It is, without a doubt, one of the strongest memories I’ll retain for the rest of my life. So much about that day remains crystal clear. I close my eyes and can see, smell and feel it all over again. Fourteen years have gone by, but I swear…it still feels like last week.
The sterile, antiseptic smell of the hallway I found myself pacing repeatedly the nights I pulled duty watching him. The arrangement and color of the furniture in the waiting room….brown, flat, colorless couches and chairs, outdated magazines….not inviting at all. Then again, I was in the COPD ward, a place where not many patients leave after they check-in. The chapel on the first floor where I, the eternal agnostic, went to pray the night before that he be taken quickly if that’s how it was to end. Please…no long, extended time on the oxygen machine. He’s lived his life in the most dignified manner he could possibly muster. Isn’t that enough? Give him his due. He’s my father, for Christ’s sake.
The somber, expressionless faces of my mother, brothers and sisters, all huddled around my Dad’s hospital bed the very next night as the Pastor performed last rites….right after he took his last breath.
No one spoke. Only hugs, gasps and tears.
The dank, dark, clammy Wisconsin October evening that slapped me in the face as I exited the hospital for the last time on the night he left us….home to tearfully break the news to my kids that Grandpa was gone. Standing at the front door of my house…thinking about what I was going to say….looking at my kids through the living room window.
Contemplating my fatherly relationship with my own children.
I’m not ready for this…..not prepared for this…..it’s way too up close and personal.
❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖
Sometimes, the choice to face maturity is not of your own. It compels and thrusts you into the uncharted waters of responsibility without warning, preparation, a sailboat or even a life jacket. I thought my journey earnestly began on the day I married my wife back in 1993.
Turns out I was wrong.
Nine years later, I lost my father to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in the fall of 2002. He was a smoker for many years, and passed as a direct result of his cigarette habit, even though he stopped smoking some fifteen years before his death.
Our children barely knew the man that was their Grandfather. My son had just turned five which was the exact same age I was when I lost my own granddad. Our daughter was only three months old, and as expected, has no memory of her interactions with Grandpa.
Ironically, that’s one of the commonalities I share with my kids. All three of us didn’t know who our grandparents really were, short of the stories that aunts, uncles and other relatives re-tell us in passing conversation or during family gatherings. It’s one of the few regrets I have about the time frame in which my wife and I decided to start our family. How I wish my kids knew what a cool guy Grandpa really was. Part of that stems from the realization that I didn’t understand how cool he was until he was gone. That’s created some anguish for me, because I didn’t give him the credit he deserved while he was living.
I knew has was a dedicated, loving father. I knew he wanted his kids to have more than what he had himself growing up. Dad was the guy who would take the shirt off his back and give it to his children if they really needed it. Make no mistake, he’d grumble about it for thirty minutes first, but eventually, he’d dig deep and do something to help, even if that meant short-changing my parent’s own needs.
He was proud of his family, even though each one of his six kids had very different personalities, values and ideals. On occasion, those differences would create varying levels of conflict when there was too much “together time” among the clan. To no one’s surprise, it still happens today.
Sometimes the skirmishes are small and inconsequential….just a normal part of being a sibling in a large family. Others, not so much. Occasionally, harsh words are said, opinions are expressed and feelings are hurt. Gaping crevices in relationships can be formed where there was once at least a bridge. Sometimes, brother and sisterly love gets a healthy road test.
When our own children can’t see eye to eye on a particular issue or problem that can’t be resolved, my wife and I tell them the best piece of advice we can give: “accept it and move on.” I admit freely some of that comes from the fact that we’re not necessarily interested in justice. We want quiet. Still, we know they’ll have times where they won’t see eye to eye.
And that’s okay. Accept it and move on.
That was how Dad operated, although he never verbalized those words to me. Instead, he preferred to let his actions do the talking. Long-winded lessons on family unity was never his style. He might have given you a look or asked you some leading questions, but that was about all. It was up to you to figure out the takeaway. In fairness to him, he could’ve said a million words that were laced and dripping with fatherly guidance when I needed it, but I wouldn’t have heard a thing. Maybe he did, but I was far too busy tending to my own needs and not tuning in. That’s pretty common with a lot of families, as parents are not viewed as the “keepers of the knowledge base” by their own children.
I can’t say I have an endless list of things my Dad taught me. He had his flaws and shortcomings like every other human being that walks this Earth. What did transfer is perfectly embodied in this quote I found on the internet:
No family is perfect. We argue. We fight. We even stop talking to each other at times, but in the end, family is family. The love will always be there.
I will admit…it’s corny, but it’s accurate to my particular brood, and largely subscribes to my Dad’s belief about how the family should function. It’s the same logic my wife and I use on our own children, and surely with respect to our own relationship. It also extends to how I operate as a manager, leader, and facilitator. That’s where the best material comes from, after all.
And if that helps me to be a better husband, father, and brother….well…then I guess Dad gave me a better life jacket then I expected.
The family is a small world of affections, problems, joys and sorrows. A small world in which we are born, grow and where we prepare to face the larger world: that of life and society.
In the family each of us finds the truest things and ideals that are worth, alone, and forever, in life. Each of us learns to walk in the bosom of our own family, how we learn to love, to suffer.
Every family is a center of affection, of interests, of common problems, lived together, overcome and suffered together. It is precisely in the family that people have the true encounter, it is in common trepidation that the affection and solidarity of the members of the same family grows, in that habit of life, of work and of hopes that makes relatives to distinguish a just look, at a small nod of a smile.
It is the affection that keeps the family together and that overcomes difficulties. And it is precisely this finding ourselves united in the moment of pain, of the need that gives us the strength to become better.
Wonderful piece, Andy. Thank you for sharing it with us. I think that the quote you used sums it up with eloquence. I’m grateful each day for my siblings and parents, although my mom passed away almost six years ago. We all miss her, but her memory and spirit live on in us.
In my family, we have each other’s backs, and although we tease and grumble, the love runs deep – and the laughter is boisterous. I guess that is why it makes me sad to see my husband’s family so torn apart, with some of them not willing to repair their relationships. But, as the quote says, I know that despite the dysfunction, they still love one another. And, perhaps, they have accepted and moved on as you so poignantly stated.
My Father’s actions spoke so loudly that he did not have to say much. I watched his dedication to his family and his profession. He gave willingly and often. He never left a gas station without kind words to the attendant (pre-self service days). I recall his generous spirit and ability to make others laugh. One time in a restaurant his group was asked to leave since they were so funny all the tables around them would not leave as they listened to the stories.
I love this. My Dads words still whisper sage advice to me.