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.
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.
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.
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.