Fathers and Sons

Today is the anniversary of my father’s death. He died a few days after his 90th birthday in 2018. He didn’t suffer—had rarely been ill in his life. The end came fast from the first phone call I received from his wife Sonya informing me he had been admitted to the hospital and the next day call telling me he was gone. She organized a fast memorial at their church and didn’t invite me. She said, “I didn’t think you would want to come.”

I would have gone. Because I grieved for the love we never shared? Because a son, an only child son, ought to attend his father’s memorial? Because my blood bond with him was stronger than theirs, his adoptive children and grandchildren? To prove a point? To be a reminder to all the people I didn’t know, and wouldn’t have wanted to know, that this man their friend had had another life, a life before Alabama, a life that in no way at all resembled the life he lived there in exile from everything that came before? To stand in isolation of all that?

I didn’t grieve his death. As I hadn’t enjoyed his life. Very late in our lives, a few years before he died, I called him and told him I thought he had never loved me. His response was that he believed I had never loved him. A father and son who perhaps had loved one another but never could accept that love and lived in the doubt of being unloved.

I don’t grieve him today on this death anniversary. I have a portrait of him hanging in my bedroom, a tinted photograph of my father when he was perhaps thirteen. He’s a handsome boy. He was a handsome young man. I see myself in that portrait. I see my sons. The bloodlines are evident.

In so many ways I constructed my life to be different from his. I rejected his masculinity, his love of hunting and shooting, of fishing in any kind of water, his pursuit of Pittsburgh capitalism, his flirtatious charm with women, his ready ability to build anything.  I never wanted to be him. I wanted to be the opposite of the man he was. He wanted me to be a lawyer. I majored in English and went to Ireland to pursue a graduate degree in literature. He disapproved—but paid for it all. He never said no even when the distance grew farther and deeper. I don’t think I ever said thank you.

When he divorced my mother, leaving me with the emotional wreckage of her attempted suicide and subsequent dependency, I hated him. I was nineteen, a sophomore in college. He bought me a vintage Austin-Healey in a wordless attempt to say he was sorry. We didn’t speak for three years. He didn’t attend my college graduation or years later my wedding. My life diverged away down pathways he would have found distasteful at best. His disapproval hung like smog over my life, silent but ever-present.

Life repeats itself even when we don’t want it to. I said I would never divorce yet have twice.

Today I ask myself would I have turned out differently, made other decisions, had his influence not been such a heavy weight on my shoulders? Would I have been less fearful of being myself, not some anti-Dad?

I can’t create a life that didn’t happen. The past needs to be placed securely in the past drawer. I don’t need to be the man I wound up being. I’m still trying to figure that out—at this late but not too-late stage.

And I can’t know the effect my life, the deeds of my life, has had on my own sons. They are each remarkable men, making remarkable choices, leading remarkable lives. Having been a burden in the past, perhaps having left unknown scars I can only imagine, I live today knowing that all I can do is not be foolish, not be a burden, build my own future on right decisions, and express my unconditional love in as dependency-free ways as I can.

I will try to think fondly of my father today. Think of him as the man he was and not the father he wasn’t. May he rest in peace.

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