My dad was a typical father of the 1950’s. When I was born, he sat in the waiting room and read magazines. There were no birthing rooms in hospitals in those days. He did not coach my mother or tell her to take short breaths to help with the pain. He participated in the blessed event from a distance, like all the men of his generation.
He did a lot of his parenting from a distance. Dad went to work during the week and stayed home on weekends. He sat in his chair and read the paper when he got home in the evening. He drank beer and watched our black and white television at night when the television wasn’t broken. When it was broken, he tinkered with it on the workbench in the basement. He opened it up and exposed its mysterious inner workings, filled with large tubes and gossamer filaments that glowed orange when the set was turned on. The fact that he could undertake such a project persuaded me that he could fix anything.
My father was an artist and an introvert. He did not like to travel. He did not like yard work either. There are many things I know about him now that I did not know in my childhood. Most of them I learned by seeing him through the lens of my own experience. The older I get the more I think I understand him. The older I get the more my memory of him seems to recede. As if he were calling out to me from some great distance. I know him now better than I ever have before. Yet I feel as though I never knew him at all.
Dad was my hero in my childhood. He was a big man who liked to fight when he was younger. He talked about barroom brawls with his best friend Mickey Marshall and one time when he stood in a ditch and traded blows with someone for hours. He may have been exaggerating. I never saw him throw a punch at anyone. Most of the time he was quiet and withdrawn.
In my teens, I thought that my father was the enemy. There was a time when I could hardly stand to be in the same room with him. The reasons made sense to me at the time. He drank too much. We didn’t understand one another. He seemed too critical. This was in the 1960’s and early 70’s. We weren’t supposed to get along. Those battles ended long ago. I look back on them now and wonder what it was that made me so angry.
My dad died in a hospital bed in 1987, after a weary-eyed doctor said there was nothing she could do for him. She seemed annoyed. She seemed to imply that he was taking up space that could have been used by someone else. But that was probably just my grief and my imagination. She might only have been tired after a long shift. The last conversation I had with my father was only a whisper.
“I love you,” I said. “I love you too, Johnny” he replied.