Happiness Was My Father

My father passed away on February 10th. His Celebration of Life was held in Las Vegas on February 16th. My mother and I both delivered eulogies. I’ve had several requests from those in attendance to post mine online. So… here it is.

BTidwell headshot

When I was five or six years old, Dad pulled me aside and spoke to me with a palpable urgency that I had never experienced from him before. It was clear that what he was saying to me was of the utmost importance and that, even at a tender age, I needed to take in his words with utmost seriousness.

‘You can choose to be a happy person,’ he’d said, his large, warm hands gently squeezing my upper arms as he looked me right in the eye. ‘Or you can choose to be sad. But you must choose, and you must choose now.’ He held my gaze a moment longer and asked, ‘Do you want to be a happy person, or a sad person?’

Well, being the wizened age of five or six, I of course new the better option without second thought. ‘Happy,’ I replied as if to say ‘duh, Dad.’

‘Good,’ he’d said, ‘but you have to choose to be happy, every day. When you start to feel sad, remind yourself that you’ve chosen to be happy. When things seem bad, remind yourself that you’ve chosen to be happy. Sometimes choosing to be happy will the hardest decision you make that day. Because it can be hard to be happy. But you’ll feel better when you do.’

Now, Dad wasn’t saying that I wasn’t allowed to feel sad, or that I wasn’t allowed to have bad days. I understood that even then. Even in the apparent ‘black and whiteness’ of his words, I understood the nuance; Dad never underestimated me, and he knew that I’d get it. And I did.

What he meant was to avoid the pitfalls of sadness and self-pity; to not wallow when things didn’t go my way. To not dwell in anger. To not be unable to forgive. To not hold grudges. When you choose happiness, there is no space for these dark things.

When you choose happiness you also accept so many other things. You accept that on the whole people are basically good. You assume the best of others always. You embrace the ‘golden rule’. You accept that the glass is always half full. You accept that things will work out in the end… eventually.

Dad had hard times. I would have to say that in the grand scheme of life, things never truly went Dad’s way for very long. The ground was never ultimately stable beneath his feet. He was disappointed constantly. And still, he chose happiness. He pressed on. He tried the next thing, and the next and the next, because with happiness on his side, he always found the energy to try again.

Dad wasn’t perfect. Far from it. He made countless mistakes. He often trusted too easily. He almost always put all of his eggs in the wrong basket. Projects and plans had a habit of going sideways right before they should have finally found success.

And still – he chose happiness.

You’d think that watching Dad struggle my entire life would have hardened me somewhat to the idea of happiness as a philosophy; that I would be second-guessing my decision made with such gravity at the age of five or six. But I don’t. Because if anything, he proved that happiness is the best choice you can make. Despite all of the disappointments, let-downs, failures and mistakes – at the end, he was happy.

Byron Otis Tidwell was born in Little Rock, Arkansas on March 13, 1952. His mother, Mary Ann, was a tough broad who had been raised in the upper levels of ‘Southern Society’. She was a fine pianist who (at seventeen) played a gig with the Sammy Kaye Orchestra when they passed through her town on tour. Sammy even offered her a permanent position, but her mother said no. To get back at her mother, Mary Ann decided to get a degree in microbiology because she knew her mother wouldn’t have any idea what it was.

His father, Norman Tidwell, was from ‘the other side of the tracks’ but a combination of his keen mind and a genuine fluke landed him on the Von Braun rocket team at White Sands. Norman had a dry sense of humor. He’d look you in the face with the most serious expression whilst making a wry comment and sometimes you’d be left wondering if he was joking, or saying something truly mean.

And somehow these two created Byron: a total goofball.

Dad loved making silly films with his little brother James using the family’s 8mm camera. He’d dress his brother up as a Mounty and then film him dodging in and around the trees in the woodland area behind their house performing along to some intangible storyline. There’s one piece of film where Dad has James wearing a pair of what look like ladies pink pajama bottoms with a towel done up as a turban on his head attempting to charm something or other. It’s rather short and very bizarre… kind of like Dad.

