That’s me…. with my dad, on the afternoon of my wedding a decade ago. We stood in the archway, ready to walk down the aisle. The music cued and Dad lurched forward to quickly reach the end goal… my future husband, waiting at the altar.
I held his arm and whispered, “Dad, slow down… this is our moment.” He patted my hand and smiled, “Yes, Sandra, it is… our moment.” We slowed our gait, enjoying every step as father and daughter.
Dad recounted that story many times in the last year of his life. He loved telling it… “I was rushing down the aisle and you said ‘Dad, slow down! This is our moment!” And then he’d laugh as he’d never shared the story before.
A girl’s first love is her father, and that was certainly true for me. I was proud to be an Admiral’s daughter. I was always in awe of his accomplishments. Whatever he set out to do, he’d conquer, but it didn’t start out that way.
In the early years, he was a happy kid who loved to go fishing with his father. One morning, they got out to the lake at the crack of dawn. When they finished, his dad went to work, and he went to school. He returned home that afternoon and learned his father had died suddenly of a blood clot caused by an infection he’d had the previous week.
Dad was just eleven at the time and it changed everything. In the weeks that followed, he was declared the “ man of the house,” but he didn’t know what that meant. He was told, “boys don’t cry,” but that’s what he felt like doing.
He was just a young lad who wanted to go fishing with his dad, but everything had changed.
My 90-year-old dad’s upper lip trembled as he recounted this story again in his last year of life. I reached for his hand.
I understood. I reminded him that my own children experienced that same deep loss fourteen years ago. Their father had died at the young age of 54, leaving them feeling the whole world had changed, too.
He pondered for a moment. “Hmmm… Well, Sandra, I guess I never thought about it that way. Maybe I could have helped more.” Dad avoided talking about emotional stuff and more frequently brought up his regrets.
He continued his story. He grew up in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Money was scarce, companies struggled, families went without. My grandfather had worked as vice president of the family business at the Limoges China Company in Sebring, Ohio. After his father’s death, my grandmother went to the office to clear out her husband’s affairs, and there she found the life insurance policy on his desk, unpaid.
In a broken moment, my grandfather had tried to save a little extra money by delaying payment of his life insurance policy. The family was left destitute.
Dad did what he could to be “the man of the house.” He sold eggs from their family chickens, pushed around an ice cream truck, and did chores for neighbors to make ends meet. At such a young age, he felt burdened with emotional and financial responsibility.
Money was a worry that would last a lifetime, even though Dad went on to build significant financial success and wealth. He told me he could never shake the Depression-era feelings of “never having enough.”
But somehow, there was, and they managed to thrive.
Dad was one of the “popular” kids in high school. He excelled at football, but he was a poor student, to his mother’s dismay. However, she was sure he had the potential for greatness, but she didn’t know how to motivate him. He’d sluff off her ideas and continue to get into the usual teenage shenanigans.
When Dad reached his last year of high school, his mother made a suggestion that made no sense at the time. His grades were terrible, and he seemed to have no real interests at all. It was her last-ditch effort to get him on track.
“Donald, why don’t you apply to the Naval Academy? I know you have what it takes.”
Well, he thought about it. He couldn’t get it out of his mind.
He envisioned serving our country, wearing the uniform, tossing the hat in the air at graduation, and moving forward with pilot training. He used his imagination to see his future, and it had endless possibilities!
He began studying hard to get the grades he needed and found pure joy in the feeling of accomplishment, excelling above others. He campaigned for his cause, seeking letters of reference, and looking for pathways to his dreams.
The Naval Academy requires a nomination, typically through a member of congress. Students are officers in training with the rank of midshipman. The acceptance rate is challenging, and only a small percentage of applicants make it.
But dad was unstoppable. He succeeded in getting a letter of recommendation from the State Senator of Ohio, and finally, the day came when the letter of acceptance to the Naval Academy arrived!
He envisioned it, took action, and manifested his dream.
Dad went all the way to the top, achieving the rank of Two Star Rear Admiral, with his last command at Treasure Island in San Francisco.
I was at the change of command ceremony when my dad received the orders for Treasure Island. I sat in the front row with my young son, Garrett. Dad began his speech by thanking the high-ranking officers and dignitaries in attendance.
Then he said something I’ll never forget… “I’d like to thank all of you for being here, but there’s someone even more important I’d like to acknowledge… my first grandson, Garrett Denver Peckinpah, sitting right there in the front row…” The photo below caught the exact moment Garrett heard his name. You can see the joy on his face!
Dad reminded me of that story a few months before he died. I shared the photo of that day.
He got tears in his eyes and said it was one of the happiest days of his life. He recited the story at least three more times that night…
And it was emotional that he wanted to share that story because we lost my sweet boy at just 16 years of age. My dad found it hard to talk about, even now, two decades later. But, he could sure tell the story of the day he took command of Treasure Island and how he honored his grandson on that special day.
