Had he not died when I was seventeen, nearly thirty years ago, my father would have turned eighty years old today.
I’ve written a great deal over the years about my experience as a young person with a dying parent, then dealing with an absent one. Every aspect of my life for the better part of the next decade was affected, by not only the manner in which I handled that loss as a teenager (poorly), but also the manner in which I finally made peace with both that loss and accepted the help and support that I should have sought at the start. I’m not going to repeat things I’ve discussed before, but if you’re interested, check out that column HERE!
Also, I have an entire chapter in The Best of Aloha Kugs, Volume I that looks at loss. You can find that HERE.
What’s struck me today as I consider my father’s birthday is not exactly the fact that he would be turning eighty. It’s that he’ll never be that, or anything other than the fifty-year-old man he was when he died. Our relationship had an expiration date and it was October, 1990. As I approach that age myself in the coming years, it’s led me to some curious thoughts.
Dad was an innovative teacher, a loving spouse, a good father, and many other things too. I used to spend great reserves of time and energy pondering what he’d think about things that I was going through, what his advice might be as I grew up and made choices, what he’d think of my choices. I wondered what he’d think of my wife and my children, things like that. I don’t really do that anymore, but I find myself now wondering how I’m going to feel about him and his legacy once I’m (God-willing) older than he was. Right now, I’m of an age where we could have been contemporaries. In a few years, I’ll be older than him. In twenty years, I’ll be much older than he was when his life ended. How will I look at him then?
His life stopped. Mine has gone on. I’ve grown and changed and matured (somewhat), but he’s still the man he was during the seventeen years that we walked the Earth together. What does one do with that?
I have some thoughts about what he might have done had he lived. He probably would have retired before I graduated college. He and mom planned to travel and I know they were looking forward to having both my sister and I “settled.” I know he’d have played a lot of golf. I think he would have adored my wife and kids. I know he’d be proud of my sister’s accomplishments. I know he would have loved the Eagles Super Bowl win and the Phillies World Series win. He would still love the shore. He would still love Wildwood. He’d still love Christmas and would still find words like “kumquat” hysterical. I think it’s safe to say that none of that is a real stretch.
I still think of him as my dad. I talk to the kids about him and there are stories the kids enjoy hearing and there are traditions and jokes that we share that I can trace back to him. I like that and I know it has meaning for my children who have grown up without ever knowing him.
I feel like I’ve come to peace with who he was and the impact he had on my life, but will that change when I’m in my nineties and I remember my father as what I’d then consider a young man in the prime of his life?
A young person I know recently commented that “Getting old must really stink!” I quipped that “It beats the alternative.” After I explained to him what the alternative was, (really) he nodded and went back to whatever young men do these days, but it was interesting for me to consider his sentiment. Does it stink getting older?
I submit that it does not. I’ll admit that I’ve aged to the point that I have to announce it to the world when I stand up, sit down or pick something up. I was once almost certain that I’d torn my ACL by turning over in my sleep. (I did not, thankfully) I think I’m just about the best version of me yet, to be honest. I look back on past versions of myself with a very critical eye now and while I can accept the train wrecks in my past, I have also learned to let go of a lot of the things that troubled me as a kid, a young adult, and beyond. There was plenty to let go of and while I’m not perfect, I like where I am in life. For me, that’s a real accomplishment.
As I remember my father on his birthday, I wonder if he was similarly reflective about his past when he was my age. He and I were really just starting to understand one another when he got sick, so our relationship was somewhat incomplete when he died, but we certainly didn’t talk about his feelings or heartfelt reflections on his youth and choices. The one thing he ever told me about his own father, for whom I was named was: “I think you’d have liked him. I think he would have liked my dad too.”
I think it’s safe to say those types of discussions were not a part of our relationship in the time we had and might never have been. He was part of a different generation.
Are there times that I wonder what he’d be like today? Of course, there are. Are there times that I wonder what I’d be like if he survived his cancer? Or if he’d never had it? Of course, but in the end, I truly don’t know. I’m not sure it matters, really. He was my father and I loved him. While our relationship ended almost thirty years ago and his place in my life has changed in those years, he still matters. I’m curious how I’ll see him when I can look back not only at him but hopefully my own long, healthy, and happy life.
It’s hard to have a relationship with a memory, but for me, it’s always been worth exploring that surprising circle that my memories seem to exist in. “What if?” always seemed to be where my head and my heart went in the years after he died.
Then, it often morphed into “What would Dad say?”
Now, I find that I’m far more interested in “What’s next?”
I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet he felt the same way when he was my age. There’s something kinda pleasant about that now as I re-read that sentence. I don’t know if it’s true and there’s obviously no way to know and honestly, I’m OK with that. I don’t need to know everything.
It’s hard to have a relationship with a memory, so I won’t, but as I mark what would have been his eightieth birthday, I’ll do the best thing that I can think of as a way to honor him and the time we had together:
I’ll take my wife to the metro in the morning so she can get to work since the busses are on strike. I’ll get all three kids off to school, showered, dressed, fed and prepared for the day. I’ll take the dog on a run to get ready for the race I signed up for with friends in February. I might vacuum the upstairs and I’ll coordinate the car service appointments that are upcoming. If I can, I’ll spend some time on the writing of my fourth novel, I’ll review a project that a friend has asked for my input on, and I’ll catch up on a webinar replay that I missed this afternoon. I’ll pick the wife up from work so she can be home so we can both help the girls get ready for the girl scout craft fair, and then I’ll head out to the boyos’ first ever high school track meet. There will be meals and laundry and so forth at some point too. Then, once everyone is home, we’ll watch something together, we’ll read together, and then the kids will go to bed. Then, the wife and I (if there’s energy left) will keep watching the new season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. (It’s great!)
It will be a busy day.
And then, we’ll face what’s next, which in this case will be Saturday. Rock climbing, horseback riding, Tae Kwon Do, and of course, our Ohio State Buckeyes competing for the Big 10 Championship and a chance to play for a National Title, so not exactly an ordinary Saturday.
But it’ll still be just one day at a time.
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