I had never considered including a post about my dad here in my Ambassador of Love blog, but a few mornings ago, I felt a clear nudge to do so. It was 40 years ago this month that he disappeared—literally—and, as that was on one of his travel adventures, that qualifies a bit of his story to be included here among my travel memories. In fact, it would have been totally appropriate for me to have written my very first blog about my dad, as he is the one who introduced me to both travel and photography.
Warning/reminder to parents: This is one of those examples that demonstrates that children learn far more from what you do and model than from what you say. In part, it is because it is unconscious learning. I, for one, was opposed to and rebelled against virtually everything my parents said. I had no awareness that I was nonetheless learning from their examples more than from their words.
My father was 45 when I was born—the age of most of my peers’ grandfathers. Following a 20-year career in the marines, my dad transitioned into civilian life as a pilot for the FAA. My life of travel began when I was only nine years old. We moved from Atlanta, Georgia to Frankfurt, Germany. All but one of my eight siblings stayed behind. I arrived in a foreign country where I did not speak the language with one sister, who was 10 years older than I was, and two working parents. They put me in a German school. My dad’s philosophy was “sink or swim.” It had always worked in the swimming pool, where we had all learned to swim like fish, but I was the first to find myself as “a fish out of water,” among children who were not very friendly and who made fun of my efforts to learn their language. I was pretty much on my own. No tutor was provided. I was told to simply learn German and do my work. This set the stage for a less than stellar parent-child relationship, needless to say. My fears and anxieties eventually morphed into resentment and hatred. On weekends, my dad would sign us up for bus excursions around Germany or neighboring countries to explore towns and cities I knew nothing about nor had any interest in. I felt dragged everywhere we went. My dad’s hobby was photography—the old school kind, where a light meter was required. He noted every f/stop and the shutter speed of every shot he took in a little notebook. This was very time consuming, so my childhood and adolescence were spent largely waiting on my dad. He never rushed.
Back then, I had no idea what mindfulness was or being present in the moment. Those were among the few positive examples my dad modeled. For me, it was excruciatingly boring. I know parents now who prepare their children for trips, educating them in advance about the places they will be going, building the anticipation and creating a sense of excitement about the things and places they’ll be seeing. It would never have occurred to my parents to do any of those things. Children were “to be seen and not heard” in those days. Whether or not I was having any fun was of no concern to them. Churches were the bane of my existence. My dad could not pass up a single one. He could easily spend an hour in every cathedral or chapel we passed. Years later, in his retirement, he would show these slides to the senior citizens in the church community, which I only just learned a few years ago from our dear old neighbor from decades ago.
The most fun thing my dad ever took me to do was learn to ski. From 1977-80, we would make at least two trips to Austria a year to a quaint little town called Waidring. We were never in the same class that I recall, but he always made quite an impression on the slopes. At 6’4” and well over 200 lbs, there were no ski suits to be found in his size, so he would ski in his flight suit—something that the fashionable Europeans had never seen before. Eventually, he did find a suit. It was electric blue, and he was immediately nicknamed “The Blue Bomb,” as, no matter how many lessons he took, he could never learn how to stop, other than to crash. It boggles my mind to realize in the very moment I am writing this that he was the age I am now when he undertook the sport. I had no appreciation then of just how admirable that was. It took courage and an extremely high pain threshold, both of which I had no awareness of. I smile now, thinking back to the sight of him carrying his skis, plodding along like a bear through the snow.
In 1977, the FAA introduced jets into their fleet. My dad’s heart was unable to handle the g-force, so he was given the option of early retirement. He was only 56 years old. Funny, he seemed like such an old man to me then. We moved to Heidelberg, where my stepmother had been teaching and creating a Women’s Studies program for the University of Maryland, European Division. Now retired, he was available to fly freelance for private collectors of aircraft. Such was the trip he headed off for the last time I saw him.
