Back in February 2009, as I approached my 39th birthday, I had this idea of writing an essay a week leading up to my 40th birthday. I thought maybe I could capture some elements of that living-on-the-cusp year and perhaps turn them into a collection. Like a lot of seemingly good ideas, this one ran out of gas fairly quickly, and I squirreled the two essays I completed away in a folder deep in the bowels of my computer. I re-read them tonight, for the first time in a year and half. The first essay was not ready for prime time, as they say. But the second provides an interesting glimpse into what I was thinking about that winter — thoughts that led me directly to the writing of The Summer Son, my forthcoming novel.

I hadn’t remembered all of that until just tonight. It’s worth sharing:

Dad with Bodie, left, and Zula, his grandpuppies.

February 16, 2009
5:31 a.m.
Billings, Montana

My father lives upstairs from me, in a condominium whose physical structure is identical to mine, and that’s an odd bit of conformity when you consider just how different we are. He’s a man who has seen hardship and pain that I can’t conceive. He made his way in the world with his hands, while I’ve made mine, meager though it may be, with my head. He makes friends easily and keeps them for decades. I make acquaintances easily and release them like leaves in the wind.

And those are just the broad strokes.

Yet I find myself now wondering what I’m going to do with my thoughts on the man. At this late date, when he’s on the cusp of 70 and I’ve just rounded the last number between me and 40, he has dropped a surprise on me.

In my birthday card – Dad always picks out something verbose, letting the card maker carry the words that he cannot – he wrote something that left me thunderstruck, standing right there in his kitchen.

When I could speak again, I made him hug me, and for the first time in a long time, I wrapped both of my arms around his back and squeezed him tight.

*****

A couple of days ago, on the social-networking site that is taking over my life, I debated with a friend the reason that our new president would self-identify as black when his racial makeup is equal parts black and white – and it’s the white folks who cared for and nurtured him.

She wrote: “But really, ask yourself how you would feel if you were Barack’s or Halle’s (Berry) mom: ‘I got them away from their father and I raised and sacrificed everything for them and now they identify with their non-present, purposely abandoning sperm donor …’ ”

It’s a provocative notion, and one I can confront in my own circumstance, the racial component aside. It was my mother who, when I was three years old, recognized that life with my father was untenable, that if I was going to have the best opportunity to grow up in a stable, supportive household, she was going to have to extricate herself from a bad marriage and start anew. Of all the gifts I’ve ever received, two stand above the rest: the decision by my birthmother to give me up to someone who could better care for me, and the decision by my mother to pull us out of Casper, Wyoming, and into life in Texas with Charles Clines – her new husband, my new stepfather and the great male role model in my life.

So, using my friend’s question, I’ll frame my own: Why, given Mom’s sacrifices, have I spent a good deal of my adulthood trying to corral a relationship with and an understanding of Dad?

Part of the answer lies in my response to my friend, given to her in an apologetic note after our words in a public square of Facebook grew too sharp: “I just got done writing a book (Past-Due Pastorals, which I’ve since taken out of print) that focuses largely on my father, a man I don’t know half as well as my mother and someone who hasn’t been half as good to me as she has. That doesn’t mean I disregard my mom. As I told her, it’s the things you miss in life that leave you searching, not the ones that are there for you.”

Put another way, my relationship with my mother is hard-wired into me. I can talk to her about anything, I can rely on her without question or fear of being let down. She was and is a constant, nurturing presence in my life. I never wanted for anything that matters where she is concerned.

Where Dad is concerned, I’ve always wanted.

*****

When I was a child, that constant striving for Dad’s approval led me into some blunders of judgment. For years, I idolized him on superficial grounds: He was strong and tough, he drove trucks and wielded tools, and in the absence of parenting skills but awash in money, he gave me anything I wanted if he thought it would keep me quiet and out of his hair.

And so it was that I would go home to Texas from summers spent with Dad, fat and sluggish from all the food I wanted to eat and all the pop I wanted to drink, and I would have to learn to live again in a house with rules, where love was not a new motorbike but a well-balanced meal, where discipline was not a handful of quarters for the video arcade but an expectation that I would work hard in school and interact with the family.

