Thursday, June 20, 2013

Happy birthday, dad.

June 21st is the birthday of a very special man.  A Harley-riding man.  A church-going man.  A 'good ole country boy' kinda man.  A man who would do anything, any time for anyone kind of man.  A Christian in every sense of the word.  A husband.  A brother.  An uncle.  A friend.  A grandpa.  A father {and father-in-law}.  My father-in-law.

Rick Conley was one of those kind of fathers that gave you a welcome feeling the moment you were greeted by him.  His friendly demeanor was mixed with just the right amount of gruffness that gave me an instant feeling of safety being in his presence.  

I remember meeting dad shortly after Christmas 2002.  I had made the long drive from one side of Pennsylvania to the other to spend a few days with this guy I'd met my senior year of college and kinda-sorta had an itty bitty little crush on.  The long drive coupled with the shortened days of winter meant it was dark when I pulled up to the driveway.  Randy had met me at the exit of the highway so I could follow him to his house, because he lived in one of those kind of places where if you're not from there, you'll get lost.  One of those, "take that road until you come up on the Johnson's farm, and make a right after the corn field" kind of places.  Country living at it's best kind of places.  And, as I soon found out, a kind of place where I found peace and sanctity and a whole new family with whom I would grow to know and love as though we'd been connected for years.

Dad welcomed me with a hug and a "do you have anything else in the car you need me to get?".  Typical behavior for dad as I grew to find out over the first visits to Randy's family home.  The visits I had in western PA were fewer and farther between than I would have liked, but in those visits, it was time well spent.  Quality time.  Conversations and laughs and porch sitting and church going and meat grilling.  Dad {along with Randy} was the first one to teach me to shoot a gun...not that I'm some budding Annie Oakley or anything, but just teaching me to do it without injuring myself was enough to earn some extra kudos.  {He did, however have to prop me up against a sturdy tree so the recoil didn't land me on my butt.}  I had never ridden in the back of a pick up truck {deprived, right?} until dad took mom, Randy, and me through some fields adjacent to their house.  He'd stop every so often and pick a soybean {'edamame' for us 'fancy city folk'} and eat it {unfamiliar territory for me because it's something us 'city folk'--and I use that term loosely because I don't quite fit perfectly into that stereotype--just didn't really do}.  And it didn't matter if my car had just gotten inspected or not, dad always checked my brakes and fluids and gave my car a little test drive before I made the drive back across the state by myself.  Always.  It was just the kind of man he was.  Kind, generous, caring, thoughtful, compassionate, dedicated.  But don't you think about crossing him, because it was clear he was a fierce competitor for anyone or anything that stood between him and his loved ones.  

And loved ones he had.  Hundreds and hundreds of people came to dad's memorial service back in April of 2010.  Standing room only at the church where we said farewell to one of the most giving men we'll ever be blessed enough to know.  Hundreds of misty-eyed faces, twisted with distraught confusion, wondering 'why Rick?'.  The line of motorcycles parked out front of the church building, even with the damp and rainy conditions that day were a testament to how many people's lives had been touched by the man I am proud to call my father-in-law.  

Even now, more than three years after he's left this earth to, I catch myself forgetting he's gone.  Catch myself thinking how great it would be to hear his voice, listen to him talk to the kids, send him a card for Father's Day or his birthday or 'because we miss Grandpa' kinda day.  It's strange, the impact he made on me despite our limited time in the presence of one another.  But it's beautiful, too, you know?  There's something awe-inspiring about how Brynn shares this special little bond with her Grandpa Conley, despite having only officially met him as a tiny 4 month old.  I'm grateful that I get to share in Brynn's connection, that she feels compelled to tell me, ask me, share with me.

I think that the impact of dad is so strong because of the kind of man he was, the kind of man he taught my husband to be.  I think the reason there's such a strong sense of his presence is because in many ways, he's still with us.  Dad's love lives and breathes through the firm but loving way that Randy parents our children.  His friendliness and approachablity shines through when the kids sprint through the house at the first sign of daddy's return from work, or when random people strike up a conversation {ok, in all honesty...Randy's working on this.  I'm definitely the conversationalist of the duo, but he's coming around...he'll join in and chat every so often--other times he drags me away so we can continue eating/shopping/walking}.  Dad's cautious care and concern pops up whenever Randy repairs something around the house, rolls underneath his {beloved} truck to tinker with yet another part, or thoughtfully and meticulously organizes the household budget and bills.  His humor and fun-loving ways bubble up when Randy plays ball with Gavin, tickles Brynn until she's breathless, or laughs hysterically at Raegan's antics and funny faces.  His faith reigns when Randy takes our kids by the hand as he walks them across the church parking lot, or wraps his arm around my shoulders and hands me a tissue when I get extra weepy during the pastor's message.  His enduring dedication to his family is prevalent when Randy works long hours, hard hours, stressful hours, just so he can provide everything he believes his family deserves.  My father-in-law's impact is felt daily by those who love him.  Those who miss him.  Those who have him to thank for so much of the way their lives have turned out. 

They say when someone dies, its harder on those left behind.  My faith reassures me that some day we will all be reunited in heaven; but the sadness and emptiness live here on earth, in our hearts and our minds.  Time does heal the freshness of an open wound, helps turn the stabbing hurt into a dull ache.  But there are moments.  Times when I'm reminded so vividly of his unmistakable presence, times when tears spring up unexpectedly when I hear a song or see a Harley or a Con-way truck.  Times when I can almost hear his voice in the voice of my husband, see the dynamic similarities that both nature and nurture provide when they're done well.  Times when I cry, when I wish it weren't true, when I wish we could celebrate his birthday with a card in the mail or a FaceTime call or by having a gift basket stocked full of his favorite treats delivered to his front door.  Or a visit.  Just one.more.visit.  

Instead, we celebrate the beautiful man he was and the most precious angel he's become.  Last night, before bedtime prayers, when I told Brynn that Grandpa's birthday was coming up, she fell silent for a moment.  When she spoke, she asked, "Momma, how do angels celebrate birthdays?  Do they get to have a cake with God?".  My simple, tear-filled answer was, "Yes, Brynn, I'm sure God will have some cake with Grandpa on his birthday".  It was the perfect kind of 5-year-old-appropriate response that sent her off to dreamland with a smile on her face and peace in her heart, knowing her Grandpa had a way to celebrate such a special day.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring.  Will there be a moment of peace among the busyness of a bustling household to stop and acknowledge Grandpa's birthday?  I know I'll make sure the kids are aware of the importance of the date, but unsure of how they'll respond.  Maybe a simple song will be just what we need to hear, to remember their Grandpa.

Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you, 
Happy birthday dear, sweet, amazing, blessed dad/grandpa
Happy birthday to you.

loving, dedicated, irreplaceable.

dad showing his fun-loving side at our wedding nearly 8 years ago.
I remember it like it was yesterday.


  1. What a lovely tribute to your father-in-law. I have been blessed by having a great father-in-law as well. It really is on of the best gifts you can get. So sorry for your loss but so glad you have such wonderful memories!

    1. Thank you, Kathy! It definitely is such a blessing to have a strong relationship with your in-laws, as opposed to the stereotypical negative ones so often portrayed on television {and real-life}.
      Thank you for your sentiments and for stopping by to read! Very much appreciated!