Photo by Author
53 years after he died, I finally met my Dad for the first time.
Death is uncomfortable. No doubt for the person experiencing it, but also for those around watching it happen. My father dropped dead, literally, outside a restaurant in 1966. A heart, weakened years before by Rheumatic Fever, had finally stopped working and all efforts to get it started again failed. He was 49.
By the time the rest of my family arrived back home, the word had gotten out. Aunts and uncles, next door neighbors and people who were virtual strangers to me, were moving throughout the house like wraiths through a cemetery. Mute and efficient, placing platters of food on the table, patting my shoulder, all the while tending to my mother, who seemed lost somewhere between the place where my father had gone and the cruel reality of a world without him.
I was 13. Large enough to be a man but lacking in any kind of real understanding of what had just happened and what impact it would have on the rest of my life. I was also angry.
At my father (for not seeing it coming and stopping it). At God, for being asleep at the wheel and letting shit like that happen.
But mostly, I think, at myself, for having spent most of those 13 years in an awkward dance with the man, and never knowing who he really was. Never asking the questions that any interested person would want to.
So, when Death pushed its way into my life; belligerent, rude and oblivious to the hurt and grief whirling around it, all I could do was pretend that my life would just carry on. That there would be a tomorrow. That the emptiness inside of me would go away and I would return to TV, books and summer vacation.
And I was right, for the most part. The emptiness eventually went away and was replaced with filler. With bits and pieces of old memories; fragments of conversations began but never finished. Looks, half-smiles and a long list of questions never asked that haunted me.
I was trying to move beyond the man who sat quietly with me every night at dinner and yet, never seemed curious about the kid sitting opposite him. Who watched his son, growing fast and furious and larger than he, but unable to see the confusion inside the boy, the hurt resulting from indifference and an age gap that seemed insurmountable.
The man was my father, but he had never become my Dad.
So, for the next five decades I created a placeholder. An image of every baseball teaching, football coaching, cheering-his-son-on, man in the bleachers, that I had ever known and used him as a surrogate. As the go-to mental image of what a dad should be and somehow tried to work around that piece of information to guide me in becoming the man I wanted to be.
I like to think it worked. I like to think I was able to cobble together enough information, enough emotional content, borrowed from others, to understand what it would feel like to be a dad myself. To put together a list of Dos and Don’ts that would help me avoid imparting the same pain and discomfort onto my children. So that they could look back in years to come and be able to accurately place the man before them as both their father and their dad.
But much of that anger stayed with me since his death; didn’t fall away after the birth of my children. Didn’t lessen over the years despite the successes I had as a dad. Despite the happy photographs, the growing collection of Father’s Day cards held in a shoe box, and the hugs and kisses received on a regular basis, all affirming that I had done some things right.
As every celebration passed, there was this inevitable moment of sadness. A fleeting image of my father’s face, watching me before quickly turning away. A sadness in his eyes. A pain I couldn’t quite place or understand, but one that bothered me. What did he want? Why was he watching and not saying anything? Never saying anything. Why hadn’t he just been a friend, like I was trying to be a friend to mine. Just a few words would have made all the difference.
But maybe that is what we had in common. This stumbling and uncertain approach to creating friendships. Maybe that is what kept us apart. This inability to bridge the gap that existed between all people. That short distance between the first hello and a lifetime of being close, of being relevant to one another. He fumbled with it when he was alive. I still fumble with it sixty years on. But he wasn’t always like that.
During a visit to my mother’s house in 2016 I bridged that gap. I found a trove of old black and white photographs of my dad, his friends, his life before he married and had me. Pictures that gave me access to a time and place I was wholly unaware of. Of people I hadn’t know and never would. They were all dead now. All ancient history. But like an archeologist digging through the past, I was beginning to piece together what they had meant to him and how he had reacted to their presence. His face was animated, even in the black and white stills. He was happy, alive and engaged in something outside his own head.
The man I knew was quiet, thoughtful, sad. This man was alive, chatty, silly without any restraints. He was himself before the world weighed him down. Before life and illness and a sense of futility drove him underground. This was my Dad.
I brought some of the photographs home and would pull them out to look at them, over and over again. Each time in a different sequence. Each time hoping, they would reveal a little more about the man I had become desperate to understand. And slowly they did. The black and white images began to merge with memories of my own. Color images of the man sitting in a chair reading. Of looking up at me with a smile. Not broad, not overpowering, just a hint at the love that resided behind it. But it was enough.
The man loved me. My Dad loved me and I could finally see this, really see this, for the first time in 53 years. Life had beaten the crap out of him. Had pushed him down to his knees and made him sullen and unhappy and incapable of simply snapping out of it. That took effort. It took a few drinks and adult company and a releasing of the pressure that responsibility had applied, almost physically, to his person for as long as I knew the man. Then he would become lighter, happier, more like the man in the black and white photographs.
I still look at these photos. Still rub my fingertips against his face and try to feel the skin. To remember his touch. To rekindle the love that had faded, simply because I knew so little about him. Because I couldn’t make the connection between the man who was my father and the man, I had wanted so much to be my Dad. But now I could.
Now I see him at 20 and 25 years old. I see his dark hair and smooth skin. His eyes that actually sparkle, just a little, but enough. Enough to see that he had enjoyed life. That he had liked people and kidding around. That he wasn’t above being silly or looking the fool. Not if it made others laugh. He was like me.
I had always marveled at how children somehow managed to take on traits of their parents, not physical ones like eye color or dimpled cheeks, but subtle ones. How they process information. How they look at the world and see things in ways that match exactly the outlook their father or mother had. Perspectives that were never discussed and yet, there they were, active and alive inside them.
I now see myself in my Dad. The cheeky smile. The knowing glance. The eyes that take in far more than they reveal. I am my father’s son and it feels right.
Meeting my Dad for the first time at age 66 was a revelation. That would make him 103 today. But he doesn’t seem that old to me now. And neither do I.