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Father’s Day: My Confession

June 16, 2013
My dad at 19.

My dad at 19.

My dad died of a heart attack on May 27, 2001.  He was 45 years old.  I’m not bringing this up for sympathy or condolences, but it’s Father’s Day, and I can’t help but think about it.  And all I can say is that I didn’t appreciate him enough when he was alive.  This isn’t meant to be a generic call for us to tell our dads that we love them and understand that they will not always be here.  This is a confession.

As a teenager, I think the two prominent emotions I felt when I looked at my dad were fear and pity.  Fear because we had a pretty contentious relationship, as I imagine many fathers and their teenage sons do. In my mind, he didn’t understand me and certainly didn’t realize how lucky he was to have a son like me, one who did well in school, played sports (my dad was not much of a sports fan and I’m sure would’ve been happier if I’d spent that time practicing the guitar or piano or any musical instrument.  In hindsight, he wasn’t wrong), didn’t really cause too much trouble, and whose biggest vice was trying too hard to fit in.  I felt like he specifically looked for any faults I may have had and was determined that they were the only parts of me that were important.  From age 12 on through high school, we either battled or avoided each other.  I never sought him out for comfort or even advice.  I kept my interactions with him to a minimum. Which brings me to pity.  Please remember that this is from the perspective of a teenager, but I saw my dad as the antithesis of what I wanted to be.  We all have odd ideas of success when we are young, and I know now that those ideas are so far removed from true success as to really just be ghosts of failure.  But at 16, I saw my dad, who was younger than I am now, as something of a disappointment, and, maybe worse, I thought he saw himself the same way.  Because of my over-inflated sense of intelligence, I was sure I had some keen insight into his mind.   We would never talk about it, but we both knew the truth.  The truth that fate had passed him by and there was nothing he could do about it.

After I left home, my relationship with him lightened and we found that we did have some things in common, but I can’t say it was ever particularly warm. I don’t want to make it out to be worse than it was, though.  I always loved him, and although I didn’t always like him, I never felt bitter toward him.  Ours was the only father-son relationship I really knew and so it never felt all that odd. And even looking at the relationships my friends have had with their fathers, I’m not sure how much I would change even if I could. We were different kinds of people and interested in different things, and that was ok.  As we both aged, I figured we would mellow and fall into a pleasant relationship, a closeness arising from understanding.  But underneath, I still felt that pity.  On the night he died, I was sitting alone on my parents’ front porch (my brother and I were back for my sister’s graduation), enjoying the movement through dusk, watching the barn swallows dive bomb and twirl and defy the laws of physics, when my dad came out and sat down in the chair next to me.  He had a stent put in his heart about six months before and started talking about an upcoming doctor’s visit and how sick he was of doctors and hospitals and everything to do with healthcare.  You know what I heard?  An old man complaining and ruining my peaceful moment.  It’s clear to me now that he was scared.  He was a young man with an older man’s health problems.  Of course he was scared.  But I was selfish and just wanted him to be quiet.  He smoked his whole damn life.  What did he expect?  And what the hell do you want me to do about it?  I sat quietly and nodded and gave off my best surly vibe, and I’m sure ended up making him uncomfortable, as after awhile he just got up and went back into the house. I stayed on the porch and enjoyed the respite.  The sun cast long shadows through the grove of trees on the west side of the house.  The barn swallows flew on their intricate paths.  In the morning, my dad was dead.

I do want to make this point very clear.  My dad was a good father.  He took care of us, he hugged us and told us he loved us, he taught us right from wrong.  Looking back, I can now see all the little things he did to try to bridge the gap between us.  Encouraging all of my disparate life pursuits, from a short obsession with Egyptology to a longer obsession with fishing to a very brief flirtation with skateboarding.  Taking me to work with him for the day when I was 14 so that I could make my own money to buy the Michael Jordan t-shirt I wanted.  Picking me up a Sports Illustrated or comic books from Shinder’s on his way home from work.  Trying to teach me to play the drums or the intricacies of a motorcycle engine or the fine details of camping (the camping part is the only thing I ever picked up. We both had a sense of adventure and, I think, more than a little bit of restlessness).  Finding the same campsite on Stuart Lake because the year before we had caught Northern Pike from right outside the tent (although few were large enough to keep). Sitting on the living room floor with me and handing over the headphones so I could hear, and I mean really hear, Bruce Springsteen.  Staying up late to introduce me to Hatari! (I had the biggest crush on Elsa Martinelli in that movie).

In the years since he died, I learned how wrong I was to pity him.  I learned that during a motorcycle trip he gave a bag of groceries to some hungry people outside of a gas station. I learned that he confronted a man about to rob another gas station and talked him out of it.  I learned that when he was president of his union, he covertly discovered that his company had been lying to all their employees and even though, in the end, the company still moved and still laid everybody off, he had done all he could to stop it. I learned that he fought for his principles in situations that I’ve never come close to experiencing.  I learned that he was a braver man than I have ever been.

A few years ago, I was having breakfast with one of my oldest and closest friends, Ryan Crosby.  In the course of conversation, my dad came up.  Ryan said this or close to it: “It’s funny how much you wanted to be different from your dad when we were teenagers and now you’re so much like him.”  I’d never had anyone express that to me before and to be honest hadn’t noticed it in myself.  But as I thought about it, I saw it.  I saw all of the lessons about the way to treat people and about what honesty means and about what is actually important in life.  I saw that I wouldn’t be the man or the person I am today (and I hope that person is a good one) without my dad and even, maybe especially, without the battles we had.  I want to tell Ryan that he gave me a better compliment than I could have possibly imagined. But I also want to tell him that in many important ways, I’m not half the man my father was.  If I could talk to my dad today, that’s what I would tell him.  And I’d tell him that I miss him and love him. After that, we’d sit and have a beer and laugh and listen to Born in the USA as loud as I could make it.  In fact, I think I’m going to do that anyway.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tess permalink
    June 17, 2013 1:27 pm

    This is a beautiful tribute to our father. I’ll always miss that man. He would be so proud of all of us.

    • Mary J permalink
      June 25, 2013 2:55 pm

      You are so right, Tess!

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