I’m never more than mildly enthusiastic, at best, on father’s day. I’m fortunate that my kids are fond enough of me that they give me hugs and kisses nearly every day, even the one who’s soon to be a teen. They can’t really do that much more on father’s day without going to the kind of extravagances I don’t generally enjoy (with the exception of Independence Day–I love being extravagant with fireworks).
But not all dads are so lucky, including my own, who died 13 years ago this year. Most of his kids, including me, didn’t appreciate him that much. Of course it’s hard to know what to do to make the day of a man who’s annual Christmas request was, “Oh, I don’t know, a pair black socks, maybe.” But as a guy who’s verging on black-socks-for-Christmas territory myself, I recognize now that that’s a sign of material contentment more than it is a sign of lack of imagination. When my wife asked what I wanted for father’s day, all I could think of was, “brats on the grill,” which might be imaginative if we hadn’t already had that meal twice in the past couple of weeks. No, material contentment was the one fortunate element for my father. Nearly everything else was a mess, including his relationships with his children.
What are the odds of a good life for a guy whose mom was cold and domineering, and whose father died in the state mental hospital during the Great Depression? My father’s older brother did very well materially, but could be unbearable, and late in his life, after having driven nearly everyone away, was bitter that everyone had “abandoned” him. My father avoided that, if only barely, perhaps. Oddly, World War II may have saved my father. The few pictures I have of him as a child show a lost, frightened looking boy or a sullen youth. In contrast, the pictures from his time in the military, on leave at his sister’s house, show a cheerful, confident looking young man. Discipline and order were his panacea. He was the very model of the ISTJ personality type.
After the war he went to college, got married, had a kid, got divorced, got married again, and had four more kids, while spending most of two decades trying to find a solid and reliable career. There were times, before my memory, when he was out of work for extended periods and had to rely on his sister for assistance. Only as an adult trying to provide for my own family have I begun to have an inkling of the psychological agony he experienced, being unable to provide for his family, as his own father had ultimately been wholly unable to provide for his own.
Still, all might have been well had it not been for the unforeseeable: A fall off a cliff on a family vacation, which he was lucky to survive with only a punctured lung, numerous broken ribs, a broken leg, pelvis and back, a broken skull (amazingly, for the third time), and a blinded eye. Years later I noticed my father walking down the sidewalk when I was driving home, and realized that he lurched sharply to the right every third step. If walking caused any physical discomfort, he never gave any hint.
But when my father finally returned home, he was still healing, in serious pain, and very much on edge. It never occurred to me that he was in pain both physically and mentally–again, like his father, unable to take care of his family–and it seemed only that a terrible monster had come into our home. From then, until I was nearing thirty, I never really considered him my father. And he considered me the most disappointing of sons, a gray, if not quite black, sheep, wrecking three different cars and then dropping out of college, at which point he explicitly–to my face–labeled me a loser.
But during the months he was in the hospital after his accident, our family came together in ways we didn’t realize and could never specify. I don’t know if any of us realized, but as the youngest, a mere five year old, I know with certainty that I had no idea. And it was only during one of our furious verbal dustups when I was in my late twenties, that my dad said, “Do you have any idea what it’s like to come home from the hospital and be a stranger in your own house? It was like nobody needed me anymore.” In truth we didn’t. Having never experienced fatherliness as a child, he had little idea how to display fatherliness to his own children. The one thing we needed, he was unable to give. Everything else we had covered, or at least so it seemed, on both sides.
In more recent years, I learned even more about the demons that tormented my father, persistent homosexual desires that conflicted with his generational norms, his marriage, and his religious faith. My brother found them in his writings after his death; pages that, fortunately, my mother never bothered to read (so far as we know). There was no way he could let onto his church and his family that he had such desires. We all would have been utterly shocked and appalled. No wonder he had such great fear that his late 20s and unmarried son was gay. No wonder he was relatively sanguine, despite his religious beliefs, about me shacking up before marriage, settling only for the comment that I’d “probably knocked her up.” Little could he know that three of his children would eventually come to be so wholly comfortable with homosexuality, despite their own straightness, that would respond to discovery of his conflicts not with anger and contempt but with mere surprise and, I believe, considerable sympathy.
How good a father was my dad? As good as someone of his generation, with his experiences, could be. He did his best to meet the standard of his generation, of keeping his kids fed, clothed, and housed, satisfactorily if not opulently. He was not physically abusive. He perhaps could be considered to have been emotionally abusive, but probably far less so than his own mother, and probably due more to simple inability to understand some of his children, rather than out of any inherent badness. I am pleased to say that we reconciled before he died, as we came to understand each other better. I am sorry to say that he died unreconciled with his one child who most needed it.
My father died in 1997, aged 75, after his bone marrow stopped producing blood cells. He survived for a while on blood transfusions, and–against my vigorous protests–was planning a train trip to visit my wife and me in Oregon, even making plans to get a blood transfusion while he was out there. I was terrified he would die on the train, leaving my mother alone with his corpse on Amtrak in the middle of North Dakota.
What could have driven him to concoct such a ridiculous plan? The imminent arrival of his second grandchild, my eldest daughter. He missed her birth by three weeks, but demonstrated the depth of his familial love to the very end. I didn’t cry when he died, and I never have. But I do sometimes think of him, and it pleases me that his last years seemed to be his happiest. A very active retiree, always painting, gardening, refinishing furniture, or reading and writing, and by all appearances more comfortable and happy in his marriage than in the years previous. He deserved that. In truth he deserved more, but at least he did have that.