Sticking Around and Being There: The First Steps of Fatherhood

Surfing Dad
My dad surfing the day of my wedding.

My father is back in the hospital. He had bifemoral aortic bypass surgery three weeks ago. He spent one week inside recovering. The second he got to go home and I went to help out. I had two main responsibilities: keep his car keys away from him and make sure he ate. I did a bang up job on the first but I failed at getting him to eat. He refused to eat what I prepared or to drink Ensure or any of the “old people” drinks, as he seemed to think of them. He was rarely hungry. It’s a week later and he’s lost twenty pounds and isn’t healing like he should. His gut wrenches and the doctors don’t know what it is.

If asked whether or not he was a good dad, my father would likely respond based on his mood. If he were in a particularly down mood, which he’s prone to be in, he might say he failed. If he felt the question was loaded or a personal affront to his manhood, he would likely say he was a great father and fight you to the bitter end to prove it.

If I were asked the same question about my father, my responses would follow a similar pattern. Our relationship is like that. Mercurial. Heavy and light. Hard and harder. It’s always been that way. If I’m in a more reflective mood, like I am now, then I start to the see more shades of grey.

My father is nearly sixty. He was born in Illinois and split almost all of his life between Arkansas and Texas. When he was about ten his parents divorced and his father left. He didn’t see him again until my dad was in his forties. My grandfather had married another woman and had another kid. My uncle found him on the Internet. He came to visit us in Texas. I was about eighteen or nineteen. I knew almost nothing about him and neither did my father or his little brother or their little sister. It was a bizarre reunion.

What made it even more difficult was that my father’s mother, I guess you’d call her my grandmother, had also left my dad and his siblings when they were kids. About three years after their father left, their mother disappeared. Vanished really. That’s the way I remember it, and this may not be how it happened, but memories are funny things if the flames aren’t stoked with the truth every now and then, they change into a new version of the truth, your version of the truth. We never really talked about her. We never really talked about my dad’s childhood. It was too depressing for children and for my dad. But the way I remember it, is that when my father was about thirteen, he and his brother and sister went to school. When they returned their mother was gone and she never came home.

No one ever saw her again or if they did, they never told my father. My dad and uncle were sent to a boys’ home in the Texas panhandle. My aunt grew up with an uncle, her mother’s brother. The home where my dad lived was a working ranch. Every boy that lived there was either abandoned or given up on. I think the people that ran the place hoped for good things for these boys. They meant well. It’s still around today. They even allow girls. But from the stories my dad used to tell, it was far from easy. If a boy left that place and didn’t amount to anything in life, then it wouldn’t be a surprise.

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When my grandfather visited with his wife, they seemed like pretty good people. Everyone got along. It was weird to have a grandfather. I was old enough to see that something wasn’t sitting right with my dad. They left a few days later and we never saw them again. Years later, when my grandfather died, my aunt and uncle went to the services in Washington. My dad stayed home. I asked him why and he told me he didn’t see why he should. He told me that when they had visited he asked his father why he never came to see them. My grandfather said that my grandmother and her family had told him to stay away and so he did. My dad pushed it a little further and asked why he didn’t come back after their mother disappeared. My grandfather gave another unsatisfactory answer before his wife got defensive. We never saw them again because they were offended by my dad’s question. He simply wanted to know why his father had abandoned him.

I loved my dad at that moment. I knew that no matter how bad things got with us, I could ask him anything and he’d answer. He might yell or he might not like the question, but I could ask him. I still do and we still fight but I never fear asking him anything.

When I measure my dad’s fatherhood skills, I use his parents as a baseline. Compared to them, he’s off the charts. He did one thing they never did, he stuck around. That’s an accomplishment.

Obviously, having a childhood like that has an impact on a person. My father has his demons. After he left the ranch, he fucked around, odd jobs and such. He joined the army for a stretch around the end of the Vietnam war. He was discharged, not dishonorably or honorably, somewhere in-between. He was married at the time to his first wife. I know very little about her or that time. I vaguely remember the first time I found out he was married before my mother. I about shit myself. I never imagined my father with anyone else.

The story I remember him telling is that his wife cheated on him with his sergeant on the base. Some way or another he got a discharge out of that. As a kid, I’m sure the logic of it made sense. I can’t wrap my head around it as an adult and I’m sure there is more to the story that he’ll never tell. In my child’s memory, I see it unfold much like any Hollywood film. I imagine him coming home to discover them in bed together. She is defiant as she laughs and taunts him with the infidelity. She blames him for it. If he’d been better at this or that, she wouldn’t have done it.

I imagine my father losing his mind and beating his sergeant half to death and in the military honor code, he somehow gets off because every soldier knows you don’t fuck your brother’s wife. I don’t know that any of that ever happened but as a kid, that’s how I saw it.

