In Memoriam: Robert H. Burns

For some reason, my father abbreviated Robert as Rob’t in his signature, but he never omitted the H. I never asked why.
Now I can’t.

Dad died yesterday. Quietly. After what obituary writers might call “a short illness” but really, I’m not sure what to call it. He was at home and fine (relatively speaking–the man was almost 93) less than three weeks before his demise. Then he fell and gashed his hand, ended up in the ER for stitches, got admitted for rehydration as well as IV antibiotics for some old infected wounds, got better, moved to rehab to learn to use his walker better, and two days later was readmitted to hospital, then hospice, then gone.

I’m glad for the speed of it, for his sake. He would not have liked to linger and would have hated living in any sort of facility for anything more than a brief stay. He was fiercely independent. Dad lived on his own, alone, in his townhouse condo (with its stairs!) up until the end. My brothers generally hated that, but I respected his choice. He knew it increased his risks of accidental death at his age, but he was willing to take those risks for his independence. He drove, too, for which I feel a bit compelled to apologize to the people of Atlanta.

I got my love of driving, including stick shifts and cheap(ish) sports cars, from my dad. I got a lot from him, actually. A short list would include:

  • brown eyes that are getting lighter/more hazel-green as I get older
  • a love of the law
  • an ability to see both sides of issues and look for rational solutions
  • honesty, which (unfortunately) can be a bit too harsh for some folks
  • a loathing of yelling, particularly in fights
  • a love of, but not the guts for, acting
  • a strong whistle
  • athleticism
  • respectful competitiveness (I don’t like to lose, but I’ll respect whoever beats me at whatever)
  • enjoying watching football and baseball, but without rabid fanaticism
  • religiously doing the NYTimes Sunday crossword, in ink
  • quiet rationalism that can be perceived as coldness (aka Midwestern stoicism)
  • liking gin martinis, steaks on the grill (although I prefer mine rare), and ice cream.

As a kid, Dad taught me to swim, to ski, to play Hearts, Spades, and Blackjack, to ride a bike, to drive, and that one didn’t actually have to stop for a pee half as much as you’d think on long car trips across the country (while arguably a bit tortuous as a kid, this was great training for college bars). On his post-divorce weekends with me, sometimes we’d go horseback riding or ice skating. We’d go to Snowshoe, WV mid-week for a ski break or to Boyne, MI or take a half-day and go to a local hill. Spring breaks were often long car trips to Vail or Park City or Ft. Lauderdale, with stops in New Orleans or Mt. Rushmore or Joker Joe’s in Benton, TN to buy fireworks. Thanks mostly to Dad, I’ve been in each of the 48 contiguous states.

In recent years, we usually spoke weekly, on the phone. FaceTime or whatever was really beyond him–I mean, he’d still call me to say he’d received an email or, on the rare occasion, to tell me he’d sent me one. Each call, he would ask me about my practice and my cases, even though he didn’t understand copyright law (he had been a general practitioner, doing mostly real estate, divorces, and probate). He’d also ask about the weather, whether I had been swimming in the ocean lately, and how the animals were. He referred to my live-in boyfriend as my “friend,” almost never by his name, although more recently he did say he was really glad I was happy with him. That was unusual–Dad just wasn’t the warm-fuzzy type. For example, I’d always end the calls with “I love you” and he never said it back. It just wasn’t his way. I knew he did, though, of course.

He sucked at expressing his emotions directly. Yes, there is a great irony that he had been an actor before law school, but he couldn’t say “I love you” to his daughter. I blame his mother, who was apparently a piece of work (she died shortly before my birth). Everything made sense to me when, some years ago, he said that they never had black pepper in his house growing up, because she did not approve of it. And she dressed up her cats as a child. Yikes. It’s a small wonder he wasn’t a serial killer or something, after that childhood. Anyway, his inability to be direct about his feelings meant he, for example, would tell one of my brothers how he was proud of me, and me how he was impressed with my brothers. We all eventually heard it, just never straight from him.

Oddly, the last time I spoke to him I said, “I love you and I miss you” instead of my usual closing. I had no idea that would be the last time we spoke, but for some reason I added that second clause.

It’s too true, now.
I love you, Dad, and I miss you. Thank you for everything.

One Reply to “In Memoriam: Robert H. Burns”

  1. Beautiful tribute to your father, Leslie. I think the inability to express emotions directly is maybe a generational thing; it’s the same in my family and so many others. xx

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