I lost my dad to cancer in 2022. But not his spirit
My dad liked to warm up on the range with his hybrids. Whatever it took to build confidence before a round. A disciple of Ben Hogan, he left behind stacks of spiral notebooks filled with untold secrets. In retirement, he grew a fondness for martini tees and went through a period where he only hit yellow golf balls. Dan Baldry was a chronic tinkerer. He loved to build clubs in the garage, convinced that a new shaft would change everything.
He died of cancer in February at age 77.
The first time I went to the range after he died, I put on my Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons “Anthology” and sat down on one of the plastic lounge chairs and cried. We’d spent countless hours on that range together searching for answers. Going there now still feels like being wrapped in a warm blanket and stabbed in the heart all at the same time.
I played my first round of golf after he died on what would’ve been his 78th birthday. Nothing could’ve been more fitting. My father taught me a game that led to a college scholarship and a career that has been more fulfilling than I ever could’ve imagined. But more than that, golf gave us a lifelong connection, something we could share in big ways (Pebble Beach!) and small.
No one in the world will ever care about the details of my rounds like my dad. He wanted to revel in the good and commiserate with the bad. When I see a young girl on her dad’s shoulders at a tournament, my heart sinks and swells simultaneously. This game will bond them for life.
Basketball was my dad’s first love. He grew up in Rising Sun, Indiana, and watched Milan, the real-life “Hoosiers” team, take on his beloved Shiners. My grandmother taught him Latin, but all he wanted to do was play ball. He was a three-sport coach for much of his teaching career in Lakeland, Florida, marrying the beautiful elementary P.E. teacher who lived next door. My mom, Wanda, incidentally, leads the family with two career holes-in-one.
The first time I played a round of golf after he died on the local muni where I grew up, I pushed my approach shot on the opening hole. My ball had settled down on a bare patch of dirt, and I could hear him say, “Get yourself a lie, Beth Ann.” So I did, and I chipped it in.
He sees even more of my shots now.
Golf has been hard this year. My grips were tattered, and the shaft on my beloved old wedge broke in Michigan. Earlier this month, I finally got around to getting it fixed at the local golf shop where my dad spent so much time. The golf shop’s owner was one of several friends who spoke at his funeral.
I regret not spending more time with my dad in the garage at his workbench. There was so much left to learn, none of it from a book.
My dad always went big at Christmas, and, as an adult, I loved few things more than watching him light up over a new Masters shirt under the tree. He had thick, calloused hands and a soft heart. When I was sick, he’d stay home with me and eat chicken noodle soup and watch “Bonanza.”
I never fully appreciated the depth of my father’s love until he got really sick. Never believed he wouldn’t beat cancer until the day he asked me to call hospice and take him home.
We said everything there was to say. And then we held hands and waited.
Helping usher my father into the presence of Jesus was the hardest and most sacred time of my life. I was sitting on the floor in the living room next to his bed with my mother, going through a box of old family letters and photos when his breathing changed. As “How Great Thou Art” filled the room, he went with the angels. I truly believe that the sound of our laughter and talk of loved ones long gone allowed him to let go.
As my friend Grant Boone texted, “Never has that space between heaven and earth been thinner.”
My dad is everywhere here. This house was his labor of love every summer. Felt close to him all week. ❤️ Time to drive mama back to Florida!
Hug your people! Happy Friday! pic.twitter.com/sdtSckIwh3
— Beth Ann Nichols (@GolfweekNichols) October 28, 2022
My father didn’t have an email account or a smartphone. He kept up with friends the old-fashioned way – in person. Few things in life are more precious than listening to a friend of 50-plus years say goodbye. My mother and I had the privilege of holding the phone to my dad’s ear in those final days.
Since he died, I’d often wake up at 3 a.m. and lie in bed and write versions of this column in my head. Stories and memories that I didn’t want to die, too.
In the end, he looked so peaceful. The pain that had wrinkled his face and haunted his eyes disappeared. The hospice nurse helped me dress him in one of his favorite golf shirts, reserved for Christmas Eve services, and a pair of his signature grey coaching shorts.
My best friend since the seventh grade made it over to the house first. She held my hand as we sat on the couch. I commented on how much my dad looked like himself again.
All heaven rejoiced.