My Father’s soft edges came later in his life. Early on, with six kids in a smallish home, an iron fist and intractable expectations were required. He wasn’t a yeller, or really a spanker, but those possibilities were sufficiently possible that we behaved like model prisoners. Dad had a handful of parental obligations. He drove us to school each morning, oversaw homework, and administered corporal punishment for egregious misbehavior. He ran like a train, on schedule. Every morning we would be shuttled to Shrine of the Little Flower so that he could be at his desk at 8. At 6 he would return home, hang his suit coat, reach into the liquor cupboard above the fridge for a spot of whiskey, and declare it dinner time. We prayed, we ate, he commanded us to compliment Mom on the meal, and the parents adjourned to the den while the girl kids cleaned up and set the table for the next day’s breakfast. It was like clockwork, dependable as he was.
There were years when we were drilled by him on multiplication tables, and heaven help you if you stumbled. He was not one to avoid words like “dummy” as he expelled us from the room to study. Eventually we learned to do our own work rather than have him realize we were lost. His goals for us were high, relentless and unspoken. He never wasted words about consequences for bad grades. We never needed them.
Dad was opinionated. Loud. Conservative. Argumentative and dismissive. Catholic. Republican. After I hit the college years, I was a trouble making rabble rouser. A counter point to every belief he had. The combo platter spoiled many a dinner. My poor family. My poor Dad.
He knew my bleeding heart: he called me at school once during the Vietnam demonstration era and told me if he saw me on TV he would cancel his tuition assistance. I didn’t get it. He had never spoken of his service as a navigator in daylight raids during World War II. It had not occurred to me that his patriotic soul was offended by my simplistic aphorisms and disrespect for the President or the flag or the military. I’d like to have those years back.
Dad grew gentler, and I became less strident as time went on. I moved back home when I started teaching, having no car and no money. Dad drove me to school once again, a situation which was alarming to him, and charming to me. Little wonder that he pushed me to buy the first car I could afford- a Datsun 1200 with a stick shift I could not use, and no carpeting. A boyfriend gave me a bunny; Dad encouraged the cleaning lady to make stew. The same guy gave me a mutt named Sneakers. Dad announced “either the dog goes or I do!!” but Mom intervened and Sneakers stayed to disrupt every molecule of their life. I did not read the signs that Dad wished to live without my considerable baggage. There came a day when he basically told me that I had to find my own place. I think he wanted to be alone with Mom; I had never even considered leaving. He knew I had to test my wings before I realized this. I drove around in that Datsun until I found a place, and he helped me cobble together a hand-me-down infused shelter. I was living there when I met Steve, and two years later Dad helped stuff all my worldly goods into a Ryder truck and sent me off to Chicago. I bought Mom a replacement dog named Brandy, and I will never forget the look on Dad’s face. It wasn’t love, that is for sure.
Dad wasn’t a phone guy, and if he happened to answer the phone after I moved, he would give me 2 sentences before turning me over to Mom. Whenever HE called, I knew it was bad news, of a death or an illness. In 1999 Steve answered the early morning call from him that marked the worst news of our lives: my Mother’s death. My Dad had entrusted my heart to Steve, and he entrusted this duty as well. Dad was 74. I thought he would wither in sadness.
He did not. He put Mom’s 13 year old dog to sleep in 7 days, claiming Casey’s heart was broken and her kidneys had failed. He soon had a lady friend, someone from his younger years. Helen brought a mass card to Mom’s wake. A scant 3 weeks later, she accompanied him to this Mass, and plied him with a hearty breakfast. Dad liked being married, he said, and while he did not intend to repeat the sacrament, he enjoyed having a companion. It was all to honor Mom- that was his story, and we learned to believe it. She was 4 years his senior, and she outlasted him.
His gusto, irreverence and his volume never waned. An example: When Helen turned 80, and he was a strapping 76, he invited all my Detroit family to the birthday dinner. Her family had made a collage of the highlights of her life. My dad’s toast included the instruction to send the collage to the Funeral Home to hold on an “as needed” basis.