In October of 1980, he was to fly a DC-3 from Madrid, Spain to Barcelona, then, presumably, on to the U.S. He had an off-duty army captain as his copilot. We later learned that his takeoff was delayed by a day due to a mechanical malfunction. He never checked in with us during these trips. He would say goodbye before he left and, essentially, “I’ll see you when I see you,” or, “I’ll be home when I get home.” I never gave any thought to not ever knowing where he was. On October 3rd, someone kept calling for him throughout the afternoon. It was rare that our phone rang, so I found it particularly annoying by the third time the same guy called to ask if my dad was home. I had already told him twice that he was not. I did not pick up on the fact that this man was concerned. I think I ultimately took his phone number and told him I would have my stepmother call him. I will never forget her coming up to my room that night and saying “I think you had better prepare yourself for some bad news.” Although the technical issue had seemingly not been resolved, the aircraft took off from Madrid, but then never landed at any airport within fuel range. It seemed to have simply disappeared into thin air. I was 16 years old and suddenly alone. (My relationship with my stepmother was no better than my relationship with my dad had been, and my sister had married and moved back to the U.S.) My world careened off its axis. My stepmom dropped me off at a friend’s house, expecting me to continue going to school and functioning “normally.” The shock of it all and the inability to stop crying for days on end weakened my immune system. I fell ill with Mononucleosis (which has since been linked to the Epstein-Barr virus and Fibromyalgia that I’ve been living with since 2011). Between the fever and a bad reaction to the meds they gave me, I was in and out of consciousness for days, home sick for three weeks, feeling numb, adrift, and utterly drained of energy. That was likely my first experience of depression, only that was not something even considered or discussed back then.
After his disappearance, on at least one occasion, my stepmother and I talked about things we had never spoken of before. She told me that my dad had been molested by a neighbor as a child. He had never told anyone other than her. Victims of abuse frequently become either control freaks or abusers themselves. My dad had become both. These were the reasons none of his nine children had a good or close relationship with him. He simply did not know how to be any other way. I grieved for years, tormented by the unknown. Had his plane crashed, or had he abandoned me? Decades passed. Would I ever know? For over twenty years, I got sick every October, cellular memory being activated.
In 1990, four of my siblings came to my home in Nebraska and we planted a tree in his memory. As there was no body, and as we kids were all thousands of miles apart in 1980, there was neither a funeral nor a gravesite. Harold William Bradford Pear grew to be HUGE and beautiful. His branches invited his grandchildren to climb and rest in his arms in the ways that perhaps only the first of his own kids ever got to enjoy him as a young dad. I made slow progress through the years learning about forgiveness and its importance for our own healing. I appreciated the metaphors in nature and in his memorial tree that reminded me that he is always with me, even now.
In 2004 I had what I can only describe as a mystical experience. I met up with an old friend from UMD in Heidelberg in Pisa, Italy. She had been to both the leaning tower and the cathedral on a prior visit, so she opted to wait outside while I went inside the duomo. I should mention here that I was raised in the Catholic church and my dad was a devout Catholic. I left the church after his disappearance, as, when I turned to the congregation for support, because of the bizarre circumstances, no one knew what to do or say, so they simply did and said nothing. Upon entering the Pisa cathedral from the back entrance, I discovered that a high mass was in progress. I don’t recall what holy day it was, but all of my senses were immediately bombarded and the childhood memories came flooding back—the organ, the incense. Monks were singing and I had chills from head to toe. In that moment, I felt the magnitude of all of the gifts that my father had given to me over the years that I had never before recognized as gifts. By dragging me through hundreds of churches all around Europe, he had instilled in me an appreciation of beauty and architecture. By changing my radio station every other hour from my preferred American Top 40 pop music to classical, he had—in spite of my stubbornness—given me an appreciation of the art that music can be. By insisting that I try foods that I didn’t even know what they were, he awakened my palette to the wonders of the culinary world. The very things I had resented for so many years, could now be appreciated—now that I had stopped resisting. I felt cleansed of all of the hatred, anger, and resentment that I had ever felt toward my dad as the tears washed down my face and the angels opened my eyes and my heart to what I could not see before. I felt free as I had never felt before, and I knew in that moment that it was the freedom born of forgiveness and compassion for all that my dad himself had suffered in his life.
