I have about 40 years of memories with my father. Typing that, just a fact of life, sometimes makes me irritated at the universe. I didn’t have enough time. I’ve still got questions.
That said, nothing is owed anyone and life is cruel by definition, being finite as it is. People lose parents at all ages, and he was here long enough to see all of his grandchildren born, all of whom also remember him well. So there’s that.
But when he passed in 2003, the stories came swooshing out as friends and family gathered to mourn and celebrate his life, and I wanted more. I have solid memories of my dad when he was in his 20s, but I saw no kid in him, not once. He could be silly and joyful and goofy, but he was an adult. I think he was an adult for a long time.
So I wish I could have known the kid, the funny, popular guy with the quick smile, who sang in glee club, who was a bodybuilder for a time, and a boxer. I can see it in my mind, extrapolate from all the anecdotes. It’s not that much of a stretch. He was often the bright light of any party, and I can remember all of this, but I could also see, even as a child, the burden.
He got married just after turning 18, and at 19 became a father. At age 23, he had three kids under the age of 4, and he’d get up in the morning and shake, wondering how he could possibly support a family of five.
He managed to pull that off, as it turns out, but sometimes I wonder if that light he seemed to carry as a young man got dimmed as he faced his responsibilities with fear and obligation. I can remember the job promotions, coming in his 20s, the dawning awareness that my dad was considered something of a superstar in his chosen profession, admired and desired. We moved a lot during that time, better neighborhood to better neighborhood, before he landed an administrative (but still hands getting dirty) position in Phoenix, where we moved when I was a couple of months shy of my 11th birthday.
I was a thorn in his side for a while, always mouthy and snarky as I worked my way through the stages of young wit, and to a man who is scared almost every day and fights the fear by working even harder, having a preteen who is feeling his oats and has a handle on that special brand of obnoxiousness that comes with that, tolerance was not particularly the first place he went.
I got some temper. I got chewed out. I slunk out of many a room with my dad, still feeling righteous but aware that I was on thin ice, and staying alive to snark another day seemed the better part of valor. He had a quick temper, particularly when stressed, and while he wasn’t an abusive father by my standards ( and they’re the only ones I care about), I didn’t want to push it, just in case. I got the back of his hand a couple of times, and while that’s not my style and it’s not a choice I think is appropriate, that sort of spontaneous striking out (to a kid who by this time was taller than he was) always has seemed to me understandable, if not my style.
Understand that this was me, and my dad. He commented on this in later years, how he was too hard and in contemporary times the cops would have come and arrested him, etc. I tried to reassure him; this wasn’t a Stockholm Syndrome or just a beaten-down boy. There was no beating. Just a firm hand, a few mistakes, and a life that horrifies me, looking back. How did he survive at such a young age, trying to juggle work and family, one salary, sometimes more than one job.
And we all did just fine. We’ve had our troubles, but my parents managed to provide a happy childhood and enough lessons to allow us independence, and soon. All of us left home for college, returning occasionally when summers came or money got low, but mostly for holidays and birthdays. We were always a family.
Like many men of his generation, and with his background, he started smoking cigarettes at an early, formative age, long before public awareness of the dangers blasted into our cultural awareness. He tried to quit many times, finally decided he couldn’t, then spontaneously stopped in January 2003, just feeling bad and hoping to feel better.
But feeling bad was part of the lung cancer that was spreading already, finally diagnosed in that spring. He lived another six months or so, sometimes annoyed at the chemotherapy and its effects, and then slipping into gentleness, slightly goofy with tumors growing in his brain, then hospice and pneumonia and the end. He turned 67 four days before losing the battle.
We all lost that battle.
I wrote when he died that some people lead unremarkable lives, but there are no unremarkable people. My father could figure most things out, particularly mechanical things, a natural handyman, and at one time his most remarkable attribute to me was the way he could switch from an artisan to a polite and kind medical professional, who treated his patients with respect and dignity. People with physical disabilities need this, and my father seemed to understand that these were fully-developed human beings, facing adversity. My father understood the diversity of lives, and I suspect his patients loved him.
I loved him, of course. Early squabbles and arguments turned into diplomatic discussions and only the occasional heated ones, but from my early 20s on we were just friends, sharing a Scotch and a cigarette, talking about sports or families or the tough road ahead as the children grew up.
