The Living Years

I got a phone call Tuesday from my sister informing me that my father is on his deathbed. Stage 4 bone cancer. This on top of the dementia that has been eating away at his mind for the last several years. The last time I spoke to him it was a struggle to form a coherent sentence. He knew me, but could not tell me who my wife or kids were. That was a year or two ago, so I have no idea how far gone he is now.

Some of you may recall a song by Mike and the Mechanics from the early 90’s called “The Living Years”. The song is all about the distance and disagreement between a father and his son. The first verse says:

“Every generation blames the one before, And all of their frustrations come beating on your door.

I know that I’m a prisoner to all my father held so dear I know that I’m a hostage to all his hopes and fears I just wish I could’ve told him in the living years

Oh, crumpled bits of paper filled with imperfect thoughts,

Stilted conversations I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got

You say you just don’t see it he says it’s perfect sense , You just can’t get agreement in this present tense

We all talk a different language, talking in defense.”

 

That pretty well perfectly describes my relationship with my father. I did not listen to that song this morning on my drive in to work, but I heard it in my head nonetheless.

My father and I have been estranged for quite some time. So, as I type this post this morning I am not entirely sure how I feel about the news I have received. I guess, if I were a “normal” person I would have called in to work this morning, taken the rest of the week off, and rushed off to see him in his last moments. I didn’t do any of those things.

I did inform my manager of what was going on, simply because I am not sure how I am going to react. I wanted him to be prepared in case I abruptly left, or began sobbing uncontrollably, or something…

The thing is, I am as much a spectator in this situation as everyone else. I don’t know how I feel. I don’t know how I will feel. I have no idea how I will react when the anticipated passing of my father happens in what I assume will be the next few days. So I am, in many respects, watching a movie I’ve never seen before, and waiting to see what happens.

I think it’s entirely possible that when a new idea or concept strikes many of us we have a tendency to believe we have “discovered” something. Our epiphany is an epiphany for all mankind. I’m sure this is particularly true if we are considered (by ourselves or others) to be “smart”. But then you talk to someone else, or read something someone else wrote, and realize that there is nothing new under the sun.

Nevertheless, while exploring my thoughts and feelings on the matter I was struck by the notion that in the end our lives are really just a series of snippets in the memories of other people.

We are born, in many cases we procreate, and eventually we die. The circle of people who care about any of these things is relatively small. The number of lives most of us will touch is also relatively small. In the end, even if a whole lot of people know who we are, the people who actually feel our loss is a small subset of that number.

Who we were becomes a function of how we are recalled by those still living. Being forever silenced and unable to correct the record or defend ourselves, perception becomes reality. All the things we accomplished fade away. The awards and achievements, the degrees and certifications, all of the accumulated pieces of paper and plaques…all piled into a pine box alongside the husk of who we once were…and turned to ash and dust along with us.

All that remains are the smiles or frowns of those who knew us when, from time to time, we come to mind. The things we said or did traded in for the things people think we said or did. Nothing lasting, nothing permanent. In my case, having fathered two girls, not even my last name will carry on. All that will matter when all is said and done, is what those two girls think of me, when they think of me.

Lest I depart too sharply from my normal manner and thereby cause consternation amongst my friends, let me follow up by saying….I’ll be dead. So, in reality, I won’t know, or care, what anyone still alive thinks. It certainly does make for some interesting thoughts though…and no doubt quite a few tee-shirts and bumper stickers about how all that matters is how we treated others, etc.

Right now, in a house I’ve never seen, in a town I’ve never been to, surrounded by people I’ve never met…my father is dying.   When I imagined for a moment what going to his funeral might be like, and what I would say if I were asked to say something, I came to some conclusions. I guess it’s up to the reader to determine if those conclusions are sad, or insightful, profound, or ambivalent. I can’t rightly say.

For the record, and for those not familiar with the situation, I will briefly recap. My father left my mother in the most cowardly manner I could imagine. He was a pastor and he ran off with the church secretary. He married her shortly after his divorce from my mother went through because, as he explained to me at the time, they didn’t want to live in sin, “any longer than is absolutely necessary”.

