With the holiday season upon everyone, Joe Rutland takes some time to remember how a once-broken relationship with his dad became one of his greatest gifts.
Hooray! We’ve made it! Once again, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Lights twinkling, Christmas trees being put up, and celebrations and parties are being planned.
You do feel that extra pep in your step today, don’t you? I mean, let me not bring up heavy subjects like loved ones who have forgotten—either because of illness or age—about these incredible moments. Or the lost holidays when a son and father were not together … and the son longs (sometimes) to reclaim those holidays and want Dad back.
This is me, wanting my Dad around for this holiday season. I would love—really love—to be able to share what my life is like today with him.
Let me tell you about him.
My father worked as an attorney in Beaumont, Texas, located about 80 miles east of Houston. He started out working in the legal aid office after getting his law degree from the University of Houston. Dad had a career in the savings and loan industry before switching gears. After I was born, my parents already had moved from the Westbury section of Houston over to Beaumont. Dad spent a few years in that office before opening his own practice, handling family law cases like divorces and other related matters.
Anyway, Dad and I had a relationship while I was growing up … yet honestly, it was not one of those “throw the football around the front yard” types. My sense is that was because Mom played interference and wanted me all to herself which, in hindsight, she got.
There were some holidays spent together as a family, but they were not really fun. Always, there was some tension in the air … it never felt peaceful. Maybe it’s my fogged-up memories … at 50 years old? Fogged-up memories? Aw hell no.
There were some fun times, such as when Dad got two tickets to the Super Bowl at Rice Stadium between the Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings. My Uncle Ed got the tickets and gave them to Dad. Apparently, Uncle Ed knew some people … he probably did since, at the time, he was in editorial management for The Houston Post newspaper.
I can remember times where Dad would take me to see the Houston Astros play in the Astrodome. We would get to the game, start watching it, I’d be having fun … then I’d turn around only to see him asleep.
That wasn’t fun. Yes, he did take me to a few games and I’m grateful for those memories … yet I just wanted him to be engaged in the game as much as I was at the time.
One of the toughest times—I know now for him as well as for myself—was when he informed me that he was going to divorce my mom in November 1983. Then once Mom found out, it was off to the races on mental breakdown No. 1 for her.
I helped Dad move out and I remember the last time (at least at that point) I saw him was when he let me out back at home. I got into my car and went to work at the city newspaper. That night, I called him to make sure he was OK and he assured me that he was safe. What did I do? I worked, then stopped off, picked up a 24-ounce Budweiser, drove to an empty house, turned on the overhead light in our den, sat in the middle and popped the top. At 19, I had even more responsibilities upon me besides those that I’d carried for years when it came to Mom.
My interactions with Dad between 1983 through 1997 were minimal. Once, in fact, and that small one freaked me out.
Yet the story, thank God, doesn’t end there. Cue the Prodigal Son music.
In 1997, I was getting some professional help and, Lord knows, I needed it.
During this time, it was suggested (encouraged I’d say) that I reach out to my father. I had not really thought about it much, to be honest. There were some real ingrained beliefs from others about Dad that I had stuck inside my brain. Those beliefs were definitely other people’s … and separating fact from fiction took time.
I believe it was either in March or April that I looked up his office phone number and called. He was not in at that time, but I did leave my name and a message to call me.
Later that day, he did. We spoke. It was a conversation that, well, was halting at best. Not easy, not smooth. It did put a small dent in 13-plus years of separation. Two other phone calls in the next few months followed, and those had more depth to them.
Finally, I was encouraged to go see him in Beaumont. I was living and working a temp job in Houston at the time, so there would be time to drive over there. I want to say it was in October that I made that call to him and asked if I could come over for dinner.
He said yes.
So I got through with my temp job, hopped in my car at the time, and drove Interstate 10 East over the Old and Lost River, the Trinity River bridge, past the Anahuac and Winnie exits, veered left, motored past the Goodyear plant and made my way into downtown Beaumont.
I had Dad’s office building address, and parked nearby. As I got out of my car, I really did not know what to expect … yet I was not backing down or afraid to see him. I walked into the office building, got into an elevator and pushed the corresponding floor button. Some butterflies were flying around in my stomach, kind of like they are right now while writing this column.
The doors opened to his floor and I found the door: “John Dudley Rutland, Attorney At Law.”
Oh boy, it’s go time. I pushed open the door and walked up to the window where his office manager was sitting. I remember saying, “Hi, I’m Joe Rutland. Is my father here?” She smiled at me and said “Just a second.”
So I waited and the door to the office area opened. There was my father, a little older and a little less heavier than I remember. I walked up to him and we hugged. I mean we hugged, bro. From there, he led me back to his office and introduced me to his staff. All of them were very nice and, well, became friends of mine, too.
What started on that day was a road paved with clearing up falsehoods, hearing some tough truths and beginning a new relationship. Not even like the one from when I was younger. It was like a restart button was pushed, yet there were lots of mental weeds to pull out and questions that he answered.
My dad and I grew closer as the years went by. We found ourselves laughing and crying at times, having lunches at Cracker Barrel in Baytown, me driving him to appointments at the Veterans Administration building in Houston (he now practiced administrative law and helped veterans, among others, get their benefits when they were turned down), picking him up and driving back to Baytown so he could get in his car. He would then drive back to Beaumont while I returned to Houston. He had remarried by this time and, well, at times it was a tough go for him in that relationship.
Our relationship just grew stronger, and stayed that way until he died in February 2004. Dad battled some serious medical issues in those years we were not together and, by God’s grace and the kindness of medical professionals in the Houston area, he lived some good years.
By no means was Dad perfect. Who the hell is? Yet he was, and is, my dad … and I do love and miss him. I know he’s not in physical pain anymore and I’m grateful for that.
Would it be great to celebrate the holidays with a healthy father? Yes, it would.
Maybe someday I can be a father figure to a son or daughter. Now that would be beautiful, man.
Photo: Frank Lindecke/Flickr