Thoughts on Fathers
10 years ago Tuesday, December 16th, my father died. He’d been in hospice for a week or two, after being admitted to the hospital emergency with complications from lung cancer. As cancer does, it was much more complicated than that sounds.
My parents knew he wasn’t doing well. They’d actually called us earlier in the fall to let us know they were taking him off the treatment trials he’d been participating in, because the quality of life was extremely degraded for the quantity that was being hoped for – not even promised. He’d been fighting cancer for about 2 years, as I remember it, by that point.
We had all made various plans to go back and spend time with the family, he just happened to collapse when I was there, so we bumped up getting my other out of state sister home and my in state sisters were able to spend time with him as well. As deaths in the family go, it was … actually not horrible. He was very at peace with things, although sad that he was going to miss future events and just being present. He wasn’t giving up, and so I sort of hate the “fight cancer! don’t give up!” rhetoric because I don’t believe a patient really ever STOPS fighting so much as they accept that they have done all they can at that point and willingly (or less so) makes the next step. But it’s tiring to argue the rhetoric, because often it’s not about the patient at that point. The never-give-up rhetoric is more about the healthy, non-cancer relatives of the patient. Or survivors. And I suspect, a little bit, our culture in general as Americans. (Note to self, ask your out of country friends how THEY talk about cancer.)
Anyway, as of the 16th, I’ve been without my dad for 10 years. I loved my dad, a lot. I had a good relationship with him. When I disappointed him, and I did several times, I knew he still loved me and I knew that he forgave me and wasn’t going to hold it over my head maliciously. If I seemed inclined to err again, he might gently remind me that the last time I did it hadn’t turned out so well, but he wasn’t mean.
He wasn’t a saint. He cursed. He would yell extremely loudly and with foul language when he lost his temper. It would flare out very quickly and he would be extremely remorseful, unless he felt it was justified, and then he would apologize for his horrid behavior and ask more politely for the problem to be rectified.
But he was a good man. And I was very lucky. Of my close friends, the ones I have had extended relationships with, I can only think of 2 who are similar to me. Who loved their fathers, knew they were loved, realized their dads were humans who made mistakes, but did not have some sort of complicated relationship with them. It was something I hadn’t realized before, until I started thinking about my friends and their fathers.
Sometimes it’s as simple as political differences. Those are hard, but not insurmountable. My first father-in-law and I were diametrically opposite for a number of political issues, but he loved debating (not arguing) and therefore we both could learn interesting things and think harder about the issues.
Sometimes it’s worse. A societal difference. A father who believes that what you are doing is worthless – you are worthless, because of your chosen career being less-than in terms of earning potential or because of who you love or what gender you are.
Sometimes it’s a father who has a violent presenting illness. Alcoholism gone so wrong that the person is a literal Jekyll and Hyde. You don’t know which you will meet.
I feel so lucky to have had what I had. My own mother didn’t. Sometimes she felt sorry for herself, sometimes she felt angry. I didn’t feel much of anything, aside from pity for the man himself. It’s my “first” clear memory that I know is mine and not photography or story based. I remember meeting her father, my grandfather. I was about 3, and didn’t realize really who he was. He was a man that my mother didn’t trust, but that we were visiting because it was the right thing to do. He was horribly sad and broken. He knew he couldn’t fix what he’d done wrong. I felt bad for him a bit, but mostly I pitied him. When I told her later, in an offhand way, that I did remember grandpa, sort of, it was after she’d said, “You met him once, because your dad thought it was the right thing to do, but it was very brief at a hotel.” and I connected the dots. She was shocked, and sad, but mostly shocked that a 3 year old could remember such vivid emotions from such a brief meeting.
I wonder now, much later, whether it’s because my father was so very much not like that. I had complete and utter certainty in him. This strange old man who was broken was not capable of that, and I think he knew it, deep inside. I think, the reason I felt sorry for him was because he didn’t expect it and even seemed completely defeated and deflated about any option of recovering any sort of good. He seemed to know that one brief meeting was all he was going to get.
I am so thankful to have had my dad. When I think of dads, I admit he’s very similar to what I hope most people have, even though as an adult I know that people don’t. I hope most men who are going to be fathers aspire to be someone that in the end, even with their flaws, their kids would love and respect and be proud of.