December 29, 2002

A Requiem of Cold Tears

Journal 28 Dec 2002

Last night my mother called to tell me that my father had died in a nursing home on Christmas day. And all I could say was "that's too bad". I regret that there was not more to say. Surely there must be other words for him, to lay him to rest, again, this final time.

One gets only one biological father per lifetime. He may or may not choose to be a constant and involved agent in the rearing of his progeny. Fewer and fewer fathers these days stay the course, for richer or for poorer, to see their children's children have children. Mine didn't. I am sad to see him go, but it is a remote sadness like the passing of a familiar stranger with whom I share only some insensate genetic common ground. These are thin bonds after thirty years of silence.

In my father's passing there is the remorse of what never was more than what was but now is gone. The active grieving stopped long ago, the separation complete though never hostile since the early days of his slow self-amputation from our family. The last time I remember seeing him perfunctorily along side my mother was at my wedding. I have no recent memories of him beyond those that remain, like his small framed picture, hidden in a bottom drawer of my heart and mind. The smell of clove mints, Old Spice and stale cigarette smoke overlaying an image frozen in time; a picture of a thin, black-haired handsome man I recognise as one who once coached my YMCA basketball team. Also in the hidden places, there are a few jittery moving figures on a beach shown on a rippled sheet on the wall by an ancient projector; and the memory of a memory of a kind voice.

I never knew him. I'm not sure anyone really did. He grew up in a home where there was no love, no approval or acceptance. And so, he was poorly equipped when his turn came to give these things to others. He bore an emotional and social disability that lead him ultimately to make some very hurtful choices for himself and those who attempted to belong to him.

Christmas morning and I am six years old. I watch my father cry as he holds the heavy black telephone receiver to his ear. I come to understand that he is talking to the man who has given me and my brother the wristwatches we have just opened from under the tree. It was only years later that I knew why he was crying: this distant voice on the phone was my father's birth father in California who had left him and his brother and his mother when he was six years old. He could hardly have remembered even the smell of his aftershave or the sound of his voice. And yet he wept bitterly for the loss of him. Then years later, he repeated the very sins of his father. Here the image of an infinite regression of paternal abandonment first occured to me, a disturbing precocious foreboding. When my father drifted farther and farther away in my early teen years, I feared that this legacy would fall to me, hardwired into who I would become in the same way that he and I shared the same name and my signature came to look more and more like his.

To be sure, today in my distant and faint grief for his passing, I know that he taught me by his example some painful negative lessons, and I learned them well. I have my own faults, to be sure, but I am able today to say that I have not followed my father's course, or that of his father before him. The trail of broken lives has ended and we have just celebrated my daughter's twenty ninth and my son's twenty fourth Christmas with us.

Marriage and parenting are the two hardest and the most wonderful things I have ever undertaken in my life. We have loved each other, all of us, through sickness and health, across distance and through time, in spite of our failings and faults. I have seen my children's children happy and loved this Christmas. God has sustained us and held us up. As I think of this, I realize that this light of faith I saw first from my father during those few years when he lived his life for the sake of Someone other than himself and here he pointed the way for me. This is not an inconsequential legacy, and perhaps in God's wisdom my father was used for this very purpose, in spite of what came before and after in his unhappy life.

And so, it is indeed too bad that he has left this world on a Christmas day. I would rather things had been different in my family. Still, one out of two is better than so many children score in parents who last a lifetime. Somewhere in Alabama today, they will lay him to rest, a ceremony I held in my heart many years ago. There are tears today for a character who never existed in my story, tears for the ending now of the last chapter of a happy book that was never written.

Posted by fred1st at December 29, 2002 06:12 AM | TrackBack

I lost my father about four years ago on January 14...reading this passage helped me be more thankful for the father I had. He was distant and often sharp tongued but he stuck around...he provided for our education...he loved our mom...I do my best to remember the good and avoid the negative paths...this was a cathartic reading for me today...

Posted by: steve at December 29, 2002 09:50 AM

Sometimes the mourning for our fathers starts long before they die. I am just now learning how to try to be the daughter of a father who will never be the father I wish he could be.

Sympathy to you, Fred.

Posted by: Pascale Soleil at December 29, 2002 02:25 PM

I know losing a parent is tough, no matter how distant they may be. Take care, buddy.

Posted by: ron at December 29, 2002 02:32 PM

having gone thru a similar grieving process for my father's father, my heart goes out to you. losing someone once is hard enough. it was good to read what you've been able to take away from the relationship; your children are blessed with a wonderful father.

prayers and hugs for you and your family.

Posted by: beth at December 29, 2002 05:26 PM

That post has touched me deeply. My condolences. Thank you for such painful and true honesty.

Posted by: Bene Diction at December 30, 2002 06:29 AM

My condolences, Fred. Parenthood, as you rightly point out, has very little to do -- ultimately -- with biology and everything in the world to do with love and commitment and sacrifice. When my own father died -- years and years ago -- the saddest thing for me to accept was the knowledge that it meant there would be no reconciliation. There would never be another opportunity for him to redeem himself, to reconnect, to make another attempt at making a connection. My sadness was as much for him as it was for myself. I would imagine that there is some of that present your grief today. Thanks for sharing this so transparently with us.

Posted by: Francesca at December 30, 2002 04:04 PM

I'm sorry, Fred. Peace to you and your family.

Posted by: Da Goddess at December 30, 2002 08:17 PM

I'm sorry to hear about your father, Fred, and how distant he was.

This is one of the best pieces you have ever written.

Hope the new year will bring in better and happier news to make happy memories for the coming years!

Posted by: glovefox at January 1, 2003 10:21 AM

Fred, I read this a few days ago while playing catch-up on blog reading and honestly did not know how to respond at the time. I've just read it again, aloud, to Kristi, bringing us each to tears. You have our condolences, of course, and prayers that your heart may rest a bit easier in the future. We live in a tough culture for fathers, I'm afraid. Like many others, I'm trying to do the best I can. Even though divorced, my commitment to the kids is genuine and the time I devote to them is without any self-imposed limit. Having heard a bit about your family, I just want you to know that I hope to be as steadfast and as influential as you. Our love and sympathy to you and yours.

Posted by: sainteros at January 1, 2003 07:07 PM

Two of the things I love best about your writing:
1. passion for description
2. bare, naked honesty but without cheap sentimentality (clearly not cheap, the emotions hard earned).

After my father died so suddenly (heart attack when I was 12) my mother mentally disintegrated before our eyes over the next few years.

This morning I was writing a congratulatory note to my brother's son who is about to get married. My brothers and I don't seem to know how to have a real family together, almost as though if we saw each other we would have to talk about those difficult years and none of us has evolved enough to be able to do that. Actually, I believe I could, mainly because of the love in my life and resulting strength, but my brothers still live life from a dark room. Thanks for directing me to this archive.

Posted by: Beth at September 30, 2003 11:48 AM

I came here too and was moved by your honesty.

Posted by: Trey at September 30, 2003 02:43 PM

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