My mother is, as are we all, a flawed woman. But she continually and constantly pounded one refrain into my mind from the time I was old enough to speak. “I hate a liar”. That can be translated over to, “I hate a hypocrite”. I did see, and still see, my father as a hypocrite. I believe he violated sacred covenants, abandoned his flock, led people astray, and committed a whole host of other things that his faith deems “sins”. Nevertheless, he did them. And he did them for the most base of reasons. I have never truly found it in my heart to forgive that.

That fact is in and of itself intriguing to me. I know women whose fathers sexually molested them, and they have found it within themselves to forgive them and attempt to repair the relationship. My father broke a vow to a God I don’t quite believe in, and (to be fair) he also lied to me in the process. But these things seem so much smaller than the things other people are able to see their way past. So I have to consider for a moment, is the failing his, or mine?

Not that I bear him ill will, or walk around with anger in my heart. I just added him to my internal list of people I prefer not to associate with. What that translates to is, in the last 15 years I’ve seen him once and spoken to him by phone 3-4 times.

I guess in my dad’s case what angered me was that he set himself up as a leader and an emissary of God, and then fell on his face. And he didn’t stumble over some unusual set of circumstances or extraordinary moral conundrum. He was tripped up by the same shit he lectured me on.

He demonstrated conclusively (in my mind) that Jesus isn’t changing hearts. He tore apart his own family, and the family of the woman he committed adultery with, and then he shrugged and said, “God forgives me, if you don’t that’s your problem”.

And now he’s dying.

What would I say if I were asked to say something?

My father was not a great man. Some would tell you he was a good man, and I wouldn’t rise to oppose them, though I would disagree. In the end, he was a man. He had his flaws. He had his vices. He had his shortcomings and failures. I do not begrudge him any of these things. We all have things about ourselves we are less than proud of. But he lacked honor, and was therefore not someone I chose to spend time with.

My father paid his bills, fed his kids, and served his country. He spent 4 years in the Air Force and the rest of his working life at NSA. He taught college courses, coached tee-ball, baseball, and softball. (An interesting aside, my dad was tried out to play Catcher for the Baltimore Orioles way back in the day.)

He gave to me my love of reading, chess, and debate. He taught me to think. And when he was younger and in decent shape, the man could play baseball.

He participated in the rearing of two moderately successful children. His progeny is no burden on society.

I hear that in recent years he got involved with child welfare and became some sort of court appointed advocate.

That’s it. That’s all I know about the man.

I recall a few ridiculous things like the way he would stick his tongue in his cheek when he was angry. I remember a few times we almost came to blows during my teenage years. I remember he was a bit of a clown, and enjoyed being the center of attention…which I suppose is the unspoken reason he chose to go into the ministry.

Mainly, since I hung up the phone with my sister, I have been thinking about more abstract things.

I wonder if he’s scared. I wonder if he’s even cognizant of what is happening. I wonder if he’s looking forward to “going on to be with the Lord”. Or is it possible that now that the question is no longer rhetorical, he has his doubts?

I wonder who has come to see him. I wonder, when I am in his position, who will come to see me? I wonder if he wonders if I will come…or if he even remembers my name. If he does remember my name, and does hope that I will come, will the last thing he feels be profound sadness? Is that my fault? Does it matter?

Assuming he has anywhere near a firm grasp on reality, I wonder does he look back on his life with regret, or satisfaction? I wonder how I would answer that same question.

In the end I am simply writing this because I am experiencing an event I will only ever experience once. I am not looking for pity or condolences. My father has not been an integral part of my life for a very long time. I won’t miss him more the day after he’s gone than I did on any given day last month.

I’m simply thinking about things, and seeing them, in a light that only shines once. So I’m capturing my thoughts and passing them on.

Maybe I’m just creating a snippet in the memory of someone else…

My Changing Perspective

There are moments in life, or at least in my life, where I come to sudden realizations.  Epiphanies they call them.  But there are also slow, inexorable, seemingly decades long processes where I confirm what I suspected at the start.  I don’t know if I can put my finger on the moment when that confirmation became a reality.  But, I suspect I am in, or near, one of those moments as I type this.

I spent a good portion of my life pretty well broke.  I can still recall when my children were little and I had separated from their mother.  I was living in a rent-controlled studio apartment on the wrong side of town.  Driving a vehicle graciously given to me by my former father-in-law.  One day in particular stands out.  My kids asked me to take them to the park, and I had to tell them that I didn’t have gas money for a ride to the park.