I have a very specific memory of being seven or eight years old and telling my mother that she wasn’t as nice as my stepmother Linda, Dad’s second wife. It’s hard for me to write that now, knowing how wrong I was. In the years that followed, my opinion of Linda changed. I viewed her as an opportunist, a user and someone who leveraged her position as a wedge between my father and me. At one point, my mother wrote to Dad and told him that he wasn’t sufficiently active in my life. (This was not a plea for money, which he also owed, but for time.) Linda sent the note back and scrawled atop it: “Leave him alone.”

How it must have pierced my mother’s heart to hear me compare her unfavorably with that creature.

*****

In later years, I stopped seeing Dad’s absences as something that made him mysterious and worthy of my yearning, and I just walked in my own direction. When he had a series of heart attacks in 1993, I was hundreds of miles away, in Owensboro, Kentucky, and I didn’t go out to Albuquerque to see him until the following spring, well after he had recovered. Our calls grew infrequent.

In the mid-’90s, he committed his heart to a woman for the fourth time. (Linda was Marriage No. 2 and Marriage No. 3; if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.) His final attempt was his most successful. Mildred Leahy was the right person at the right time – a sweet, loving woman who could handle my rapidly slowing down rascal of a father. And it was Mildred who asked, point-blank, the question that was right in front of our noses: Why were Dad and I so distant?

On the side of that question where she could exert some influence – my father’s – Mildred went to work. I started receiving weekly phone calls, at her behest initially and then because we both found that we enjoyed them. On one of my visits to Albuquerque, Mildred asked me why Dad and I had been so estranged, and I very honestly told her. She urged me to take a fresh look at the man, and so I did. Here’s what I saw: a doting partner who would set out her breakfast every morning, along with a napkin upon which he would write “Good morning Sunshine. I love you.”

Just a few months before Mildred died, when she was dealing with the excruciating pain of the cancer that was killing her, she insisted that Dad and I take a long-planned driving trip through Montana, to visit the spaces and places of his early life. It was her last great gift to our relationship. After she was gone, I wrote a typically bad but heartfelt poem:

Hours from now I’ll be racing the weather south

To a place that should feel like home, much as I’ve been there

And yet confounds me each time

To a man I’ve known all my life

Whom I know less than a man I met last week

Closeness could never be counted in warmth or words

Just proximity, and only sometimes

But as my tread wears away I find

That none of that matters much

We come together for the right reasons

And stay apart because we’ve always done it that way

She never quite understood that

And she made him do it better, out of love

And made me do it better, out of shame

But she’s gone now

Pancake makeup and strident hair

Are my memories

But his are different

He needs me now

There’s nobody left

*****

For as long as I can remember, my father’s friends, upon meeting me, would say something like this: “Your dad is really proud of you.”

Last year, as I acted on Dad’s behalf to buy his condominium here in Billings, his Montana-based mortgage banker said, “Your dad just goes on and on about you.”

These are wonderful sentiments, of course, and anyone would be proud to receive them. But please understand that the words come with a tinge of melancholy when I hear them from someone other than him, when I have to come to terms with the notion that he can say them, just not to me.

But perhaps I should be fair about this, as I’m guilty of the same thing. He brags to other people. I share my thoughts with a keyboard.

Before Past-Due Pastorals came out, Dad sat upstairs with a proof copy and read it over the course of an evening. His eyes are fading, shot through by macular degeneration. His reading level is low, the result of a childhood in which farm work was given more currency than book learning. No one seems to know just how much schooling Dad had. My mother figures that his day-to-day education ended around the fourth grade. A cousin says that he was in school off and on up until junior high. Whatever the case, reading is not pleasure for him; it’s work. And yet he dedicated himself to reading my book one night, and he bore my at times harsh assessment of him without complaint or recrimination.

He’s a big man, my father.

And I’d like to think that he recognized in those pages something that I badly needed to hear, something that he gave me for my 39th birthday in the words he wrote on my card: “The gift thats meant the most to me has been the joy of watching you grown into a special man I’m proud to call my son. With love, Dad.”

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