Dad is gone: Chuck Hibbler (1931-2008)

The late Chuck Hibbler

I am not Bill Hibbler and Chuck Hibbler was not my Father.

Well, not at first anyway. Originally, my name was Matt Kittrell. More on that in a minute.

Dad passed away last Thursday after battling cancer for seven months. We buried him on Monday. I’d like to tell you a bit about how I came to know him.

When Dad and I first met, we were competing for the attention of the same woman, my Mother. This led to, oh, one or two conflicts.

Just the other night, I heard Dad tell the story of his first date with Mom.

My Mom and I were living in my hometown of Orange, TX. I was three years old.

Dad was working his way through college after serving four years in the Marine Corps in the Korean war. When he returned to the states, he ended his tour of duty training troops at Camp Pendleton in California as a drill sergeant.

Tired of trying to meet girls in bars, he turned to a friend at work telling her he wanted to meet a girl that liked to dance and play bridge. The friend said she knew just the right girl for him, my Mom.

He picked her up and drove her 45 miles to a nice restaurant in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he wined and dined her. Mom was used to dining but not so much the wining. On the way home, Mom fell asleep in the car.

I don’t know about you but when a girl falls asleep on the way home from a first date, I take that as a sign that there’s not going to be a second date. But Mom managed to put a positive spin on things.

She told him that if she hadn’t liked and trusted him, she never would have felt comfortable enough to fall asleep.

Fortunately, Dad bought that line and stuck around. Mom ended up packing us up and moving to Houston. Well, I thought I’d won the war at that point. But Dad, who was one semester shy of graduating from Lamar Tech in Beaumont, TX, wasn’t about to give up that easily. He left school and followed us to Houston.

Two years later, when he married my Mother, Dad gave me his name and I became Matt Hibbler. So now instead of two of us, there were three.

And before I could get too adjusted to this new arrangement, the next thing I know, they bring me home a little sister, Misty. And I thought, “Great Mom, why don’t you just invite the whole neighborhood to move in with us?”

I did discover that it can be useful to have a little sister around. When things go wrong, I could say, “Misty did it!”

Dad & I continued to clash. At first, I tried to escape. I played baseball & football. But then Dad would volunteer to be a coach on the team. You may recall me mentioning that Dad was a former Marine Corps drill sergeant and that’s who he resembled when he was coaching. Yikes.

So I quit playing sports. I wasn’t that good anyway. Like a lot of kids, I wasn’t quite comfortable in my own skin. When I went from elementary to junior high school, they had us fill out a little card with our personal information including what we wanted to be called. I wrote out my legal name, William Matthew Hibbler, and said I wanted to be called Bill. So that’s when Matt became Bill. This decision was not popular with Dad and for years, he refused to call me Bill.

To this day, many of my parents’ friends and employees think he had two sons because he’d refer to me as Bill when I was around but Matt when I wasn’t. When I still lived at home, when friends would call as ask for Bill, they were often confused to hear him shout, “Matt! Telephone!”.

When we met with the funeral director last week, I joked that we should write that Dad was survived by his wife Jackie, his daughter Misty and two sons, Matt & Bill.

Eventually, I took up music. I grew my hair long and started listening to hard rock music. As you can imagine, there’s not a lot of demand for Marine Corps drill sergeants in the music industry so Dad couldn’t follow me there. Of course, he had a thing or two to say about the long hair. We had many clashes over haircuts.

In 1980, I took off with a band and rarely came home for ten years. We’d see each other for the holidays and that was about it. We got along OK but there wasn’t a lot of mutual respect.

Things took a turn for the better when I got sober in 1989. It was Christmas Eve. I’d just broken up with my girlfriend and came by the house after having been up all night. And that morning, I cleaned my side of the street and Dad cleaned his. We did a lot of mending that day and I don’t think we ever had a cross word for each other again. Still, as human beings, we seemed as dissimilar as two people can be.

Then one day, a funny thing happened.

I believe it was in 1994. At the time, I was publishing a music industry directory in Houston and I shared an office with my friend Pat O’Bryan.

