Saturday, June 15, 2013

Dad's Day

A couple of years ago I was on a business trip in St. Louis.  I was staying and working at a place close to the capitol and the river.  There is a restaurant that overlooks a park right across from where I stay when I’m in town.  It’s a nice little Italian place and I go there virtually every evening for dinner while I am in town. One evening, at around dusk, I stepped out on the stoop to have a cigarette and call my wife.  I saw a man and his young son holding baseball mitts and a ball.  They were heading to the Arch for a game of catch.  I said hello as they passed, and they said hello back.  I watched them off in the distance as they threw the ball back and forth.  For the first time in awhile I really missed my dad.

When I was a young boy, I idolized my father, but we did not have a close relationship.  It wasn’t that he didn’t try.  He was just very focused on his career and traveled a lot. It wasn’t that he was a bad father; it was only that he just wasn’t around much.  He did everything he could to connect with me. He tried to get me into sports and volunteered as a coach.  I was not good at sports though, so usually our experiences in that ended up with tears and bloody noses.  He had us go into the Indian Guides together and became the chief of our tribe.  That was fun, because we made a lot of friends, and got to camp and fish together. We said things like “Pals Forever” and I liked that.

When I became a teenager, we stopped talking much, because every time we talked it became an argument. We would fight about just about anything.  One time we had a rip-roaring screaming incident in public, about a conservative striped rep tie he thought I should buy to wear to work that I thought was hideous.  He thought it was more professional, and I thought it made me look like a sell-out. We were asked to leave the Marshall Fields at the mall.  The following days were nothing but silence and anger.  Dad still came to all of my plays and concerts, would say tersely, "You did a good job," and then go home to work at the dining room table.  When I ran for student council president it was a tough battle. He never said  word to me about it. After the results were announced I went home and sat in the living room. He came in the room. He was all dressed up. He said to me, "T.S. your mother and I have dinner plans. melissa has other plans so I need you to watch your brother and sister." I sighed and said, "OK." He looked at me  for minute as I sat on the couch and sighed. He said, "You know, Tom, not everything works out the way you want it too. It's important that you tried."  I looked up at him and said, "But, Dad,  I won."  He lowered his head and left the room.  A few minutes my mom came in and gave me a big hug. "I am so proud f you! I'm really sorry about tonight. We'll do something to celebrate...maybe have a party." I said, "That'll be fine. It's kind of still sinking into me that I pulled this thing off."
All through high school I had dreamed of going to Harvard and I worked really hard to get accepted.  One night in May just before graduation as I was starting to fill out my acceptance and housing forms, my father came into the house hooting like a maniac because he had left, or lost his job,  I’m not sure which. He never really explained the circumstances.  He went up into his bedroom, grabbed all of his ties, threw them in the grill and lit them on fire.  I went out onto the patio where he was sitting, drinking a beer and asked him,“What are you going to do now?”  He replied “I’m going to go into consulting with a friend of mine.  It might be a little bit tight around her right now, but we’ll see.”  I went down to my room to think.  Later on I joined him on the patio for a minute and just glared at him. He couldn’t look at me. He just said, “I’m sorry, T.S.  You’re going to have to do this on your own.”  I went back down to my room.  I put the forms from Harvard away in a drawer and started filling out the ones for the University of Illinois. 

The night before I left for Champaign the following fall we had one of the biggest fights of our lives together.  It was one filled with resentment and hatred.  It came near to fisticuffs. I had to have a friend come get me so that I could leave the house and go cool down. That fight was the last one we ever had like that, because after that I left home and never really looked back. He and Mom took me to school. He helped my sister move in, while my mom helped me, and then he came, shook my hand, and said good-bye.

When I started at Illinois, I thought I might become a pre-med, because that is what the ACT told me that was hat I had aptitude for. That lasted a very short time and I quickly switched out some classes and became an English major, because all I ever really wanted to do was read and write. One day I was leaving my required “Introduction to Poetry” class, walking down the quad, and looking at some notes my professor had given me on a recent paper that I written. I happened to look up and saw my dad walking towards me.  He looked different.  He was wearing jeans, a denim shirt and a light brown corduroy sport coat.  I ran up to him and in a panic asked, “What is wrong?  What has happened? Is everyone alright?” He smiled, put his hands on my shoulders, and said, “Everything is fine.” I asked, “Then why are you here?”
  
