I don’t remember my father being around that much as I was growing up. I’m sure he was there from time to time, but I just don’t recall much in the way of interaction as a child. He was in the air force and no doubt a busy guy, but I think you can be a hard-working man and still be a positive part of your kids’ lives. I remember as a four-year-old in Spokane, Washington, going down a long slide as flat as I could make myself so he wouldn’t see me as he came to pick me up (back then it was okay to go to the park alone at that age, either because there weren’t pedophiles, or more likely because there was no media to first cultivate them and then sensationalize the danger). I had permission to be there, so hiding was an odd thing to do; I think maybe to me he was larger than life, as fathers tend to be at that age, but also kind of scary because perhaps I didn’t know him so well.
I played a lot of baseball growing up and was pretty good at it. I really don’t recall him coming to the games. I’m sure he must have on occasion, but apparently not enough to make himself part of the experience for me. I do remember annoying him with endless questions and complaints from the back seat on road trips, dodging his attempts at a backhanded reply as he drove. Strangely, though, I don’t recall any real interaction with him once we got where we were going.
My parents divorced when I was twelve. My father and I had the occasional sanctioned weekend together, but it was usually awkward and often involved a new woman he was seeing and her family. These visits were uncomfortable and I doubt I did my best to improve them. I wanted him to myself and resented the intrusion of people I assumed help ruin my family; he likely wanted me around to help validate his new situation. Eventually, both of us seemed to give up and I stopped going.
Dad remarried when I was sixteen; I missed the wedding for a basketball game. Around this time, I think my father tried to be more involved in my life, but it was too little and too late. As a parent you inevitably face that point when your children, usually in their teens, develop relationships and interests outside the home and don’t need (or often want) your input as often. Dad tried to make up for lost time at the worst time. In my early twenties, he tried to come to most of my club softball games. Around this time I even lived with him for a short time, but still his involvement in my life remained peripheral at best.
My fellow siblings had issues with their father as well and it’s safe to say they were no closer to him than I. Dad had made his mistakes with each of us; the details stay tucked inside the family vault where they belong. Suffice it to say my father’s relationships with each of his children were strained at best and either because of limited involvement or egregious error on his part, or both, the fault in each case lay squarely with him. When my father retired and then divorced again in his early seventies, he found himself pretty much alone. While welcome in my home, we never really sought each other out. I was busy; he was dad. He would visit his grandchildren infrequently and I know he enjoyed them, but their sporadic relationship with him was destined to be as awkward as mine had been. While they called him Grandpa Bill, they knew little about him and were never close to him.
He had a back surgery in his mid seventies and developed a very bad infection that almost killed him. He eventually recovered, though the surgery had been botched and he emerged in worse physical condition than before, embittered and cursed by ill fortune. His children were there for him, perhaps as much from a sense of duty than anything else; we found him a nice place where his meals were provided, had care if he needed it and could come and go as he pleased. He moved into a crummy apartment as soon as he was able to decide for himself.
In December of 1999, my father didn’t feel well and went to the hospital. In a day, he was diagnosed with Biliary cancer. In another, it was determined to be inoperable and that he likely had only a couple of weeks to live. He and I had talked once about a friend of his who had gone quickly and how he hoped it would be that way for him. Now that it would be, he seemed struck by the finality of it and desperate for a way out. However, all conversations with his caregivers concerning his options invariably turned to his comfort and preparation for the inevitable. Eventually he became resigned to his fate.
In the end, his children were there for him; how much was from the same sense of duty and how much from love I won’t say; we’ve never spoken of it. I can say I loved my father. I just didn’t know him very well, or perhaps knew him too well and didn’t like him all that much. I suspect my siblings likely felt the same way. But in that all too brief period when dwindling time should have compelled us, neither he nor I could summon the strength or courage to say what should have been said. For me, that I worried about his relationship with God, that I loved him and would miss him, and for him…I don’t know. Maybe the same thing.
Dad entered hospice on New Year’s Eve, 1999. Where most people concerned themselves with the new millennium and potential societal doom, we dealt with the end of my father’s life. He quickly slipped into a coma and died on January 3, 2000, with all four of his children among those at his bedside. At his funeral service, I was amazed by the turnout. There were well over a hundred people in attendance; almost all were colleagues and friends from work. It was gratifying to see how many people he had relationships with, that so many had kind things to say and that they came not from a sense of duty, but because they wanted to pay their respects. And so it was: a man who defined himself not by his family or role as father, but by his work and competence as an administrator in three separate careers, was celebrated for it.
He’s been gone twelve years this month. I wish I’d done more things with him when it was my turn to do so. As time has gone by, the subtleties of his personality are fading from my memory; I am desperate to hang on to the good things I knew about him. He was a smart guy, with a biting wit, good stories and several funny, metaphorical “dadisms” that he would apply to any number of situations. Sadly, though, my clearest memory is of a man in a bed, stoic and unwaveringly somber as death descended, still unable to relate to his children on a level that others take for granted; and of me, somehow too afraid to tell him I loved him and worse, to broach the subject of his salvation. My fear and selfishness will haunt me the rest of my days, and perhaps him for all eternity.
I learned something from my father. My wife and children mean more to me than anything else in this world; I really enjoy my family and I have loved being a part of their lives. I hope they know how proud I am of each of them. My children know I love them as much as I can love; I hope that when my time comes I have the opportunity to tell them one more time. I promise I won’t skip the chance.