I remember it was a Saturday afternoon and I stopped by to see my parents. Dad was sitting on the back porch having a cigarette. We were both in kind of a laid back mood.

“What are you up to?” asked Dad.

I said, “I just stopped by the office to look in the mail to see if there were any checks.”

“Any luck?” asked Dad.

“One or two. A few hundred dollars. How about you? What did you do today?”, I asked.

“I drove over to the post office to see if we had any checks in the box” Dad replied.

“Any luck?” I asked.

“Yeah, we had one or two; maybe a few thousand bucks,” said Dad.

And that’s when I realized that maybe we weren’t so different after all.

To the casual observer, it would seem like I didn’t take after my Dad. He was the country boy that believed in sweat & hard work. I was the long-haired city kid that believed in hard rock. He was the rugged outdoor type and I was definitely an indoor cat.

Dad worked with steel. In recent years, I switched from the music biz to computers. I could no more run Dad’s company than he could run mine. We wouldn’t have a clue what to do. I’m pretty sure that was by subconcious design on my part. The little kid still trying to avoid the drill seargent telling him what to do.

Actually, that’s another thing we had in common. Neither one of us could stand to have someone tell us what to do. That’s a common characteristic of entrepreneurs.

If you walked into my house or my office, you’d see walls lined with books. Dad only had a small handful of books. He rarely took the time to do any serious reading. But we both loved to learn. Dad just chose to do most of his learning through TV channels like Discovery, TLC and the History Channel.

When I was five, Dad gave me one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. He taught me to read and write. This was before I started school. That’s one activity he involved himself in that I never ran away from. And now I’m a writer.

Speaking of writing, I rarely write by hand now but when I do, I print rather than write longhand. It’s remarkably similar to Dad’s handwriting. I’d seen his papers around the house and copied his style.

Another thing I picked up from Dad was how to talk on the telephone. This wasn’t something he taught me intentionally. I’d hear him on the phone dealing with customers, vendors and people that were trying to give him the runaround. He was especially effective at the latter.

I listened and learned. When I was a teenager, I started a couple of businesses and used my telephone skills to generate jobs. Later, when meeting them in person for the first time, my customers were often shocked to discover they were dealing with a 15 year-old. And those skills later served me well when I became a DJ and public speaker.

By the way, I think there’s a lesson there for anyone raising children. Children are more likely to learn from what they observe you do than what you tell them to do.

When Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer last October. I can’t say I was completely surprised. After all, Dad was a lifelong smoker; pack and a half a day. I think my family was starting to believe that maybe Dad was one of those smokers that lives to be a 100. Up until fairly recently, he looked far younger than his age. He’d tried to quit many times but never could kick the habit. At least not until getting the news from the doctor and by then, it was too late.

After that, I got home as often as I could. And we talked on the phone quite a bit. That was new for us. Dad was never one to spend much time on the phone. In the past, whenever I’d call home, Dad would talk for a minute or two, then hop off while I talked to Mom.

Now, he was staying on the phone. He didn’t always know what to say so he’d just listen. It was awkward at times but we stumbled through it.

When I arrived for a visit a few weeks ago, Mom, Dad & I had dinner at this little hole in the wall Mexican place we’ve gone to for years. Afterwards, we sat in the living room and talked until nearly midnight.

That may not seem like a big deal to some but it was a first in our family. And it was one of the best conversations we’ve ever had.

I was talking to Dad about the shifts in my business and how I planned to do more public speaking, something I’ve been increasingly passionate about. That night, Dad shared a number of things that helped me realize that he understood me a lot more than I’d assumed.

Dad weakened during chemo and radiation treatments but he never complained. He lost a ton of weight and began to age rapidly. When he lost his hair, Dad took to wearing his Korean War veteran’s cap. And he got one of those little scooters to help him get around.

Suddenly the Marine drill sergeant image was replaced by the type of senior citizen you see in a Veteran’s day parade. He couldn’t get around well and tired easily. At family gatherings, he’d usually have to leave after a short time or lie down. Was this my Dad?

May 11th, which happened to fall on Mother’s Day this year, was Dad’s birthday. My sister, brother-in-law and I got Mom & Dad a suite at the Four Seasons. We’ve been doing brunch at the Four Seasons for Mother’s Day the past few years and hoped to continue the tradition.

