My father passed away this year. It’s Father’s Day and I thought I’d write something about him. I realize that sounds a bit emotionless; but I think my father would prefer that than gushing sentimentality.
Also, you always hope you can write something profound. The person and situation warrants it. I don’t believe I achieved profound, but I hope you understand a little more about my dad and something about me as well.
I’m going to give you some facts about my Dad, some thoughts about his nature and character, and then express what I am most thankful for.
Let’s call it, “The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly” – which segues nicely into….
I was raised by Dirty Harry! My closest friends, those who knew my father, understand this statement. It was his persona – quiet, confident, not prone to much emotion – either up or down – and a pragmatist. Things happen in life, you deal with them as necessary, and no need to mention it.
He collected guns and actually owned a Smith & Wesson, 44 magnum, handgun! He had a few other Smith & Wesson revolvers. He was a crack shot with those as well. Politically conservative, but didn’t talk about politics much. He and my mom cancelled each other out at the polls. 😉
He was an enigma of sorts…. although, we all are…. aren’t we? He was Irish – raised by an alcoholic, gambling father, and by Grandma Moran – a sweet Southern lady, but also not prone to much show of emotion.
One day, I’ll have to write about Grandma’s racism and an interesting story about grace and understanding!
My dad was a provider, worked a lot – but I never heard him complain about work or mention it at all really. We never did without and actually did with much most of the time. Life was, mostly…. comfortable! In fact, he was a MUCH better provider than I have been.
Truth is, we were well beyond comfortable – although, we never really understood it. We drove around the country a couple times, flew to Canada to visit relatives often, and generally had the means to do stuff.
We went skiing every year – a week in Mammoth and owned a cabin (and for awhile 2 cabins) in Big Bear! But didn’t buy new skis, for instance, that would be wasteful. My father always went on a quest to find used skis, often from ski rentals the year prior (remember, pragmatist).
In doing this though, he often provided skis to friends and others who needed them. If he found a place selling several pairs, he’d buy the whole lot of them. It just made sense…. right?
A note about protection…. this is important people…. my father did not drink. I think I may have seen him taste wine at some point…. but really can’t recall that. His father, my grandfather, was not the nicest of guys when he drank. I don’t know this first-hand, just through stories.
We visited his mother every week or every other week – some routine schedule – again, I was young so the details are foggy. We’d load up in our Country Squire station wagon and head over the hill from Chatsworth to Santa Monica for a cholesterol-laden meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, etc. Southern heart attack right there – but oh, so good.
However, there is more to the story. Prior to his father passing away, these trips had a hidden routine – one that I never knew about until years later.
My father would call his mom and ask a simple question.
“Has Dad been drinking?”
If the answer was yes, we didn’t visit! Period! No fanfare, no complaints…. it just was not happening.
Then, if the answer was no, we drove over the hill, my father would park in front of his parent’s house and go in. We’d wait in the car. He would go to his father, smell his breath, and if his Dad had been drinking prior to our arrival, my father returned to the car and drove us home.
That pretty much makes him the shit! That’s badass! I know people who put up with some bad behavior for the sake of family. There is no reason to. No need to get in a tizzy over setting some boundaries…. it is just the right thing.
I respect the hell out my Dad for that. I wish I had that same strength at times. Hmmm…. I’ll work on that.
I don’t recall a lot of my father when I was young. I mean, he was there. I just don’t recall our interaction a lot.
There is a picture somewhere of me as a toddler. My dad crouched down with me – keeping a German Shepherd away from me. Not a dangerous Shepherd – it was – I believe, his cousin’s dog in South Carolina. I think he was just keeping me from being licked in the face or knocked over. I vaguely recall that moment.
I did not get along with my father through most of my teen years. Around 12 years old, something happened. Nothing so egregious as abuse. But I was angry at him and let him know it.
The interaction often went something like this…
My dad: “Matt, can you bring in the trash cans?”
Me: “Fuck you!”
It’s not my proudest memory. And, to my credit, I’d still bring the trash cans in. My response was simply a necessary add-on to the conversation. My dad didn’t really argue or discuss this and I still find that odd/interesting.
My friends used to say, “Why are you such a dick to your dad…. he’s cool!” I never told them my reason. And, dear reader, I’m not telling you either. 😉
Later, when he had his first heart attack, I didn’t go to the hospital to visit him at first. My first wife, Laura, encouraged me (berated me actually – rightfully so) to go see him.
I struggled to see Dirty Harry hooked up to machines. I remember he woke up when I was there…. looked at me….said, “Hi.” and fell back to sleep. I came undone.
