I never really knew him, my dad, who died exactly 52 days ago. Indeed, the most time I ever spent with him was during the weeks between his stage IV cancer diagnosis in January 2014 and his death three-and-a-half months later.
Baseball, softball, basketball, bowling, and hunting—-all were vitally important to him as a participant, fan, and, eventually, as a basketball referee and softball umpire. I can see him lying on the sofa in our family room watching the Cincinnati Reds on TV and seeming inordinately invested in the game’s outcome, as though it might somehow affect the course of his life. Later I learned that baseball had indeed changed his life in profound, regrettable fashion.
As a high school senior, he was an all-state player who received offers from Pittsburgh and Boston to try out for their teams. Sadly, his father told him to decline those opportunities, because he would never make it, and it was a waste of time to try. With that advice, a dream was destroyed, and I’m convinced that part of my dad died with it. His lifelong obsession with sports, especially baseball, must have been both blessing and bane, joy alongside a wound that never truly healed. As a child I was mystified by his zeal for baseball on TV; as an adult, I admire that he somehow retained a love for the game that cost him dearly.
He hated his job. That’s what I remember from childhood about my dad’s working life. Although I knew that he was employed by the Ohio River Company, I had no clue what he did or why it was so detestable. I recall the gloom permeating our home as the weekend drew to a close and his awful dread of returning to work after a week’s vacation.
In his career, I eventually found out, my dad’s desire was thwarted by his father. Employed all his life by a prestigious company in my hometown, my grandfather nevertheless refused to help my dad obtain a job there, which was necessary in order for him to be hired. My dad’s attempt to “make good” at something was obliterated once again by his own father. Ultimately, he spent his working years with one company, too, and retired as soon as it was feasible financially.
During his illness, he told me that he had been offered a promotion shortly before his planned retirement, but it meant relocating to a neighboring state. Although young and unfettered by family obligations, he was resolutely unwilling to embark on a new venture and declined. Still, he spoke proudly of the offer, and even produced the letter outlining the company’s proposal, which he had obviously treasured for over thirty years.
I’m fairly certain that my sister and I were a big mystery to our father from our births until his death. From our late teen years until our late 40’s, neither of us had much contact with him. He was present for a couple of graduations, my nephew’s birth, my brother-in-law’s funeral, and one or two other events. Always he seemed ill-at-ease and out-of-place. I never knew what to do or say on those occasions. How do you approach someone who seems steadfastly indifferent towards you and uninterested in your life?
It was my mother’s death in 2007 that seemed to inspire a change in him. A couple of years later, my dad began phoning my sister and me on our birthdays. We took it as a sign that calls from us on his birthday would be welcome, and indeed they were. We began to communicate on other holidays as well, and it was a nice addition to the sterile, rote pattern of mailing packages for his birthday in June and at Christmas.
We were by his side immediately upon his hospitalization in December 2013. Surprised at first, he quickly accepted and embraced our determination to care for him throughout his illness. While insisting, often through tears, that he was undeserving of them, he graciously received our efforts.
I didn’t know him, and he didn’t know me, and I learned that neither is necessary when a parent is dying and needs a child’s love and support. The past and all its uncertainties fades away; the present and the opportunities it affords is all that matters. In the words of one of my favorite literary protagonists*, “That is well-known.”
*Mma Ramotswe (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency)