The Dead Dads Club

momdad

CRISTINA: “There’s a club. The Dead Dads Club. And you can’t be in it until you’re in it. You can try to understand, you can sympathize. But until you feel that loss… My dad died when I was nine. George, I’m really sorry you had to join the club.”

GEORGE: “I… I don’t know how to exist in a world where my dad doesn’t.”


CRISTINA: “Yeah, that never really changes.”

The passage is from an episode of Grey’s Anatomy where the character, Cristina Yang, is giving her blunt comfort to a colleague who has just lost his father.

I was reminded once again of my membership in this club last night. I was attending a workshop and the session was devoted to reflecting on our “childhood attachment relationships.” The questions on the worksheet asked us to think about from whom we received comfort and support as children, how we had come to define that love and support, had we ever felt unsafe, betrayed, etc.

I was a little stuck at the beginning, my memories of childhood being fuzzy at best, but the more I spent time with it, the more I came back to my father as having been my primary source of warmth, trust, and stability. I’ve written about him before here, but what brought me back to him, besides the workshop, is the increasing number of friends and relatives who seem to have suddenly become members of the club.

It’s one of the things that truly sucks about aging is the increasing number of funerals one must attend to support young friends who have lost their loved ones or for contemporaries who have succumbed to the vagaries of time and age. And every funeral is joyful, or tearful, or awful, and all of them leave me feeling guilty about my happiness over continuing to wake up every morning. Every one of them is a reminder that I will be the featured guest some day.

But sitting in the workshop, thinking about my dad who I lost in 2008, I felt sad that I don’t think he ever knew that he was my chief source of “comfort and connection” the entire time I was growing up. As good as our relationship was, neither of us was very good at articulating our love and affection for each other. It just wasn’t a Waldron thing to do.

dadasleep

He taught me the value of an after-work nap!

I sometimes think my dad lived a “small life” because I only remember his years as a father and sometimes forget that he grew up as the son of an itinerant baker who took the family from small town to small town, from North Dakota to Montana, setting up shop and trying to scratch out a living.

My grandfather, Lee Waldron, was absolutely beloved by my sisters and I, but I learned long after his death that he was a binge drinker and would disappear from the family for days at a time and then return and not drink for months when he was younger. My dad never once complained or even made reference to how difficult his life must have been with such instability.

full_3470_109854_MiniDoilyTatting_2

By the time I knew my grandfather, he had traded alcohol in for his ever-constant coffee and cigarettes. His other addiction was to tatting, a delicate kind of crocheting that he picked up somewhere and plied constantly, producing everything from simple doilies to large and complex tablecloths, one small piece at a time.

My dad’s “small life” included serving in World War II in the Navy spending much of his time in Guadalcanal but also stopping in Greenland and other far-flung locations.

My memory of him though was simply that he was the kindest, funniest person in my life. I believed he re-filled the ocean every night with the garden hose because he told me once that he did. I remember how he laughed off the time that I kicked a hole into the wall of the garage when I was expecting to be in deep trouble. I remember how he was the only one that I wanted to tell about my first real kiss.

dadhappy

It still kills me to think of his last few years being full of pain and his struggles with dementia. He deserved so much better. He was a good man.

It kills me that I didn’t tell him that every day. He brought joy to the people around him. He worked hard his whole life and served his country when called on to do so. He took care of his family and loved his wife, his children, and his grandchildren. He was the kind of man that every man should strive to be.

And guys like him don’t get any awards. I should have told him every day that he was my role model, that he was the reason I had succeeded as a teacher and (I hope) as a parent. It kills me to think that he may have died not knowing just how special he really was.

Maybe that’s why I related to the actor J. K. Simmons’s Oscar acceptance speech this year when he, with little context, urged the crowd to, “call your mom, call your dad. If you’re lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call ‘em. Don’t text. Don’t email. Call them on the phone. Tell ‘em you love ‘em, and thank them, and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you.”

Jack Waldron was a man to be thankful for.

dadmarkerII

Advertisements

How “Field of Dreams” Made Me a Better Father

FMD-Field-of-Dreams

Spoiler Alert! If you have not seen the film this piece abounds with spoilers. And what’s wrong with you that you haven’t seen this film yet?

It was supposed to be a movie about baseball. That’s all I really knew about it as I stood in line waiting for an afternoon showing back in 1989. It was the perfect combination of two of my most favorite things. The bucolic pace of baseball interrupted occasionally with bursts of action, and the cool, dark communal experience of watching a movie in the middle of the afternoon.

So, I was confused when the patrons of the earlier show began to stumble out into the bright light of the afternoon, and I could have sworn that I saw an older gentleman hurry away from the theater in tears.

“Hmmm,” I thought. “Weird.”

The matinee was a momentary escape for my wife and I from our two kids, who were 2 and 7 at the time—a typical afternoon respite from work, kids, responsibility, life.

As the film began, I probably should have paid more attention to the monologue delivered by the Kevin Costner character where Ray Kinsella (Costner) describes the tortured relationship with his father and his desire to not live the dreamless, workaday existence that he perceived was his father’s fate:

Dad was a Yankees fan then, so of course I rooted for Brooklyn. But in ’58, the Dodgers moved away, so we had to find other things to fight about. We did. And when it came time to go to college, I picked the farthest one from home I could find. This, of course, drove him right up the wall, which I suppose was the point. Officially, my major was English, but really it was the ’60s. I marched, I smoked some grass, I tried to like sitar music, and I met Annie. The only thing we had in common was that she came from Iowa, and I had once heard of Iowa.

