Sunday, June 21, 2015

Ambivalence (aka Fatherhood)

There are plenty of horrible fathers out there.  I've met quite a few and am even related to some of them.  But my father was amazing. 

My biological father died when I was 4 years old.  But he never got much of a chance to be a father to me, unfortunately.  That's not who I'm talking about.  I met my stepfather when I was about 7 or 8 years old.  I think he had been partying all night with my mom and friends.  His white Maverick was parked outside in front of the house with a friend passed out in the passenger seat.

My cousin and I went out and said hi to them.  He wore a cowboy hat, boots, long sideburns, long mustache.  (This could be a false memory of him after years of seeing him in this get up all the time).  He took us swimming that day wherein I refused to swim because I was so terrified.

Dad grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin--the eldest of 15 or so.  He joined the Air Force during the Vietnam war and was stationed in Hawaii.  He married his high-school sweetheart, had 3 kids, moved about the country, then divorced.  By the time my mom met him on a blind date he was living in Midland, Texas.

As well as I remember Dad was a trucker, a contractor, a supervisor in various positions, worked for landscaping companies, helped to build water towers, knew how to operate various tractors and other heavy machinery, he could sew, cook, fix anything in the house, build anything for the house, built cars from scratch, was great with children and animals, loved to camp, could probably patent some of the stuff he built for us, and defined himself as a mechanic.  He loved Fords and couldn't stand the color yellow.

I used to tell my wife that I wished people would talk more about the stupid or petty or bad things my biological father did.  I don't like hagiographies.  Stories of saints don't interest me; stories of people do and I wanted to know what he was really like.  Well, I grew up with my stepfather and got to see his other, human traits.  He had some problems with alcohol and drank a little too much sometimes.  He was known to break a window or a wall in anger (especially when drinking).  He could be pessimistic and brood on minor clashes at work or with my mom.  He would get overly emotional and demonstrative when drinking and I recall thinking he reminded me of the elder Karamazov.  After his divorce he didn't see his kids for a very long time and I'll never know how he could've done something like that.

But what makes a good father?  He always worked, and loved working, so he could take care of his family.  If I ever messed up I didn't feel I'd ever be alone and without support.  I wasn't much trouble but when my brother would get into trouble there was my dad--bailing him out or giving him direction.  Dad taught me to fish, helped with homework, showed me a lot of little creatures so I could see them up close, taught me to be a decent little boy who wouldn't do stupid things or harm others. 

I must've weirded him out.  He was a pretty traditional Midwesterner.  He loved his country, the Green Bay Packers, a good steak, country music, and really corny Disney movies like Old Yeller or The Apple Dumpling Gang.  I guess it must've been odd when I would blast Metallica, read Faulkner or Dostoevsky, while drawing Eddie from Iron Maiden.  I'm not sure he understood my desire to understand other cultures or my penchant for painting bleeding American flags.  When I grew out my hair he would call me, "Ma'am."  But I think he realized I was still essentially the same goofy, shy kid who would laugh at all his jokes. 

Around Christmas-time, 2010, my mother called me to tell me Dad was in the hospital.  He hadn't been feeling well and eventually couldn't go to the restroom and he started turning yellow.  About two weeks prior to this call my 6 month old daughter was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.  Because it was holiday time the hospital Dad was at was understaffed and they weren't getting too many answers.

Around the turn of the new year I was at a restaurant with my family when I got a call from my parents.  Dad was out and was diagnosed with stage-4 pancreatic cancer.  He was told he had 3 to 6 months to live.  I went to Texas for a week to see him.  We cleaned up some of the scrap metal he had in the back.  He told me about some of the jobs he had been working on.  Even though he could be very emotional and sensitive he wasn't necessarily the type of man to talk to his son about his feelings and fears.  Mom told me she'd catch him crying alone sometimes then he would look at a picture of my daughter and smile.

June 2011 I was back in Texas.  Dad wasn't doing well.  I was there on Father's Day (my second as a father).  He looked tired and frail.  I felt odd walking him to the restroom or cleaning up after him--inadequate.  My first memory is of being 4 years old, visiting my biological father on his death bed as he died of skin cancer.  Now I was watching my stepfather, the man who raised me to be a man, the legend who was (at least to me) like some hero of American folklore, barely able to get out of bed.  I was happy there were so many people around who loved him in his final hours.  A week later he was dead.

One day at work I spent all day in the corner crying, thinking about him.  He probably would've thought that was odd too.  I find myself thinking of him a lot lately.  Pride, nostalgia, guilt, fear...all kinds of emotions well up out of nowhere.  I'm not sure if I was a good enough son to him sometimes.  I'm not sure if I can manage to do all that he did for me for my own child.  I can't build anything or fix a car.  I don't really care about sports and I'm not always proud of my country.  But I try to be decent and want to do right by my family.  He had a great work ethic and I'd like to think that I try hard when I care about something. 

I wish I could have a beer with him.  I wish he got a chance to know my daughter.  I've seen fathers literally beating up their kids over the stupidest things and fathers who were more interested in chasing women or buying drugs than in taking care of their families.  My dad took two little boys he didn't know and helped to raise them, loved them, and prepared them for the world.  I wish there were more dads like him.