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…

Love and Friendship

Looking out at the world through our own eyes, I think it is normal to believe that “most people” see what we see.  At the same time, we all believe we are unique.  This is, of course, demonstrably untrue.  If each of us were unique individuals entire bodies of science would not work.  Polling, statistics, psychology, criminal profiling, marketing, etc.  We are all different arrangements of the same basic things, leading to groups of similar people.  One can argue that our “souls” are different, but our minds are, by and large, most certainly not.

So I feel confident that there are many people like me out there.  People who feel what I feel, see what I see, hear what I hear.  As such, I have to believe that many folks can relate to what I am about to say.

From time to time I grow weary of the several thousand songs on my thumb drive.  I go to Amazon and download a cd or two, transfer it, and listen to new music on my way in to work.  This morning I downloaded a cd appropriately entitled “Now That’s What I Call 80’s Hits”.  I fired it up and let it play while riding down the road.  Somewhere along the way, “Against All Odds” by Phil Collins came on.

I was 16 again.  My dearest friend, was telling me that she was leaving for college in Boston.  I sat in the window of my second floor bedroom listening to this song.  For four years this song was *the* song.  It was the soundtrack of my life.  Dana was the only one who really knew me at all…

A smile crossed my face as I considered the power of music to transcend time and space, and transport you to places long forgotten.  I began to think about that line.  “You’re the only one who really knew me at all”.  The sights and sounds of a time long behind me came rushing back.  Decision points and intersections were recalled to my mind.  Things I said and did…images, faces, some with names, some without.  “You’re the only one who really knew me at all….”  That was my fault.

My mother asked me recently why I was such a hard ass in my youth.  I explained to her that the peaceful neighborhood the adults lived in was not the same as the violent neighborhood I lived in.  I ran in a pack.  A wolf pack.  And to show any sign of weakness to anyone, ever, was as good as asking for an ass whoopin’, or worse.  So I became this cold, unfeeling person that no one wanted to mess with.  I never got in a fight past the age of 13 or so, because I made it clear that you weren’t going home if you jumped on me.

Much like lying eventually trips you up because you forget who you told what, so too with being vulnerable.  So, rather than risk flipping the switch at the wrong time, I simply broke it off.  I once backed down the entire Glen Burnie High School football team because when they surrounded me outside the school I looked at the biggest guy there with no fear in my eyes and a knife in my hand and said, “If you’re gonna do something you best get started, lunch is almost over.”

Dana was the only person I knew at the time that I was completely sure would never hurt me in any way.  So she was the only one who really knew me at all.  Against All Odds was her song.

Somewhere in the middle of all that I met Thaeda and Tereasa.  They came to know me over time as well.

Tereasa was the best friend of my girlfriend.  When Maria and I finally broke up, Tereasa and I did not.  Thaeda was the twin sister of Tena, a girl I briefly dated (and still know to this day).  My introduction to Thaeda came in the foyer in front of the cafeteria.  She was promoting the chess club.  I walked up to her, sat down and said, “You know your sister is a real bitch”.  I spent the entirety of that day sitting at that table playing chess and talking.  We’ve been the closest of friends ever since.

Over all the years since then (29 to be exact) there have been ups and downs.  Dana and Thaeda have remained.  I intentionally cut off contact with Tereasa a few years ago, during a phase I was going through.  I reestablished contact with her this morning.  When she accepted my friend request and responded to the message I sent her I have to admit I cried a little.

I recently posted Hard To Love by Lee Brice to my wife’s Facebook page.  Some guys do that kind of thing as a romantic gesture.  I did it because it is true.

I have gone out of my way over the course of my life to be difficult.  I have, with words and deeds, essentially punched my best friends in the face just to see what they’d do.  Amazingly, what they did was stand back up and keep loving me anyway.  I used to see that as weakness.  I used to see it as a pathetic co-dependency, a desperate need to be accepted, a willingness to endure nearly anything just to be thrown scraps from time to time.  Like an abused dog that still comes when you call it.

