Tuesday, September 15, 2015

20 Years Gone

Twenty years ago today I went golfing at Highland Hills Golf Course with my then stepson Dave. I returned home to a message on the answering machine from Jackie informing me that Dad had died. He was a little more than a month away from his 70th birthday and much too young. But it was expected news as I'd just been up to visit him in Michigan's Upper Peninsula a few days earlier, quite certain that it would be the last time I'd see him. He hadn't been well for years with most of his health problems related to emphysema brought on by years of smoking both unfiltered and filtered cigarettes: Lucky Strike and then Winston.

He was happiest when he was either out in the garage or down in the basement tinkering on whatever project he had in front of him. I can still recall the days before Super Glue when he'd heat a fork or knife over a flame on the stove and use it to melt/weld broken plastic parts together for us.

Of all of us six siblings, I think it was Jackie who was closest to him. Although he and I were a lot alike we never had much of a relationship. When I was growing up he never seemed to make an effort to try and get inside my head. I wish he had been able to because I had so much going on in there but I never felt comfortable approaching him about any of it. He was on the road too much for having six kids at home but I had no way of realizing then what I was missing out on. He wasn't all that different than a lot of other dads in that regard. There were key times in my life, though, when in his own way he would come alongside me and convey a message I needed to hear.

There was the time when my older sister was in the hospital recovering from surgery for melanoma. I was standing on the stairs leading up from the basement while he was sitting in a chair, cigarette in hand watching TV. He asked if I knew anything about the girl sharing a room in the hospital with Claudia. I told him I didn't. He proceeded to tell me that she'd been abusing amphetamines for years and now she was having severe issues with her spine. I don't know if what he told me was true or if it even made medical sense but it was abundantly clear to me that he was wise to my own abuse of the same drug that I'd been dabbling with way too much for the past several months. He wasn't accusing me of anything but I got the message. I remember feeling disappointed with myself for having let him down.

His was a difficult childhood. He had very few memories of his father because he died when my dad was only 3 or 4. His mother took in roomers to make ends meet and would later marry a man named Sid. Tragically, Sid took his own life and my father was the one who found his body in a shed adjacent to their duplex. My dad's mother would die from a botched hysterectomy when he was nine. He was then raised by his older sister and her alcoholic husband. An unimaginable childhood to me for someone so young and impressionable as my father was.

He was raised catholic and although he had mostly uncomplimentary things to say about the catholic school he attended (most of his scorn was for the nuns who were unnecessarily harsh), he carried a photograph of a man named Father Quility (from the school) in his wallet the rest of his life.

In spite of all that my dad endured before leaving home, he was able to do very well for himself once he was out on his own. He joined the Canadian Navy and worked as a radarman, the same job I would do when I joined the Navy although I had no idea that it was also his job until it became mine, too.

He was a financial manager for Control Data for most of his career and was apparently good at what he did based on the many awards he received over the years. For years, I had the impression that he was conservative in his politics but I honestly don't know. I tuned in the Rush Limbaugh show for him once when we were driving but I got a sense very quickly that he wasn't impressed. He had much disdain for all politicians and religious leaders. I can't say I blame him.

He would say that meeting my mom was the best thing that ever happened to him and I'm sure it was. I can think of only one time in my youth when I knew they were in a disagreement about something and for a day or two there was tension between them. One time. I'm sure there were others but they hid them well from us if there were. (That harmony, though, suffered greatly in later years as alcohol took over and made a mess of things.)

They had a routine where after my dad got home from work and before dinner, he and my mom would sit with a drink in the front room and talk about the day. For maybe an hour my dad would fill her in on all of the office politics or whatever it was they talked about and we kids knew to not bother them. After dinner he would retreat to the seclusion of his basement work area or out in the garage and his workbench there. Compared to his childhood, I'm sure he felt that he had created a safe and comfortable place for my siblings and me to flourish, and for the most part he had.

His job took him out east to Pennsylvania when I was a senior in high school during Christmas break, 1974. I was given the option to stay behind in an apartment with my older sister and finish school. It was a gutsy decision on his part because I'd given him no reason to believe I wouldn't soon fall flat on my face. I remember walking out of the apartment with my parents and Keith and Tim as they were leaving. My dad in a somewhat loud voice telling me as he was walking down the stairs with me standing above, that I was a man now and to not let him down.

I don't think I have.

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