Saturday, December 19, 2015

Men Only Get Better One by One

I wrote this a long time ago, hoping that by speaking/typing the unease I carried with me I could free myself of it and from it. Six years after I first offered it in this space, I must concede I have a better chance of jumping over my own shadow. Some memories are larger than life and longer as well. 

I don't ever remember celebrating my father's birthday as I grew up. Logic dictates we, our mother (his wife) and my brothers and sisters (his children) must have done so as we did for everyone in our family, and yet every year I struggle and fail to find a single memory of a single moment of that day.

I mention that because had he lived, today would be his ninety-second birthday (he died thirty-four years ago) and I'd like to think he would be something I never felt he was while we shared the earth, proud of something, anything, I'd ever done. In this case, as was so true in our shared lives, I would be cheating (oh so slightly) as I'd hope he'd be proud of his grandchildren, Patrick and Michelle, who are the children my wife, Sigrid, and I have.

My most lasting memory of my father isn't really a memory of him at all, but a reminder of how life goes on within you and without you. Many years ago, still living in Germany Sigrid found what she assured me was 'the perfect card for you to send to your dad for Father's Day.' This was pre-Internet and global village connectivity days, remember. Actually, it was back when it was only she and I and my work (and sadly, not always in that order). 

I don't remember the card, though this would be a better lesson for me if I had (and would add a sparkle to this story), but I signed it after Sigrid had addressed it, put a stamp on it and had me throw it in my work bag (a shoulder-strapped book bag that carried, judging from its remembered weight, most of the world's most curious and heaviest items).

And that's where the card stayed. 
Months later and well past Father's Day, she was rooting through my bag, in search of something I had promised to bring home. Her theory, more often right than I'd like, was that whatever it was, it could be found in my bag. The body of Jimmy Hoffa, other gunmen on the grassy knoll, reasons to be cheerful--check in the bag. 

What she found that day, and registered a quiet note of disappointment with me because of it, was the card we both thought I had mailed months earlier for Father's Day. Faced with the reality that I hadn't, all I could do was mumble a promise to do so 'next year'. 

You've guessed, of course, that my father died before 'next year' ever happened. As a self-centered oldest child, stiff-necked and incapable of bending, I had clashed with him nearly every day of life. I think from the time I could talk, all I said to him was 'no.'

I don't recall what we fought about or why, but they were bitter arguments, often ending in physical contact that made me fully appreciate the weight of his hands, but I refused to yield anything at any time and we passed months, and longer, exchanging as few words as possible for as long as possible. I had, as a child, wished the worst for him countless times and when notified by the Red Cross (I was still on active duty in the Air Force) that he was dead, my reaction was overwhelming guilt at the power that child had somehow exercised. 

We three oldest had moved out and away by that time, but our two youngest sisters and a brother were left to be raised by our mother in circumstances vastly different from ours when we were their age, and that I made no effort to ever learn or to attempt to improve is more weight I’ll never rid myself of.

I've never spoken to them about those times and I know I never shall. Family secrets, if you have the former you learn to live with the latter all the while being eaten alive by them. More casualties in a war that should have ended decades ago, but continues even as I type this and feel the gorge rise in my veins as if "enough" weren't already, and finally, truly enough. 

I am, like it or not, my father's son in ways neither of us could have ever imagined. Perhaps he'd be proud of that, and yet I truly hope not. Life is a sum of all your moments--waking and dreaming; everything you've done or left undone; every word, said and unsaid and first and finally, of all of your prayers, answered but, most especially,unanswered.
-bill kenny 

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