The Dead Dads Club

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Grieving in Teaspoons

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When it comes to grief, I often feel there is something I am missing.

I watch my friends and relatives deal with the loss of a loved one and often they are drenched in sorrow, tears, depression, and anger. I just passed the sixth anniversary of the death of my dad, and I have lost some friends and colleagues about whom I cared deeply. In fact, as I enter my 60’s, I find myself attending too many funerals as social events. However, in watching the grieving of others, I have been surprised (so far) by my own sense of detachment, as if I’m failing at grief.

My dad, Jack, was a wonderful man. He gifted me with his sense of humor, an indispensible tool in my experience as a teacher, and he lived his 86 years with a sort of joyful kindness and a true affection for others, especially his grandchildren. When we gathered for his funeral, the same comments came up over and over. No one could remember ever seeing him angry. No one could remember him uttering an unkind word toward another person.

As a child, he came to know the things I cared about and made sure I got to experience them. He was never a sports guy, but he could see my interest grow. So he made sure I got to see the Dodgers in Chavez Ravine (unfortunately a guy named Joe Moeller was pitching that day instead of the great Don Drysdale or even greater Sandy Koufax). We made regular trips to Westgate Park where the minor league Padres played their games. We experienced hockey, professional basketball, and the Harlem Globetrotters together. When Bill Cosby broke on the scene, and I began to memorize his comedy routines and perform them at Scouting events, he surprised me with tickets to see him live on stage. I am positive he would never have spent that money on himself just for his own enjoyment.

My dad’s last three years were difficult ones. He became increasingly crippled by arthritis and was in constant pain. Dementia began creeping in. He kept punctuating conversations with phrases like, “I bet you never thought you’d see your old dad all crippled up like this” as I’d help him into the car on the way to endless doctor appointments. More and more often, even at holiday gatherings, he began to express his desire for his life to be done with. Hearing every one of those woeful comments was a moment of grief for me.

He passed away in the hospital, sneaking away suddenly and quietly. He woke up in the morning, began teasing the nurses and talked one of the pretty ones into helping him with his morning coffee. He got on the phone to my mom to find out when she was coming in to see him and took time to tell her once again how much he loved her. And then, when no one was looking, he died. It was May 2, 2008.

I expected to have a wrenching, emotional response even though he had been through three years of suffering, and we had had numerous close calls during that time. Instead, I found myself consumed with the details of his funeral, keeping an eye on my mother and my children, and in writing a eulogy that would give him all the credit he deserved.

That emotional response never came for me, not entirely. My good friend Stephen noticed it and told me, “You can’t just be the tough guy through all of this. You have to allow yourself time to feel it.” But it just wasn’t there. Not then.

The first time it hit me was in June. I was on a walk through the neighborhood and mentally working on a “to do” list, and it hit me that it was almost Father’s Day and that I needed to be sure to get by the store and pick up a card for……oh, yeah. I didn’t need to do that. I would never need to buy a Father’s Day card again. Suddenly, his loss began to feel real.

In September, I was chosen as one of five San Diego County Teachers of the Year, a truly memorable recognition, at a televised, gala event at the Balboa Theater in San Diego. In accepting the award, my thoughts went right to him and how proud he would have been to see me receive that award. He was never the kind of father that I had to work to impress or please, but someone who always gave me the confidence that came with knowing that my father believed that I had already exceeded every expectation that he could ever have for me. I missed him there, on that stage that night.

One of the most trivial, but most painful moments came when I grew tired of seeing “Mom and Dad” on my cell phone every time I had to call my mom. It was inaccurate. Dad was gone. Dad was not going to answer.   I needed to delete my father. Every press that removed the “and Dad” felt like a rejection and a betrayal.

Even today, I will catch myself thinking of an odd encounter or a pleasant moment and how I need to get on the phone and call my dad and tell him the story. And then I catch myself in mid-thought and lose him once again.

I began to realize, early in the process of writing this, that not only does everyone grieve differently, but that my reactions to grief are packaged all around the history and circumstances of the loss. There are potential losses that I refuse to even think about much less write about. I can’t begin to imagine how crushing they might be.

For now, in my way, I still grieve for my dad. This grief continues to be doled out to me in teaspoons, painful ones. Perhaps the next one will be a tidal wave.

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