It’s been a strange year, that’s for sure. Strange and rough. Continually trying to come to grips with the fact of death, hard and unyielding as an iron wall. Death doesn’t mess around. When it takes you it takes you, and anyone else it pleases. Jesus may have been able to raise people from it, but not me. Believe me, I would have if I could.
Well, maybe not. When I talk to Dad in the early morning, I often picture him with Mom, his beloved Betty. Having a drink with all the relatives, like in the dream I had last night. Sitting by their trailer in some autumn-bright state park. Dancing in heaven on New Year’s Eve. What a couple they were.
So I would not want to bring Dad back from dancing with Mom in the faraway places now. The past year, then, I have tried to bring him back in my mind, day to day. Sometimes he just shows up, in my dreams or on a long walk. He may be off in the cosmos somewhere with Mom, but he’s also right next door to my heart.
Still, it’s disorienting, this being an orphan thing. How many times I’ve wanted to pick up the phone and hear Mom’s voice, full of love and bugging me about her latest project for my life. How often I’ve wanted to call Dad to yak about the Tigers’ latest game, or to get his advice on my latest issue without specifically asking for it. He was good at that.
Knowing you can get that call or make that call to your Mom or Dad makes all the difference. Even if you don’t make it, you know you could if you needed to. Just the knowledge keeps you grounded. Start floating away from the earth in a mess of trouble, all you have to do is pick up the phone. Mom or Dad will always reel you in.
It was hard enough not being able to do that with Mom. Yet we knew for a long time that Mom’s days were numbered. She was a frail autumn leaf ready to blow away at any time. Dad was the tree itself, a mighty maple rooted deeply in the ground. And then one Sunday morning, in a shocking instant, he was felled.
The swiftness with which he fell made it all the harder to accept and comprehend. He should still be standing there, soaking up the sun. He should still be walking beside me on our way uptown to Baldino’s party store in Williamston. He should still be sitting on the floor across from me playing hockey, madly pulling at the handles trying to keep up with the lightning reflexes of an 8-year-old boy.
How could he have been so present for so long, and then, suddenly, just not there anymore?
I was never not proud of my Dad. Not for a day. I admired his strength, his grace, his good humor, caring nature and sound advice. He looked cool with a pipe in his mouth. He was a handome bugger, in a rugged Hugh O’Brian way. He knew how to make people feel at ease. He walked in beauty, as the Indians say.
Hollywood commonly portrays the distant dad who never praises his son or actively belittles him. I can’t relate. Dad nurtured me from day one – spoiled me rotten, was Mom’s way of putting it. He let me drool on him when he held me high in his arms. Cradled me while watching TV or reading to me at bedtime. It was warm in his arms. He made me feel deeply loved and safe in the world.
He spanked me only once. Mom says it was because I crossed Philadelphia Avenue and almost got hit. Well, I did get hit by Dad – one astonishingly strong whack on the butt. He probably thought it hurt him more than it did me. I’m not so sure.
The only prolonged tension was in my teen years. I wanted to grow my hair long like my beloved Beatles, and Dad had always cut my hair, in the kitchen. Invariably he would cut it shorter than I wanted. He didn’t know how to do it any other way, and didn’t want it long besides. Finally he gave up trying.
I was into the Doors and Stones and other strange bands that Dad didn’t understand. Our worlds went their separate ways for awhile. In my college years he once told me to go off in a cabin and write if I wanted to; just commit to something. I didn’t appreciate his advice then.
My maturing as an adult brought us back together – that and baseball. Give major credit here to Carlton Fisk. His dramatic 12th-inning home run in the 1975 World Series renewed my love of the game, which Dad had taught me to begin with.
Last fall, I watched every last inning of that miserable Tigers-Giants World Series. I had to. What if the Tigers staged a miraculous comeback? Dad would be very disappointed if I missed it.
He still guides me in little ways – how to deal with a bad morning, how to take long walks at night, how to read a good book to settle my nerves. Basically, Dad taught me how to be a man.
I once told him, in the midst of a marital crisis, that I didn’t feel I’d ever grown into a man the way he did. There was no World War II to make me grow up. Dad told me that once I got through the crisis, I’d know what it felt like to be a man.
He was right, of course. I am more of a man now, but still learning how to be one from him. That goes on every day, even with him gone from the world.