Dad was also a prankster. He’d tease James mercilessly growing up. Which he felt was his duty and his right as the older brother. Dad had a white husky called ‘Snowball’ that he taught to chase James around when he was still in diapers, grabbing the poor kid by biting onto the cloth around his butt and dragging him backwards through the house.

When I came along, he turned his teaser talents on me – his own kid.  He never really pulled a physical prank on me, not like he did to James. But he’d look me in the eye and tell me a bold-faced lie (that was meant to be bold-faced and easily spotted) but being a kid, and trusting my Dad to tell me the truth, I’d never catch it and I would inevitably end up making a fool of myself somehow based on the misinformation and Dad would laugh his butt off. It got so bad that at one point when I was eight or nine I begged my mother to tell him to stop – and she did. But he didn’t.

So by the time I was an adult when my Dad would tell me something outrageous I would assume it was hogwash – and a lot of the time it was. But once in a while, I was wrong.

September 11, 2001. I was working a swing shift at the time and the night before, after work, I’d gone to hang out with my buddy Jon. Jon and I stayed up the rest of the night playing video games and listening to heavy metal. I finally made it back to my apartment a little after 6:30am. Dad woke me up an hour or so later, frantic, telling me that the US was under attack, and to get away from the base (I lived directly across from Nellis at the time) as fast as possible. ‘But my cats,’ I’d said, unwilling to leave them if a nuclear attack was eminent. ‘Bring them with you,’ he’d said.

So I did, I tossed my two, annoyed, cats into a cardboard box, threw a towel over the top, loaded them in the car, and made like hell-for-leather for my parent’s home a few miles west of the base. The radio in my car was broken, so I had no way of tuning into the news to find out what was going on. On the way to my parents’, I noticed that the schools were open. Kids were on the fields loitering around, playing and chatting, waiting for class to start. Wait a minute, I’d thought, if the US was really under attack, the first thing to close would be the schools. Protect the children, right?

It was obvious to me at that point that my Dad had pulled one over on me. Again.

I was exhausted and unamused.

I pulled up alongside my parents’ home, hauled my cats out of the box – one under each arm – and forced my way into the house. I dropped my fuzzy kids into the guest bedroom, marched into the den where my parents were watching TV with ashen faces, took one look at the now infamous footage of the airplane strike and in my fatigue-drunk state muttered angrily, ‘that’s fake.’ Headed back to the guest room and passed out for another 5 hours.

I awoke to egg on my face and the horrifying reality of a new world.

I apologized to my parents of course. But later, I took my Dad aside and explained that because he had teased me so much growing up, I never really knew when he was telling the truth. He apologized too. And finally, the teasing stopped. Well…mostly. He couldn’t help himself sometimes. But, I got exponentially better at catching it and volleying back.

My Dad loved me so much. I have never ever doubted that fact. He loved me no matter what. He accepted me before I even knew there was anything unusual about me to accept.

After I came out to my parents as gay – a moment that for me, an overly-dramatic teen, was disappointingly uneventful.

‘I’m gay,’ I’d said.

‘We know’, they’d said, ‘And we support you and we love you so much. But right now we have to pick up Lyn from the airport.’

Lyn was my Mom’s best friend.

Afterwards, weeks – maybe months – later, Dad told me that he’d figured out I was gay by the time I was five. Then it was just a matter of waiting for me to figure it out too. But he always accepted me. He always embraced me. And he never once made me feel that who I was wasn’t ok.

Dad grew up Methodist, more or less. In truth, his mother was an atheist. That’s right. In the South. In the 50’s and 60’s. But she was quiet about it. His Dad seemed like he could take it or leave it. But still, they went to church every Sunday. Because it was what you did. It was more about community and less, much less, about doctrine.

Dad listened to the sermons. He watched, because it was a kind of theater. But he didn’t understand why the folks who sat so devoutly in the pews, listening to the lessons of ‘Do undo others’ and ‘Love thy neighbor’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ would then go out into the world and treat their fellow man like dirt just because their skin was a darker shade.