I realize now, and I guess I have for quite some time, how much more strength it takes to be them than it does to be me.  I have purposed in my heart to be more like these people, and less the person I have been.  That is, of course, easier to say than it is to do.  Honestly assessing your own character is difficult.  Identifying things that need to change and actually changing them, is monumental.  Like turning the Titanic.

As is often said, every choice I’ve made along the way has led me to where I am now.  Each day that passes contains decisions that shape who I am.  There are a lot of days behind me…

But I have come to a place in my life where I have to be honest with myself.  “A life well lived” is about more than making money.  It’s about more than where you live or what you drive.  It’s about more than “success”.

I have come to understand that a life well lived is one filled with friends and family.  It’s about loving and being loved.  It’s about facing pain, and fear, and failure, and coming through it to brighter days.  It’s about extending your hand to someone you think might not take it and loving people who may not love you back.  It’s about being open, and vulnerable.  Because when you shut and lock the door to your heart as I have done, you block out the good as well as the bad.

Tereasa doesn’t have a song.  She was a well worn jacket.  There.  Comfortable.  Familiar.  And I fear I took her friendship for granted, like finding my keys in the pocket of the pants I was wearing yesterday.  I never thought of her in an emotional way, and so I never attached a piece of music to her.  I’m going to see about changing that.  Tereasa is the only person who has ever read all of my poetry.  She’s my politics and religion debate partner.  She’s the voice of reason when I’m being unreasonable.  She was never afraid to confront me…and I needed that.

Thaeda’s song is My Sacrifice by Creed.  “Within my heart are memories, of perfect love you gave to me.  Oh, I remember.  When you are with me, I’m free.  I’m careless.  I believe.  Above all the others we’ll fly.  This brings tears to my eyes….”  You are, without question, the best friend anyone could ever ask for.  You have been “home base” for me for virtually my whole life.  When I get in too deep and lose my way, you are the place I head back to.  You’re also the only woman to ever get me in a headlock I couldn’t get out of. 😉

Dana, I love you.  Always have, always will.  Since I was 12 or 13 years old.  I still recall the first time I ever saw you.  You have been the pure, loving, person I have aspired to be worthy of all my life.  When we were young you’re song was Against All Odds.  At one point it was “I Can’t Fight This Feeling” by REO Speedwagon.  Today it is When You Come Back To Me Again, by Garth Brooks.  I have always been the ship out on the ocean, at the mercy of the sea.  You have always been the lighthouse, shining to show me the way home.

My beloved wife Beverly…you have so many songs it would take a hard drive to record them all.  Suffice it to say that you have literally been right by my side during some of the darkest moments in my life.  Reaching out to take your hand has literally saved my life.  I’m working on becoming the person you deserve.  I have a long way to go.

EmmaLeigh, my oldest.  You are the legacy that any parent on the face of the planet would be proud to have.  So much more than I deserve, and so much more than I have any right to claim.  You have somehow managed to take the few good qualities I ever exhibited to you and combine them with your mom’s best qualities.  I take solace in the fact that with all that I’ve done wrong I must have done something right.  Which is why your song is Butterfly Kisses.  It was your song when you were an infant, and now as you grow in to an adult the words take on the sweet sting of truth.  You will always be my first love.

Laura….my baby.  I cannot help but grin at you.  You are like looking in a mirror for me.  You speak truth without fear.  You see obstacles as challenges, and you overcome them.  I watch with amazement as you tackle musical instruments, sports, acting, and all the other things I wish I would have done when I was your age.  I know being the second child is not always easy.  But, I want you to know that I am every bit as proud of you as I am of Em.  You do not hold second place in my heart.  You have all of it.  Your song was, and is You’ll Be In My Heart by Phil Collins.  I’ll be there for you always….just look over your shoulder.

It is a difficult thing to go from being a solitary individual, to a friend a friend would like to have.  I don’t know that it is possible or even desirable for me to become an “outgoing” individual.  I cherish my peace and quiet too much for that.  But what I can do is listen more and argue less.  I can just say what I feel more frequently, and be less guarded.  I can learn from those around me instead of acting like I have all the answers.

I’m going to work on these things.