Monday, April 20, 2009
My Dad died Friday. He was 69.
He was at home. He had battled ALS – Lou Gehrig's disease – for the last several years, and had been in hospice for several months.
The last time I saw him was a few months ago. I had brought a camera with me, but when I saw him, realized that using it would be wrong. He deserved better than to be remembered that way.
He knew it was coming. At the last visit, he made a point of showing me a pile of old family photos, and inviting me to take the ones I wanted. I took several from back when he and Mom were still married.
Toward the end, the blog was the major way he kept up with me, since he had lost intelligible speech to the disease. The last time we tried to talk on the phone, his wife had to put me on speaker, and she translated him for me as best she could. This for a man who once had a voice so rich and gentle that he did public service announcements on a local radio station. Until the disease took speech from him, he never really lost the Tennessee accent, despite living almost fifty years in the Northeast.
When I think of him, though, I don't really think of the last thirty years or so. I think of my first ten, when he was still around a lot, and before the tensions grew. I'm older now than he was then, which seems both obvious and inconceivable.
I remember wrestling with him in the front yard once, laughing as I flipped over his back. He seemed impossibly large, though he wasn't. He took my brother and me to see the local minor league teams play. He thought of himself as a gifted photographer, for reasons known only to him, and I remember him posing us for all kinds of ridiculous shots. In the very early years, I have clear memories of him dancing with Mom in the family room to the Fifth Dimension on the record player. I remember hearing the electric typewriter at night from the dining room while I was trying to fall asleep upstairs.
He was once a night owl, and he always snored like a champion, so he frequently fell asleep almost as soon as he sat down. It used to drive Mom nuts. I once pranked him by putting my Batman talking alarm clock behind the easy chair as he slept, and setting it off. I thought I'd be in trouble, but Mom enjoyed it more than I did.
He took me on several ill-fated camping trips with the cub scouts. I'm not sure which of us hated them more. We could make it rain just by camping.
I remember vividly the day they told us they were divorcing. I can describe where everybody sat. It was the summer before I turned 11. I wasn't much older than TB is now. My brother wasn't much older than TG is now. He told me once that he has no memory of them together.
The years after that were harder. I was the latchkey older kid, so I had to watch my brother until Mom got home. They both remarried, her briefly and him permanently. All that change, plus the usual nerd-goes-through-adolescence stuff, made for a bumpy ride. Sometimes I was able to be reasonably decent about it, and sometimes not. We did the 'joint custody' thing, which is tough in the teen years when you'd really rather be with your friends. To this day, I get a little weird sometimes around packing.
Dad meant well, but some things just weren't in him. He could be courtly, and I don't know if I ever heard him raise his voice. But there was a defeatism in him that could drive me to distraction. There's a brilliant scene in the movie Parenthood where Steve Martin imagines his adult son in a clock tower, shooting at a crowd. Steve Martin grabs the megaphone from the cop to try to talk his son down, and the son shoots it out of his hand. Trying to be encouraging, he yells “good shot, son!” That was Dad. He was maddeningly quick to assume the worst, and to accept it. And the whole “understanding the other person's point of view” thing just didn't take, somehow. Some of the blind spots were so ridiculous that it was hard not to assume malice. But it wasn't malice. He was just blind to some things that most of us consider basic, like grandchildren. The abrupt bull-in-a-china-shop cluelessness never seemed to fit with the gentle and courtly manner. He was always nice to whomever happened to be in the room at the time.
Now he's gone, and I'm a father. TB and TG barely knew him. Much of what I try to do as a father is defined, in part, by awareness of what he did. Having seen the 'divorced dad' thing up close, I want no part of it. And while God knows I've got my flaws and my blind spots, defeatism is not one of them. I will not teach my kids to settle. To deal, yes. To settle, no. There's a difference.
Now he's gone. And for all the ways he left me perplexed at some of the things he did, he was my Dad. He did what he was capable of, and some of it was very, very good. He was once the gentle giant who sat with my Mom on the front porch on a warm night, his hand on her back as they watched the sun set. Maybe nobody else remembers seeing that, but I remember.