He was so pleased with himself and his humor; my siblings wanted to turn to ether. To her credit, his girlfriend laughed. I have to admit that Helen and Dad did not have much more time together as a couple. She had hammer toe surgery and Dad determined that she could not keep up with him. She shuffled. I will never have foot surgery in old age as an over correction!
Dad at Pat’s wedding, a journey that involved 16 hours of travel in a blizzard. At 82, he was determined to be here. He wasn’t even late for the rehearsal dinner!
He shifted to my Aunt, 10 years his junior, and he was content as a kitten to be her gentleman caller for 7 years. We were, in turn, all joyous that he had so many happy years.
Dad had his heart repaired around 70. After his surgery, he was more appreciative of the gifts life brought him. He became gentler, sweeter. He never really hewed to the healthy lifestyle standards. Golf was exercise, Crestor was his lifeline, meat was still his preferred dinner. He was always “tip top” if you asked him. He had congestive heart failure, which he never spoke of, though we deduced as much. We expect that he had prostate cancer, but there was nothing to gain by worrying about it or discussing it. He was going to chug through his days without expecting to beat the grim reaper. His faith accompanied him. Though his nightstand was clogged with memorial cards, and every week brought a schedule of visits to hospitals, rehab facilities and funeral homes, Dad’s spirits were titanium. We never heard of an ailment or affliction.
Now we know that my cousin (his Doctor) had informed him that if he traveled to Florida for his last winter, he might not return. SO he did what we would expect him to do: he did not confide this fact to us, he flew South, he contracted to have hurricane proof windows put in his condo, oversaw the project from his chair, and changed his will to allocate funding so it would not have to be sold for a few years. He signed up for the Senior Golf league. He made a calendar to schedule his visitors on. We saw him sputtering, we bought him Boost. We watched him fall, we bought him a cane, and blamed his Manhattan habit. Then we couldn’t live in self deception any more. He didn’t wish to speak of his health. He signed out of the golf league. He toddled on, sound in mind, weak in body. We all visited him in the sun, and as we left, we smothered the words of farewell because he always dwelled in possibilities. We cried on the way to the airport, knowing our time with him in our life was over.
This was our last moment. I knew how weak he was because he chose not to walk me to the car.
And so it has been 2 years since Steve made his saddest call to me. He was with Dad. He prepared me. If ever there was proof of the links that we create to get us through life, it was in that week. That call. Those men.
Today I miss Dad, but am grateful that he saw me grow proudly independent here in Chicago. He could celebrate that I chose wisely in Steve. He saw me mellow. He saw us weather rough times as a couple, and he was in awe of Steve’s resolve not to drink. He was caught petting our Golden Retriever, a monumental transgression.
Dad enjoyed Steve from a distance for 30 some years, but he really loved co-wintering in Florida for the last two. Most importantly, Steve was able to reinforce my sister Marie and brother Paul as they let go. He was a fortified link of the family chain.
I know that everyone is thinking of the fathers in their lives today- those who raised them, and those they raise the next generation with. No one has a perfect childhood, but if we are lucky we get the gift of time so that we can bring wisdom to our history. I now understand the gift my Dad gave me by caring enough to challenge me when I was foolish. I appreciate his expectations, and live with goals. I am proud that he believed that I could take care of myself before I was certain I could. I am honored that my husband was someone who tickled and pleased him, made him proud. I miss him every day, and would give anything to get one more bear hug and a sloppy kiss.
I am twice blessed by the patriarchs in my life. On this day, I thank my roots, planted and transplanted. Happy Father’s Day to both Dad and Steve. Pat is on the cusp of this great fatherhood adventure, and he would do well to study the strength of the men whose names he carries, Joliat Dahl. It will stand him in good stead. Last, Happy Day to all who take the time to mentor, love, guide and support children. It matters.