It is now the seventh Father’s Day that has passed since my dad died. In those intervening years I have not been prone to brooding too frequently or deeply about his passing, or the complicated way we in which we were connected, but I find myself thinking of him quite a bit today. I suppose that some of that is just happenstance, but the bulk of this rumination is reflective of having reached a place of quiet reckoning in my own life. As I write this I am rapidly approaching the end of my fifty-fifth year, and am undeniably overwhelmed by the, at best, mediocrity that is my curriculum vitae. In my dizzier moments I try to focus on some of the real but faint attempts to improve my lot in life that I have spent parts of the last decade, or so, working towards. I have been forced to acknowledge that as I move through the end of middle age, those efforts seem less an endeavor to make a better life and more a running account of my failures in this one. Potential is a word most honestly used in a positive way for people with birth dates that coincide roughly with the time I first realized that my college degree was not much more than a poor trade for the years I spent in school, pretending to care about getting an education. When you are young, pondering the “promise” of your life is indicative of the reasonable belief that better times may yet be ahead. At my age it feels like not much more than a desperate bid to push myself through each day, and to try and do right by the people in my life that have valid reason to expect that of me. All of that is certainly ample opportunity and rationale to cast a harsh eye on my having let myself down, so badly. What dredges it up so forcefully today is the recognition of how remarkably disappointing it must have been to be my father.
To be fair, I can’t recall too many moments when my dad went out of his way to overtly tell me he thought I was letting him down. Ours was not a father-son relationship awash in long, heart to heart conversations. Looking back I realize that the bulk of our limited time together was spent in one sort of disagreement or another. At some point, in the midst of all those raised voices and hard looks, I came to understand that we were never really talking about all the things we seemed to be discussing. It got worse as I moved through college, hitting a peak of sorts in the first few years after I graduated. I don’t think I had a full grasp of it until I was in my late thirties, and had finally made some headway in establishing what might be referred to as an adult life. I can not honestly bring to mind a specific story that best illustrates my belief, but I know that as I began (far later than I should have) to ease in to the standard rhythms of a normal day to day life I also began to allow myself time to think of how unconscionably long it had taken to arrive at that place. It’s not as if I had never considered how badly delayed I was in many ways, but it was the first time I had moved far enough away from that ugly reality to view it all with a colder, more clinical eye. In some ways that dispassionate perspective was more painful, if less debilitating than the state of low level panic I had existed in for the better part of two decades. When I was struggling, the endless self deception I needed just to move from one day to the next consumed so many of my waking hours. When things stabilized for me, that sudden surplus of time, not to mention the energy that I had previously invested in feeling sorry for myself, gave me the opportunity and impetus to examine what it must have been like to have watched all that. Living it was pretty ugly, but I at least had the luxury of the occasional delusional respite. I can only imagine how rough it must have been for my father to sit quietly and be pummeled by that horrendous fusion of anguish and fury that he surely felt as he saw what I had become. And, I think even more so, what I had not become.
As a child I presented with a rather high ceiling in many ways, and certainly could not be seen a likely candidate to end up living an undirected, underachieving life. But I did. I am old enough now to have some understanding of what that must have been like for him. My father’s own existence had not exactly been the apotheosis of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He had taken over his father’s butcher business when I was not yet ten. He had a house that he was barely present in except to eat, sleep and take care of the bookkeeping for the store. In college he’d been a devoted student of botany, and a lover of the written word, as I’ve mentioned before. His life was not remotely unusual for a man of his time – he was born in 1927 – but it never looked like he was really enjoying himself either. He had a family and I know he tried to do his best for us but his time was in short supply and body was badly beaten up by his work, rendering the possibility of enjoying us a distant hope at best. He was married but I can honestly say I have no understanding of what might have drawn my parents together. Lest you think I am waxing hyperbolic, I can think of a supporting anecdote of compelling directness. During the celebration of my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah, my dad, having reached the most dangerous, second level of casual inebriation (truth serum), strolled over to me, and without prompt or provocation, shared that he had no idea why he married my mother. I think the exact quote was ” I don’t know why I married your mother.” Hard to believe I misinterpreted that.
Thinking of all that, and squaring it with how little he had offered me in the way of advice, my best guess is that when I was young he could look at me, and see my life turning into something so much better than his had become. Slowly, bit by bit that didn’t happen. And he never said much to me about it. It must have been agony. There was a brief period of success in my life that he was around for, and I’ve always been grateful that I could at least give him that much. At the time he fell victim to the stroke which began his nine month slide from this world my fortunes had fallen off a bit, but thankfully he was gone before things really turned for the worse, as they have in the last few years. Thinking of him today I find myself so very rueful for all that didn’t happen. Regret, it seems, is so much more about missing the right turn than taking the wrong one. I’m sorry dad, I’ll do better next time.