It's hard to write about my dad.
It would have been his 84th birthday today, and I've thought about him and our relationship a lot since he died last year. I've kept coming up short when I try to write about him, though, which is as apt as a metaphor for our relationship as any: he and I, despite our efforts, kept coming up short. But upon reflection I've come to realize a couple of other things, too: we both kept trying, and we did the best we could.
And since writing was how we kept in touch over the last two plus decades, writing seems apt as the best way for me to remember him.
I'd try, sometimes, to be in touch in other ways. We had sports (if not many teams) in common, but even then it could be tricky. Baseball players had unions against which he would fulminate, and there were other, unlooked for challenges. One perfect NorCal afternoon, buoyed by the weather on my walk to the bar to watch Indy play a Monday Night game, I called Dad with what I had presumed to be some safe topics lined up. I started with the past weekend's Notre Dame game, but I got "I don't follow them now since they invited that baby killer Obama to campus." Deflated, I quickly wrapped up the call.
He'd try sometimes, too. He'd call and I'd see the caller ID as I sat freezing in the UH library, or while reading or doing laundry or smoking out on my tiny back porch in Honolulu or on my roof in San Francisco, and I'd let it go to voicemail. The time difference and our respective travel and work schedules gave us a fig leaf to cover our mutual wariness.
Letters were safer. Writing multiple drafts gave me a chance to see and excise some of my anger and self-righteousness. (Some, though not all, I'm embarrassed to say - some of what I'd written in the letters I found when cleaning out his house made me ashamed.) I'm not sure if he wrote multiple drafts or not, but his letters were angry, paternalistic, and deliberately hurtful, and often oscillated between the forced friendly and the furious.
But he read my letters, or at least some of them - I knew this because I'd hear from those people we had in common that Dad was pleased about a promotion I'd received or a recognition I'd earned. And I read his - or at least some of them. I learned that a quick analysis of the envelope could reveal something of the tone of its contents. GOP elephant on the return address label and a President Nixon stamp? Likely bombastic, confrontational, and political, with the added bonus of quotes from Rush Limbaugh. A Knights of Columbus or Right to Life return label? Milder but still hectoring, and likely to include quotes from The Catholic Answer or the Pope. A collection of stamps in different denominations (i.e., a 23 cent, an 11 cent, a five cent, etc.)? Likely playful and familial, without anything about the baby killers or how my sinful lifestyle was going to result in my terminal sickness and early death.
He also made copies of his outgoing correspondence. Each of the ten of us had a file, we found, and in mine, in addition to a number of my letters to him, were copies of at least some of his to me. And other things. My folder held funding appeals from organizations like Focus on the Family talking about how "homosexuals" - always "homosexual", never "gay", a convention he followed - were imperiling the moral fabric of America; how crimes committed by these homosexuals were never reported in the press, how homosexuals were pushing their - well, to be clear, "our" - agenda through the godless courts and via the godless Democrat (sic) party. These were all things I'd heard before. They land differently when you hear them from your dad, though.
I came out to my mom when she was already dying from cancer in 1991. She cried, and we had some difficult conversations about it, but she said that she loved me - and also, "Don't tell your father." I waited a decade, in part with my mom's words in mind, in part because I believed that coming out - especially to a parent - should be an act of kindness and not of anger. It took me a while to get there with Dad. And I was nervous about how it would go. I finally decided, when living with my then-boyfriend, to give my dad "the opportunity to do the right thing" as I put it. Wanting us to have a more honest relationship, if nothing else, I came out to him. In a letter.
It didn't go well.
First the questions: was I gay because he traveled so much for work and was an absent father when I was growing up? Was I gay because mom had a strong personality? And my favorite: was being gay why I was no longer a Notre Dame fan? And then the statements: your sinful lifestyle will result in your early death. You shouldn't work in education. Don't come home unless you come alone, and only then if you have pre-approval from siblings. And then, after about a year of this, another letter with this question: did I become gay because I'd been molested by a priest? Dad wrote that he had been - a Catholic Brother molested him when he was 13, and "...let's face it, at that age, pretty much any sexual contact is pleasurable." I was deeply shocked, even though it's all too common a story. I just ached for him - it broke my heart, and pulled back a curtain to reveal so much. I'd never known that, and I doubt if he'd told anyone else. Ever.
What effect had that trauma had? Survivors of untreated sexual abuse often suffer long term effects - what had he suffered because of this? What had this introduced into his personality? How had this warped what was there? Had he ever talked about it? He never mentioned it again and never answered any questions when I asked about it. I'll never know.
We never have a complete understanding of someone else - we can't, it’s always imperfect - and most of us don’t have a complete understanding of ourselves. I hope that this knowledge about my dad's journey made me less angry, more patient, gentler. I like to think it did, when I brought it to mind, and for a couple of years I thought of it often.
Despite his towering temper, after I was nine or so he never hit me, and I remember the spankings I got as a kid being forewarned and a result of my actions. We never went hungry - none of the 12 of us - when we were under his roof. He worked impossibly hard - long days, many nights, many business trips to El Dorado, Arkansas, of all places - to make that happen. He never drank, ever: I saw him have one beer, once, before I graduated from high school. He never swore, ever: I heard him swear only once, after a storm destroyed the roof, the siding, and every pane of glass on two sides of our house in Fowler, and then it was a simple, exhausted, "damn."
