I have a favorite story about my father: the time I came home to Michigan on crutches from a sports accident, along with some badly bruised feelings from a broken relationship; and since trouble comes in threes, I had also just lost my job. “Well,” my father greeted me at the door. “How’s the Ford running?”
My father and I suffer from a common male disorder: we don’t express our feelings to each other, even though, under the surface, they are there. If anything ever gets out, it’s always in terms of teasing or arguing.
This year Dad turns 75, the same age his father was when he died. Shopping for a card, I pick out a funny one which shows a cake on fire with candles and a fire truck screaming over the hill. But I put it back in the rack. The getting-old jokes don’t seem right anymore, since his hip replacement operation last year.
I go to the conventional card display for something more serious. However, everything is so flowery: “There’ll never be another Dad like you!” and so on. So I don’t buy a card. I call him instead on the eve of his birthday.
He’s happy to hear from me, as always. He asks about the kids, how they’re doing in school. I ask about Virginia (my stepmother), my sisters and brother, all of whom still live in Michigan. They’ll gather for a dinner party in Lansing, a midpoint for everybody. I’ll be the only child missing.
“Gee, Dad,” I say. “The big 75. How are you faring?”
“You know,” he says, “Virginia and I were just talking about that. We can’t believe we’re 75 and 74. It just won’t sink in.”
I ask about his health. He says it’s not so good. He’s fallen and broken three ribs. He hasn’t been able to sleep in a bed for two weeks. “But I’ll tell you where the challenge in growing old is,” he confides. “Aches and pains come and go, but what hurts is that people don’t take you so seriously as they used to. You get a little bit ignored.”
We agree that each generation seems determined to make its own mistakes. We reminisce about the time, in the late 1940s, when he quit his job at the gas company and went to work for his father in the family general store. Dad had hoped to convert the store into one of those new supermarkets that were springing up then. He had been, in fact, invited into partnership with Grandpa to modernize. But when push came to shove, Grandpa found the supermarket concept too impersonal, and Dad quit in a huff rather than force it on him.
In truth, there weren’t two livings to be made in the general store anymore, and eventually not even one, as Grandpa got buried by the new supermarket across the street, and died in poverty, with thousands of dollars worth of unpaid credit in his cash drawer. I don’t believe they ever reconciled, completely, that little edge of bitterness over their failed father-son business venture.
But what father and son can ever live up to each other’s expectations? I’ve never failed a business with my father (never tried one), but I think he can be painfully righteous on occasion. And he thinks I’ve committed the unforgivable sin in not insisting on a church education for my kids.
“What about your father?” I once challenged him, when he was scolding me. “Is your father in hell because he didn’t go to church?”
“I hope he’s not in hell. But he had some flaws. He wasn’t perfect.”
“Why, there wasn’t a more kind and generous man who ever lived,” I protested.
“He couldn’t run a business,” Dad said. “And he couldn’t go 10 minutes without a cigarette.”
In our active fighting days, Dad could infuriate me with his attention to such details, and I could infuriate him with my indifference to them. I’d accuse him of excessive practicality and caring too much about what people thought (the same things my son occasionally says of me today); and he’d accuse me of not caring enough.
Now’s he’s 75, yet it’s hard to think of my father as old. I’m always surprised when I see him, because in my mind he’s 10 or 15 years younger than he’s grown. And righteous is far from everything my father is.
On his birthday I remember some other things: the time when I was 7 that he burst into the deep water, fully clothed, and saved the life of a drowning teen-ager. His picture was in the paper; it had been a close call, real heroism. He had risked his life. My father. Or simply the way he followed my high school and college sports, always at just the right distance: supportive but never interfering. My father. Or the time we stood shoulder to shoulder at my mother’s coffin. That night we slept on the same bed, talking into the wee hours. He thought I should shave my beard and go to church. My father.
So as he gets older, and closer to death, I want to tell him that I love him, before one day I get a call that goes beyond replaced hips and broken ribs. “Well Dad,” I grope. “On your birthday I just want to say to tell you well, of course … Happy Birthday. And … how’s the Chevy running, anyway?”