Earlier this month, during the week of the actual anniversary of my dad’s disappearance, I posted the following reflections on Facebook after viewing the video posted below. Rather than rewrite my sentiments into this post, I will simply share them as I wrote them:
In this time of global chaos, fear, and political insanity, I must once again remind those of you whose parents are still alive to PLEASE resolve any and all differences while you still can. Make peace. Make amends. Regardless of what has (or has not) happened in the past, forgive them and reflect upon the greatest gift they have given you: LIFE. Without them, you would not be here. That alone is worth your love and gratitude. Express it to them. They need to hear it. More than ever before, these times of uncertainly cause us to crave reassurances from those we love. I know I do. Whatever mistakes they made or (perceived) harm they did, they did the best they could at the time. Their “mistakes” influenced who you are today. They made you strong. They provided the contrast you needed to choose to be who and how you are now, and, in some cases, to break any cycles of unhealthy behaviors, abuse, or neglect.
I was a surly teenager. I am sad to say, I hated my dad for many years. I blamed him for so much of what was wrong in my life. It took years of therapy and time and personal growth before I could acknowledge what I just wrote above. He did what he knew. He treated his children the way he himself had been treated. He should not have fathered children, yet he did —NINE of them, thanks to the Catholic church. If he hadn’t though, I would not be here, and I am beyond grateful that I am. I LOVE LIFE! I am only able to do so, however, because I learned to love my dad. I forgave him for the things that he did. It took time—a LOT of time, but I got there. Looking back, at all of the tears I have shed over the years since his disappearance, only a fraction of my tears were from grief and feelings of abandonment. I would say that 90% of my tears have been tears of regret. Pointless, I know, but I regret that I wasn’t wiser sooner, that I didn’t have the wisdom as a teen to understand and accept him, to honor him. So, I implore all of you, my friends, to do whatever you can while you can to avoid a future of feeling guilty and suffering after your loved ones are gone.
I have never spent more time alone in my life than I have these past six months of the Covid-19 pandemia. I have had nothing but time to reflect, to think about my parents and the relationships we had and didn’t have. I still wish things had been different, but they weren’t.
I have been thinking about ALL of the loved ones I have lost, most of whom died unexpectedly—brothers, friends, mentors. Thinking of all who have lost family members during this pandemic, who could not be with their loved ones or have one last heartfelt conversation before illness and death derailed their lives, I cannot stress enough that “There is no time like the present.” This is it. This is all we have, and time IS a present—the best gift of all! Celebrate it! Express as much love and appreciation as you possibly can every day!
Just as the woman in the story below honors her lost loved ones through art, I honor my dad’s memory with my travels and my photography. Those were his two greatest passions. I don’t know if they were his gifts to me, or if my choosing to LIVE them is my gift to him. Both can be true, I suppose.
I found this video, which showed up the week of the 40th anniversary of my father’s last flight, particularly touching: Eric’s Heroes: Woman who lost everything will make you believe anything is possible
I have no doubt that my dad is continuing his cosmic travels, watching over me from wherever he is. I hope that he delights in my adventures and in how I make a point every day to see the beauty and new details in nature. His departure is what taught me to do so after all. I know that—wherever he is—he smiles every time I go into a church and light a candle in memory of him.
Postscript: The night after I wrote this, I was listening to the radio where I am temporarily residing in Costa Rica. For the first time in years, I heard Elton John’s “Daniel.” Since late 1980, every single time I’ve heard this song, I’ve sung along, changing the lyrics “Daniel” and “brother” to “Daddy” and “father.” It is almost eerie how, with those changes, it’s as if Sir Elton wrote that song just for me. I’ve always wanted to tell him how meaningful it felt —even though only imagined by a distraught and depressed teenager. Perhaps this story will find its way to him one day. You can take a listen here, if you’d like: https://youtu.be/UA78e27R_J4