Thursday, April 28, 2005
Today my father turned 76. I openly and easily talk to others about my mother and the wonderful relationship I have with her, but find I rarely mention my dad. I am reminded of this occasionally when people ask me if my father is deceased. “I’m going to my mom’s.” “My mom called.” “My mom had me over for dinner.” “My mom sent me a card.” I rarely say “My parents…” I don’t do this on purpose; it’s just a natural occurrence. My mom and I have a closer relationship than me and my dad. That is changing, however. I am finally coming to appreciate him as a person, not just as a role model.
My dad is a very methodical, intelligent, classy individual. He loves to learn and strives to read as much as he can. His favorite reading is business literature and the Wall Street Journal. Often he will be found reading the paper with a pair of scissors next to him so that he can clip articles. Every few months I’ll receive an article from him in the mail. No note, just a date handwritten at the top so that I know it’s from him. I used to get so hurt that he didn’t include a personal note, but have finally come to realize that the love is in the thought, not the sentiment.
When we drove back to Minnesota for Christmas, I brought along a video camera I borrowed from Beth and Dave. My intention was to interview my mom on video. We had just received a lot of negative information about her cancer, and to be honest, I wanted to record her while she was still strong.
I asked her lots of questions about her past – upbringing, educational experiences, relationships she had, etc. – during the first couple of days I was there. My father was often in the room and would throw in stories from his past, also. I learned more that week about them that I had ever known. I’m sure all of these trips down Memory Lane helped make the Christmas trip even more special than the holiday usually does.
My father was born and raised in Chicago. He lived as an only child with his mom, who stayed home, and his dad who was a traveling coffee salesman. My grandfather worked for someone else, until he eventually set up a coffee roaster in their backyard. He would roast beans, grind them and then sell them door to door to housewives. As a child I can remember my dad recalling these childhood days. He lived on North Ave. in an ethnic neighborhood. His mom was Danish. His dad was Norwegian. The stories were few and far between, though, probably because he didn’t have siblings or parents to reminisce with when I was growing up. Movies for a dime was always one of my favorites. He was only about six years old and his parents would let him walk down the block to the theater. What a different time.
As my father aged, his intelligence carried him out of that neighborhood to a technical high school and then to college. He is a great writer, but extremely methodical. He will edit and edit until it’s perfect – no matter how long it takes. He tried Journalism, but was left in the dust. Much too fast for him. His final degree was in Business. After time in Germany during the Korean War, he came home, worked, lived with his mother and eventually met my mother. They got married and then he went back to graduate school. He was top in his class at Northwestern University in their MBA program. When most newlyweds spend every romantic minute together, my mother recalls very little time with my dad during this time. She said he wouldn’t even leave his study area to eat – she would bring him his meals. He finished this ambitious program in 12 months. I love telling people this because it shows how dedicated he can be.
His career took him into Marketing Research and New Product Development. He worked for others till he was 56 and then became a private consultant. Finally about six years ago, he decided that work was getting in the way of his golf and gardening and fully retired.
Growing up, my dad was not hands-on. He didn’t throw balls to us in the backyard or goof around with us. All I remember is his interest in my schooling. Was I doing well or did I need help with homework assignments? My mother was our main caretaker, disciplinarian and parent. I don’t recall resenting him too much for this as an elementary student. I didn’t know any other way. I assumed this was how fathers acted. As I became a teenager, I did notice that I couldn’t really talk to him about things, but desperately craved his approval. I even got a Business degree because he told me it was a good idea. I never liked it and wanted to so much. He wanted to get me a subscription to the Wall Street Journal, but I rejected it. I didn’t like it. I mistook, I think, his disassociation from my brother and I as rejection. Looking back, I think it was the only way he knew how to parent.
Since counseling is my profession, you can be sure I have analyzed my relationship with my dad thoroughly. I haven’t come to any real conclusions. I don’t hate him anymore for not being a more involved dad, but I still get sad at times for having to wait so long to have a deeper relationship with him. Two times in my life have been turning points for us. The first one occurred when I got a divorce 10 years ago. He hugged me and expressed unconditional support for my decision even though I had made many mistakes. He was non-judgemental and loyal through it all. My perspective changed completely that day. I saw him differently and truly felt he saw me as an adult.
Watching my mom suffer through cancer has been unbelievably taxing. My dad lives it day to day and it was only this past December that I truly started having empathy for what he is going through. Through our talks over Christmas, I learned that my father was living at home when his dad passed away from cancer when he was about 25. He had never told me that before. His recollections of his father’s final emotions brought me to tears as he compared them to my mom’s at times. His mother also died of cancer. After my dad graduated with his MBA, he accepted a job with Corning Glassworks in upstate New York. My grandma moved to California to live with her sister after my parents married. I was born during this time and was about 6 months old when my grandma became so sick that she came to live with us. My parents were her hospice care until she died from breast cancer. The second parent to lose their fight to cancer and the second close family member he watched die. Now he is caring for my mom. Watching cancer afflict a third person in his life. Since my mom found the tumors in her legs, she has been using a walker and cannot stand for more than about three minutes. This means that my dad does everything. He is learning to cook, clean and shop.
His attitude is amazing. He never complains and does everything he can to make my mom’s life as normal and consistent as possible. We have been talking much more than ever and this is the second milestone in our relationship. He knows I’m there as back up for him if he needs it. I don’t think he’ll ever call on me to help unless he’s really desperate, though. Just tonight, during his birthday call from us, he told me how proud he is of me. Our move away from Green Bay, he agrees, was a fantastic decision. He expressed this so eloquently and sincerely that I could feel the tears welling to the edge of my eyes. (I probably would have cried if the kids weren’t in the same room screaming and throwing popcorn all over the kitchen – kind of ruins the mood.)
I finally feel his acceptance. Of course it’s always been there, but I was unable to find it.