Hypocrisy never sat well with Dad.

When he and Mom got married, she was Episcopalian and he went along for the ride. He said to mom that he liked the Episcopal Church because the ideas were similar to the Methodist but the Episcopal Church had ‘better choreography’.

Dad was always about the show.

When I was 10 years old he memorized the entire King James version of the Gospel According to Mark and took it on tour as a one man show up and down the East Coast. He treated it like a campfire story, dressing in a costume of denim jeans and a flannel shirt, with a brown leather belt and hiking boots completing the ensemble.

He’d draw people in with his gentle baritone and easy understanding of the classical language. He was the first person to explain to me the importance of knowing the meaning of words.

‘You must understand the meaning of the words,’ he’d said to me one time, when we were reading through a little bit of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. ‘When you understand the words, the audience will, too. But if you don’t and you’re just reciting… it becomes meaningless.’

But what he also showed me, without pointing it out, was that understanding the words wasn’t enough. You had to believe them, too. Even if only in performance, you still had to believe them.

So when he performed Mark for dozens of churches and audiences from New York to Kentucky, he believed.

But Dad was really beyond religion. He recognized the spiritual nature of the universe, but he didn’t give it a name. He never needed celestial validation.

He was a good man. A sweet man. Evident always in his words and deeds. He existed, for want of a better term, in a state of grace.

Dad loved animals. And animals loved Dad. Animals recognize the goodness of a person. And all manner of species would flock to my Dad. Dogs were his favorite. Though he did start to develop a soft spot for cats near the end. But dogs with their endless capacity for giving love, their gentle nature and their loyalty filled Dad with joy. Now that I think about it, in a lot of ways, Dad was kind of like his favorite animal.

Loyal, often to his own fault, he valued and cherished his friendships. Friends were found family and he never hesitated to put the necessary effort in to cultivating and maintaining his relationships. As mentioned earlier, he always trusted first and occasionally he’d be let down. But he always forgave. He never held a grudge. Dad taught me how to be a friend. I carry those lessons with me every day within my own friendships.

Gentle, he was always delicate with his hands. His gestures, while undoubtedly ‘manly’, were always thoughtful and precise. He was a masterful mime and probably could have been a skilled magician if he had been so inclined. His hands were warm and tender and when he placed them on your shoulder or your back he’d give a soft ‘pat, pat, pat’ and you’d know that you were loved and safe. He was a terrific hugger, too.

Loving, Dad never shied away from expressing his affection. He told me constantly how proud he was of me, even if I’d failed at something. ‘You tried,’ he’d say, ‘that’s what matters. Now you know what to do next time. I’m so proud of you, sweetheart.’

I know that he loved me and I know that he was proud of me. That is the greatest gift he could have given me.

That… and happiness.


4 thoughts on “Happiness Was My Father

  1. This tribute is absolutely beautiful! Very loving and clear. I did not know your father well but can truly say, I saw the man you describe! God bless! Beautiful writing!

  2. A very moving tribute. I was dining with a group last evening (Mar. 15) that included a retired English teacher from Lee HS. She told me Byron had passed, that’s the first I’d heard the news. I was his Explorer Scout Post Advisor at Lakewood Methodist Church some 50 years ago, and was acquainted with his dad, Norman. Condolences to his survivors.

  3. I remember Byron from Lee High School. We knew at the time that he was destined to lead an unconventional, exciting, “theatrical” life. Even then he was exactly as you described him, always smiling, with an impish playfulness that was unmistakably unique. He lived BIG. I am glad that he pursued his happiness with gusto throughout his life. You are his legacy. I can tell you are proud to be his daughter. You have every reason to be! My mother also taught English, and journalism at LHS. She crossed over in 2012. I think your father was on her newspaper or maybe broadcasting staff. May you continue in your inherited happiness way of being. We thought your father was gay in high school. Little did I know I was too. Still, he was popular and accepted. How could he not be? Love to you and yours!

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