Later, I can’t recall how long after, but I know that I had my two oldest children by then, I wrote him a forgiveness letter. Read “The Blessing” by Gary Smalley and John Trent to better understand why.
I apologized for my bitterness. I forgave him for what had happened – although I did not mention specifically what it was. I think he knew.
I also told him I loved him! That was a first as far as I can recall. We didn’t mention love in our family a whole lot!
I explained to him that our relationship did not need to change. That I would, in fact, be a little bit uncomfortable with that. I didn’t expect hugs or a lot of emotional words – that it would sort of freak me out. We were cool dude…. real cool!
But I explained that my kids were being raised to give and receive hugs and hear “I love you.” I told him NOT to freak out if such things were offered to him. He still did by the way – freak out – stiff as board if my kids or wives (one at a time) hugged him. Pretty comical in its sad sort of way.
Me to the kids: “Go give your grandpa a kiss goodbye.”
My dad: “They can kiss my ass if they want.”
Great dad…. perfect.
Oh…. back to that letter I wrote.
I didn’t hand the letter to him. I was too embarrassed or shy to do so. Okay…. I was scared!!! Really scared! I remember that I left it on the front door one night and drove away. What a wuss!!!! I think I half hoped the wind might blow it away somewhere!!
It was not mentioned until about a month or so later. We were at my oldest brother’s wedding, staying at a house in Oregon. Several of us were staying there and were on the back porch one morning. Suddenly, I realized that everyone had gone inside – leaving just my Dad and I. He and I had not spoken since I dropped off the letter.
Crap!!! My heart was pounding and I was sort of dizzy.
My dad was sitting in a chair reading. Without looking up he said, “Thanks for that letter.”
What do I do now!!!
I think I stammered a bit – said, “No problem,” and then quickly started talking about something else – anything else – that was happening that day.
That was close!!! My father and I almost had to discuss emotions and there was no fucking way that was going to happen!
Support and Encouragement
This is an interesting subject. My dad was into his activities. He was a pilot (we owned Cessna for a while), flew model gliders, kites, went to the gun range, made masks (later in life), wrote a few plays, took up art, etc. Model gliders being his greatest passion, I suppose.
He wasn’t that supportive of our activities as kids…. not outwardly. He didn’t show up to sporting events or performances. You weren’t going to hear him say, “You can do it.”
He also didn’t push you to try things. In fact, rather than you “can” do it, he was probably more of a you “MAY” do it and might find out that you “CAN” do it if you work at it.
And this is what I LOVE & VALUE THE MOST!
In this age where parents fawn over each and every activity their children do – OMG! Look how beautiful that smudged handprint is…. my child’s a genius! – my father was much more reserved. And by reserved, I mean, what seemed to be completely disinterested!
When you showed that you were interested in something – consistently – he would do something to encourage your continued activity.
Case and point: Music
My father was a banjo player. Not a great player! Good enough. He knew 3 or 4 chords, had an amazing booming, low voice, and played folk songs now and then.
I started playing guitar because we had one in the house and we had a Mel Bay chord book, and Pete Seegers, “How to Play the 5 String Banjo” aka, “The Red Book.”
He let me accompany him. He never showed me a chord – there were books for that. That’s sort of all you got from him. You want to learn something…. sure…. there’s a book, go to it! But he led by example in that area.
Later, after I’d progressed in my playing – some time near my 18th birthday, I woke up to notice a new guitar case in my room. It had been there the night before, but I was either tired or stoned or both and hadn’t noticed.
I opened it up to find a beautiful Guild 12-string guitar. I walked out of my room with it. My dad was sitting where you could often find him, until his death a few months ago, reading in a chair in the living room.
“Dad…. what’s this?” I asked.
His characteristic, non-emotional response was, “Your birthday and Christmas gift for the next 5 years.”
Understand…. it was neither my birthday or Christmas at the time. I think I must have thanked him. I hope so. If not, thanks Dad…. for music and allowance to try stuff. By “allowance,” I mean allowing me to try anything.
Prior to that, at 15 years old, he enrolled us in an article writing course at CSUN!
Again, no fanfare. It was NOT some father/son bonding experience. It was something he wanted to learn and he felt it made sense for me to attend as well. Pragmatic!
Allowance Beats Encouragement
My dad did not encourage me in the traditional sense. He did not fawn over my guitar playing or my writing. I can’t recall him mentioning it at all.
Although, I remember being at one of his plays at Paramount Movie Ranch. A woman from the writing group he was part of was talking with me. She said, “Oh.. you are the youngest boy. You write and you play guitar. Your father is so proud of all of you.” She was alluding to my 3 older brothers and younger sister.
