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My Father My Self
Later that night, I made a drink and thought of my own father. He played golf beautifully, and loved poetry. He drank like a fish. More than once I had glimpsed him weeping while listening to Lanza. He sang rarely, and then, only Irish folk songs and only when drunk. He was a philanderer of the first and most cruel order. To be sure, when he failed he did so magnificently, and in equal measure, at love, money, and parenthood. We, his three children, took as our major life lesson from him, that our lives were our own to make and to live (because he sure as hell wasn’t going to assist). We did just that, in gritty determination that we would escape and become anything but him.
For everything he did wrong, I should have felt righteous anger. I should have felt…better than HIM. But at that moment, hearing my daughter's words echoing still in my mind, I felt I had become him. Best father indeed. There were too many memories. His words and actions were still out there, as were mine. One had only to reach up and pluck one down to relish in resentment, or to compare in self-flagellation. But then, too, were other memories, and the lessons, which had enriched my life. These could not be simply ignored. He was the man who introduced me to Miles Davis, and Mario Lanza, Heroditus and Aristotle. In those gifts to a then-ungrateful boy, he had given a gift far greater. He was my father who one day conquered alcohol and tried, in the next decade to become who he wanted to be.
I made another drink, and thought of a time I came close to opening myself to him. It was the eve of my flight to a new life in America. I had spent most of my young life plotting my escape from a Jamaica sinking into racial and socialist mire. We sat on the sea wall and watched the evening swell, then fade into night. He pulled his legs up and clutched his knees. I watched the waves. The silence was just short of comfortable. He lit a cigarette. I relished the just-lit smell and the salt air.
"I failed as a Father. I would like to make it up. I would like to try." His voice shook when he spoke.
"You already have," I said too quickly. I was eager to make the moment go away. I was eager to make him go away.
We sat in silence some more. Then he smiled softly.
"Do you remember the first time we played golf together?"
"No," I said. This was a lie. I remembered it too well, and could smell the air and feel the grass under my shoes. It had been my longest drive. The ball cut a clean arc into a blue sky. I held the follow-through as only one who knows he has made the shot of a lifetime can. We got into the cart. That was beautiful. At ten years old I was driving the golf cart for the first time. Damned fine.
"When you are alone in the woods, looking for your ball, if it moves, even if no one else can see it, you must still add a penalty stroke, and whenever possible play it as it lies," he said, reaching into the back for a beer.
"You are the best father."
He was quiet for a beat. He stretched out a hand. "There’s your ball chief."
The game was far gone by nightfall. Evenings were different. It was when the drinking changed from adventurous to suicidal. It was when you hunkered down and waited for the storm to pass. But why would I deny it now?
Sitting now on the sea wall, looking at the darkening sea together, he said, "It was a special thing."
That had been my (our) last meaningful conversation. Until the unraveling of my marriage when he told me that I was not my mistakes, that I was much much more than my mistakes. Until, driving to the airport on one of his rare visits to the U.S., he breathed deeply and said, "I am having trouble…trouble…communicating."
"Now? With me?"
"With…everyone". He sighed, "Everyone."
We talked circles around his waning abilities. His eyes told me he was scared. I hoped he would not see my own fear. We talked about depression. Depression is easy. We didn’t talk about the obvious. It was a truth neither of us dared speak. Because when you said things, I knew, you could not take them back, and they would become part of the river that was our own personal history. I touched him on the shoulder, this man, my father whom in proper British reserve one did not touch.
My father the tyrant, has become, in his twilight years, my father the child. He has Alzheimer’s disease. It is progressive in its onslaught, and there is no cure. Lanza has been replaced by the steady beat of channels being changed without pause, on the television. Reading is beyond him. His swing is still Sam Sneed sweet, and beautiful enough to make others take pause. But he cannot complete a round of golf these days, because now he gets lost out on the course.
As his intellect and capacity for communication slip away, my siblings and I have become his protectors. There can be no blanket forgiveness of past sins. We see the past as clear as water. It flows into the present, his and ours. He is part of our lives, and who we have become. I see clearly the fifteen years of neglect and fear. I see clearly the twenty years of sober effort to reclaim his life and his attempts to make amends. I shake my head sadly knowing that it has come down to this, a life under constant care.
Through him I see my own mistakes. Through him, I have made sure these mistakes do not become habitual, part of me, as his mistakes became, for too long, a part of him. I have learned to take my penalty; to play it as it lies, to look unflinchingly at the world as it really is. I like to say philosophy taught me. I would prefer to think it was Aristotle and Ayn Rand. But there were others, and he was one.
Sometimes in life we are educated in surprising, unusual ways. Perhaps the truth is that ultimately we educate ourselves. I am a man, imperfect, learning, seeking value for my life. I am son and I am father. I have sunk low, and climbed high.
In the waning evening, in this year of his life, my father is fading more quickly into a second childhood. In this same year, I am ever more discovering more of who I am. I am becoming not the best father that a little girl once hoped to regain in the aftermath of a painful divorce, but simply, in my own way, a good father. And I continue to think of my own father, as he was, as he should have been, as he will never again be.
That night, I checked on her, pulling her covers up, and started to leave the room. I heard her stir and I stopped in the doorway. But she was still asleep. One day I will have to tell her I understand. One day I will have to show her that I hear. One day I will tell her my story.
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