Saturday, June 25, 2011

Dad: a late Father's Day post

I love my dad. He's my dad. When I was little, he was my hero.

In later years, though, if Mom really wanted to annoy me, she would say, "You're just like your father." It was not intended as a compliment.

Dad, like all of us, is a frail human being. Despite not knowing how to swim, he joined the Navy to avoid being drafted and sent somewhere he might not want to go during the Viet Nam War. (Yes, war. There were bullets flying and people dying. "Conflict" is just semantics.) He made friends easily, could tell funny stories that were most often true, and women liked him. He liked them, too -- rather too well.

Although he is much older now, somewhat wiser, a better worker, his personality is essentially that of the young sailor who married a college co-ed in the autumn of 1970 and brought her back to California where he was stationed, and sometimes sneaked off base -- AWOL -- to go visit her in the apartment when he was supposed to be on watch.

A woman knows the face of the man she loves as a sailor knows the open sea
Honore de Balzac

An uninformed observer looking through the family photo albums can see the love through who and what this young couple chose to photograph: her in the park, him sleeping with the baby (me), her in an apron and smiling into the lens, him hiding from the camera by ducking behind a newspaper. Skip a few pages, skip a few years, and there's my fat little brother (who grew up to be bean-pole skinny) offering the photographer a jolly grin. There's me in a wide-legged stance inside Dad's giant work boots.

If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.
A.A. Milne

But not every couple is allowed to grow old together. Some separate by choice, some by death, some by force or circumstance. Infidelity is the simple reason my parents separated, but there was much more festering in that wound than just my father's desperate search for something he could not quite name but thought he knew.

I learned about Dad's latest marriage when I called him to ask what he wanted to do for his birthday. For months, I wasn't sure if he was married or not, just that he was pretty much living with someone. However, I've tried to be incurious, not asking too many questions, not asking the wrong kinds of questions, waiting for Dad to talk about the situation.

Strange, that. When I was young, we sat together at the dinner table as a family, and there was conversation. Only as we slowly, slowly broke apart did the conversation cease.

And only as we slowly, slowly are coming back together has the conversation returned.

The attempt to redefine the family as a purely voluntary arrangement grows out of the modern delusion that people can keep all their options open all the time.
Christopher Lasch 

As Dad learned, one cannot repeatedly go looking for "love" far afield and expect those who love to remain unshaken, arms wide open, ready to forgive and be hurt again. Although that's how I picture Christ -- always ready to lift us up when we fall -- I am merely human, and forgiveness is not my first instinct.

There's still a certain stiffness in the dialogue sometimes, but now we can laugh together. Now we can share a family memory and not immediately clear our throats, grow quiet, change the subject.

The joke in our family is that we can cry reading the phone book.
Ron Reagan

Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.
Cary Grant

There are still inside jokes that make us laugh -- or, at the very least, smile.

A few weeks ago, Dad borrowed a book from me to share with his wife: A Six-Cylinder Courtship, a laugh-out-loud funny short novel by Edward Salsbury Field, published in 1907 and telling of a young man's love for a girl and for a not-so-reliable automobile. I'd read the book aloud to my brother, sister-in-law, and parents one afternoon many years ago, and perhaps I laughed louder and longer than they did, but Dad remembered the tale and wanted to share it with someone new.

My first reaction to his request was an internal NO! I didn't want to lend a family memory to someone else. That was our laughter. That was our time.

Then I realized that sometimes forgiveness and healing are incremental. And, just because he shares the book with his new wife, it does not lessen the value of the book nor the memory.

Besides, I like Wife #4. Other than my mom, she's the best one he's married.

Looking back, I have this to regret, that too often when I loved, I did not say so.
David Grayson
I love you, Dad.