 Hell, I loved baseball, had majored in English, showed up at some Vietnam War protests because we heard Joan Baez was going to be there (she was), and everyone tried to like sitar music because George Harrison liked it and everyone wanted to like whatever the Beatles liked. I could totally identify with this guy.

In that dark theater, I should have paid closer attention as Ray and the fictional author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) begin their road trip and Kinsella tells Mann about the effect of one of his books on his relationship with his father:

“By the time I was ten, playing baseball got to be like eating vegetables or taking out the garbage. So when I was fourteen I started refusing. Can you believe that? An American boy refusing to play catch with his father.

Why fourteen?”

That’s when I read “The Boat Rocker,” by Terence Mann.

Oh, God.” (rolling his eyes)

Never played catch with him again.”

You see? That’s the kind of crap people are always trying to lay on me. It’s not my fault you wouldn’t play catch with your father!”

I was completely caught up in the mysticism of the movie and the story of how a dream, any dream, could find fulfillment. How the ball field in Iowa, carved out of his cornfield by Kinsella would provide redemption for Shoeless Joe Jackson and a chance for Moonlight Graham to finally get his first at bats in a big league game. The cornfield also provided the backdrop for Mann to deliver his now famous ode to baseball and its part of the fabric of America where he assures Kinsella that, “People, will come Ray. People will most definitely come.” I was eating up every fantastical theme it was throwing out about redemption, faith, and second chances as avidly as an outfielder diving for a line drive.

So, when Terence Mann drifted off into the cornfield and Shoeless Joe left Ray with one more cryptic message as he pointed to a lone player lingering behind and then left the field, I was completely blindsided. Never saw what the film was really about.

field-of-dreams-25-yrs-slide

Because down at the backstop, the player, a catcher, was still cleaning up his gear alone and unnoticed. The player was Ray’s father, a young man on this magical field, not worn down by life, dreaming of being a big-league ball player, a man with dreams—a man that Ray had never known.

In that moment, Ray and I realized that he had a second chance—a chance to introduce his wife and his father’s granddaughter, a chance to play that game of catch that he had rejected in his youth.

Ok, by now, I’m not crying, I’m weeping. I’ve been so taken by surprise that I’m stunned by the implications of this film and it’s ultimate message. Don’t tell anyone, but I cry at movies, especially ones about sports. I cried at the end of Mighty Ducks II. I cry during about every third episode of Friday Night Lights. Brian’s Song?—forget about it.

This film suddenly flooded me with memories of my dad and thoughts about the father I was trying to become. I had a vivid memory of asking my dad to come and play catch with me. After one or two tosses, I discovered that he had no natural athleticism or feel for the game. He threw so awkwardly that I quickly made up an excuse to cut the session short. As wonderful as he was in so many ways, he did not have this one skill. It was probably the only time that in my youthful ignorance, I felt disappointed in him.

As I grappled with that memory, I was struck hard by thoughts of my own children. I was not an indifferent, neglectful father. I did my share of the chores. In the infant days, I took many turns at late-night feedings and staying home to care for them on days they were sick. I shuttled them to and from day care and pre-school, helped get them dressed every morning, and read books every night.

But having children had both filled a void and torn a hole in my identity that took me years to understand. The all-consuming nature of parenthood had put the brakes on any thoughts about the kind of person I wanted to become outside of parenting and teaching. I probably would never have biked across Europe or climbed Kilimanjaro, but for that period of time I had stopped dreaming.

Even seven years into parenthood, I felt that something was tugging at me that did not allow me to fully embrace the role that I had, to all appearances, fully embraced. I felt an almost constant desire to be relieved from my responsibilities and a tiny, nagging resentment that my life was on hold, that I was missing out on something even if I wasn’t sure what that “something” was.

And absolutely none of this was on my mind when in the dim twilight of the final scene of the film, Costner turned and saw the lone, young catcher. “Oh my god,” I whispered. “It’s his dad.”

It suddenly came crashing down on me that the whole film had been a journey of forgiveness, reconciliation—a second chance for a father and son to “have a catch”, to reaffirm a relationship, to salvage love.

Tears still streaming down my face, it didn’t matter that the ending became awkward and improbable and maybe a little silly; I was too lost between the memories of the son I had been and the father I had become. The singular thought that seared through by brain at that moment was simple, but enduring—you only get one chance to get fatherhood right. One chance.

Outside of Hollywood, there are no do-overs, no cornfields of forgiveness and reconciliation. I realized that I had one chance to be a good dad, maybe an excellent dad, and that already, the years were slipping by quickly.

The film did not so much change the way that I behaved as a father, but it completely changed the way I thought about it. Some of the resentment began to drain away and I more fully accepted everything that came with being a dad.

My clearest memory of how this change affected me came after a long day, after the kids had both been bathed and put to bed and it was my turn to get in the shower. I had to kick away the toys left behind to avoid slipping, tripping or otherwise injuring myself and stood in the stream of hot water and looked about the walls, festooned with colorful, tile stickers the kids had found. Part of me longed to take a shower like an adult, in a clean place without plastic octopi tangling my feet or sea stars staring at me with googly eyes.

And then the thought, the new “Field of Dreams” thought, hit me—look how rich my life is. All of this stuff surrounded me was the stuff of fatherhood and children, of life and love, of the chances that life gives to you only once.