Tuesday, July 10, 2007

At the risk of repeating myself

This has appeared elsewhere in a very slightly different form. But for some reason it feels at home here too, with the FF and all. My dad would have made a great Marvel character.

I had a strange, on-again, off-again relationship with my dad, due to the circumstances of my upbringing. He had just turned 17 when I was born, and my mom 19, and they were neither financially nor emotionally prepared for it (let's just say it was not a planned pregnancy nor marriage). So when I was somewhere around six weeks old, I was more or less packed off to live with his parents, and he joined the Army, that being the sort of thing one could do without a high school diploma back then. Or now, really.

Well, that marriage only lasted a few years (surprise!), and he went on to remarry a few more times, have a few more kids (when my wife and I went to the geneticist before our son was conceived, we ran out of paper trying to fit my immediate family in), and eventually settle down with the right woman...about nine years ago. In the intervening decades, I lived under the same roof as him once, when he had moved back to Missouri from California and needed a couple of months to build up a security deposit for an apartment.

Before that had happened, I had forgotten and rediscovered that the people I was living with were not my birth parents, but even during the years in which I wasn't sure exactly who he was, I was always glad to see him. I wasn't sure why, but I was. Partly it was due to the fact that he always had stories to tell, some of which were true, which were like candy to this particular child. Motorcycling cross-country and the like. It seemed that he lived an ever so slightly risky life, but not a truly dangerous one, and he enjoyed telling me about (some of) the aspects of it.

I found pot in his and his third wife's kitchen cabinet once. She told me it was oregano.

In retrospect, it was I suppose much like being a sailor's child must have been in times past, when one's father made appearances as the tides and itineraries allowed, and the time spent was full of foreign ports and exotic locales, with very little occasion for the everyday things "normal" relationships are built on to creep in before they were gone again.

It stayed like that until relatively recently, when he settled down and I settled down and we got some chances to talk in a more unhurried fashion. By that point I had my own tales to share, not so full of adventure perhaps, but tales nonetheless, and he could respect that. As I came to respect him. He overcame the loss of two infant children, and his faith, and his sobriety, and emerged from it sober, faithful (in his own way) and still a father, as best as he could manage, to the children he had left strewn in his path.

There are worse things that can be said about a man.

I also respected how he arranged the last months of his life. Knowing that some in the family would have been freaked out by his choice to not do chemo after his diagnosis, he appeared to waffle on the subject just long enough to make the question well and truly moot. I suspected this (we think enough alike for me to recognize strategic dithering) and didn't push the issue, even as I scouted around for research projects he might be eligible for. So he got six months and change where he felt he was in control of his life, instead of, as he saw it, the chance--not a sure thing--at a bit more time in which that wouldn't really be the case. I would have supported him if he wanted to extend his life, but I also know that there was little more important to the man than a sense that he was in control of his life. Maybe the years where that wasn't necessarily the case cemented that in him.

He wanted to die at home, in his own bed, with people he knew and loved near him. He got his wish Saturday morning. Only in the last 36 hours did he become unresponsive, although the drifting away had started a week prior. Given how colon cancer works, it could have been a lot worse. I saw him last Sunday and said what I needed to say, much of which could be summed up in "I have no complaints." And it was true. In a way the best decision he ever made on my behalf was 45 years ago, when he gave me to his parents to raise. Had he and my mom tried to raise me, I can only imagine how I would feel about him now, because I can't imagine how bad it would have been. But all the signs were there, and I guess he knew his own limits. For which I thanked him.

I think one of the reasons I waited so long to have my own child was because of how I came to be. But, curiously enough, I also find that I'm perhaps more conscious of how lucky I am to have the moments with my son that I do, because I know my father didn't get them with me. He never had another boy, not one that lived. So sometimes I feel as if I'm playing with mine on his behalf too.

He didn't want a funeral. Tomorrow his wife, up from Tennessee, will be at his sister's house, with his parents (the ones who raised me), his other sister, and me, to receive condolences. In a few weeks I'll go down to Tennessee and watch while his ashes are scattered from a plane (he was a pilot, which shouldn't be a shock). I'll promise his wife (I can't call her my stepmom, really, but she's a lovely woman) that we'll come back, that she can see my son grow up, and it will all be true.

And I'll miss someone who wasn't really around that much.

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