As it often happens, thoughts of my father came to me unexpectedly last week as I was walking from our offices at One City Center to the nearby parking garage on Monument Square.
I don’t know why I thought of him then. I never do. I often try to keep memories of him buried, because they’re too uncomfortable to experience anew. But they’re always there, scratching away at the membrane of my consciousness with jagged fingernails until they finally break through and spew forth to contaminate my thoughts.
My father was an ex-con and an alcoholic. Most of my memories of him are unpleasant. No, that’s the wrong word. They’re abhorrent. My earliest memory is of him hitting my mother in the living room. My childhood was spent in seclusion – bedroom door closed, face buried in a book or lights turned off with my eyes closed, listening to the sounds emanating from my 8-Track stereo while I tried to drown out the fighting.
Every night, I would wait for Dad to come home from the bar and pray that he would be either too drunk or too exhausted to bother with me. Sometimes, my prayers were answered. Usually, they weren’t.
He finally stopped drinking when I was in high school, and stayed sober until his death some 10 years later. But by then, it was really too late for us to have a genuine father-son relationship. The wounds were too deep, the learned behavior of avoidance too ingrained. He didn’t apologize for the past, and I didn’t ask him to. We were simply two individuals who lived under the same roof (and later, different ones) who spoke to each other but never conversed. A delicate detente.
And then he was dead, at age 67, of lung cancer. And I continued to live my life trying to be as different from him as possible. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade; I graduated from college. He had a fearsome temper; I avoided conflict. He ridiculed any profession that didn’t involve working with your hands; I embraced intellectual pursuits. And so forth.
Maybe I’m thinking about Dad now because Father’s Day is approaching, I think as I walk past Longfellow Books. Maybe because, now that I have a child of my own, so much of what I try to give her is a response to something I never had: a happy childhood with parents who love her unconditionally, who put her needs before their own and try to prepare her for life with encouragement and guidance rather than negativity and the crack of a belt.
Why am I even writing this (in a public forum, no less) now, almost 20 years after my father’s death? I don’t have an answer, really. Maybe it’s to remind myself that Father’s Day is about more than weekend sales at the mall and holiday cards. That being a father is the most important job I will ever have, and I don’t want to screw it up.
Maybe it’s to tell others that if you have children, young or grown, you should spend some real quality time with them this weekend. Hold them tight. Tell them you love them. Enjoy every moment.
And if, like me, the memories of your father are more bad than good, don’t let the bile eat into your soul. Burn it and use it as fuel to forge a happier, healthier path instead. I’m still learning to do that, but I think it’s becoming easier with each passing year.
Lost in my thoughts, I suddenly realize that I’ve walked past the parking garage and am heading down Congress Street in a daydream haze. A light drizzle is fast turning into a downpour, matting down my hair, wetting my lips, making spots on my dusty shoes. If the weather doesn’t let up soon, I think, I’m going to have to stop walking and seek shelter.
The rain doesn’t stop.
Neither do I.
Deputy Managing Editor Rod Harmon may be contacted at 791-6450 or: [email protected] Twitter: RHarmonPPH