Category Archives: Father's Day

Your Familiar

blog_spring_shadowsAnother pseudo-story, based on a common literary motif. I’d call it a 20-minute story, but it took a little (read: a lot) longer to sort out. I’m beginning to wonder how people can be so good at writing those things… because I have longer sneezing fits.

Only in a dream could such a strange meeting take place, and that’s where this encounter between you and future-you occurred.

The sun sat at an odd angle that grazed the tabletop, its thick light hard to distinguish as morning or evening when you didn’t know where the window was. Somehow future-you seemed similar to the table’s shadows, pulled like taffy and attenuated but full and dark too. Naturally you expected future-you to be wise. You had so many questions.

Instead, for some time you and future-you communed, listlessly shifting and turning glasses, plates, and bowls as if they were pieces in a board game of subtle spaces and moves. The sun dimmed appreciably. Your eyes and future-you’s eyes marked its shrinking influence.

Future-you cleared his throat and you nearly jumped, but he had nothing to say and may have been prompting you. You locked stares, and you guessed his meaning—he envied you and wondered when this wisdom you expected left him or whether he left it on the lips of the last woman he kissed or in the swoop of letters never finished, or in everything granted, sold, given away, and lost. His doleful expression said so. He expected comforting. You didn’t anticipate that.

So you advanced your hand toward future-you’s. He drew back, then nodded.

You spoke first. Nothing you might say could be new, you figured, and so your speech rolled out in bursts like beach breakers. You can’t remember any of what you said, just that you recalled you were dreaming. Mostly you paused for interruption and hoped future-you might answer your noise with a greater and graver future voice. That would be enough.

Instead he appeared tickled, pleased to hear you fumble so. You would have mistaken his response for condescension except—of course!—future-you would react so, charmed by everything still fresh in you and spoiling in him. You matched his laughter with your own before catching a whiff of his breath and the unwelcome hints in its smell. You knew and didn’t know future-you, and he, you believed, knew you entirely.

His tears welled slowly at first and just glimmered in failing light. When you recognized his weeping, part of you wanted to console him. The other part desired more—how could you become so leaky, so riddled with age-spots, water stains, and patches of rust? How could all you wanted come to no more?

Perhaps future-you sensed confusion. He scooted his chair back and stood. You couldn’t miss his struggle. He hadn’t seemed old before, and his stoop loomed like death in the room’s near-darkness. He wasn’t angry. He held his dignity up as all he could say about you and him. And he meant to tell you he loved you. Whatever disappointment dwelt in him didn’t reach you.

Seeing that, he left and you woke.


Filed under Aging, Allegory, Ambition, Desire, Doubt, Dreaming, Empathy, Experiments, Father's Day, Fiction, Fiction writing, Grief, Identity, Kafka, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Parables, Parenting, Play, Silence, Thoughts, Time

Father’s Day: My Dad and Me

When my father died in 1993, the medical school where he taught held a memorial. The event came well after the funeral, after I’d traveled home to resume my job and life. My mother sent me a recording of his colleagues’ remarks.

At the time, I listened to it in pieces. It was like trying to keep my hand on an electric fence, and not enough time had passed. But I listened to the tape later when I found it in a drawer.

As you might expect, his colleagues painted a portrait of a great doctor and a great man—no one at any memorial ever says, “Then again, he could be a real bastard.”

One speaker seemed to describe my father particularly well, however. He called him, “An even-tempered man who never lost his cool, who never made an enemy.” “Even when he tried to be mean,” he said, “he couldn’t manage it.” On the tape, this remark raises a laugh from the audience, and I still hear a private joke lurking, my dad’s attempt to be unkind misfiring in some comic way.

Granted, the people at the memorial did not know him the way I did. Though my father was generally calm and genial, I saw his temper a few times. He wasn’t mad at all often, but on those rare occasions he was, he was mad in both senses of the word.

I also knew his bad habits. Men of my father’s generation could engage in considerable self-destruction and still be considered “in bounds.” My father waged the same battles with nicotine and alcohol so many of his peers seemed to face. He eventually died of lung cancer.

But his colleague was right. My father wasn’t mean—he couldn’t be—and, though I know I’m biased, I could not imagine his having an enemy, an adversary, even a detractor.

Though my relationship with my father was complicated, the recording reminded me how much I’d like to be like him…and how short I seem to fall sometimes. He was a painter, and I’d satisfy for half his talent. He was witty. He could be quiet all evening then ambush you with his sneaky sense of humor. And whatever his troubles—and he had plenty—he was strong and kept them to himself.

