — it’s just Dad! — and it burns that I never got to tell him what a fighter he was. (God bless him for dealing with so many medical issues for decades with a smile.)

Yes, Dad had a share of medical problems, but they did not define him. He endured and persevered. His blue eyes, goofball personality, and smile are what people will always remember when they think about him.

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One of my biggest regrets is that I never gave him any credit during my days running my once-popular movie website, GordonandtheWhale.com (now defunct)  — that’s because my mom pretty much raised me on cinema (as well as supported me passionately when I decided to pursue film journalism full-time).  But Dad rented a lot of movies for me on VHS (since you'll be reading this from the future, Rylan, this is a rectangular object that had to be inserted into a machine called a VHS player to watch movies on a square device we knew as a television. All three of these are in the museum located next to the game systems). I recently revisited an old classic Dad and I watched together a lot — Judgement Night, starring the impossibly cool Emilio Estevez. I think this one stands out because we also watched The Mighty Ducks trilogy a lot together as well. And Young Guns I and II. I'm pretty sure he knew I had an affinity for Estevez. 

We did go the multiplex when we could, too. I remember almost every single film we saw at the movie theater — The Lone Ranger (2013) being the last one. Here is a photo I took of that day.

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Since Dad couldn't drive, he always needed to ask a neighbor to take us to the movies (or anywhere) — I remember our trip to see 3 Ninjas (1992) together. I remember this trip so vividly because we got there way too early — accidentally walked in on the ending when Tum Tum pours the jelly beans in the villain's mouth. While we waited for our movie time to start, I got to empty his wallet on popcorn, candy, and soda. A dream come true for nine-year-old Chase. 

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Until his passing, Dad was always, always so excited when he saw us. He answered the door with a “HEYYYY!!!!!!!” and a giant smile. Every. Single. Time. For three decades. He never showed fatigue or got angry at us (an occasional yell, but that's because I had the TV up loud, probably hid the remote because I was a little jerk, and gave him no choice).

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Reality Bites. 

The day my dad passed away — August 20, 2017 — I was coloring with Rylan. I should probably introduce her now — she's my 5-year-old niece and my dad was so in love with her. Look at the photos below — so precious! She was a big part of his life and needs to be a big part of stories we tell. 

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Nobody is ever prepared to hear when a loved one dies — duh — but the learning about Dad's passing could not have been a better-timed moment. I was with my sister, mom, brother-in-law, and Rylan while my Nana (Dad's mom) was with my Uncle Larry — they were picking Dad up to take him and my uncle out for their birthdays (Dad turned 65 on the 15th, Larry 60 on this day). I say this could not have been a better-timed moment because my sister and I were together, and my Nana had one of her (three) sons with her — she usually goes to Dad's alone because they lived close, were the best of friends, she did a lot for him, and they spent a lot of time together. No parent should have to bury their child, but she did it and recited The Lord's Prayer at his grave standing on her own two feet. She's almost 90. (I could barely stand, my legs felt like jello, and I'm surprised I didn't pass out the day of the funeral. I'm 35.)

 Dad and my beautiful Nana.

Dad and my beautiful Nana.

I didn't know my Uncle Larry that well growing up, but during the week of my dad's funeral, I fell in love with him. He was incredibly busy with work and being with my Nana, but went above and beyond to help my sister and I get everything arranged and organized for Dad's viewing and funeral. I didn't realize how good Uncle Larry was to my dad and us until that dreadful week — he took Dad to all of our high school and college graduations, to the hospital when Rylan was born, and took my dad to see the Cowboys a lot (which I learned the week of). For years, to me, he was always the curmudgeon uncle, but he was actually a blessing to Dad and us the entire time. (I love you, Uncle Larry, even when you're a grouch.)

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The day we got the news, Hollie got the call. I remember hearing her screaming in the living room — Rylan and I were hard at work coloring in her playroom. I ran into the living room and she was on her phone, and all I could think was, something very bad just happened to one of her friends. And then she bawled three wretched words that I think about every day: Dad passed away. I still remember her facial expression of heartbreak and all I could do was just stand there, in shock, in silence, brain numb and empty. 

I learned quite a few things when Dad passed, but these stick out: (A) Not everyone gets a fairytale goodbye that you see in movies, and (B) your world completely stops as you watch everyone else's continue. It's weird. 

In the movies, you see these kinds of scenarios — someone learns about the death of someone they love, and there's screaming and crying. It’s much worse and frightening in real life. There’s the shock, the sudden disgusting feeling in your stomach that you’re not going to get to see that person ever again while on this earth, then you think of their last moment, then your last moment with them, then you remember they are 100% gone forever, then you’re reminded of your own mortality: One day you are going to die. 

It’s dreadful when you lose someone so close. Life completely stops for you, but you watch it continue for the rest of the world. Social media makes it worse: Sorry for your loss! followed by an immediate post of that commenter living it up. This is OK and normal and every single comment offering condolences are sweet and heartfelt, but it is painful to read the newsfeed of your friends and family carry on while you sit, staring blankly at the screen. This is why I am not on social media as much as I used to be, and I don't know if that will ever change. I now post and almost immediately sign off. I do reply to some posts, or comment on someone's wall, and I specifically go to someone's page if I'm online because I do want to keep up with my friend's and family's lives. It's just very hard to get on Facebook or Instagram and browse the newsfeeds, so I avoid that (and often miss some big announcements, but it's a loss I need to take right now.)

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Some days it’s challenging to breathe. Like trying to suck a golf ball through a straw. We all grieve in different ways, and there’s no right or wrong method. I really don’t know what I’m doing but I’m here and doing it. My life has changed forever. I've changed forever — I'm not the same person I was the day before he passed away and I think only people who've lost someone so close understand — you change, forever.

There is a silver-lining in Dad's passing. I've re-acquainted my faith (I'm Christian) and believe again, and thinking about how positive my Dad was, and remembering stories about his goodwill are sharp reminders to work hard, live simple and well, and be a good person.  Not strive to be a good person, just be a good person.  

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I have re-written this so many times (is this any good? Did I cover enough ground?), but I’m tired now. Mentally and physically. And I hurt. 

My dad earned his place to grow old, but he did not get that chance. 

If you’ve read this far — thank you. But do me a solid — do not take your parents, spouse, lover, kid(s), aunt(s), uncle(s), cousin(s), niece(s), nephew(s), or genuine friend(s) for granted. Tell them you appreciate them in your life — just once will change the dynamic.

Most of you will not get the fairytale goodbye you see in movies — I didn’t. And I’m truly sorry to deliver this ugly fact of life, but you need to hear and believe it. You need to believe me. People you love are going to die and — I hate to think about this, but I can’t help but not now — it’s probably going to happen when you least expect it. So maybe pause here and tell the first person who comes in your head that you're thankful for them, and come back to finish reading — this article isn't going anywhere. Telling them at least once is something you will remember when the time comes. It’s something you will be so grateful for and can hold on to forever. 

Important to note: I do really hope everyone grows old, and you do get a fairytale goodbye when that unfortunate time comes for a loved one, and I hope the last time you spoke or were together was great. You all deserve it. 

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These memories were pieced together on different days and my emotions were high and low. I’m tired, weary, and I hurt. A lot. Grammar, punctuation, and syntax are probably off and that's OK, I just want you to know that I love and miss my dad more than I can express. 

Dad endured and persevered through a lot of pain and suffering because his new life post-surgeries became all about faith and his kids. In return, I will prevail. I will endure and persevere through my life's inevitable pain and suffering, for you, Dad. I love you.

Gary Edward Whale, the Last Great American Whale. (August 15, 1952 - August 20, 2017)

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