Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Day Dad Died

April 28, 1968.
I’m so excited I can hardly stand it.  Not even this gross water sprout hairdo—a tight ponytail Mom has centered on the top of my head—can ruin my mood.  I’m wearing my favorite dress, the white hand-me-down from Pam Eldridge, who lives down the street.  It has a big fluffy skirt, tiny black roses all over, and it even ties in the back with a big bow.  I have my favorite storybook, Hansel and Gretel, all ready to go.  Santa gave it to me this past Christmas.  It’s really big. 
Today is going to be great!  I’m going with my best friend, Debbie, to visit her aunt, who lives in Maryland.  Her mom is driving.  I’ve never been allowed to go on a trip like this without my parents going too.  It’s just for a day, but still.  I don’t think the other kids in my kindergarten class have been allowed to go away without their parents.

Debbie’s mom blows the horn of her light blue car and I’m flying through the front door of our house before Mom can remind me to use good manners.  I yell good-bye to her as I go.  (Dad left earlier this morning. He likes to fly his small airplane on the weekends, so he's already hanging out with his buddies at the local airport.) 
We drive for two and a half hours, eating snacks in the car and pretending to read the words that go with the pictures in my book.  Finally we arrive at the University of Maryland, where Debbie’s aunt is a student.  The whole day is amazing!  We walk around campus among all the grown ups.  We eat at the university cafeteria where the college students eat.  We visit Debbie’s aunt’s apartment and play with the stuffed animals on her bed.  My favorite is the five-foot long lime green snake.  Debbie and I slap each other with the snake, his silly red felt tongue hanging out of his mouth as his head whacks our bodies.
The ride home that evening seems to take a long time. When Debbie’s mom drops me off outside our home, I’m both exhausted and exhilarated. I burst into the house ready to share all the details of my adventures with Mom and Dad.  And then I freeze. 
Uh-oh. I’m not exactly sure why, but I’m in trouble.  Why else would Mom be waiting for me in the living room with that weird look on her face, sort of mad, sort of sad, but also sort of confused?

But why are her friends here? There’s Nancy, who lives around the corner from us.  And Evelyn, who lives right down the street (she’s the mother of Pam, who gave me this great dress).  And Susan, Mom’s best friend, who is single and spends a lot of time with our family.  They’re all sitting quietly around our small living room, Mom in the old orange wingback chair.  None of this makes any sense to me, but one thing is certain: I’m in trouble.  I can see it in Mom’s face.  I can hear it in the uncomfortable silence of the room.

“Lauren, would you come into the kitchen with me for a minute?” Mom says.  It’s more a statement than a question.  I quietly follow her.  When we round the corner to the kitchen, she turns to me.

“Your father had an accident while flying his plane today.” Her voice is calm, almost flat. “Daddy is dead, Lauren.  Do you understand what that means?” 
“Yes,” I lie.  “Can I go upstairs now?”
I walk in a daze to my brother’s room, where I find my three siblings staring blankly at the television screen.  I sit down and stare with them.  None of us says a word.  My adventures in Maryland are already forgotten.

* * *

Not until my late 20s do I begin to understand the details surrounding my father’s death, how he’d left early to spend the morning at the small rural airport nearby, where I suspect he liked to escape the weekday stresses of being a blue-collar sole provider for a family of six.  Another pilot had asked the men in the waiting area—my father among them—if anyone was willing to help him practice his take-off and landing maneuvers.  Though not fully-licensed, this man had enough instruction hours under his belt to fly without a certified instructor as long as there was a licensed pilot in the plane with him.  Dad agreed. 

During his first landing attempt, the pilot hit some telephone wires and crashed the plane.  My father suffered severe internal injuries and was bleeding profusely.  When the ambulance arrived at the hospital, Dad was pronounced DOA—Dead On Arrival.  He’d recently celebrated his thirty-second birthday.

It’s now been 43 years, Dad, but you’re still in my thoughts, still a part of who I am and who I’m yet to become. Happy Father’s Day.
Supple Weidner Ward
March 5, 1936 – April 28,1968

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, FREE here.  Click on the link below the green "Buy the Book" button.  Happy reading!  


  1. OMG, I remember your father. I remember hearing about this. I was so upset for your mother. I wrote it in my journal. I remember too when my father died.

    Have you been keeping a journal all these years?

    I love your writings. I love you too


  2. Been keeping a journal since I was 12. Still have each and every one--so beware, former boyfriends who broke my heart: hell hath no fury like a teenaged girl scorned.

    Thanks for the comments, Maurie!

  3. Tears in my eyes. I had no idea. It's making more and more sense how and why you developed into this wacky and wise woman. Happy Father's Day to your dad!

  4. Always happy to make you cry, Jenna. Why should today be any different than when you worked for me?
    : )
    (once a smart ass, always a smart ass)

  5. Oh my, it's very emotional. You probably didn't understand it clearly that time because you were young, but everything is clear now. Somehow, it is a wonderful thing that he died doing what he loved to do and what he was good at: flying his plane. I'm sure he's soaring in the sky right now, watching over you as your guardian angel.

    [Loria Schleiff]

  6. Thanks for this Lauren, it's more information than Grant and I were ever given. Sounds like your Dad was a kind, giving, generous person. He could have been a hippie. I know he was always my favorite uncle.