At the memorial, my father’s colleagues talked about his courage facing cancer, how he never complained about his personal problems and insisted on, “Not being spared his duties.”

I’m not sure it’s healthy to keep your troubles hidden—I’m sure it wasn’t healthy for him—so I can forgive myself for complaining about my bad days, my challenging job, and the sometimes frustrating complications that are supposed to make life interesting but often make it hell. My wife, who has more than fulfilled the “sickness and health” clause in our contract, might say I could complain a little less, but falling short in that area doesn’t bother me… much.

What does is what my father was—and what I’m not and would like to be—a man whose integrity was above reproach.

I don’t think I have many enemies, but I’m sure there are people who have little respect for me. While I don’t agree with their assessment—how could I?—I want to be my father’s son, to bear up under their indifference, to be worthy of their respect even if they cannot grant it.

My sister once told me “the person of whom no ill can be spoken” is a fantasy. Everyone has detractors, she says, if you didn’t create a critic or two, you must stand for nothing, be hiding something, or be dead. She may be right, but a deep stubborn streak wants to put her thinking to the test. I like to believe we can disagree with people we nonetheless respect and can even admire those people. My father seems to have achieved it.

In any case, that’s my aspiration, my inspiration. I’m not after certainty—too many people are sure they are right—I just want to feel confident I’ve done the best I can. After listening and considering every perspective, I’d like to arrive at a position I can communicate without waffling or balking. I want to act on my beliefs.

Like my father, I am even-tempered and slow to anger. I hope no one would ever describe me as “mean.” I may never equal him as an artist or stoic, but I’d like to equal his integrity.

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Filed under Aging, Doubt, Envy, Father's Day, Identity, life, Love, Resolutions, Thoughts, Tributes, Worry

We’ll Talk When We Talk

When I was in high school, my parents brought home a new dog.  I was away on a Key Club retreat and returned to discover Frodo, a full-grown Dalmatian, running laps from living room to den, stopping periodically to snort and nuzzle whatever hand presented itself.  He was one spasmodic wag, and I remember being shocked at having a new housemate.  After my childhood dogs died, my parents never expressed any interest in a new pet, but there was Frodo.

We never bonded.  High school ending and plans set, I was already half gone, too busy and too distracted for new affections.  I’ve hardly given Frodo a thought until recently, as my own son prepares to leave for college in New York.

Frodo stationed himself every evening in front of the door to the basement, the one my father used when he came home.  Frodo lay there with his head between his paws, occasionally huffing in what must have been his sigh, waiting.  When my father returned, Frodo came to life again, leaping and spinning and snorting anew.

I wonder what it means to be so much to someone.  Though my attachments run deep, I’m not sure I’ve ever been anyone’s one and only the way my dad was Frodo’s.

My son’s been gone most of the summer.  He’s had two jobs, one during the week and one on weekends.  Most of the rest of the time, he’s busy with friends.  They’re all keenly aware they will soon say goodbye to one another, and—based on calls I’ve overheard—turning down invitations is perilous.  Doing so brings hints of insensitivity and callousness.  He and his friends are very nearly family to one another, much closer than my friends were at his age.  They owe each other companionship.  In high school, when I declined a movie or dinner, my friends went without me.  They might promise to ask again and express hope I’d be available later, but they signed off saying we’d see each other when we saw each other, talk when we talked.

That level of autonomy seems appropriate—you wouldn’t want a friend to be anyone other than him or herself or to do anything undesired—but maybe that’s jealousy speaking.  I worry I’m not as important to my son as his friends are.

My father died when my son was a year old.  Recalling my relationship with my dad, I see how different a father I’ve been.  Winning the family bread kept my dad occupied and away.  When he came home, he seemed weary and out of words and energy.  But I never pressed him either.  We talked when we had something to say, and most of our conversations were about common interests or niceties.  My father and I hardly ever fought, probably because we seldom spoke.  I’ve always regretted we weren’t closer—and I’ve been lucky to spend more time with my son.  If we sometimes fight, at least we have more heartfelt and honest communication.

How can we know how much we owe one another?  Being taken for granted feels horrible but so would insistent companionship.  Relationships ought to spring from yearnings much deeper than proximity or convenience but they can’t compromise a person’s individualism either.  Affection should be unconditional, counted on, and willingly borne, yet a friend has a right to expect something.