“Well, I was sitting in my office last night running a program and something occurred to me. I haven’t talked you since you went to school.  I also realized I don’t know my son.  I don’t know what you are studying; I don’t know what you dream of becoming.  I don’t know what you like or dislike.  I don’t know your friends…I don’t even know if you have a girlfriend or not. I don’t know anything about you….I want to know these things.” I looked him in the eyes and I could tell he was sincere.  I said, “OK, then, let’s go.”

That weekend he stayed in my dorm room because my roommate had gone home.  He met all my friends and he taught us silly drinking games that he had learned in his fraternity days. We visited the bars in Champaign. We laughed and talked a lot. I showed him the English Building where I spent most of my time. I showed him the things I was doing for the campus newspaper.

On Saturday we went to our dorm floor’s intramural football game and he met the girl I was dating at the time. He asked me, “Why don’t you play?”  I said, “I’m not much into football. I play a different game that’s named the same.”  On Sunday morning my father got to watch me play soccer for the very first time.  I wasn’t normally a starter on my club team but that day the coach let me play the first half as a defensive midfielder.  At one point I saw my father talking to the coach.  When the game was over, I asked him what he had said to him. My father smiled and said, “I just told him, ‘I don’t know anything about this game, but my son looks pretty good, then I asked him, ‘Is he?’”  I asked him what the coach said.  This is what he told me: “He’s just beginning this game but by the time he’s a junior or a senior, I bet he’ll do great.  He loves the game, he works hard, he’s an outstanding teammate, and he’s pretty good with his feet.  He had a great game today and I see good things in the future.”  Being good at sports isn’t everything, but it sure is nice when your father wraps his arm around you and looks at you with pride.  Since then my father did his best to either come watch me play or I became a father watch me coach my kids’ teams.

When he left that afternoon to go home, after we’d had lunch, laid stretched out on the quad and talked, I walked him to his car, and he hugged me.  It was the first time he had done that since I was maybe five-years-old.  After that weekend my father and I became very close. We called each other all of the time. We found out we had a lot in common, and maybe that is why we butted heads in the first place. He came to see me all of time throughout college. It was always a big weekend when Garl came to visit.

After college when I got married, started a career and became a father myself, I became a director at a large organization he became my mentor in business. Every month he would come to visit me in the city at work and we would go have dinner. We would also visit one of the jazz clubs we loved. We used to go and watch Patricia Barber at the Gold Star Sardine Bar, and drink scotch.  He always requested that she sing his favorite song, “Someone to Watch Over Me.”  It’s one of my favorites standards now too.  We would talk and make jokes about how the kid with the long hair and beard was now clean-shaven, wearing a suit and wing-tips...and about how Dad was now wearing jeans and driving a convertible.  On the ride home he would give me unsolicited advice on how to be a good husband and father.  I always listened.  

When my father got sick, which was in his late sixties, or early seventies, he asked me to come over to help him organize his basement.  He was trying to get his tools, which he couldn’t use anymore together, ready to be given away to all of the friends who had supported him through the years.  I was mostly moving boxes around and making room.  One box had a bunch of photo albums and baby books that he and my mother had accumulated over the years. Dad said that some point he intended to distribute them all to me and my siblings. Also in the box was a huge scrapbook that was kind of a mess.  

At the end of the day, when my stepmother got home, and it was time for me to go, my father hugged me again, kissed me on the cheek, and handed me the messy scrapbook.  I didn’t look at it at first, but when I got back home to the garage that one day would become my studio, I did. In that scrapbook was everything I ever wrote. There were papers he had stolen when I shared them with him, articles he had clipped from high school newspapers and the Daily Illini, miscellaneous early fiction and non-fiction drafts that he had taken from my room (that I always wondered where they went), and the one or two things I was actually able to publish. In the front of the book there was a funny little post-it note that just said, “For Posterity.”  I loved that.

My dad and I were never able to really play catch because as a kid I was lousy at it, but frankly, considering how things ended up with Dad and me, I think catch might be a little overrated. We figured out our own version of catch, and despite a hiccup here and there, and constant differences of opinion, we had a great relationship. We grew to love each other very much.

After he passed, at his celebration of life, I let my father win one last argument. In honor of him, I proudly wore a striped tie. I still miss him every day.

Happy Father’s Day to all.