Monday, June 17, 2013

Honor Thy Father

Well, the full quote is "Honor thy father and mother," but Hallmark says to focus on the father now and though I’m a day late, might as well join the Facebook crowd and say a few words.  (Actually, only 4 hours late at 4 am in the jet-lagged morning after 22 hours of travel from Finland and little sleep.)

I did dream of my dad the night before, details fuzzy, but the feeling warm and the image from an earlier time. One of the difficulties of our intense 7-months of saying goodbye back in 2007 was that the images from the end tended to supplant the man I knew from earlier times. When he was gone, the man I remembered was the bed-ridden one. That earlier man is coming back now, in all his simplicity and complexity.

But mostly complexity. What person is not filled with complex qualities, many at war with each other and with the world? What parent-child relationship is not equally filled with the push and pull of acceptance and rejection, nurture and judgment, affirmation and disappointment? The traditional (in some cultures? in all cultures?) role of the father as demanding conditional love (perhaps more to the son than the daughter) and the mother of offering unconditional love (perhaps more to the son than the daughter) held up in my family. To this very day, my still living mother calls me her darling boy (how I will miss that!! Who will take her place?), but my father always was sparse in his praise and all of it had to be earned on his terms. By the end, he did express sincere pride in the success I had in my work and in my own role as father, but to the bitter end, was watching and measuring and judging and letting me know when I fell short. More than one psychologist has suggested that one’s ambition and determination to make a splash in the world is motivated at least in part to prove yourself to the father. And that’s not wholly a bad thing.

In his long attempted recovery from heart-surgery at 88-years old, I visited my dad almost daily in the midst of school and other responsibilities, driving the 101-North “Corridor of Sorrow,” weeping on the return trip while listening to Blossom Dearie. After six-months of this and assured by hospice that he had time left, my wife and I decided to go ahead with a long-planned two-week rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. I asked for his blessing and understanding and in the moment, he seemed to grant it. But upon returning, he decided he was furious with me for abandoning him and shouted at me that when his Dad was sick, he visited him EVERY day! “How many days was that, Dad?” “Seven whole days!” he replied and didn’t quite see the disconnect between that and my six-month vigil. That was my Dad! I think we healed that rupture in the remaining last weeks, but it was typical to the end of that conditional love dynamic.

Six years now since I felt the vibration of his voice with my hand on his back, since our ritual call before each trip and upon returning home and his sign-off “Shake it easy,” since our lunches together at The Left Bank in Larkspur, since sitting on the couch in the Novato apartment watching the old movies he had taped from TV. He lives on in every Crostic puzzle I do on planes, in each visit to my Mom and my sister (I see his face more and more in her). Of course, I miss him and am sorry he missed the next phases of his grandchildren’s lives and the birth of his great-grandchild and the next few books I’ve written and my sister’s dance concerts and my music concerts (he was a faithful audience member), but I think even the most religiously skeptical amongst us get some comfort in imagining our departed loved ones looking down (or up or sideways) from somewhere and no matter whether or not it’s a literal puffy-clouded heaven, there is presence in his absence.

Dad, you will always be my father, at least as long as I’m still here to remember and invoke you and criticize you and affirm you and thank you and curse you and love you and all of the above. Happy Father’s Day.

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