March 2nd would’ve been my father’s 88th birthday. My dad was a hugely damaged survivor of a childhood so sadly violent that it is almost incomprehensible to the average person. The weight of his emotional baggage was so heavy, it severely hindered his ability to function appropriately in anything remotely close to the expected family dynamics of his generation. Despite all of that, I know he tried his best, even when his best wasn’t very much.
If you ever asked me to describe him, “fiercely intelligent,” would always be at the top of the list. Daddy was curious about life and surprisingly open-minded for his time. I will always be grateful for being exposed to all the artists and writers who were welcomed in our home, even if their lifestyles were not always conventional. Dad was comfortable around almost everyone and could talk about almost anything.
The combination of his personality and my mom’s was such that our house was also considered a “safe place” for the women in the neighborhood who felt the need to escape from whatever they were dealing with in their own homes. I can remember multiple times when there would be a knock on our door in the middle of the night and outside that door would be a woman, trembling in fear, who could not take one more blow from a drunk and angry husband. All it took for the angry spouse to back away was for my father to stand in the doorway, letting them know they were going to have to go through him.
Daddy was also a repressed artist. He took great pride in my artistic leanings and helped me set up a small studio area in our basement where I could store my art supplies and draw or paint. On rare occasions he would join me down there and I was always impressed by how easily shapes and shading flowed from his fingertips. In my youth, I could not understand how someone with such talent could go most of their life without expressing their artistic side. That was long before I was old enough to appreciate the pressures on men of that generation to focus on business above all else.
I have written about other ways my father expressed his artistic side. There was the bean picture he made when I was about 6 or 7. The picture was probably three feet by five feet and hung over our fireplace for years. For those of you who don’t know what a bean picture is, it’s a picture that is drawn on a piece of plywood and beans are meticulously glued to the wood, creating the colors and shading of the “painting.” There was also the infamous tin can tree that I wrote about in “That’s the Spirit.” In my young mind, both of those masterpieces filled me with wonder, even as my older siblings died a little inside every time they looked at them.
When he focused on business, my father was ruthless. He would set a goal and then pursue it aggressively, doing whatever it took to achieve that goal. After my parents divorced, my mother told me multiple tales of whose back my father had scrambled over in his pursuit of success. He was never completely satisfied with his achievements and was always looking for his next goal. After he retired from business, he pursued golf with the same passion he had previously applied to his work.
When I was growing up my father traveled for business, usually gone for most of the week. His return was met with differing levels of enthusiasm, depending on his mood and how busy we were with our own lives. As an adult, I feel bad that too often we looked at his return as a disruption to the flow of our lives. I don’t know if he ever realized that there were times we resented that disruption, but unfortunately, he was gone so often he never really felt fully part of the family dynamic. I sincerely hope he never felt that from us.
When I found out, in November of 2006, that Daddy was in the hospital, I made a quick trip down to Oklahoma to visit him. My step-mother told me repeatedly that he had been just fine the week before, but by the time they realized something was wrong and went to the hospital, his body was riddled with cancer that had spread unchecked for God only knows how long. In addition to all the other places where they found tumors, there were brain tumors that were pressing on his brain, causing him to cycle through the decades of his life, going from one era to the next and back to the one between.
When I walked into the hospital room, my father, who had worked his whole life to not feel emotion, started to cry. Seeing him crying literally stopped me in my tracks. I stood transfixed. However, his own personal “shuffle” setting quickly moved him to another time in his life and he started talking about his National Guard troop as if he’d seen them just the day before.
In his travels through the times of his life, Daddy would also get violent and lash out at the hospital staff. For this reason, they had him in restraints. It struck me to my core when I realized that he was lashing out because the big, muscular adult was reliving the days when the young child was mistreated by the adults he should have been able to trust. I will go to my grave remembering the look in his blue eyes as, in a moment of lucidity, he held his arms up for me to remove the restraints that were chafing his skin.
Thankfully, God was kind and Daddy died of a massive heart attack a few days later. In the 10 years since he died, I actually feel like I have grown closer to him. I can now look at him through the lens of time and focus on all of his positive attributes, instead of reacting to the things he did that felt wrong at the time. I hope, and believe, that he has found some peace from the tumult that surrounded his life.