When my dad told me stories about the rough patches in his life, I always saw my dad as some kind of superhero. I could never imagine anyone seeing the things he saw and living to tell about it. There is one story about a motorcyclist getting his head chopped off by a sheet of metal in the back of a truck he was riding in. He said it hung over the edge and it was so thin, the driver never saw it. It took his head clean off at the neck. He told me another about a “coup” in one of the dorms at the ranch. In the middle of the night some of the boys attacked the den parent that was assigned to their dorm. He remembers waking up and a hatchet was sticking out of the man’s head.

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Insane, right? I don’t know if anything he told me was true. He might have just been a great storyteller. Since I’ve become an adult, I’ve never asked him to retell any of his stories to see if my adult mind is more prepared for their reality. A part of me doesn’t want to ask him to tell them again. The truth might destroy  them.

When my dad became a father for the first time with my sister he was twenty three. He still held only odd jobs. He was twenty five when I was born. I break my childhood down into two different periods: pre-rehab and post-rehab. Any memories I have before the age of eleven, my dad was a drunk. After eleven he was the same guy but he could no longer blame the alcohol for being an asshole.

My father wasn’t abusive. There were times when he said things that went too far and there were times where he got more physical than he should have. In my mind, abusive would be a consistent, continuous pattern. I’m not an expert, so if my definition is off, that’s fine. I don’t need a clarification. This is how it’s defined for me. My father wasn’t continuously crossing that line. It happened but in between those times we  had some amazing times.

I have a weird memory of an open house my dad took my sister and I to when I was in fourth grade. I only have flashes of it. I fill in the blanks to make it a whole night because it was so much fun. It’s a weird memory because I know my dad was drunk and yet he took us to our school’s open house. That’s the thing about alcoholics, they can either be the life of the party or the death of it. That night he was the life of the party. The image that sticks out the most, and I don’t know if it ever happened, is of us leaving. I remember him pushing my sister and I on the grass and all of us rolling around on the way to the car. We were laughing the entire time.

The next day, my teacher asked me if my father had been drinking. I told her he had. That’s the moment that I knew what he did wasn’t normal. I talked a lot with my teacher about my dad’s drinking. She listened. She was a great teacher.

That same year, my dad wrecked our only car. He was drunk and hit a parked car on his way home.  I remember it as a hit and run. No one was hurt, just the cars. My mom told him that was the end. That was the last straw. She packed us up and threatened to leave. He went to rehab the next day.

After rehab, we moved to another city and started again. My dad went to college. He got a scholarship from the ranch he grew up on. They paid for him to get his teaching certificate. He was in his late thirties and for a while there things were looking up. When my father became a teacher, it was the first job I remember him having for more than two years. It lasted about four years, maybe five. Then he lost that job. I don’t really know what happened but he never taught again. He went back to odd jobs. He held them down for maybe one or two years tops.

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I was a teenager by then and I carried a lot of anger with me as most teenagers do. But most of that anger was targeted at my father. By the time I was sixteen, I started to see things more clearly or so I thought. My father stopped being the superhero with the great stories. He stopped being the man I empathized with. He became the man that never treated my mom the way I thought she should be treated. He loves my mother and she loves him. They’re not perfect. Their marriage isn’t perfect. Hell, my marriage isn’t perfect. But although my father stuck around, my mother was there. There’s a significant distinction between those. And the one who was there, to me, was being hurt by the one that stuck around. I began to wonder whether he should stick around anymore. Would it be better for all of us if he just left?

I’ve had that same thought rolling around my head for nearly twenty years and every year, he’s still around.

This is what I think about when I think about becoming a father. As I measured my father against his father, I measure myself against my father.

Will I stick around or will I be there? Will I lose my temper? Will I give them something to aspire to? Will I treat their mother the way they expect their mother to be treated? Will their mother and I still love each other after forty years? Will I be able to keep a job? Will I teach them the right way to do things? Will I be able to tell them stories they’ll remember?

My father is a complex man. Who I am today is because of him. The joke that he and I both tell is that I learned from him what not to do. I’ve never had a drink in my life other than a few small sips of beer or wine coolers as a child when I thought it was cool to be like my old man. But at some point it all clicked for me. At some point I connected drinking to something I didn’t want to be. I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t know what would have happened had I drank, but I knew that for me if I ever drank, I may become a monster like my father was when he drank.

Over the course of my life, my father has been sober more years than he was drunk. I know that he’s too harshly judged for the years when he was drunk and not given enough credit for the years he was sober, but some sins are hard to wash away. I suppose my child will hold me to a high standard as well. That’s part of being a dad.

I’m sitting here in California while my dad is in a hospital bed in Texas. I’m worried about him. I’m worried about a life without a father. What will it be like if he doesn’t stick around?

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