**Warning…. Long Post!**
Like most people, I had a Love/Hate/Love kind of relationship with my Dad. When I was very young, I loved him, idolized him actually. He was everything I wanted to be. In my eyes he was all the superheroes rolled into one, capable of every, and any, thing.
That phase lasted until I was about 11 or 12 I think. About that time I started to believe I knew better than anyone, what I should or shouldn’t do. Slowly, a little bit at a time I began to resent, and eventually hate, every single little restriction, requirement, duty and responsibility he placed on me. Until eventually I remember actually feeling ‘hate’ whenever what he wanted didn’t exactly agree with what I wanted.
This phase lasted until my late teens. Right up until I hit the first day of ‘boot camp’. It was on that day I realized I'd had no earthly idea what ‘restrictions’ were up till now. A couple of years later, out of the military and ‘coming home’ again, I initially moved back in with my folks. Big mistake, for them, and me! I’d changed while away, and after all the rules and regulations in the military, I was in no mood for “When you’re under my roof you’ll live by my rules” type speeches. I’d say at that particular point, we ‘tolerated’ one another.
From then, until I reached my mid-20’s our relationship improved, but very slowly. Around the time I hit 30, we’d started interacting more like very good friends than parent and child. It was around that time I realized I really did love that man.
I actually always had, I’d just projected my hate of anyone limiting my actions onto him, as he (and my Mom) were always saying “No”… Imagine that, parents who regularly said “No”!! They said no so much it was an actual surprise when they said ‘Yes” to anything! (I’m kidding; it just seemed that way to me at the time) Of course I understand it all now, but then, then it was just too much to bear, or at least I thought so. (Obviously I handled it, I’m here!)
Then, just as I felt he and I had found our ‘groove’, were able to have easy conversations from differing points of view, each appreciating the others opinions, he up and died. I say ‘up and died’ because that was pretty much what happened. I’d spoken to him the previous weekend, some of the other siblings were visiting, he sounded happy, everyone was having fun, he’d just signed a contract at work that would take him through to retirement… in his words “Life is good, and for the first time in my life, I’m actually worth more alive than dead!”
I got a call three days later that he’d died overnight in his sleep.
The next month or so was a blur of ‘stuff’, flying out to Chicago to help Mom with the arrangements, getting her back to the old hometown for the wake and funeral and driving her back to Chicago to wrap up her and Dad’s affairs. During that month, I’d convinced myself I had assimilated his passing, made peace with it and was beginning to move on.
I was wrong.
The first day back at work (I was an instructor at a local business college then) one of the other faculty members offered her condolences, and as I began to thank her, tears welled up in my eyes, my lips quivered and I thought for a moment I was going to dissolve into a sobbing wreck.. I did manage to pull myself together, thank her and excuse myself though. Ten minutes later, in the bathroom, I fell apart. This took me completely by surprise and I was angry. Angry I had this little control over my emotions, that I’d not ‘finished’ the grieving process and maybe most angry of all that I’d been unaware that all this pain was still there.
That marked the beginning of a three or four month period, where, every night, after my wife had gone to sleep I would sit on the couch in the living room and sob uncontrollably, often for an hour or more. I was lost, I had no idea what was going on with me. I felt like a ship without a rudder, adrift, no directional ability at all. I got up and went to work every day, but every single day I had to talk myself into it, find a reason for it. The reality was, all I really wanted to do was stay in bed until all of this somehow passed.
Somewhere along the way, I had this, what I now call, “Moment of clarity”.
In that moment I realized ‘why’ I felt lost. I had lost my rudder! My Dad, unbeknownst to him (or me for that matter) had become my rudder in life, my directional compass. In discovering this, I also realized that it was also for all the wrong reasons!
I’d realized, at that moment, that for as long back as I could recall, I’d been trying to make him proud of me. Everything I’d done, tried, accomplished, had all been in an effort to hear him say, just once, “I’m proud of you”. He’d never said it. I came to find out later… that just wasn’t his way.
Even more confusing to me were some of the conversations I began to recall that had taken place during his wake. Dad had made a lot of friends over the years; to say the wake was ‘busy’ would be an understatement. I’d not anticipated, nor ever seen the kind of turn out we experienced. Initially a lot of it was a blur, later though as I sat reflecting, I started remembering conversations.
Conversations where his friends (some of whom I’d never met before) would say something like, “So you’re Billy… Man your Dad was always bragging on you! He was always telling us how proud he was of the things you’ve done and accomplished.” They’d go on to relate some particular thing I’d done, an event that they would have had no way of knowing about, had he not told them. I know that during the wake I was just saying something like “Thank you, and thanks for coming” without giving what they were saying much thought, as it was a wake, and they were just being polite.
