Thursday, December 6, 2007

My Dad, my friend...

Time for one of my occasional forays into broader philosophical topics...

I always knew I would be a father someday. Not because it seemed a natural progression of life or an expectation of some patriarchal or traditional view of a man's role, it just seemed something I was destined - and wanted - to do. I have always been great with children and have gotten immense satisfaction in being a role model and mentor. That's probably why I wanted to become a teacher. But beyond that, I wanted to impart my wisdom (sketchy though it may be at times), and the lessons I have learned on to the next generation in hopes that my progeny would do their part to make the world a better place. For a brief time in my youth, I wanted to be all the things my dad wasn't able to be for me.

It's no secret that my mother and I have always been close. We can talk to each other about almost anything at almost any time, and being totally blind from birth, she was always at home and available to talk to and bond with. My dad, however, was a bit more detached. We didn't have a bad or even strained relationship, we just seemed rather ambivalent about it. We did what was expected of our respective roles and we connected on occasion, but nothing particularly deep or meaningful.

Aside from working long hours to maintain our (though I didn't realize it at the time) meager lifestyle, when he was home, he was often absorbed in his some project. From fiddling with ham radios in the basement, to doing chores to help my blind mother keep up with 2 messy kids (and boy, were we messy), to developing his BBS in the 80's, he always seemed to have his head buried in some intense and personal endeavor. In retrospect, he had his own demons to deal with at the time and was likely looking for an escape from them or a way to think and deal with them on his own without burdening the family with his own personal conflicts. I can relate to that a bit now, being a busy father myself. We still had fun together, took "Paul & Daddy Days" on occasional Saturday afternoons for adventures, and shared some great memories, but little on a deeply personal level. He wasn't absent, just preoccupied.

My parents separated when I was 12, and I chose to go with my mother back to Michigan. I was the fat, picked on, bully-target of the neighborhood. Given the sudden revelation of my dad's true inner conflicts leading to my parents' split, rather than give the bullies further ammunition for their assaults, I thought it better to start a new life and hopefully turn my social situation around. This wasn't a comment on which parent I preferred, but more a proactive step in bettering my own situation.

My father and I had an amicable relationship for the next several years. Not good or bad, just understated. He was always there when I needed him, but I never got in the habit of needing him for much, emotionally. We rarely fought, and the repercussions of those squabbles rarely had much effect past a day or so (and the occasional sarcastic needling years later). He could hold a grudge with the best of them, but his fuse got a bit longer over the years as he became more comfortable in his own skin.

He was initiating changes in his life that most would find difficult to understand and thus (myself included) couldn't comprehend initiating themselves. Being raised, as I was, to be a tolerant and loving individual, avoiding judgment of others, the changes themselves didn't bother me. The effect it had on my family, however, was inescapable. My mother was an emotional wreck much of the time, our financial footing was almost always precarious at best. My sister had a brief (and rather silly, really) run in with the law, attempting to 'rebel' in her own limited way. Worst of all, however, being 600+ miles away, I wasn't able to develop my relationship with my father as much as I would have liked at a pivotal time in my maturity. It always seemed to be put on hold until the next time we could connect, which was brief and rare. This was during my angst-ridden teenage years where talking to parents was typically avoided anyway, and when long-distance communication was logistically difficult (i.e. before cell phones, e-mail, and instant messaging, and when long-distance calls were expensive).

When I was 18, a few months after I graduated High School, I decided to pack up and move in with my dad in New Jersey for a while. We were able to spend more time together and get to know each other a bit better. I didn't see it at the time, being the new, slimmed-down, social butterfly I was, but it seems in retrospect that my dad was making a concerted effort to reconnect with my sister and I. My sister had visited around her birthday, and on her birthday itself, decided to head out with me for an all-day road rally with my friends. We came home to a bitter note that said there was birthday cake in the fridge.

We felt horrible. We hadn't expected this. Our father had never been big on sentimentality or Rockwellesque depictions of family. Hell, we'd NEVER fit into that mold, even if we tried. Not on my dad's side of the family, anyway. But here was our father, sad, a bit bitter, an extremely disappointed, because all he wanted was to spend my sister's birthday having dinner and cake with his kids...and we blew it.

Since that time and as the years have passed, I've looked at my father in a different light. He was no longer the emotionally distant father, just trying to get by and not emotionally scar his kids more than he could realistically avoid. He was a parent on the emotional mend, desperately trying to hold on to the emotional family ties he had remaining. Beyond that, I saw a window of opportunity to finally have the relationship with my father I had always wanted. No, I wasn't going to head into the backyard with him and toss the ol' horsehide around - sports were never my bag anyway - but I could talk with him and start connecting on a deeper, more personal level than I had ever thought I possible.

Now, my father is retired, settled comfortable in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas, and beginning to realize the freedom to reshape his personal life that that freedom affords. My dad used to grudgingly attend whatever concerts or performances I had in middle school, to be supportive of my musical aspirations (let's face it, ya don't go to middle school band concerts for good music). This past October, he drove over 700 miles to see me perform in my first quartet competition. He was the first in my family to show this kind of support and enthusiasm for my quartet activities. That meant the world to me.

My dad and I are so much alike in so many ways. Our communication, to the outside observer, would seem rather unchanged over the past several years. If one were to listen to our conversations or read our e-mails, you wouldn't think much had changed. Being of similar minds (and equally twisted senses of humor), we can communicate volumes in a mere few sentences and the tone of our abbreviated communiques - even in simple text - have taken on a whole different feel. I thought this may have been all in my mind until I received an e-mail from him a few weeks ago:

You are my son. Indisputable. I function as a Dad whenever you want me to. But the thought keeps cropping up that, more than anything else, you’re one of my best friends! I really like that part!"

That made me absolutely melt and confirmed what I had hoped to have for years: My dad and I have a connection that has strengthened beyond father-son. We don't need to see each other often - or even talk on the phone all the time - to know that we love each other. That thought has filled a void in me I rarely acknowledged.
We'll never get those years of my youth back, but ya know what? I don't need them back. I have what I need: a loving father I can talk and relate to.

I don't resent my father for anything, and never have. He always did the best he could to take care of us in every way he could. I've never questioned that. Once I understood the full spectrum of the situation, I never had the thought, "why couldn't he have done..."

I love my father, and I have no regrets.

1 comment:

pkeiser1 said...

Wow! You've told me things about myself that even I didn't recognize. Thank you very much, Son! I love you, too!