These paradoxes are tough to sort out.  Maybe our deepest connections create such assurance—such confidence these links will survive every pull—that we need no longer work to maintain them.  Maybe we can’t know their meaning until they’re gone.

I’ve been saying that I spent more time with my dog than my son has spent with me this summer.  That’s an exaggeration, but it’s revealing too.  I’ve been thinking about Frodo, my sympathy for him awakened at last.

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Filed under Aging, Doubt, Essays, Father's Day, Home Life, life, Love, Memory, Parenting, Recollection, Thoughts


Today, a fiction…

He shut the door and put the bottle on the table. His father barely looked up, dipping his chin in mute thanks.

“What do I owe you?”

“Nothing.  Forget it.”

Lifting the bottle an inch, his father angled his eyes toward him.

“Want some?”

Two days home and already they’d fallen into familiar patterns.  He grabbed the bottle from his father’s hand and unscrewed the top as he walked to the cabinet.  He pulled a glass from the shelf and left the bottle behind to retrieve some ice.

Even as his brother consulted and rehearsed him on what to say, he’d known the right moments would slip past.  Once he went to a management seminar where he’d learned the value of positive messages.  “When you give negative instructions like ‘Make sure the report isn’t late’ or ‘Please don’t let these important daily tasks get away from you,’” the teacher said, “imagine them without the ‘not’… because that’s what you’re going to get.” He’d returned to the office determined to enact this advice, but a couple of weeks later he was back to his original motivational modes—sullen disapproval, mumbled orders, and stupid hope.

In that, he was his father’s son.

When he was eight and a cub scout, he faked the activities he needed to earn a wolf badge.  He wanted to leap a level, as his friend had, but he missed meetings when they did their forward rolls, their tool training, their character quiz.  He needed his father’s signature to prove he’d done them on his own, and, one evening, as his father held the paper into the flashing light of the television, he dad’s eyes traded between the page and his son’s face.

“You do all this?” he finally said.

“Sure,” he answered.

“Good.  Good for you.”

The scoutmaster wasn’t so willing.  He asked for proof, and when he couldn’t provide it, the scoutmaster promised to call his dad.  If that happened, he never knew because nothing more was said.  Though he went to other meetings after that and wore his uniform to school on appointed days, after a month or two, he was no longer a cub scout.

He put the drink down in front of his father and turned away.

“Not having any?” his dad asked.

“No.”  The next sentence formed in his imagination, the opening his brother had suggested about how his dad was getting on now, how the house was a mess, too big to care for, and in need of repair if he ever hoped to sell it to find a smaller place. Standard stuff in the category of “aging parent.” They had a smaller place in mind, a retirement community only a few blocks away.  Their father would live independently to start and then be passed along to new arrangements as his health deteriorated.

But no next sentence arrived, and his father finished his glass and asked for more.

When he drove in from the airport, he’d been surprised to find his father’s house so neat.  His brother had painted a picture of dissolution and neglect, but much of the house was untouched and pristine.  His own room was more orderly than he remembered, the shelves uncluttered by the books and other detritus he’d left there, and, it appeared dusted.  This immobile man couldn’t have done that.  For a moment, he’d wondered if his father might have a girlfriend, but the thought was too absurd to consider.

His father told him he “had someone in to do some cleaning,” but that’s all he said.

Their eyes met when he walked to a cabinet and absent-mindedly looked inside.  That was where the chips should be.

“Sit down,” his father said, “you’re like an animal in the zoo—can’t stand still.”

Outside the window over the sink, a new slat fence replaced the old cyclone fence and blocked his view through the adjacent yard to the park down the street.  The park held the dusty diamond where he and his brother played baseball with the neighbor kids.  They never had enough, but played anyway.  His brother sometimes took the whole outfield or second and third base.  He pitched, not because he was any good, but because he was amenable to doing it.  Sometimes, after they’d played a couple of hours, the whole crowd would come to their house, and when his dad returned from work, he’d find them in this kitchen, drinking icy water from plastic tumblers.

His father talked to the boys, asking them about a parent’s new job or some home improvement he’d noticed driving home.  He seemed a different man then, an actor he’d seen somewhere before.

He’d always been grateful for his older brother.  His private negotiation with their dad smoothed over most conflicts and sometimes brought his younger brother unexpected rewards.  “Dad says,” his brother began, and then he would have a bigger pair of shoes or a new blazer.