The plan was to have a party for Dad in the suite on Saturday and then do brunch on Sunday. Several friends and family members arrived for the party but, at the last minute, the guest of honor felt too sick to attend. We held the room, though, and he made it on Sunday.

After brunch, we gathered in the room. Dad was relaxing on the bed while his grandchildren played around him. That’s when I took the picture you see above. We didn’t know it at the time but that was to be the last celebration we’d have as a family.

On Tuesday, May 20th, Mom called to give me the news that ripped through me like a bullet. Dad’s doctor told him there was nothing else they could do for him. The cancer was spreading too fast. All they could do now was try to make him as comfortable as possible.

I packed my bags and headed for Houston. At first, Dad seemed to get better. The pain medication was working and Dad was carrying on conversations and seeing lots of visitors.

The whole family was there, including Dad’s younger brothers, Jack & Wade. We took turns taking care of him. We did that awkward little dance you do when in proximity to someone that’s seriously ill and dependent on others for almost everything.

Fortunately for the rest of us, we had Mom and my Uncle Jack to show us what to do. They’d been through all this before. It pains me to know they’ve dealt with this enough to be experienced at dealing with terminal illness but I’m grateful they were there to show us the way.

One night Mom mentioned that after a phone call I’d had with Dad a week or so earlier, Dad commented that I’d said, “I love you, Dad” before I hung up. He told her that’s the first time I’d ever said that. She said he was obviously touched by this.

Funny thing is that wasn’t the first time I’d ever said that to him. Maybe it was the first time he’d really heard me. Or maybe it’s the first time I’d truly meant it.

Dad had never seen me speak so I asked my friend Mark Ryan to do a quick edit of my speech at his Attract Wealth seminar I’d given a few weeks earlier. We got to watch it together at a time when Dad was focused and alert. I was really grateful for that and so was he.

Earlier last week, Dad really took a turn for the worse. He was experiencing a lot of pain so the hospice people upped his medication. He wasn’t the same after that and we knew we were getting close to the end.

One afternoon he was lying face down and I started lightly scratching and rubbing his back. He said, “I don’t know who’s doing that but it sure feels good.” I continued for several minutes. Dad asked, “How come I’ve never felt that before?”

Once again, he was feeling my heart. When I was younger, he just felt my anger. When things were better between us, it was more of a meeting of the minds. This was something different.

Thursday, Dad was having a particularly rough day. That evening, my Uncle Jack came to me and said that Dad was fighting hard. He felt that if I spoke to Dad to tell him it’s OK to go, he would probably let go and stop suffering.

I’d already considered the same thing so I didn’t hesitate, I went right in.

I told Dad that it was OK for him to let go. I assured him that the family would be OK. That we’d take care of each other. I told him we’d already said all the important things and that I loved him. That we all do. I told him there was no need for him to hang on and suffer.

Dad couldn’t speak and his eyes weren’t really focused. I wasn’t sure if he could actually see me but there’s no doubt he heard me. Tears welled in his eyes and he was trying very hard to speak. He couldn’t but I understood what he was trying to say.

About an hour later, he was gone.

I hate what happened to Dad but am grateful that I had the opportunity to help take care of him. We both learned a lot about each other in his final days.

I think we finally discovered each others heart for the first time. I’m sorry it took something like this to bring that about but a bigger tragedy would have been if I’d let this opportunity pass altogether.

Now Dad is gone but our relationship lives on. My good friend Gaea reminded me that I should continue to encourage Dad to let go and help him on his journey.

Before I close, I want to acknowledge my Mother. We tease her some times (OK, a lot) but she’s one of the strongest people I know. I watched her take care of both her parents until the end and now Dad. We practically had to force help on her in bringing in nurses to help. I don’t know how she does it.

I’m also truly grateful to my Uncle Jack Hibbler for his help and guidance during all of this. I didn’t really know him well before this happened. He’s been a rock during Dad’s illness and he’s taught me some incredibly valuable lessons.

I say goodbye now to Chuck Hibbler. He was my Father.