Jim Sr., 45, & Jim Jr., 26, November 1983

I’m a bit sad at the moment, as this night rolls into Father’s Day 2011.  He died when I was 49, and sometimes I find myself missing something that never was, and wondering about what might have been.  He was who he was, and it’s surely a waste of time to pine over something that never happened.  I wonder how he felt when he lost his dad, at 28.  He never said, and I never asked.  It’s odd how the person that is the closest to you can be the most distant.

I’m reminded of one particular moment with my Dad,  and I’ve thought of it often over the years.  Father’s Day stories are often heartwarming tales of the past,  a wonderful moment shared between father and son.  This isn’t one of those stories.

He was trying to teach me to swim, and only managed to scare me into a crying heap of shamed little boy.

I was probably 10 or 11, and we were at my grandparent’s home.  He had floated me into the middle of the pool on an inner tube, and was trying to coax me to let go and swim to the side.  I was having none of that, holding on as tightly as I could.  He finally pulled it away from me, and gave a nudge to start me towards the nearest side.  I was in a panic, flailing blindly as I tried to find purchase in the water.  I doubt I actually made much headway, and he had to keep nudging me both up and towards the side.  The distance to the side was only a few feet, but to that terrified little boy it might as well have been a mile away.

Eventually I reached the side, and either pulled myself out, or he lifted me out, I don’t remember.  All I recall is shaking with fear and embarrassment at what had just happened.  He was out of the water, and sat down next to me, trying to comfort his terrified little boy.  I remember him pulling me up next to him as he tried to calm me down, trying to convince me that I had actually swam across the pool.  I was having none of that, however.  I knew the tube had drifted, that he had been pushing me up and over, and I was inconsolable.  I was deeply ashamed that I was afraid of the water, afraid of him, and that now that he was sitting next to me with his arm wrapped around me, ashamed that I didn’t want him to stop holding me.

He was not a physically affectionate man, nor was he ever verbal with praise.  He’d let you know if you did something wrong, but not when you did something right.  Good report cards, for example, were expected, not praiseworthy.

I think I probably knew, as I sat on the side of that pool crying, that our relationship would never be the same.   He never again hugged me or displayed any physical affection whatsoever.  He hadn’t done much of that before, and certainly the family he grew up in often struck me as a group of related strangers living together until they could move out, no more than they seemed to care about each other.  He was certainly a product of that family.   But after that moment in the water, I couldn’t help but think I was a failure, and that he was disappointed.  It colored our relationship for decades afterwards, at least in my mind.  It’s a critical moment in my memory, but I wonder if he were still alive if he would even remember it.

My relationship with my father was strained as a child and teen, and didn’t improve until I was an adult.  I had an epiphany one day, after a visit.  I was in my mid 30’s, and had stopped by my parent’s home for a bit.  As I was driving home it dawned on me.  My parents were asking my advice about some situation they had to deal with.  I was thunderstruck.  It was at that moment I began to think of myself as an adult.

As Dad aged, and after a lifetime of heavy smoking, cancer took it’s toll.  I ferried him to doctor’s appointments and surgeries for eight years, driving him to the VA hospitals in Fresno and Palo Alto.  At the beginning, I was hoping it might be a chance to finally get to know him.  It didn’t work out that way.  He was his usual silent self, content to ride in silence no matter how often I tried to get him to talk.  About anything.  After a while, I decided he was just too set in his ways, and wasn’t going to change.  In the end, our relationship was one of me taking him where he needed to go, his acquiescing to not being the driver, and adjusting his schedule to suit mine.  He was no longer in charge.

On August 4, 2006, he died at home.  In many ways he died a stranger to me, and yet is probably the single most influential man in my life.  Not all of those influences were good, but not all of them were bad, either.  In the end, he was just a man, a product of the 40’s and 50’s, trying to raise a family in the 60’s and 70’s.  Between alcoholism and his own family history, he probably could have done a lot worse.  It’s a shame he didn’t know how to do better.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.