My father was 91 when he died on March 21, 2009. So this will be the fifth Father’s Day since his death. Every June my mind is awash with memories of him.
Memory is like photography. There is the subject: My dad. There is the photographer: Me. Both subject and photographer are always changing. Dad aged from a young, vigorous father to an old man with significant short-term memory loss. I aged from a 5-year-old boy to a senior citizen. The lenses of my memory camera became more sophisticated and powerful. I began to see my father in a different way as he and I grew older.
My earliest memories of my father are of an archetype. My dad was smart, powerful and self-reliant. He could dig, lift, shovel and fix anything. He always knew just what to do. He shot two water moccasins from a boat on a stream in Harrison County, Indiana. I was in the boat, and can vividly recall the smell of gunpowder and the flash of gunfire. He took me to the ice cream store every Saturday after he got off from work.
I recall a conversation in which I convinced him that wearing my hair long and attending the March on Washington in opposition to the Vietnam War was something I needed to do. His conversion was in marked contrast to most of my friends. He and I had long talks about politics, religion and life. Although he never attended college and his origins were modest, I thought him one of the smartest people I knew. His antipathy toward the rich and powerful and his embrace of the authentic will always be with me.
But then as I married, moved away from my hometown and started a family of my own, I began to detect some flaws in my dad. He wasn’t always as nice to my wife as he could have been. He began to expect a deference that made me a little uneasy. He was a racist. He was insecure.
At the end of his life, he became frail. I remember the day he had to rest from climbing a relatively modest hill. He began talking about how life wasn’t that important to him. He stopped playing golf. I continued my lifetime protocol of calling him every Saturday morning, but our calls diminished from an hour to 10 minutes. At the very end, he made the ridiculous and hurtful accusation that I had stolen his money.
I spent his last night with him in his hospital room listening to his labored breathing and the onset of the death rattle. It is a memory I wish I didn’t have.
Four years after my father’s death I have felt guilt and remorse about loving the earlier versions of my dad more than the later ones. I understand that there are consequences of aging and that a child’s memory is flawed, but that doesn’t really make me feel all that much better about my father.
I have found something that does soothe my guilt. My dad did love me, and he loved me all his life without reservation. That memory will always be mine.
Happy Father’s Day to all.