Sunday, November 23, 2008

In Remembrance

Today is the 10th anniversary of my father’s death. He was 51 when he died of bladder cancer. I miss him every day, and I still get teary thinking about all that my kids and I have missed in the last 10 years, not having him around. These are my memories of my dad. They are my memories – if you are reading this, please keep that in mind. I was his only daughter, and he was my only dad, and these memories are what I have. They are mine – they may not be perfect and they may not always be flattering to either myself or my dad, but they are my memories, and that’s what I have left. Those, and the brown eyes. And being short. That’s probably from him too.

My earliest actual memory of my dad – not one I’ve seen a photo of and can vaguely recall being there – is of his shoes. They were white. It was the 70’s and I was maybe 7 or 8, my brother was 3. Our house had a pool in the backyard, and we were all out back one summer evening. My brother and I were toasting marshmallows on the grill. Suddenly a bug – a rather large bug – flew onto my brother’s shoulder and began crawling toward his head. I’m sure I was paralyzed by the sight of a bug, or maybe I didn’t care, or more likely I was too dumb to have done anything except watch. The bug reached my brother’s skin and he began screaming and doing the getitoffme dance. My parents both came running, thinking of course that he was on fire, and I remember the sound of my dad’s shoes on the concrete. Dad got my brother’s shirt off and shook it, and out fell the bug. He squished it with his white shoe, and I think we went back to toasting marshmallows, but I don’t remember much more. I think he was wearing white pants, too, and a purple shirt. It was the 70’s.

My dad was always “Dad.” He died before we had the chance to get to know each other as adults. I only knew him as Dad, and looking back I think maybe he wanted it that way. That role was important to him, and he needed to maintain it. I learned more about him as a person at his funeral, more bits of information and insights into his personality from his friends and the more than 300 people who came than I ever learned about him in our life together. I was just starting to get hints about him as a person when he got sick. Some of that lack of knowledge is my fault. I was incredibly self-centered as a young person, and so naïve about the world, yet I thought I was smart and talented and wonderfully worldly. I believed I knew everything I needed to know about my family, and therefore spending time with them was superfluous. I believed that I knew so much about my family they were predictable. I thought I knew what would make my Dad angry (most of the things I did), what would make him happy (very few of the things I did), and what he liked to do (work and mow the lawn).

Please read that the way I wrote it – I THOUGHT I knew him. I THOUGHT that’s the way he was. I was in my 20’s and at the pinnacle of self-centeredness, give me a break.

I’m sure that’s not really the kind of man he was at all. Now that I’m a mom, and almost in my forties, I understand. He had a life, pet peeves, things that he enjoyed that made him a complicated person, so much more than just The Dad. I’m so sad that I didn’t get to know the real man, so sad that he didn’t get to know the grown-up me, that sometimes I’m physically ill. All that we have missed…
Sifting back through my memories I can sometimes pull out snippets of conversations, mental pictures of him that make me think I am a lot like him, and I get a lot of comfort from that.
I think about the few ‘grown-up’ conversations I had with him and I realize we may now share some of the same philosophies. I mentioned in my last entry a comment he made to me about Democrats and communism. My father was not bigoted or racist or mean spirited. He was an intelligent man with an incredible sense of humor (which I’m proud to say I inherited), and when he made that comment I took it for what it was worth – my father’s dry, sarcastic opinion about a serious topic that his 11 year old daughter brought up at the dinner table one night.
I sat across from my Mom and on my Dad’s left at our dinner table. My brother sat next to my mom, and the rest of that 8 person table looked exactly like mine does now: piles of mail, school papers, keys, pens, the Sunday newspaper, and that document from that place that you’re supposed to sign and return asap. I remember sitting in that chair for eternal, silent moments when I had done something stupid. I remember sitting in that chair and laughing at something he’d said. I remember sitting in that chair, so close to him but always feeling very far away. He was The Dad, after all. I always knew he loved me, never doubted that, I just wasn’t ever sure how much.

I remember my dad being opinionated, quietly intimidating, having high expectations, and working a lot. I remember having everything planned out, nothing ever felt spontaneous at my house. I remember doing similar things year after year after year. I remember feeling like nothing I did was going to be quite good enough for him, like he wasn’t really on my side, and that he really didn’t try to understand ME or treat me special because I was his daughter. I always felt he just wanted me to fit into the world the way it was and deal with it. I do remember a moment of comfort when a boy didn’t ask me to skate one night, and I do remember the pleasant surprise on his face when I sang a solo at church. But I also remember being on my own a lot. I remember feeling distanced from him.

Now that I’m an adult (and oddly enough, craving time on my own and just a little distance from my own kids), I look back and see the wisdom of what I believe were his opinions. I think that he believed in hard work, careful planning, and in educating yourself. I think he believed that things don’t just get handed to you, and you don’t always get what you want or think you deserve, even when you work hard, are educated and plan well. It is in those moments that you depend on family, you call in your reserves of love and energy from friends, and you make lemonade from those lemons. You don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for you – you ask for help and say thank you, but you certainly don’t expect anyone’s pity. When things do just get handed out, it diminishes the accomplishments of those who work hard. When you are coddled, it decreases your desire to work hard and earn things for yourself. There’s absolutely merit to that – I just wish I’d learned it from something other than so much example.

Then again, now that I’m a mom, I think I understand what he thought his role was, and what he may have thought he needed to do and be as a dad. If I don’t teach my kids what the world is like, how are they going to survive in it? How are they going to succeed? I do agree that the work ethic he passed down to me is a keeper. I’m a better cheerleader than he was, though. I have taught myself to be a praise freak – always hugging my kids and saying “Great job! That was awesome!” and yelling louder than anyone else out there, because I don’t remember him doing that when I was a kid and I always wanted him to. I thought my dad didn’t want to look silly. I wonder if he thought that might have tarnished his image in my eyes, or made it harder to be the bad guy when he needed to. More than likely it was just his personality. I just never got to know that part of him. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I wasn’t perfect, and I do know now that he loved me so much he couldn’t stand the thought of anything happening to me. I love my own kids the same way, I’m just more expressive, more outspoken, more straightforward about what I expect of them and why. I learned from his example, and I just put my own spin on it.

I hope I turned out okay, I hope that I’m someone he would have been proud of. I don’t do all the things I do trying to please him; I do them because they are the right things to do, and I think that would please him. I look back and realize he was a good father, and he taught me a lot even when I didn’t realize I was listening. He would have been an amazing grandpa, too.

The weather was so beautiful the year that he died. He accepted his own illness and fatal prognosis with incredible grace and dignity. Even sick and dying he never let me see him as anything but Dad. True, I only came up on weekends in the last few months of his illness, and I was (again) in my own universe, pregnant with Elliott. But I don’t think that, even had I still lived at home, been single, or even been the most selfless person imaginable, he would have shared any of his fears or frustrations with me. He was still my Dad. So I will always remember him as Dad. I miss that Dad. I miss the man I never got to know even more.

1 comment:

Susan Raihala said...

This is beautiful and so very well written. Thank you so much for sharing such poignant memories.