The meaning of father–of dad–is different for all of us, as individual as our own experiences. Was your father a role model? Nurturing? Or something else altogether, perhaps troubled or abusive or never around? The inventory of Father’s Day cards covers a wide spectrum. You’ll find a few that are gushing sentiment… next to others from “across the miles.” Still others take a lighter tack, highlighting sports or beer, camping and hunting or tinkering with cars and carpentry–all things my own father has enjoyed over the years.
How would I define him? So much comes to mind: a huge influence on my life, for sure. Smart and gregarious. Stubborn, most assuredly. And never one to mince words. If you do something stupid, he’ll tell you on the spot.
Yet you’d be hard pressed to find a better sense of humor. In fact, a few have called him quite the character. Just last month–at age 83–he orchestrated a prank on one of my sisters who’d been searching for some lost earrings. When the earrings turned up outside his house, he came up with an idea and recruited me to help, waiting days for the right moment. The afternoon my sister hosted a family gathering, he had me drop the earrings in the dip and pretend, as she watched me take a bite, to break a tooth on one. You should have seen my sister’s face when she spotted those earrings–and, better yet, dad’s, as he grinned ear to ear.
His name is Clayton and we call him dad. Also grandpa, papa, Clayboy and, more rarely, “Fat” or “Fats,” a Depression-era nickname from getting chubby on baby formula. He was far from chubby later, when he married my mom, he only 19 and she 18. Or as a young father when he joined the Portland Police force…
Or when he lied about his age, at 16, to get into the army. You could argue he had more hair then than fat.
These days dad is struggling with body parts that want to give out. There are many that I won’t list here, but suffice it to say it’s gotten frustrating for him–and scary, with multiple trips to the emergency room. A few weeks back his heart quit and we nearly lost him. He’s better now, but facing daily trips for yet another series of treatments. So what I wish for him on this Father’s Day is simple: a restful, pain-free, peace-of-mind kind of day.
I decided to write about dad this holiday as I did mom on Mother’s Day. But this time, there’s a catch. My mother is struggling with dementia, no longer reads much and never goes online, so I knew she wouldn’t see my concern for her. Dad, on the other hand, is still mentally sharp, sharp as the nails he drove into wood projects over the years.
And the truth is, not all of it was good. There were times during my childhood we had trouble. The roots of it probably started before I was born when my parents lost a daughter in a horrible burn accident. Her name was Judy and she was darling and precocious and only two when she died. In the years after the accident, my parents started drinking heavily and by the time I was eight or 10 it had caught up with them. They fought and drank. Drank and fought. The booze and cigarettes nearly destroyed them, which was a blessing in the end, because it made them give up both.
With the worst of their vices gone, they were transformed–literally–their true personalities able to come through once again. Mom has been a wonderful grandmother to my children, nephew and nieces, and “papa” the one they ran to for stories or treats or building go-carts in the garage. It was a long, rough road, but worth the trip, in the end.
When I think now of my father’s legacy (that’s me in the photograph with him), I see the good. Despite everything he went through–the stress of being a policeman, losing a child, raising four other daughters–he never once ran out on us. He was there, thick and thin, in the two most important ways a father can be: as disciplinarian and provider. I’ve learned never to discount the importance of these, for just look to the fatherless children so prevalent today. What they need, what they cry out for is the one thing they’re missing.
There’s no question dad was a solid provider. From as far back as I can remember, he worked, and, even, as a police officer, put his life on the line. We didn’t have a lot, but it was enough to keep us comfortable. Over the years, as I grew up, I remember dad putting me on the spot. “Have you ever gone hungry?” he would say, and I would shoot back, “Yes–just before dinner!”
(A more recent shot of him here with my niece, his granddaughter, Anna.)
Oddly enough–and I’m not sure he knows this–I think it was the disciplinarian in dad that made me who I am today. He would spank me if he thought I deserved it (and usually, I did), and, though I always knew he loved me, he was never one to be sentimental. But damn if it wasn’t dad I longed to impress. When I brought home a report card of all A’s and one B he would look it over and quietly ask, “Why the B?” As I think back on that and similar moments, I realize, he probably knew exactly what he was doing. And, amazingly, it worked! After all these years, after I finished my first novel, it was dad I worried about most and dad who gave me the biggest thrill when he said he liked it.
There’s just one thing about him that I would change after all these years. Within the context of this article, it will come out of the blue. But here it is: I wish he had faith. I wish he had trust in God and a life after this one, because I’ve felt his fear of death, and I want him to have hope in what is to come, that there is a life with God after this one. Mom had the benefit of my grandmother Bessie, a undying Christian who spoke often of her “love for Jesus.” But not so for dad. Near as I can tell, he remains agnostic. I’ve given him books, wonderful books, about afterlife experiences, people who’ve returned from the other side and report indescribable love. (My favorite of these is by Eben Alexander called Proof of Heaven if you care to know.)
Except maybe this. Except maybe to tell him that I love him and that God loves him and that I have faith this is true.
There’s a verse in the Bible that I’ll leave here for dad. It’s from John 14, when Jesus says, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?”
There’s a room for you too, dad. Waiting. For the day when you’ll take it.
–As always, your thoughts on this and every topic are welcome. Please feel free to share them below.–