Sunday, August 14, 2011

Father into the Man

Leaves are starting to change in Vermont, occasional splashes of color in an otherwise verdant landscape of green. The nights are cooler as Pleiades meteors streak under the full moon. Life cycles ever onwards year after year.

Even as summer heat bares down and plants strain for sips of water, with the change in the air and the mums in the market, the first signs of winter clutch panic in me that another year passes with not enough progress to justify its imminent end. On my way to say goodbye to my father, my son drives us with the cautious consciousness of his first road trip behind the wheel. Cycles of life in pace with the seasons, generations of torches push us onwards, lighting the way and stretching far beyond sight in the rearview mirror.

My father rallies physically this week after accepting full blindness and separate diagnoses of COPD and diabetes in the last. Two sisters urge him to linger, one tearfully treads water and two of us ask what more does he need to complete before he can let himself go be with Mother?

Knowing that our relationship is strained by my financial dependence on him, I go to visit in hope of clearing the air in case his worry for me might be holding him back. Despite his harsh claim last week that a visit would only cost him money (which it will), I come anyway to remind both of us that love is more important than anything.

When I was a child, this man who was alternately, but unpredictably aloof and pre-occupied or playful and present, provided above all else a sense of safety and security that the world as we know it would still be rolling along in the morning. The style and distance of vacations and the ratio of new clothes to home-sewn might change according to cycles of his business we only heard whispers about, but the basic concepts of comfort and happiness were always rock solid.

Translated through my mother, who could accept no misfortune in our world without a bright side, his love for his children was never in doubt, though he apparently--despite the wealth of his other talents--was incapable of expressing it himself. When I came to her crying that he had thrown the baseball too hard or whacked me upside the head in jest at the dinner table, it was only out of a love, she consoled, too big for words.

Unfortunately, his displeasure was all too apparent, exploding with frightening pitch if I happened to crumble under the weight of the heavy canvas tent on the way to the campsite or bend the nail on a simple project. Although he never voiced it, I constantly wondered how failing so miserably at these simple tasks expected of me, I could possibly live up to the ever so bright future they were predicting for me.

It has taken a lifetime to catch a glimpse of just how much I suffered the age-old pressure and regularly failed to please my father, even and especially to this day as it feels the time is running out.

Raised upon and having succeeded so well at the ethic of providing for his family and mastering his career, he reflects at the end of his life with a self-satisfied modesty on his laurels. He commanded his fate and leaves this world with pride, surrounded by his daughters who serve, admire and love him nearly as much as his adoring wife had done.

Relationships with our parents profoundly affect our whole lives, most obviously in the beginning, certainly now as we witness their passing, and I suspect much later as we reflect on our own. As much as we might want to be anything but them in our teenage years, most of us suffer an unconscious need based on survival that begins at birth to be loved by them. As the end nears to plead my case to my father, I look at my own son at the wheel beside me and try to speak to him in ways that might better reassure and support his quest for a safe trip and a happy life.

On this road to visit, we comfortably alternate between ear-plugged silence tuned into our different music and open conversations about dreams and passions. No danger of sitting too high on a pedestal for him to immitate, I offer him the reality of my mistakes, insecurities and stamina to pick up the pieces and move forward again. He knows I have felt serious pain, physically and emotionally, and struggled with frustration, lived humbly from self-sacrifice, and danced with ecstasy, hurt no one intentionally and love today with all my heart and no expectation.

My father lived a successful life, but only in these last precious years have I begun to see his more human side where he has lately grown man enough to display his fear, compassion and courage. The tough fa├žade has been laid aside and I can hold his hand with trust and confidence as I had never done as a little boy.

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