My Father – Made of the Sky

“My father was made of the sky,” I concluded while pondering what I was made of in an essay in my book Looking at the World Twice. Yes, my father Kazimierz, who was fearlessly passionate about flying, was definitely made of the sky! And not just any sky, but the sky above Poland. A jet pilot and later a high ranking officer of the Polish Air Force, he could not imagine himself in any place but in Poland. He raised me with the expectation to feel the same. So my decision to emigrate from Poland was extremely hard for him to accept. “Cosmopolitan,” a word which I used often, was a ‘dirty’ word in his mind and for others with his political beliefs. It meant not belonging. It meant not being loyal. It meant not being patriotic.

A true believer in the ‘socialistic system’ of post war Poland, my father wanted me to feel the same. But I did not. I developed a strong dislike of the Soviet style system and the Soviet domination of Poland. When I was mature enough to stand against his political opinions, our relationship become painfully rocky and even hostile. Still our love and respect for each other prevailed. That respect was a crucial element of our bond and was based on a painful sincerity. At times I just wished we could simply lie….

My father Kazimierz Pieniazek, circa 1960
My father, Kazimierz, as I like to remember him from the times of my life in Poland

I love memories and images of my father from my childhood years. I loved his slate colored uniform, high boots and his strong hands that could pick me up high without any effort. The idea that he could master those powerful metal beasts and take them to the sky was very romantic. My father was a symbol of strength and courage for me and I simply adored him. I even liked the smell of the tobacco he used for making his cigarettes, as well as watching him clean his fifkas — special glass holders for those cigarettes.

My memories of that time are painted in earth tones: colors of the forests where he taught me the art of mushroom hunting and gathering hazel nuts; the bluish gray of the lakes and rivers where he was tirelessly fishing in summer and hunting in fall; the color of the wheat fields and brown horses in the countryside where I spent part of my summers to “experience life so different than ours,” as he used to explain. It was my father who read with me my first real books and talked about geography and distant countries where he would fly occasionally on governmental missions.

When I finished first grade, I was asked to write my name as beautifully as I could (my nickname Ala to be exact). It was then traced, made into a gold inlay, and placed in the upper right corner of his hefty, silver cigarette case. The other corners were occupied already by his monogram (KP), my mom’s name, and the emblem of the Polish Air Force. I felt very proud to see my name on that silver surface each time he used his cigarette case. And he used it often. Now I am the owner of that case. I inherited it in the year 2000.

My father's silver cigarette case Alicja Mann, about 8 years old
My father’s cigarette case Me, Ala, at about 8 years old

It was at the beginning of 2000 that I moved to Tucson, leaving behind familiar Cape Cod. Just as I had settled a bit into my new place, a night call from Warsaw interrupted that settling. The voice of my uncle was filled with urgency. “If you want to see your father alive, come to Warsaw as soon as possible!” he stated.

I was not surprised by that call, but I did not expect it to come so soon and to be so urgent. I knew that my father, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, was having some new health problems and had been in and out of the hospital a couple of times, but….

That night in late February I learned that Kazimierz was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and that not much could be done for him, “especially considering his age,” as the messenger of the bad news stated. “But 79 is not so old!” I cried into the black phone receiver. There was no response — only the long characteristic sound of disconnection. The next day I booked my flights to Warsaw.

When I entered my father’s room in the hospital a few days later, he was greatly surprised. “Why are you here?! I thought you were coming in June,” he scolded me. After hugging he continued, “So why are you here? Is it sooo bad?!” I did not know what to say.

The next day, after consulting with me, the lead doctor decided to deliver the verdict to my father personally and asked me to be there. My father looked at the doctor’s eyes straight with all his attention, understanding the importance of the visit. He did not blink when the words “lung cancer”, “impossible”, and “we are sorry” entered the room like deadly bullets. Some explanation of why Kazimierz could no longer stay in this hospital followed. My father behaved like a good soldier. He did not ask any questions and responded shortly — “I understand.”

The hospice in which I placed him was very pleasant — modern, well furnished and with an excellent kitchen. That made my father happier for a while as he liked to eat well and was tired of boring hospital meals.

I spent a lot of time in that hospice witnessing his ups and downs. His body was failing him and that made him angry, especially when he lost his ability to walk and had to stay in bed most of the time. Later he calmed down.

