Day of the Dead — in August

On August 8, 1991 my father, Willis Robert McAfee, Jr., died in my arms after a very short illness with pancreatic cancer. I’ve written a lot about that experience in the intervening years — in this blog, song and poetry. He was only 67 years old. My maternal grandfather, Fred Mathis, died on the exact same day five years later. He was 96.

As I write these words on the anniversary of their deaths, I am considering how best to honor these two men.

They were so different in temperament, appearance, and experience. Dad was a World War II veteran and middle school earth science teacher. I theorize that much of his humor – which walked the razor’s edge between wit and sarcasm – was formed by the fact that he was extraordinarily tall at 6’8”. He got a lot of attention for that, much of it uncomfortable, I imagine. Dad was a science geek, rock hound, and self-described pyromaniac. How he loved cutting, splitting and burning wood in the two woodstoves! He enjoyed routine, cigarettes, growing vegetables (organically – before that was a thing), planting trees, and sitting for hours in the backyard watching birds.

Grandpa was inordinately handsome, socially graceful, and gifted with a gorgeous baritone. He loved getting people singing and did so as a choir director well into 80’s. As a young man he sang with his quartet on a weekly radio show in Des Moines, Iowa. After he became a father, he joined the family real estate business and relegated singing to church and community settings. He also loved growing flowers in his beautiful backyard garden. And how he loved an adventure! I remember hair-raising drives around Des Moines in his red Mercury as he gawked at this or that new building instead of keeping his eyes on the road. And he was a social butterfly. Even when he was losing some of his words to memory issues, his warm and twinkling charm won over all of the caregivers at his nursing home.

I carry many gifts from these two influential men in my story. Like Dad I am tall and witty, but work diligently to stand up straight and keep my humor kind. I think of him when I marvel at something in the natural world or hear a fascinating science story on the radio. Also when I watch the sweat drip off the end of my nose in the garden – just the way his did.

Like Grandpa I love all things singing – as a soloist and song leader. My yard is full of blooming things and I enjoy lending my energy to a lot of different projects.

I can’t end this reflection without mentioning my mother. She lost the two most important men in her life on the same day five years apart. It is her vivid storytelling that has kept their memories fresh and alive all these years. Thank you, Mom.

And thank you, Dad and Grandpa, for all the goodness you brought to my life.

I am grateful to come from such fine (and flawed) people.


Here is a poem I wrote for Dad many years ago. I performed it – shaking in my boots — at one of my early concerts with he and Mom in the front row.

My Father

My father took a piece of land
like some men take a wife: for life.
Planted a pine at each child’s birth.
Flattered it with forest-fresh birches.

He watched the elms die there
And planted – patient – again:
buckeye, blue spruce, aspen, crab, walnut.

My father took a piece of land
and sometimes I think he loved it
more than he loved me.

The land did not feel the sting of his anger
Or the shadow of his despair.
It accepted his silence
when he sat so still and so alone
on long summer evenings.
My father took a piece of land
and sometimes I think it was his only friend.

Had it not been for this land, I might not know him.
I met his patience there in the rhythm of
till, plant, mulch and harvest.
I met his wonder there
in oriole nests and fall bonfires.
I met his strength there
in the ax cracking on frozen oak.

My father took a piece of land
and sometimes we worked it side by side.
It was at those times that I knew we were kin
and that our roots were fed in common
by this dark, rich soil.

© Barbara McAfee


About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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6 Responses to Day of the Dead — in August

  1. Mary says:

    Beautiful story. You are very lucky to have had such close relationships with both of these fine men.

  2. Thanks for a great picture of who these two were, Barbara.

  3. LouiseHagen says:

    Thank you for sharing your insight, Barbara. It nourishes mine.

  4. I love your poem about your father. What a wonderful description of him, his relationship to the land and yours to him!

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