Once, in high school, he’d climbed out of his window on a summer night to meet his friend down the block.  They had no real plans and spent an hour or two wandering the empty neighborhood before both were too tired to pretend it was fun.  When he returned home, he saw lights blazing in the living room and found his father and his brother sitting there, waiting.  One asked where he’d been.  The other listed what might have happened during his silly adventure.  He didn’t say anything, except to apologize and promise not to do it again.

They went to bed, and no one said anything about it.

His brother still felt protective.  He heard it in their phone conversations when he offered news about work or his wife.  He heard it in the orders he’d been issued, “Talk to Dad.”  Something told him, “My brother doesn’t think much of me.  He’s asking me to prove something.”


His father’s voice retrieved him, and he looked over to see another empty glass and his father staring.

“Sit down… please.”

He took the place across from his dad.

“I’m moving.  I’ve sold this place to a guy I used to know at work.  He keeps properties, and he thinks he can rent the house.”


“I got an apartment across town, at that swanky new old folks home.  You and your brother have your own lives…”

They were so far off his brother’s script.  He hardly heard the details, eerie echoes of conversation he now seemed to have dreamed—the lines of an exit his father knew all along.

“Anyway, I haven’t told your brother, but since you’re here, you should know.”

He heard himself say, “He’ll be surprised.  We thought you liked it here.”

His father’s grin was unfamiliar and he didn’t know how to share it, but it felt strangely like success, or relief, or another chapter ended.

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Filed under Aging, Experiments, Father's Day, Fiction, life, Memory, Parenting, Recollection, Thoughts

A Dad At Sea

vox.adadatsea: Hear me read this post…

When I was my son’s age, I gave no more thought to becoming a father than my son does, and, honestly, I gave little thought to my father either.  He was part of my life’s furniture, another given in an existence that felt too full of givens.

But living is revision.  In my own role as a father, I’ve scrutinized his decisions and now I wonder how, further along, my children might see mine.  I can only hope they’ll be charitable.  I’ve had to be charitable.  No one is perfect, we all know that, and parenthood is a choppy sea of worries, expediencies, negotiations, and dubious standards.  It’s hard to know if your navigation is true.  It’s hard to know when the journey ends.

As I was running the other day, I overheard a bit of conversation between two people on the sidewalk.  One was saying, “But she’s such a great parent….”   Without knowing whom she was talking about and in what situation, I shouldn’t judge—it’s always dangerous to judge another parent—but I continued my run thinking, “Who can say anyone is a great parent?  Who decides and how?”

I take pride in my children’s accomplishments—they are good students, polite to adults, curious and creative in their thinking—but I can’t take credit.  Parenting isn’t easily assessed because it’s an ongoing concern you might reevaluate every thirty seconds.  I might ask whether I’ve been a good parent in the last week, in the last day, hour, or minute, but I have no finished products to appraise… and wonder if I ever will.  My children will go on to live their lives as I do mine, minute to minute, hoping some majority of those minutes are good.

Before the birth of my first child, a new father at work defined parenting as “An education in body fluids.”  On Father’s Day or Mother’s Day, we romanticize our roles—and perhaps we should pause to celebrate accomplishments—but I try to keep perspective.  My children aren’t clay.  They have bodies I can’t always move and minds I can’t always change.  From the moment they left their mother, their lives have been, at least in some measure, their own.  As they grow older, they make more and more decisions and more of those decisions are outside our control or knowledge.

That’s scary and makes being a great dad even more challenging.  Older parents say you have no choice but to trust the grounding you’ve given your children.  Sometimes that advice sounds like a rationalization for neglect.  And sometimes it sounds like the truth.  And it’s hard to know which it is this time.  But shouldn’t you hope that your children have witnessed enough affection and concern that they’ll think you’re worth hearing?

My son will be a high school senior in the fall, and my wife and I can’t help looking ahead to the next fall when, we hope, he will be leaving home and starting college.  That thought brings a new sea of emotions—anticipation and excitement but also anxiety and dread.  We don’t feel finished with him or his sister, and we don’t want to be.  Though each is evolving into autonomy, we are still hoping, in the next five minutes, to get our roles right.  We want to give our children reason to remember us charitably.  More than that, however, we hope to help them decide what it means to be good parents themselves.


Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, Father's Day, Home Life, Hope, life, Meditations, Memory, Parenting, Thoughts