As time went by, and these conversations came back to me, I got angry with him, again. Angry because he couldn’t just say these things to me! The simple three words I’d been waiting a lifetime to hear, he’d said to everyone but me.
Angry, yes I was, angry and confused. Confused because if he felt that way, why didn’t he ever say it to me? What kept him from sharing that tidbit with the one person who really needed to hear it?
The one good thing that happened in this period of anger and confusion was that I started to act in ways that made me, proud of myself. I took on challenges I wanted to rise to, projects and skills I wanted to master. I started looking to myself for validation, rather than to others. It made a difference, a big difference. Now what got me out of bed in the morning were my goals, my ambitions, not things I thought that maybe if I succeeded at he’d be proud of me, but things I knew “I” would be proud of when I’d accomplished them.
As time passed I came to realize something else too. My Dad had been proud of me, and of all of his kids (there are seven of us in all), he just never told any of us that he was proud of ‘us’.
Instead, he did something his Mom had always done; tell us, about the accomplishments of the others.
My Grandma, Dad’s Mom, was famous for always telling ‘us’ (Dad’s kids) about the wonderful things her ‘other’ grandkids had done. Never praising us directly, but always praising the cousins.
In several, late night, emotional conversations with different siblings, I discovered that my Dad would tell me about the great things one of my brothers or sisters had done, but, in conversations with one of them would be telling them about something “I” had done.
This continued to confuse me for a long time (I lost the anger, it wasn’t very useful being angry with someone for being who they are), until, finally, one day I had another moment of clarity.
He did it because he didn’t want any of us to get lazy… to “rest on our laurels”. He wanted us to always, continuously be striving to be better, to accomplish more, reach for the ‘brass ring’, never settle for what we’d already done.
In my case at least, he was a genius. His “way” accomplished exactly what I believe he’d hoped for. I became a man driven to set my own path, to set my sights high and never settle for anything less than what I expect from myself.
There are a lot of things I didn’t say here about my Dad. In fact I’m not sure I even have the words to begin to ‘sketch’ him out for you. I can tell you some facts, maybe one day I’ll find the words to truly give you a taste of the man he was, but for now, you’ll have to make do with this:
- He was a positive man; I can not recall ever hearing him complain about his life. He could have, I alone gave him plenty of reason to complain, he just never did.
- He was a stern disciplinarian, he didn’t ‘spare the rod’, but he was not abusive. He taught me there are, in fact, consequences for my actions, good and bad.
- He knew the difference between friends, and acquaintances. He had just a few close friends, many acquaintances.
- He loved his family, he felt so strongly that we should all have a real vacation together he would borrow the money, take us all to ‘Old Orchard Beach’ and spend the next two years paying the trip off, just to do it all over again.
- He loved, and was faithful to, his wife. I recall an incident one year around the holidays. We were having lunch at a place called “Frankie Carr’s” and he ordered a couple of drinks for two of the women from the office who were also there, at another table. (This was back when having a drink with lunch was the norm, not the exception.) If you could have seen the look of, I don’t know, embarrassment, concern, discomfort, that washed over him when the waitress took the drinks to two women at the wrong table, you’d know this was a man who didn’t want even the appearance that he might be interested in anyone else!
- He worked hard, harder than anyone I’ve ever known, at every job he ever had. I had the opportunity to work with him, for him or around him, for several years of my life. So I observed it first hand. Later, when I had to call on him as a sales rep, I found if I could sell something to him, I could sell it to anyone. Many of the other reps told me “Man, your Dad is tough; he never stops working me for a better deal”.
- He was a simple man. He wasn’t taken with material possessions, he used to try and explain to me that a car was just transportation, not a life statement. I understand that now, I didn’t then.
- He was however, ‘King’ of his domain. He took his responsibilities seriously, and if he felt responsible for it, he was going to be ‘in charge’ of it. That included all of us kids, the household, his parents as they aged and his job. You may have noticed I left my Mom out of that… I did, and that’s because, she, like me, has always been ‘in charge’ of herself. She’d let him think he was in charge, but she (and he) knew the ‘real deal’.
I’m glad though, that I miss him.
I’ve been trying to write something about my Mom lately as well. It’s harder I think, to open your emotional self and put those feelings into words, when that person is actually likely to read them. I’ve decided though, that it’s more important to do it so they can read them!
Anyway, thanks again for reading. Especially this very long post, I appreciate it. I also appreciate your comments, they encourage me to keep writing, and let me know that I’ve actually touched someone with it.