Men Do That
DISCLAIMER: I know it’s not Father's Day on the calendar. But I’m thinking of my Dad, and missing him, so today is Father’s Day. Also, this Father’s Day story is a bit rough around the edges. It contains a little necessary swearing, more than a little stark honesty, and a whole lot of love. It’s not flowery, but it is true. All perfect for the subject - my Dad. I know he’ll stay with me to the end of it. Because he always has.
Picking out cards on Father’s Day was always hard for me when I was younger. The one for my father-in-law was pretty easy, since it just had to be a little bit mushy, but mostly funny...especially if it was corny. And if it squirted water up your nose? Perfect! (I love and miss you, John. I can’t send a card where you’ve gone, but I hope you know that I can never see a seltzer bottle or hear “shave and haircut” without thinking of you. I sure hope the pro shop up there had Rockies shirts in your size that fit over the wings.)
Getting a card for my own father was harder, as I was really only buying it for my Gramma. That takes a moment to explain, and that explanation is going to start with a coarse phrase not often heard on Father’s Day. My father was an asshole.
Not your run-of-the-mill thoughtless pr*ck or embarrassing holiday drunk, mind you, but a man whose deceit, violence, philandering, substance abuse, and sociopathy left scars that are still tearing open at times for everyone left in his wake, years after he staggered off this mortal coil. I know that sounds brutal, and I apologize for the shock and language, but it’s necessary in order to provide context for Gramma and that card-shopping I’d mentioned.
Gramma knew none of those things about my father. She was a four-foot-two watercolor artist who made breakfasts of fish sticks and cantaloupe for me and my sister, taught us how to paint glued-together rocks to look like bugs, and whose cigarette ashes were forever falling onto her bosom, dropping off the Carlton in her mouth when she laughed. Which was constantly. We loved her, but Dad was always her boy, and the story he crafted about himself for her was a comforting lie. So long as he left us alone, and was kind - if not honest - to her, we saw no reason to stir that pot. But she liked knowing that we remembered him on Father’s Day. So each year, for her, I’d try to hunt down and send a card that pretty much said, “It’s Father’s Day. There you go.” I sent them to her house, so he could pick them up there when he visited, and she’d know.
The context of what my Dad was is also important in order to tell the rest of this Father’s Day story. After he left, and all the broken glass had been repaired (along with the bullet hole in the side of our neighbor’s house, and well, there’s stories) things became very quiet for me. You know that feeling when you carry someone on your shoulders for a while, and then put them down? You feel, not just unburdened, but unnaturally light. Now, make that weight a load of fear and unpredictable anger...just gone. I remember the most unusual things from that quiet time, like petting our dog, Deiter, just because we both enjoyed it, not because we were clinging to one another for safety. But mostly, I remember the crickets. I never knew we had crickets around the house; I’d never heard them before. Whether they’d been there all along, too cautious to sing amid the crashing and yelling, or had moved in after the fact, I don’t know. But they were mesmerizing.
That quiet rippled some when my Mom, who was apparently not as satisfied with the company of the dog and mere crickets as I was, married a cowboy. Well, she didn’t marry him all at once. She dated him for a while first. Did you know your mom could date? That was a new one for me too, but I was willing to give it go after she brought this fella home, and for some reason I started talking to him. I showed Larry my model of the USS Alabama, and talked to him about the disappearance of the wishbone formation from football, and asked him about his pickup truck and stuff I figured men talked about. He looked at my mom and said, “There’s nothing dumb about this kid.” I liked that. I had that battleship and a few airplanes hanging from my ceiling, but I’d never had a model for how a man was supposed to be, let alone a Dad. Those six words were the first time I remember a man ever making me feel like I was special somehow.
Then, the quiet time shattered. Playing down the street in a friend's yard, a car raced past us and a man’s voice called out, “Hey kid? Isn’t that your dog?” Looking up, Deiter lay in a broken heap in the middle of the street before our house. I recall screaming, running, and then time taking on a different warp, as I was both by Deiter’s side and nowhere at all as I knelt in his blood and held his head. In that moment, I was totally, utterly adrift in a world I couldn’t recognize. People die, mostly old people. I knew that. But to a boy, especially a boy who’d felt both protected by and partnered with a friend - a dog can’t just die. Not like this. I remember Larry bursting from the house and saying something to my Mom, and I ended up inside somehow, as he wrapped Deiter in a blanket and buried him under the apple tree in the backyard. When Larry came in afterward, and he sat with me and my Mom, he had blood stains on his jeans. Shock causes us to do and say the oddest things, and I recall asking him, “It that Deiter’s”? And he told me, “No, it’s mine.” And I thought…”No. It’s ours.” And I cried as I had never cried before - with all the fear and anger and frustration that ten years can store in a heart, compounded by the violent loss of both my best friend, and any innocent hope I had left that life was finally going to be fair, as it should be. And Larry held us. I don’t remember anything he said; I don’t recall how long we sat there. But I do remember it was the first time a man had shown me love.
I didn’t know men could do that either.
In the years that followed, Larry and I went sideways with each other a few times, mostly because he was a redneck and I was a teenaged longhair and that’s just the way it needed to be because everybody, meaning me, knew I was smarter than him and everyone like him. Like most things if life, that changed too. As we grew older together, the distance between us closed until I finally saw both of us for what we really were. Just two men trying to do all any of us can - our best to make sense of it all and then do right by those we love.
And when my and Toni’s own kids were born, I worried about money, and the future, and all the million things that furrow a new Dad’s brow. But I never worried that I couldn’t be a Dad, because I knew how that worked. Theodore Hesburgh put it all in words when he said, “The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” Larry put that into action, for me and my sister, for my Mom, for my kids and our family. He gave us that rock upon which to build.
And so, my search for the ideal card gets no easier each year. How do I find a card that says, “Dear Dad. You showed me how to be a good man. More importantly, you showed me how to be a good man who loves. You showed me that, for such a man, love can’t be conditional, because sometimes one or both of us have acted imperfectly (is that how best to say it?). And yet, even in those times, I have never doubted you. The life you’ve lived has been one of strength, integrity, and a sense of honor and duty, such that those aren’t just words to me. Because of that, I understand why I respect those qualities in some men, and why their absence in others is something I can’t abide.
There’s so much more I could say…
But there’s only so much room in a card, and so many years in a life. As we both have now passed the mark where there are fewer of those ahead of us than behind, maybe the best card doesn’t have to capture all the reasons I’m so grateful we have shared them. Because we both know each other’s stories so well and what is truly behind the message, maybe the best card can just carry the simplest words in their fullest meaning:
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
I Love You.