Uh ma’am. We are talking about that guy there. That’s my father. I think you have him…. and me confused with other people.
On the other hand, he didn’t dissuade you from trying something. In fact, his example was to do stuff! Just try it! He took up art and his mask-making technique has been taught in schools and libraries. His masks have been seen by governors and presidents! His plays – which he admits were poorly written – have been performed. In fact, he often said, “Do something! Most people don’t!”
You gotta show-up, people. His plays were performed because he got them done and turned in when others – the “better” writers did not!
I value this so much! More than people might know.
He didn’t encourage by saying, “You can do it!” – he encouraged by allowing you to do it and then providing access to the means to continue to do it. And, perhaps more importantly, he got out of your way!
Given his background, his father, and the post-depression pragmatism that made up his psyche, THIS IS HUGE!!!
Do something! Most people don’t!
My dad did not believe in getting permission or needing special talent or encouragement to do anything. He believed in doing. Some of the things he did are:
- Gun enthusiast – though not a hunter
- Scuba Diver
- RC Glider Pilot
- Hang gliding
- Kite Flying
- Banjo player
- Artist: pen & pencil sketching, oil, water colors
- Writer – plays
Pragmatics aside, there might be emotion
This happened last year. My dad was already struggling with Alzheimer’s (see below). My mom had the primary task of caring for him.
Last year, my mom had hip-replacement surgery. She’s a trooper (again, a badass!). The day prior to surgery, my mom, at 83, met her friends for a few sets of tennis. She downed some Ibuprofen and then went at it.
After surgery and a short hospital stay, my mom was released to go home. We met back at her house and my father was in the other room watching television. My mom entered the room with the assistance of a walker. My father saw her and immediately moved over on the couch to make room for her. He was obviously concerned about her. She had been caring for him and now needed care herself.
At this point, something remarkable happened. My father, Dirty Harry, asked my brother for a paper towel to wipe his head. He was adamant about getting that towel. When my brother brought it to him, I could see the real reason he wanted it.
He began dabbing his eyes as they filled with tears. It was both difficult and heart-warming to watch. Yeah…. even Dirty Harry feels something sometimes!! It’s a good memory!
Alzheimer’s is a bitch
My father had been in decline the past few years. Alzheimer’s had been robbing him of most of his memory. He had had bypass surgery, was on heart meds, and been afflicted with a couple strokes, making him unsteady on his feet.
Our family, and my father in particular, are not much for fanfare. Birthdays, anniversaries, and deaths are met with a pragmatism that is disconcerting to some.
It isn’t that we don’t feel. We do! Or that we are emotionally disconnected – well, maybe a little. But pragmatism often trumps all and dammit, there is work to do. His rapid decline and death was met with a lot of pragmatism…. an almost embarrassing level.
But…. I had time to play him a few songs.
The day before my father passed away, he was in the care facility – dying! I went to visit him and took my guitar. Sara, my youngest went with me.
He was on morphine for comfort and wasn’t going to be waking-up in any real sense.
I had not been very emotional up to this point. I stood next to his bed, swabbed his mouth, and played the first song I ever learned – a song he often played.
“You get a line, I’ll get a pole, honey
You get a line, I’ll get a pole, babe
You get a line, I’ll get a pole
We’ll go down to the crawdad hole
Honey, sugar baby, mine!”
Then I played Blowing In The Wind. A song I remember listening to my dad record on a standard tape recorder. Damn! I wish I still had that tape!!
But I was okay…. no tears, just a hope that he could hear me.
And lest anyone wish to comfort me and say, “He heard you.” – I’m too pragmatic to buy that. I think he might have but, sorry…. I don’t know that. Maybe I’ll find out after I die.
My friend Mike texted me and suggested some Gordon Lightfoot.
I played this song…. one that my Dad liked when I learned it but that he never played.
Heaven Help The Devil
“In these times of trial and uncertainty
I have thought what does this freedom mean to me
Is it just some long forgotten fantasy
Our love for each other may not be explained
We live in a world where tears must fall like rain
Most of us don’t wish to cause each other pain
We have been captured by the thieves of the night
Held for ransom if you please
Heaven help the devil may he have a few unpleasant memories”
And I lost it! I couldn’t finish it. I mean, I did…. because, dammit! If you are going to start a song, you’d better finish it. But it was tough.
I love my Dad for what he gave me! I love him for what he didn’t do for me! And I am so grateful for the pragmatics of doing something!!!
I miss him and wish I could hear him sing The Crawdad Song again!