My father died last Friday

5 10 2012

I’ve worked for a card company for 27 years.  I’ve seen so many cards and captions over the years that I don’t really notice individual cards any more.  Instead, I see trends and patterns: “For a Special Aunt.”  Aunts seem to be special more frequently than uncles who are often “Fantastic” or “Great.”  Great is applied to uncles often enough that I sometimes wonder if the writers are aware that “Great” can also mean very large.

In my first thirteen years of employment here, I spent countless hours opening packages of cards and putting them on display.  I will never know how many Father’s Day or birthday for dad sections I’ve set.  Each year at Father’s Day, when other families were planning barbeques or camping trips, I would mull over the captions, searching for a card that said what I felt towards my father.  Over and over again, I saw the same captions repeated:

“Dad, you mean the world to me.”
“Dad, thank you for everything.”
“Dad, I love you.”

None of these would work for me.  These weren’t words that could be applied to the relationship with my father. So, if he got a card at all, it would be from the humor section:

“Dad, when they made you, they threw out the mold…  But, I see some of it has grown back.”
“Dad, we’ve had our fair share of problems with laziness and irresponsibility… But, enough about my brother.”
“Dad, how would you like a new car on your birthday?  I can mow the lawn while you go buy it.”

You see, I hadn’t spoken with my father very much for over a decade.  Dad was a critical man.  It seemed nothing I did was ever good enough.  I remember when he asked me to add a quart of oil to his car.  Some weeks later, he found oil in the radiator.  Immediately, I was deemed the culprit – too stupid to know which lid to open for the lubricant.  Later, when he found water mixed into the crank case, he determined that either I was an especially enterprising breed of idiot, or the little diesel engine had a cracked head.  No apology ever came, and my name was never completely removed from the suspect list.

Over the years, one thing that has been noticeably absent from my life has been the feeling that I had my father’s approval.

He had a temper like a gas leak in a concrete building.  He would explode and return to normal so quickly that the walls wouldn’t even have a chance to warm from the heat of the flame.  But, these outbursts terrified a little redheaded boy who didn’t know where they came from or why.  So, while still very young, I made a very conscious decision to “Not-be-like-my-father.”  I picked out that one characteristic, that one aspect of his personality, and let it define him.  “That anger” was the essence of who my father was in my eyes.

Those damn cards again:

“Dad, you mean the world to me.”
“Dad, thank you for everything.”
“Dad, I love you.”

No.  These trite greeting card phrases, written by strangers, didn’t cover whatever the hell it was that we had.

About three years ago, I found myself going through a divorce.  How had I gotten there?  What had I done wrong?  I started to ask questions about my parent’s divorce.  For the first time in years, I picked up the phone and called my father.  I can scarcely imagine what it was like for him to get that call.  His forty something adult son finally calls, after years of silence, in tears over the loss of a family he had never met.

I asked my questions and he tried to answer.  After all these years he could still identify with my pain.  We spoke several more times and he was always patient and willing to listen.  I began to remember that my father had always been willing to help anyone who asked.  If you waited for him to volunteer, the help might never come, or if it did, it would be wrapped up with some grumbles; but if you asked for his help… If you simply asked… My father would bend over backwards with a smile.  How had I forgotten that?

As my divorce drug on, I spoke with other people who knew my dad.  A picture emerged of the man that was different from the one I had carried with such a firm grip all those years.  This man who had always been critical of every movement I made was, whenever speaking to others, fiercely proud of his son.  My car cleaning attempts might be labeled “hit and miss” for my benefit, but for conversations outside my earshot we had restored the thing to “Near factory spec.”

This new picture was filling in like the colors of the Rocky Mountains at day-break.

The one thing that I had wanted for so long, his approval, had always been there.  He just could never bring himself to say it to me.  I’m sure this is something he got from Grandpa before he passed it along to my brother and me.  This toxic secret-family-recipe was one of many my ex-wife and I poured into our doomed marriage.

Last year dad collapsed.  The interior lining of his aorta sloughed off inside the pipe (he always hated plumbing) bringing him closer to death than most of us will ever get without completing the journey.  I am so happy that I took the opportunity to see him then.  Here was the man I once saw as the strongest person in the world, a man who could crush my hand like a stale cracker, a man whose arms were bigger around than my legs, a man who I witnessed, when his ultra-light airplane failed him, fall from the sky with no more damage than a big bruise and a stream of expletives.  I saw this man so weakened he was unable to clear his own throat, so delirious from drugs and damage to his frame, that he didn’t remember months of his existence.  Yet, even in the middle of all that, while barely conscious, he was doing his damndest to make everyone laugh.

That humor, a trait I had forgotten, was too afraid to see, or hadn’t been on display until later in life, that’s a gift from my father that I would be happy to receive.

It turns out that in spite of my best attempts to “Not-be-like-my-father” I wound up like him in many ways that I’m only now beginning to discover.

It’s just that I didn’t come to realize until moments before it was too late that he had so much good in him, so many amiable features that I do want for myself and for my son.

After all this time, what can I say to my father?  What handful of words could possibly come to represent this twisted nightmare road that we’ve taken together?

“Dad, you mean the world to me.”
“Dad, thank you for everything.”
“Dad, I love you.”

September 21st, 2012

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