I learned to rely on him, in my own dance with the universe, Saturday night calls to pick his brain, run over options, get some advice. He would wander through his shortcomings, arguing that he was the last person to offer suggestions to my personal problems, but he always helped. And I always knew he was there, with over half a century of battling the odds that he would end up digging for scraps in an unwelcome economy. He made it work. He had some help, but mostly he used his own intuition and probably a few educated guesses on how to survive.
He was a devoted grandfather, intrigued by the different personalities of his descendents. Cory, Holly, Beth, Ben, John, Brendan, and Ryan. The older ones have already many inroads into adulthood, and the younger ones are working their way there.
He missed the great-children, and his 50th wedding anniversary, but I hope he thought occasionally that his offspring and their offspring would be OK in life. And if he dismissed his contribution, few of us believe that. I feel my father every day. He murmurs to me in quiet moments, and there have been times when I’ve felt strangely guided, likely a result of knowing how he was, but I’m ruling out nothing.
And oddly enough, I’m less inclined today, which would have been his 80th birthday, to focus on me. I would like, if I ruled the world, to have everyone focus for a second on him.
He rode trains by himself, traveling to another home, watched over by soldiers heading somewhere in those war years, remarking that the kindness of strangers was more prevalent those days.
He met my mother as a teenager, courted her relentlessly, wrote endless love letters to her when they were away, and knew what he yearned for. Both of them coming out of what we’d now call dysfunctional homes, they were determined to do the family thing the right away. A little Dr. Spock, a little common sense, a dash or two of their own upbringing but only the good parts. Discipline, daily chores, expectations of good grades, endless seats in an auditorium where I did plays, where my sister played in the marching band and orchestra, sitting in the bleachers for my basketball game.
He wasn’t perfect, but neither I and I doubt anyone else had perfection down. He had a short temper, and a disdain for the teenage rebellion and sarcasm that my brothers tossed his way, as if he couldn’t remember being young. Which was very possible.
But he was the strongest person I’ve ever met, physically and mentally. And that stuff stays.
Thirteen years has a way of massaging grief, turning it into a gentle overview of what I miss, and more importantly what I saw. My father would probably roll his eyes every time I pick up a screwdriver, but he supported the effort. And then he’d fix my mistakes.
I learned humor at his feet. I actually sat by his feet, watching together the first episode of “Saturday Night Live” in my senior year of high school. I found him sprawled on the ground, roaring with laughter. Another moment to share.
I can tell you some stories he passed on about his teenage years, but this was rare and didn’t come up so much. This is what I got from the people who knew him when. A picture of somebody I never quite knew, but could see through the mist.
I’ve had adversity of types he never experienced, particularly dealing with three devastating medical crises (and possibly five) over a short time. He was long gone by then, and I missed bending his ear. His opinions, useful and sometimes not, were a reflection of his strength, endurance, and experience. I could have used some of that.
Cancer is a thief, cancelling our futures and rescheduling, with iffy long-range plans. There are no long-range plans for small-cell lung cancer and 50 years of the most smoking I’ve ever seen in another person. It will kill you, almost always, and if he was a little unclear about the timeline, the rest of us knew, gathered from time to time, seeing this unrecognizable man who was finally dependent on the kindness of strangers and family, particularly hospice. We have nothing but love and admiration for hospice and palliative care.
And I have admiration and love for this man, as briefly as he was with us. He was complicated but simple, with standards and traditions that made sense to him and passed on to us. You take care of business, you can’t change the past, you work as hard as you can, sometimes hating it.
He moved back to Arizona just when the Diamondbacks went to the World Series, a gift to a man who’d let baseball drift out of his life without a local team to root for. I think I could have swayed him over to my side and the Seahawks, but I’ve a feeling he’d be pulling for the Cardinals. You support your guys, the local team, the community. Loyalty was not unknown to him, sports in a small way, family in a much bigger one.
His own athletic career was not much, participating but never standing out, but then he was a different sort of man. Team sports were fun, but sometimes some of us just prefer being the one in the arena, singular battles that proved something, and that perhaps defines my father as much of anything. The ways of the world carry good roadmaps to convention, but he tended to find his own map, so in my mind I see him clearly.
He carries reminders of every glove that laid him down, and how he got back up. I am his son, far less able to emulate the man, but understanding that he flows through me, and his life before I was born has drawn a straight line to other lives, those he touched and who sought to touch him.
In the clearing stands a boxer. He remembers every blow, every cut, every loss. He let me remember with him, and so that’s where I see him. Standing in the clearing, waiting for the next blow, knowing how to get up, knowing that lesser men would have given up. Understanding, I hope, that he never did.