I was thinking last night as I was getting ready for bed about my father; I often think of my father - more on some days, less on others. Sometimes the feeling is provoked by a memory - a television show he liked to watch (e.g., "Taxi"). A comment about a particular medical topic (my dad was a surgeon). An item that my own son does or says. Sometimes the memory is apparently spontaneous.
Anyhow, I was especially thinking of my dad these past couple of days because his birthday has again come along.
Now, my father died of cancer nearly twenty years ago. In fact, this July, it will be exactly twenty years. I remember when I was young, and twenty years seemed in those times an eternity. At 20, I could scarcely conceive of being 40 and middle-aged.
But time is a somewhat artificial construct, a hubris on men - I cannot imagine that animals mark the passing of time in any sense we would recognise, but I've been accused of lack of imagination. Of course, as the old saying goes, each day, your memory grows a bit longer, while your life, equivalently shorter.
If my father were alive, he would now be 73 years old. I find that fact remarkable. I remember when my grandfathers were 73. In our culture, we never conceive of ourselves as "old," even though the mirror reminds us of the truth. And, on the contrary, we always think of our parents as "old." I am now less than 10 years removed from the age my father was when he passed.
He was too young.
There is a famous passage from the speech Senator Ted Kennedy (I know my dad would not have been happy to be connected in any way to the Kennedys, so sorry, dad!) in his eulogy for his brother Robert F Kenendy.
(he should) not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man
My father was a lot like that. He wasn't a "great" man in the commonest sense. There are no books about him, nor buildings named for him. It's unlikely that either will ever be the case. No - he wasn't a great man, but what he was was a good one.
Before dad died, he asked if I wanted his college ring - both of us attended the same school separated by 30 years. I didn't (and don't) really like jewellery, so I politely declined. When he died, my mother gave me the ring, and I've worn it ever since.
My brothers and I (and to a lesser degree, sister) are all sport fans, and as youngsters, tended to regard athletes as more than, in fact, they are. We "looked up" to men like Steve Garvey (an artefact of being young in Los Angeles, and hence, a Dodgers' fan in my oldest brother's case). As time has gone by, and our idols revealed to be human (and in some cases, to have feet of clay), I am reminded about a comment he would make on the odd occasion. As a medical doctor (an orthopaedic surgeon), his job was to help mend broken bones. His particular speciality was children. Thus, my dad was at times fond of saying, with neither bravado nor irony, that to the people he treated each day, he was the most important person they would encounter for the day, or, perhaps week.
For some of them, he would be the most important person they would ever deal with. The doctor, unlike the actor, the singer, the athlete, literally has the power of life and death in his hands.
My father could make the comment that he was the single most significant factor in many peoples' lives, and be right about it.
As an adolescent, I shrugged this off, as my own son no doubt will shrug off my observations when he reaches adolescence, if he's not already doing so.
Despite that, my main thoughts recently of my old man are what may be trivial items. My own birthday is approaching, and I am long past the days of such things, but I was thinking last night about my ninth birthday. (My son will be nine this year). It being "my day," I got to choose an activity for the family, and of all things, I opted to go bowling.
I am pretty sure my father had little (no?) use for bowling - the rented, vinyl shoes of dubious hygeine; the greasy onion rings. As I recall, I think none of us even knew how to score. 10 points for a 'strike.' One point for each pin. But we loaded up the car with the family, and off to the local Brunswick Lanes.
This was followed up by a trip to the nearby pizza restaurant - I think it was called "Patelli's," but I am almost surely mis-spelling it.
Bowling and greasy pizza. It was a big deal to me at nine. I wonder will my own son remember things like that, as I do?
The other memory I come to recently was a trip that my father and I (and a friend and his father) took on a steam train. An old locomotive was being retired, and was making its final run from Spartanburg, SC to King's Mountain, NC, just across the border. At the time, I was quite "in to" railroads - model trains and the like. I remember the excitement quite clearly, despite the three plus decades that have passed. I remember, once we reached the terminus, disembarked, and watched the train continue on to wherever it was headed for scrapping. My friend's mother had arranged to meet us at the other end and drive us back home, so while we waited, my friend and I collected railroad spikes. They were quite grubby, covered with grease, dirt, and soot, I suppose. My father helped me sort which ones were the "best" to keep as souvenirs.
I'm not sure what happened to those spikes, but the day was one of the highlights in my mind's eye. It was the perfect day in many respects.
The railroad ties are long gone, and I haven't been bowling in many, many years. I'm no no longer young, as the cold tide of middle age is slowly rising around me. Dad is a memory now as well. His ring and bits and pieces of the huge place he had in my life remain.
Happy birthday, dad. Wish you were here.