Broke!  Like, for real!

Which is why I develop a special level of anger at people who assume that because I am white and/or male, that I do not understand the plight of the poor.  As if you have to be minority in order to have no money.  Let me state for the record…I understand the plight of the poor.  I live every day with the knowledge that if I were to lose the access I have to the facilities I work in, I’d be right back in that same boat.

Anyway, Lose Yourself by Eminem came out and the third verse really stuck in my head.  I decided that I had to formulate a plot…or end up in jail or shot…

In any event, some 12 years ago (or thereabouts) I began to aggressively pursue success.  First through a contact of my then girlfriend (now wife), and then through other contacts made as time went on, I found myself in increasingly better paying jobs.

I did some telecom work for a while.  8 hours a day standing on a ladder, pulling wire over my head.  I walk around with messed up shoulders (they tell me it’s arthritis) nowadays as a result (IMHO) of that experience.

Then I got a security clearance and began a series of jobs.  Some were physical, some were technical, but each time I took on a new position I got a raise in pay.  When you’re dead broke a raise in pay is pretty much all you care about.

Eventually Bev and I got married.  Between the two of us the money going into the checking account went up about 10x.  I went from telling my kids I could not take them to the park, to sending my oldest to London as part of her senior class.  It truly warmed my heart to be able to provide things for my kids, and I regarded this as my highest calling (aside, of course, from teaching them to be decent people).

When I was sitting around watching paint dry for a living (yes, really) I kept thinking (and saying) that I was meant to do more.  When I worked Helpdesk, when I filled a small IA role, when I did Requirements work…I kept thinking and saying that I was capable of more.  I even wrote a number of blog entries right here about how life has to be about more than just trudging to work to pay the bills.

Oh yeah…the bills.  For those who do not know, or have only walked on one side of the street, let me take a moment to tell you about the bills.

When you’re broke…and I mean gas money broke…you “shop”.  You find deals on things like food and toilet paper.  You try to make sure you have enough money left over to pay for internet access or cable tv…because after all, there has to be something to do on the weekends.  You accept gifts and donations from friends and family.  You buy books on how to fix things, rather than pay someone to fix them.

When you cross over to where I am now (my eldest still recalls me telling someone that I make enough money to pay someone to punch them in the face), life is different.  My wife, having never really lost her low income mindset, still calls me to say that she wants to get her nails done.  I always reply with, “Do whatever you want.  I don’t care.”

These days I do things like spend a grand a month adding ink to my arms.  I wake up and decide I want a Harley, and that afternoon I ride home on my Harley.  One of my daughters asks for something…and they get it.  In short, I am now living the life I imagined I wanted back when I couldn’t afford to drive to the park.  And don’t get me wrong, this is not one of those posts about how money cannot buy happiness.  It absolutely can!

When I am sitting at the winery enjoying a good time with my friends…that’s happiness.  When I am riding down the road with the wind in my face on the Harley I wanted since I was a kid…that’s happiness.  When my daughter gets to see the world, and do things that other kids don’t get to do, and she hugs me and says “thank you daddy!”…that’s happiness.  All sponsored by money.

No, this post is about the constant drive to do more, learn more, and earn more.  It’s about the fact that when you are always on the bleeding edge…it’s you that does the bleeding.  It’s about the thought that maybe I have reached a comfortable place…and then I took one more step…and maybe I should take a step back.

It’s about thinking that maybe a nice, boring, 40 hour a week, do it in my sleep, no certs or training required, type job might not be a bad thing.  I had one of those a few weeks ago, and I moved on to where I am now sitting.  Because I wanted to do something meaningful and “important”.  I wanted to work in “security”.  Cyber security to be exact.  So here I am.

I haven’t been here long enough to really form an informed opinion.  I will give it some time before I really make any important decisions.  I am simply writing this because for the first time I can recall in my life, I have moved on from one place to another, taken a step ahead in pay and responsibility…and thought that maybe I made a mistake.

There are a lot of reasons why this thought has crept into my mind, but I won’t bore you with the details until I see how things pan out.

Time will tell.  When it does…so will I.

Cheers