We did not talk about death as I thought we might, nor did we talk about the future. We talked about his meals and about my new place in Arizona. He became preoccupied with the small 8.5 x 11″ laminated map that I brought for him from Tucson — one side had the USA and the other had the World. He examined that map endlessly and would not part with it for anything. I wondered where he was flying….

The final visit before my return to Tucson arrived and it was filled with silence. I could almost hear my pounding heart. I sat on the side of his bed and we stared out the window nearby. It was April already. The trees looked energetic with their new green leaves and the sun dancing on them. The outdoor world that my father loved so much looked beautiful!

I procrastinated as long as I could and finally gave him that last, long hug. I whispered into his ear, “I wish you a soft landing.” A short silence and his “me too” followed. I wasn’t sure if it was for him or for me.

The next day I landed safely in Phoenix. Two days later he landed softly in the everlasting darkness.

Alicja Mann and her father Kazimierz Pieniazek Cover of CD by Michael Mann: Pilots Will Always Fly
My father and I — as I like to remember him from numerous visits to Poland after my emigration Michael’s CD

You may click to hear the special song composed by my son Michael for my father — his dziadek.

Polish and English lyrics of "Pilots Will Always Fly"
Text of the song in Polish and English

Eleven years have passed and I still wish I could call him this coming Sunday to say “Czesc Tato — Happy Fathers’ Day!”

* * *

Pilots Will Always Fly and CD cover copyright © 1999 by Michael Mann. Text and photos copyright © 2011 by Alicja Mann.

Explore posts in the same categories: Essays, Feelings, Memories, Photo stories, Thoughts

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13 Comments on “My Father – Made of the Sky”

  1. Jim Says:

    You’ve written many beautiful essays, Alicja, but this may be your best.

  2. Alicja Mann Says:

    Thank You Jim!

  3. Pam Says:

    Thank you Alicja. Your message is loving, and Michael’s song beautiful. Hope to see you soon.

  4. Lesley Says:

    Your careful choice of words and photos and Michael’s song make this a beautiful essay. I can just hear your voice when I read, “That respect was a crucial element of our bond and was based on a painful sincerity.”

    Your father would approve–an end no daughter should ever stop seeking.


  5. Alicja Mann Says:

    Hello Lesley,
    Your choice of words in your comment made my day.
    Many thanks,

  6. Valerie Golembiewski Says:

    Beautiful, Alicja…

  7. Alicja Mann Says:

    Oh Valerie, it’s so nice of you to say that. Thank you.

  8. Bill Breisky Says:

    A beautiful tribute, Alicja. Clearly your father made a great contribution to your strong sense of determination, as well as your love of books and the world around us. When next we meet, I must tell you about the cigarette case presented to my grandfather the balloonist — and of his exile from Austria in 1938 for being “too cosmopolitan.”


  9. Alicja Mann Says:

    It is so good to hear from you Bill! Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

    I would love to hear about your grandfather’s cigarette case and about his “too cosmopolitan” character!

    We will have a chance to meet and talk this summer while I am on the Cape. I truly look forward to it!

    With warm greetings from Tucson,

  10. Marina Says:

    I was visiting my dad and dealing with a lot of end-of-life scenarios at the time you published this, and I’m just now reading it in July. Dad is presently in hospice and doing better than we expected back in June. Having been through such an experience makes reading this moving blog even more poignant.

    This is such a loving tribute to your dad and your relationship with him.It was wonderful reading about the kind of man he was and the way he influenced your life.

    When I got to the part where you said “I wish you a soft landing,” I cried.

    The other day, it came up in conversation, that joie de vivre is not only about feeling happy. It can pertain to experiencing a range of emotions. Such was the experience of reading this beautiful Father’s Day blog. Thank you so much.

  11. Vince Radzik Says:

    Greetings from Tennessee, Alicja. Thoroughly related to your marvelous tribute any father would be proud to receive from his children. Perhaps next time I’m visiting my cousin Valerie Golembiewski we can meet and recall moments from our Polish heritage and mutual love of photography. Cheers!

    • Alicja Mann Says:

      What a treat, Vince, your comment on this post dedicated to my father! Thank you.

      I would love to meet you when you are in Tucson next time while visiting Valerie. Indeed we have a lot to talk about – I just visited your captivating web site.

      Thanks again, and please keep in touch!

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