I’m not the sort of person to tell all about sensitive personal stuff; so I’ll just say that my dad is not doing well. In fact, I think he is probably dying.
It’s tough in that I am exactly on the opposite side of the world from where my family is dealing with what may be his final “crisis.” Now, waiting for news of the worst, writing here in this self-indulgent little blog, and self-indulgent is what all blogs are, it’s hard to make myself find words to properly express sensitive thoughts (How to say them so as not to hurt feelings or come off sounding callous?) I suppose I do so not so much for whatever little readership there might be, but for myself when I might go back and read this at some time in the future.
I don’t want to write a requiem now, not while he still struggles to live, but speaking to my brother and sister over the last day or so has forced me to think about how I feel about him.
My dad is not the easiest fellow to be around, in fact, he can be downright mean-spirited. From about the time I approached my teens our relationship became uneasy at best. He’s the kind of hypersensitive person whose overreactions to comments and harmless remarks have taught folks over the years to walk on eggs around him. That was tough for me since I am the supreme wiseass, the ultimate quipster. The irony is that I probably picked up my wisecracking from him. I guess you can say he could dish it out but could not take it in return.
The funny thing is that out of all my siblings I just might be the fondest of him; and believe me, it’s not because he was any nicer to me than he was to them, for he was universally difficult to all of us. I’ll explain.
Within days of my graduation from high school I was on a bus heading for the Marines. Here’s the weird thing: from the moment I left, all the teenage odium that a young man can feel for a thorny father evaporated. It evaporated in a puff of wispy smoke.
From that exact second on, my mind pushed away to the back of my brain all the memories of slights, unpleasantness and unkind remarks; they became unimportant. Instead, over the decades what became prominent were all the good memories I have of him, and thinking back I realize that there are more than a few. For instance:
I remember the last fatherly kiss he gave me. It was while we lived in what I think fondly back on now as an enchanting spot, especially for a little lad that grew to love nature. Of all things to be fond of, it was a simple trailer court (nothing paved, all of it gravel) in the wilds of Maine not far from Bangor at a place called Mud Lake. I was about 4 years old and in my mother’s arms one evening. It was time for bed and she brought me outside in my pajamas to say goodnight to Dad. As if it was yesterday I remember saying, “Goodnight Daddy,” with him answering gently in kind. Then he kissed me through the screen of the porch door. I clearly remember the strange feeling of kissing through that screen. Believe it or not, that was probably the last time he kissed me. It’s a precious moment.
Another sweet flash of recall comes from about two years later when we lived in the base housing of Dow Air Force Base in a pleasant subdivision called “K Park.” I don’t remember what caused it but some other little kid had me in tears, as usual. I was a pretty sensitive little wimpy child back then. I came into the house wearing all my winter clothes, choking back sobs, with tears running freely down my face like salty rain on a window pane. With me blubbering and struggling to gasp out my sad little story he said nothing at all as I desperately tried to explain my latest little personal catastrophe. Fully expecting to be chided about not crying over silly things, instead, he silently comforted and silenced me without saying a word by putting a hand on my head while I hugged his legs. At that moment all was right with the world. I probably remember that moment more so because he never did anything like that again. I’m sure that’s why it’s stayed with me.
I became a pretty good ball player because of him. We played catch almost every day from before the time I was four years old. Strangely, he never once played organized sports his entire life, yet he was pretty good when he tried to be athletic. Before bursitis ruined his shoulders he could really put some heat on his throws. By the time I started little league at the age of 8 we would play what Americans call “burn out” where two guys playing catch try to throw the ball back harder than it is thrown to you. The ball literally whistles through the air directly at you before popping loudly into your mitt (hopefully). Catch it wrong and it can break bones. (In fact I have two broken fingers from playing baseball). I learned courage doing this simple baseball exercise with him.
I used to caddy for him during the late 60s before I began to play golf with him myself on occasion. It was interesting observing him reacting with his friends (he was always so pleasant to his buddies), and I really liked that he was nicer to me around them and treated me like a little adult.
He probably enjoyed that game more than any other pastime he ever tried; but in the mid-60s it about killed him and probably changed him for the worse when he was struck in the temple from a toed shot off the tee by one of his golf pals. While looking expectantly down the fairway the errant shot knocked him to his knees and into the hospital for several weeks. Whatever personality glitches he had before then only seemed to grow worse after that. All his emotions became amplified and he was less able to control cutting remarks. Whatever patience he had for those of us in his immediate family became miniscule. Over the years the effects grew worse until by the time I was in my early teens I used to avoid him or simply clammed up sullenly to evade provoking him.
I learned early on that it was easier to love him from afar. I wrote about it a little in an earlier post describing how proud of him I was while covertly watching him on his bicycle one afternoon as he rode hell for leather from his worksite while we lived at Karamursel Air Base, Turkey. Seeing him like that from far-off made me feel an affection that I could not explain.
In the same period I got to see another fleeting side of him that made me feel extremely uncomfortable but gave me insight into his heart of hearts. It was also in Turkey at a party my father had thrown for the airman that worked for him. He got drunk quick that day and calling me over he put an arm around my shoulders. Squeezing tightly he announced loudly to all there in a heavily exagerated amiable slur, “This is my boy Philip! He’s my buddy. You and me forever, right Philip!” Embarrassed, I just grinned and nodded.
Contact with my dad became much limited after his retirement from the Air Force after he started his second career at Saginaw Steering Gear. He worked second shift and that meant our paths crossed little, which was probably a good thing for the angst-ridden sullen teenager that I had become. By that time, whenever we were in the same room together I always felt tense and resentful. It was the classic old bull unable to get along with the younger, or perhaps the other way around is more like it.
Counter to what many close to me might believe, I couldn’t wait to get out and on my own not so much because I was miserable at home but because I was anxious to experience the world. Getting back to what I stated at the beginning of this piece, it's strange that the moment I got on the bus for bootcamp whatever hostility and umbrage I felt for my father disappeared. Sometimes it’s actually true, no, a certainty in my case, that absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. To know this is true all one need do is read my letters sent home from my basic training days. In them, I have nothing but good things to say regarding my dad.
At the time I write this he’s still with us and I hope it will continue to be so, especially if he can recover and then maintain some kind of quality of life. Just the same, it’s not looking good. I wanted to record these scattered thoughts while they occur to me while I know that he is still here on this earth with me. It feels strange to think that he will probably be gone, if not soon then in the immediate future. It happens to us all; we all lose our parents eventually…
I love you Dad.