My father was not a weak man in any sense despite his seeming willingness to give in to the despair that hastened his end. After years of illness, his ability to fight waned enough that, I’m guessing, death was a welcome relief. That is not to suggest that he was overtly suicidal, only that the fight was taken out of him and replaced by a complacency that abetted his despair. Toward the end, I think he had just had enough of the fight and gave in.
But my memories of my father are more than the bleak and dark times that defined the last few years of his life. The better memories are of a father who could make us laugh until our sides hurt and we were rolling on the floor in blissful agony from the laughter. Our family mealtimes were times of unfettered discussions and much silliness. My two older sisters were no more able to resist his clowning than I was.
He was the undisputed head of the house, even when he was doing Mom’s bidding. I learned from him that it is alright for a man to wash the dishes after dinner, that pushing a vacuum isn’t gender related, that hard work is its own reward. My father was a man in every sense of the word, physically strong and willing to do whatever needed to be done to provide for his family. I distinctly remember him working at three jobs at once for a while, driving truck for two different companies and working in his brother’s junkyard cutting up wrecked cars to provide for us. Yet he never complained or even suggested that he was having a tough time or that he couldn’t handle the pressure that must have been there.
He was imposing physically in his prime, standing 6’2” at 195 lbs of well-defined muscle. Those muscles were formed when he was a young man playing all the various sports that young men play. He even had a short stint as semi-pro football player. I have seen press clippings from that era that describe some of his exploits on the football field. What ever happened to those clippings, I don’t know, but I wish I had saved them. Yet one of my greatest regrets is that he never pushed me harder to play and possibly excel at sports. I don’t know why that is, but he never did. Sure, I played baseball and football and basketball, but only intramurally and in pick-up games and never particularly well. I don’t know if that was a disappointment to him or not because he never pushed me in that direction.
He was a man of few words when it came to expressing his feelings. I never once heard him say “I love you” to any of us—not to Mom or my sisters or to me. Yet there was no doubt in our minds that he did indeed love us. He just preferred to show it by the way he took care of us. Never once did he raise a hand to any of us in anger. But never once did he offer to hug or hold us close either. He and I never once had a deep or meaningful conversation, but that may be due to my own reticence as to his. Like father, like son, I guess.
So toward the end of his life we didn’t have the foundation for communication that would have allowed us to know each other better than we did. When he was struggling with his physical deterioration and allowing that to affect his emotional and mental health, he didn’t have the ability to talk about what he was feeling. So he turned to that bottle of brandy and gulped down pills and never said a word.
Now that I find myself in a similar situation to his—I have a chronic disease in PD and am struggling to cope mentally with all that goes with it—I am determined not to follow his example in this circumstance. He was 58 years old when he died; I am now 59. I learned from him how to be a father and a man, but I also learned from his mistakes in matters like the one that faces me now. I will talk about it. I will seek help in coping with it. I will not swallow fistfuls of pills or have a brandy bottle as a constant companion to combat the strain of dealing with my life as it is now. I am proud to be his son, but I will be my own man.