When it’s hard to remember the good times with your father, it’s hard to move on.
Here we were again, with him twisting my left wrist ever so slowly, his one eyebrow arched in the shape of a pyramid above his right eye, his face rigid and unmoving, his eyes boring into mine as he said, “ You weren’t unkind to your mother today, were you, son?” I had been in this position many times before, when I pushed my sister into a rosebush leaving her with cuts on her arms and face, when I had lied to my parents about a poor grade I had received on a sophomore year biology test, when I had snuck out of the house to see when my girlfriend when Dad had forbidden me, so when he uttered the word “son” I knew things were about to go downhill fast.
I knew there was no way out, because I had been argumentative with my mother about typical things that seventeen year old boys chose to contest, like cleaning my room or working harder at my school work or spending too much time in front of the television. Not only had I argued, but I had also done so with ferocity and disrespect, taking advantage of my mother’s gentle nature and trying to bully her to change her way of thinking, that is until she told me, “Enough. I will tell your father about your behavior when he gets home from work today.” That shut me up quickly, and I proceeded to apologize and make promises of no further verbal abuse for the rest of my life. Sometimes, this manipulative strategy was a preventative and I was saved, but on rare occasions, Mom held to her promise and Dad always did his routine of intimidation, fear and power. I winced in pain as he did his twisting and knew that after experiencing his tortuous grip and receiving a stern lecture, I would be grounded for a minimum of two days. The plan never changed.
Dad was my hero. At least, I thought he was for many years. He was a stern, demanding man of uncompromising ethics and had himself been raised by a father with a temperament riddled with anger, machismo and severe mood swings. My mom told me that when my grandfather disagreed with his wife or children, he wouldn’t speak to them for days at a time. Dad had no other role models, so he raised me with a metaphorical whip that would have made the Puritans proud. As my only role model, Dad became my accidental hero, assuming that position because there was no other available. This hero I had created was someone I worshiped and feared, respected and loathed, wanted to hug and escape, obey and defy.
It was difficult for my father and I to connect. In fact, the only topic that brought us together was sports. With season tickets to the Eagles, he and I rode the bus to Franklin Field on Sundays and sat through some miserable weather and even more miserable seasons. I loved those times when my hero offered his post- game analysis. Even if these trips led to another Eagles defeat, there were no raised eyebrows, wrenched wrists or time outs. We did the same with the Phillies and later the Flyers, and my love of all things sports sprouted from those special outings. Later, when I played varsity soccer and baseball in high school, Dad and I shared those experiences as well, but it wasn’t the same. It was too emotional, with Dad’s code of success and failure getting in the way of our relationship. I felt too often I was failing my hero and that I could never measure up. We stuck to the Eagles, Phillies and Flyers. They were safe conversation topics, tolerable for both of us.
Dad retired early at age 62. By that time, I was married and had a young son, with another son on the way. My relationship with my father did not change at that time, and he still was strict and judgmental about how I led my life. The only difference was I was no longer living at home, and his words of admonishment were no longer with me each and every day. Then, disaster struck. Six months after his early retirement, this highly respected and admired lawyer in Philadelphia was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. When my mother told me this devastating news, I asked a few perfunctory questions, not certain how debilitating it was and maybe not even caring. The hero I had inherited and not chosen, the man who had always taken care of himself, the father and husband who had never done anything in this life in excess, well maybe, just maybe, he deserved it. I mean, didn’t being a bastard earn him a place in physical and mental purgatory for the rest of his life? Was this the chance I had been waiting for to finally be free of him, to stick it to him, to exact some sort of perverse revenge. It was sick and dysfunctional, but it was real.
Mom tried to take care of Dad at home as the disease became more crippling, and Dad tried all he could to stem its pernicious progression. Yet, after several nasty falls in our two story house, Dad became too difficult to manage. Mom made the gut wrenching decision that my father needed to be in an assisted living facility so that his needs and yes, hers as well, could be met. I didn’t blame her. I remained on the periphery with all of this, listening to my Mom who never complained and blaming my father for bringing so much difficulty to my mother’s life. On the day when my Dad was transferred to the Beaumont Nursing home, I felt I had been freed from the shackles of his unrelenting dominance, from his forceful and uncompromising demands on my life. My hero was no longer in control. I was.
But despite my frustration and hurt, I still wanted to hear my Dad tell me he loved me. Although he wrote, “I love you,” in a birthday card once, I never heard him say those three words. I wanted my hero to tell me that I meant something to him. So here we were, in a place that smelled like decaying fish, with people who shouted from their wheelchairs, “Help me,” where lunch took more than an hour to complete because Dad had to be fed by my mother. I realized that it was too late. As the disease progressed, Dad could no longer walk, talk or go to the bathroom without assistance. He dribbled mucus from his mouth and tried to communicate with my Mom, sister and me, but the words came out as guttural and primal outbursts. Here was my fabricated hero, bowed and broken, and I knew that the relationship I had so yearned and hoped for would never happen. As one year moved into the next, I felt first anger, then discomfort, then pity, then shame. I was witnessing a slow death, something no one deserves, especially a hero.
Dad died after seven years at Beaumont. He was a vegetable at the end. I felt mixed emotions at his private funeral, partially due to the fact that no one from his work or childhood or social circles was there to color him in hues more positive than mine. We sang a few hymns, the minister read several Bible verses and that was it. I think that service spoke so much to me, and not in a good way. Now, after being in control when he lived at the nursing home, I was free of Dad now, but I had some convincing to do – to myself. I still felt anger toward how he had treated me, but I had grown to pity this forceful man who had disintegrated literally one day at a time in front of my eyes. I was ashamed that I felt a sense of vindication at my father’s demise, and I felt uncomfortable that I felt all of this. I had much to consider, decipher and heal. As the minister closed the service with his words of gratitude to God and hope for my Dad’s eternal life, I realized I had to take an arduous journey in the years ahead, a journey toward forgiveness.
I find myself linked to my Dad’s legacy every day. Whether, like my Dad, I ask for respect from my own older sons when they test their youthful limits or whether, in contrast to my father, I say, “Love you,” to my wife and kids when I say goodbye at our morning departure, my father and his presence stay with me. As I enter my sixth decade, I still find myself on that long path to forgiveness, forgiving my father for what he never gave me and honoring him for what he did. It is a delicate tightrope act, letting go of the past yet learning from and appreciating it, for all of its imperfections. Was he my hero? Looking back, no, he wasn’t. He was my Dad, and I have to live with that.