Dad was always my champion. When I was suddenly a single mom and forced to start a new career to support my kids, I recall the conversation we had about “visualization.” That was my word for it, but he called it “setting goals.”
I was terrified of starting a new life as the sole support of my three living children. I asked him how he went from an aimless young student to a guy who dreamed of the Naval Academy.
The Admiral’s secret ingredient for success
Dad said his mother’s suggestion came at just the right time. And… he was ready to hear it. It just felt right. It got him excited for the future.
“That’s the secret ingredient,” he said. When an idea hits you, and it feels right… it’s the ignition for you to take action. The dream without action equals nothing. That’s the key ingredient that’s often missed.
Dad never wrote down his goals, but he did hold them close and replayed the dream in his mind like a movie. He said it was never over because he always had the next goal waiting in the wings.
It’s like a jet ready for take-off. The skies part, and there’s the runway, clear as can be. You simply must fly the plane while you’re building it, stop at the destination, and refuel for the next flight.
In Dad’s last year of life, age 90, I spent a good deal of time taking him to doctor appointments, shopping, and enjoying lunch together. Dad always wore a cap with the Admiral’s “scrambled eggs” on the brim. People recognized it and would come up to him and thank him for his service.
It was a beautiful gesture, and it always made him stand a little taller.
I know, though, that dad always felt the privilege was his… to be a part of something greater than he ever imagined… to be of service, and feel as though what he did made a difference in people’s lives.
He didn’t have a perfect life. He made mistakes and regretted them. He admitted when he was wrong and would apologize.
He couldn’t tell a lie, even when it could have been helpful in guiding my stepmother through dementia. He sometimes had a temper, but the whole time I was growing up, I never heard a swear word… other than “doggonit.” That was about as bad as it got.
I’m so proud to be an Admiral’s daughter, but it wasn’t without a set of high standards.
I’m the oldest of five, and it all started with me. I was “the first” with everything. He had high standards and expectations. He took me fishing when I was 5 and dumbfounded when I wouldn’t let him kill it. Instead, we brought it home in a bucket of water (and it died anyway).
He tried to teach me algebra and logarithms in the 3rd grade, and he couldn’t fathom why I didn’t understand how to use a slide rule by 6th grade.
I was expected to get nothing less than a 4.0 GPA, so I did. He encouraged me to run for student council, even saying I could be President of the US someday. I lost that election… but we kept going, Dad and me. We had dreams to fulfill.
We butted heads when I was a feisty teenager with strong political opinions. But he’d listen to my point of view, and never shamed me for speaking up.
He always told me I was beautiful, even going through those tough pubescent years where I felt dumpy and was teased unmercifully for having red hair and freckles.
Throughout my lifetime, Dad expected the best from me. He encouraged me to believe in myself and dream big. During the darkest times, he never knew what to say, but he’d call me anyway. He taught me that caring could be as simple as a phone call, and sometimes a check in the mail when he knew I was struggling.
Through it all, he was my champion. He always made me think I was his favorite… but then all five of us think that, so he must have done something right.
Here’s the secret to loss…
As much as you think you’re prepared when someone is at the end of life, it’s never enough.
I lost Dad two years ago, and I wasn’t ready.
Where does all that love go when someone is no longer here? I’ll tell you a secret…. it grows. I learned that with the death of my son and my husband. Love never dies, it stays with you forever.
I still have questions to ask Dad, stories to hear (even if he’s told them a hundred times before), and I miss a hug from the man I’ve idolized my whole life. Sometimes I play his old voicemails just to hear the sound of his voice.
In the weeks before he died, I asked him to please give me a sign if he ran into my son, Garrett, up there in that magical place where he and his father reside.
I’m still waiting for that sign, but Dad knows how to fulfill a promise. Any day now, I imagine it could be in the form of a dream, a whisper in the wind, or a bird looking in through my bedroom window.
But nope. It will be his darn ring tone, Anchors Aweigh, the fight song of the United States Naval Academy.
Funny… it used to drive me crazy (always set at full volume), and now I pray to hear it.
Believe in your ability to dream big and make it happen… Admiral’s orders.
Dad’s legacy taught me I could go after my dreams, and I should always have something waiting in the wings, even if it’s seeking peace and contentment in the later years of life. He demanded the best from himself and achieved what he set out to do.
He can rest in peace knowing he fulfilled his command on this planet, especially when you look at all 5 of his children, their spouses, grandchildren, and now a great-grandchild born in 2021… named Garrett.
I’ve read hundreds of books on successful people, goal setting, manifestation, and visualization, and I’ve come to this conclusion… my dad had it right all along: Imagine, focus, and fulfill what you say you’re going to do, then get ready for the next big adventure.
When something resonates with you, and it just feels right… that’s your destiny calling. You don’t have to know the whole plan. Just take the very next step.
I love helping people discover the creative process. Here’s a gift — a five-step process to get you started on your creative journey: How to Develop the Creative Mindset. I will also send you occasional emails to inspire you on your creative journey!
This article was originally posted on Medium/P.S. I Love You