May 30, 1997. Even thinking of this date brings so much to mind.
There was a baseball game on TV. Mike Mussina was pitching for the Baltimore Orioles against the Cleveland Indians. He took a perfect game into the ninth inning before giving up a hit to Sandy Alomar. Alomar hit a single over the second baseman’s head with one out.
With the advent of the internet, it’s easy to find out facts about anything. This account, though, I give entirely from memory. No fact-checking is required. I can still remember the most intimate details of that night. There is so much more I could say about conversations and interactions I had because they’re seared into my mind. More than most of the other details of that day, I clearly remember sitting in my neighbors’ living room as I watched the ambulance drive away.
I was in fifth grade, not yet 12 years old. My brother had just turned nine less than two months prior. Mine was a normal childhood up to that point. By most accounts, I was a happy 11 year-old American boy. Beyond the usual difficulties of growing up, I hadn’t experienced any real tragedy. My paternal grandfather died when my dad was a boy. I was alive when both of my mom’s parents passed away, but I was far too young to understand death when that happened. My life continued without them. I didn’t have much of a life with them, so I didn’t really know what it was like to have them around.
The absence of tragedy in my life changed that fateful night. I’ll never forget walking into my house with my brother after my mom returned from the hospital. My uncle was there with her. ‘Sit down,’ she said to my brother and me.
‘Your dad didn’t make it.’
Everything I knew of my life changed with those words.
The next days are mostly a blur to me. Tears. Faces constantly coming and going from the house. Many people I knew. Some I didn’t know. Days spent at the funeral home. More faces. More tears.
As I write, I’m vacillating between a simple recollection of the facts of that evening and an emotional remembrance of it. I cried when my father died. A lot. After a while, though, there were no more tears to cry. Tragedy struck again later that same year when my grandmother also died. She was my dad’s mother and had been my only living grandparent. I cried again, but much less. I was sad, but there was only so much sadness left. In some misguided attempt to be a man instead of the boy I was, I did my best to hold back my tears with the passing of my grandma.
This is a pattern I’ve repeated for much of my life. I have moments of genuine emotion at times, but they are often fleeting. I’ve repeatedly said that I have ‘muted emotions’. That is, I’m rarely very happy or very sad. My emotions normally don’t go to either extreme, allowing my moods to stay at an even level. This is both a blessing and a curse. There are times when I just want to feel something strongly, whether positive or negative, but I usually can’t. Overall, though, I am glad for this.
This brings me to one of the things I’ve come to realize about death. It’s so final, and it does a lot to change the circumstances of those who are left behind. There can even be good that comes from it, though often that good is veiled or doesn’t come about until years later. Though he may not be on my mind all the time, my dad is a part of me and a part of everything I do in some way. I am who I am due to my dad, both because of his life and also because of his death. Such an event can do nothing but impact our existence for good and for bad, and clearly I’m no different.
It is difficult, even now, for me to discuss my father and his death. It’s really only with the passage of so many years that I’m able to give such an objective account. In a way, it’s almost easier to put this out into the blogosphere than it is to talk about in person (such is the greatness and strangeness of blogging as a medium). When I was growing up, I would usually get very quiet when someone would ask about my ‘parents’. I hated having to correct someone, saying that I only had one parent. I wanted to be a ‘normal kid’, and, furthermore, I didn’t want to be forced to think once more about the fact that my father had passed away. Talking about it made me uncomfortable, especially the instances in which I wasn’t able to avoid answering.
What almost invariably made the situation worse was that, upon finding out about my father, the immediate response of most people was to give me pity. I really disliked being pitied. I still do. I knew these responses came from a good place and that most people genuinely felt bad for me. However, I didn’t want to be known exclusively as the boy who lost his father.
Thankfully, this has become slightly easier as time has gone on. Time truly does do a lot to heal life’s wounds. As I grow older, it is an unfortunate reality that more people my age and above have experienced the death of a parent or someone close. Another example of the good that can come from my experience with loss is that I can relate to and comfort those who are grieving without resorting merely to pity.
I write this at the age of 31. I’ve lived well over half of my life without my father. I’m happy for the times I did have with him and the memories formed, but it doesn’t feel like ‘enough’. This could be said of every relationship that ends. There’s always more that could have been said and more that could have been done. I do feel at times that there’s a hole in my life where my dad would have been. Yet I won’t focus on what I missed out on or what could have been. I really don’t see the point in that. I could ask ‘What if?’ indefinitely and drive myself crazy. Instead of that, I’ll look at the good times we had and focus on the positive things about my dad that I remember and that others have told me.
He had a great sense of humor. I’ve heard this from several people. I saw some of it, but being so young, I only scratched the surface of his humor. He had occasional moments of goofiness, but his humor mostly took the form of dry wit. I echo this in my own personality and sense of humor.
He was almost always in a good mood. My aunt once told me a story that exemplifies this. He came into work one rainy day. He was wet and, by most accounts, he should have been miserable. Someone asked him, ‘How are you?’ He though for a moment before sincerely answering, ‘I’m doing well’. This wasn’t just some unthinking, throwaway statement. He actually meant it. This was his way throughout his life. He didn’t let negative circumstances affect him more than a bit. This attitude served him well, especially once real adversity set in later on in his life.
He had worked in a hospital as an orderly. It’s where he and my mom met. One of his duties in this position was to lift patients, transferring them from one bed to another. While doing this one day, he injured his back. This led to his often being bedridden. He had numerous surgeries over the years with rods inserted into his back. I remember that he almost always slept with a heating pad to alleviate some of the pain he experienced on a daily basis.
His injury left him unable to work. It was difficult for him even to do many manual tasks around the house that required lifting or bending down for long periods of time. It also severely limited his ability to play with my brother and me. How many men long for the day when, as fathers, they can play sports with their sons? He was a good athlete in high school, and I see now how he wanted to pass on not only his love for sports but also the skills to compete. After his injury, however, he was usually only able to explain. When he was able to demonstrate, it was not to the extent he once could. In those times when he was active with my brother and me, I can only imagine the pain it caused him, both physically and mentally. It’s only now, as an adult, that I can begin to realize how much his inability to play with us fully must have broken him up.
Yet even in the midst of this difficulty, I can’t recall a time when he allowed his circumstances to affect his mood. He wasn’t perfect, but his sense of humor and good attitude remained.
Thinking about my mom for a moment, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for her to tell my brother and me that night that our dad had died. She had just lost her husband, and now she had to inform her two sons that their father had died. Not only would she never again have the opportunity to be with him, neither would she have the chance to see him again with their sons. Yet she handled all of it with grace and dignity.
In this discussion about my father, I need to be sure not to overlook the strength and courage of my mother. There was a period as a teenager when I was wandering down a path that was unhealthy for me, to say the least. This was due in large part to growing up without a father. I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time, but I was angry, and I acted out of that anger. Throughout this period, I certainly didn’t make things easy for her as a single mother. Despite my struggles, my mom continued to believe in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Her encouragement continues to this day. I cannot say enough about her.
I do occasionally wonder what my life would be like if my dad were still around. Again, I don’t want to dwell for too long on this, but I think it’s valuable to think about for some time. For instance, what would he think of my life’s choices? What would he say about the things I’ve done? The things I haven’t done? Many people have told me that he would be proud of me, and though I appreciate it every time someone says this, I do have to wonder at times if this is in fact true.
In the end, I do believe it. And so with this belief, the best I can do is to live my life and to be a man my father would be proud to call his son. That’s the best tribute I can give to him.