But it wasn't easy. Through his illness and death I've been surprised by others' recollections of my dad: a cousin mentioning in passing how he was intimidated and nervous around him; a brother I'd always thought of as a favorite of his recounting Dad’s petty and mean-spirited bullying; forgotten letters from my mom telling me not to take his anger to heart. I took comfort in these recollections. It wasn't just me. From the available data, it was just dad.
And I'm sorry to say that I didn't help matters as much as I could have. I knew how to push his buttons, and I did - certainly in some of my letters to him, but also in person. Some small part of that might have been healthy since so many people tiptoed around him, a learned response to his bullying, and after all, what did I have to lose? I was never going to meet his expectations unless I signed up to be a priest; since I was beyond the pale, I had tremendous freedom from his opprobrium. In one letter, asking after his recovery from a car accident, I didn't stop myself from asking if he was getting his pain med prescription filled by sending his housekeeper (which he didn't have) to a parking lot with a cigar box (which he didn’t smoke) full of cash like his buddy Rush Limbaugh had. Like many of his generation he was notoriously tight - even though one of his sons was a builder and submitted a bid to build his retirement home, he went with the guy who submitted the lowest bid. When I went to the house - before I was banned - I’d eyeball a wall and asked if he’d paid extra for its pronounced warp. When he was showing a group of us the blueprints for this house before its construction, he pointed out where the pool table would go in the basement. I looked at the drawings and said "I'm no expert but it looks like something's missing - where's the change machine?"
I remember many instances of his support when I was a child. He drove me and a friend down to Tennessee one weekend when we were doing research on Confederate POWs who were captured at the Battle of Fort Donelson who were housed - and died - in Lafayette during the Civil War. He encouraged me in Scouting and came to a troop meeting to show the other kids how to carve leather work, and even though I had no real skill at it, he encouraged my interest in his hobby as well. He helped me anytime I needed it with homework whenever he was home, no matter how tired he must have been, without a word or gesture of complaint that I remember.
In fact I never heard him complain - about work, or his hours, or anything. (The Cubs, sure, but that's like distant cicadas buzzing on a summer night - part of life for many in the Midwest.) He put his head down and worked hard, very hard, as a matter of pride, and expected that we all would, too. At many points in my life I've stopped and thought, "When Dad was my age he had to provide for x children." It was never a small number, and it was always nearly viscerally daunting.
When I was a kid on Sunday mornings he'd get me up at 5:30 to do the paper route around Fowler, which we'd finish in time for the 7 o'clock mass, then come home after church and make waffles from scratch and play hours-long military strategy games, just he and I, until everyone else got home from church. When I was in the 5th grade he took the day off - something he almost never did - and we rode a bus up to Chicago to see Pope John Paul II say a mass in Grant Park, just he and I. (Well, and about 7 million others.)
I don't know when or why we began to drift apart. I hit adolescence and began to rebel, though it was nothing like what he'd been through with my brothers: I didn't smoke, flout rules, or show any signs of being counter-cultural. I served daily 7 AM mass intermittently through high school and was a devout Catholic - to the point that I fought with a church youth group leader to make sure we could attend mass on a weekend camping trip - but still, Dad and I drifted apart.
By the time I got my ear pierced my junior year in college we weren't on great terms. I'd timed the piercing so that I could take it out before I came home for Christmas, but mom was sick with a vague but worrying malady so I came home for Thanksgiving with a fake gold stud in the hole so it wouldn't close, though I knew that hell would likely break loose. It did. That was it. He didn’t speak to me for a few months. I stayed in Milwaukee and worked over Christmas break; in February I only learned Mom had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer when I called a brother to bitch about my course load and he asked me how I was doing with mom's news. And after mom died that November, quite understandably, grief subsumed him.
He had a car accident and broke his back two years ago, and each of us ten kids took turns going to spend time with him to help his convalescence. I was nervous about my week there, but honestly it was good. He was still mostly lucid, and I asked him about family stories, about his siblings and childhood, about my mom. We didn't talk much about me, and we certainly didn’t talk about anything in my life after I turned 22 - he didn't ask and I didn't offer - but we had time to be together, and I got to thank him for all of his effort and hard work.
Before that week I looked back and thought about my father's life, and I tried to understand the stress he must have felt about money, the shame he may have felt at taking charity the years we qualified for government support and the kindness of neighbors, the never-ending fatigue that he must have had so often so deeply in his bones. I thought about how the abuse that he experienced from a member of the Church might have contributed to his extreme rigidity, or his temper, or his emotional paralysis.
And I realized, painfully, that I could have done better. I could have been more mature, thoughtful, and kind in my letters; I most assuredly could have connected more often. I could have more often let sleeping dogs lie and not comment on something in a vain and futile attempt to make or score a point.
But there was a context for these actions and reactions, for both of us. If we were petty and churlish, easily offended or bullying - and we were, both of us, all of those things - well, we're human. In the end, we didn't act from malice. And, in the end, critically, we made the space - and took advantage of circumstances - to arrive at something like détente before he died. And in the end, that's enough; it has to be, but it is.
And at the end, here’s what matters: we did the best we could.