This is what I know about Dad . . .
Kendall Blessing was born on August 12, 1929 in Chicago, Illinois and died on March 24, 2011 in Eureka, CA. He was the son of Gregory and Oma Blessing. He had one brother, William, and two sisters, Joyce and Barbara. He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Connie, and his three children, Robert, David and Elizabeth.
After high school he moved west to California to escape the frigid Illinois winters. He went to college at San Jose State and dropped out to help care for his brother, William, who had contracted polio.
In the mid 1950s, he started selling insurance. In 1957, while traveling in Mexico, he met and courted his future wife, Connie, a pretty waitress he met in a restaurant. They soon married, moved to San Diego and had the above-mentioned three children.
He worked various jobs, most notably as a records clerk for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. He worked the night shift, taking mug shots, fingerprinting prisoners and running warrants checks on the newly arrested folks brought in by the deputies. His contact with this darker side of humanity fueled his pessimism on the state of the human race. He often came home worn out and sad. His hair was mostly grey by the time he was 40.
The reason he worked the night shift was so that he could be available during the day to help Mom care for their disabled son, Bobby, who was profoundly autistic.
Not much was known back then about autism. In the 1950s and 60s, some doctors believed that autism was the fault of poor parenting. While these theories have been disproved, the pain and stigma of being unfairly labeled weighed heavily on Dad. I don’t think he ever got over it.
Dad often said his greatest achievement was that he never gave up on caring for his son. Despite pressures from psychiatrists and school officials, he adamantly refused to place Bobby in an institution or group home. Because of my parents’ resolve, Bobby has always been cared for at home by his family.
In 2007, the entire family moved from San Diego to Eureka, California. We were seeking a slower pace of life, cooler weather and big trees. Sadly, for Dad and his family, the ensuing years were filled with doctors’ appointments, cancer, strokes and then a 10-month stay in a local nursing home, where he passed away.
Silence and reconciliation
These are the main facts of my father’s life. The truth is I didn’t know him that well. He was a no-nonsense, laconic man. He struggled to express his emotions. Talking, in his opinion, was way overrated. Maybe it was his Depression-era, WWII upbringing that made him so stoic and reticent. When he did say something it was frequently memorable, sometimes harsh and sarcastic, and oftentimes darkly funny.
While Dad was “the glass is half empty” sort of guy, I’ve always been “the glass is half full” sort of gal. This divergence in world views led to our share of arguments – some of them pretty heated – but, I’m happy to say, all of them long resolved before Dad passed away.
Our reconciliation was surprisingly simple. When Dad’s series of strokes began to take away his ability to talk, we became closely bonded in his silence. Oddly enough, whether he shared my viewpoints or not, I found no longer really mattered.
And in his illness, he discovered the reticent man’s perfect refuge, a new way of communicating with his family, a way he could finally share his feelings and thoughts without saying a word: he discovered the movies. Or, DVDs, to be more accurate.
Surprising lessons through movies
Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda – he found all the great actors and classics at the library, online or at the video store. His collection grew and he began to branch out to more recent films. He would urge me to watch his favorites, pushing a prized DVD into my hand with the encouragement: “Watch this! You’ll learn something!”
What I think he meant was that I would learn something about him, something he yearned to share with me. His movie selections seemed to reflect some aspect of his personality. With each movie, my enigmatic father became slightly less of an enigma.
Here were his favorites:
Cool Hand Luke: Because you can never have too many hardboiled eggs. Paul Newman plays the loner who refuses to conform to prison authority. Dad appreciated the irony of the line: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
Young Frankenstein: This movie showed us Dad laughed most and hardest at wonderfully silly puns and sight gags. Marty Feldman’s moveable hump and Frau Blucher’s affect on horses brought tears to his eyes.
Cast Away: Dad liked the survivalist theme in this movie. Alone and bereft of human contact, what would you do?
The DaVinci Code: This movie conformed to Dad’s view of the world. Who do you trust in life: the church, a good friend, your mentor, your family? Plus, it was a good thriller, which he always enjoyed.
Forrest Gump: Another Tom Hanks’ movie! Dad idolized Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks could do no wrong. Dad would watch Tom Hanks in an underwear commercial. When Tom Hanks goes to the great theater in the sky, Dad will be first in line to shake his hand.
Amadeus: This had one of Dad’s favorite lines: “Too many notes!” This comment was uttered by the Emperor to Mozart when describing Mozart’s work. “Too many notes!” became Dad’s signature line to end any conversation he found annoying. He used this a lot with me.
I learned many lessons in caring for Dad in his final years. I learned to accept our relationship with all its quirks and to accept his desire for solitude. I learned there are many different ways of communicating and silence is a surprisingly valid one. I don’t know if I would have learned these lessons as vividly without our relationship. Perhaps in this journey of life I didn’t get the father I wanted, but the father I needed.
So, Dad, in 30 or 40 years (maybe more?), I’ll see you on the flip side where the movies are always playing and the endings are more satisfying than they are here on Earth. The popcorn’s always fresh, the sound system is fabulous and there’s never a tall guy with a big head sitting directly in front of you. Until then, save a seat for me, Dad.
I love you THIS much (arms outstretched as far as I can),
Dad on his 81st birthday.