Father’s Day By the Sea

 

It’s Sunday night, still Father’s Day.  I’m on vacation with my family in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  The ocean’s waves are right outside my window reminding me of mysteries that I’ll never understand. And I am thinking of the man who was my father all those years ago.

My earliest memories of my dad are deeply troubling.  His life was defined by violence, alcoholism and neglect of his family.  I know that sounds morbid, even to me.   But, it’s just the plain truth.

When I look back on his life this day, I think about the time that he was dying in the hospital for a month.  One night, I stopped by after everyone else had gone.  Only the florescent light from the hallway made sense of the room.  My dad was tired and I told him just to sleep.  I pulled up a chair beside his bed.  My back was turned towards him and I was hunched over in the silence.  I thought he was asleep.  Minutes passed.

Then I felt his warm hand on my back.  He was rubbing it as he never had before.  We both said nothing.  Yet, there’s no doubt what it all meant in that moment.  He was saying that he was sorry and that he loved me.  He couldn’t say those words no more than he could say at AA meetings, “My name is Walter and I’m an alcoholic.”

I asked my sister and three brothers about their memories of Dad dying. My one brother, Tony, said, “Danny, I know that you’re trying to find good in Dad.  But really, he was just a big asshole.”  Yet, I’m not so sure that’s what I was trying to do; to find “good” in him.  What felt truer to me was the mystery of grief.  Such an experience seems a strange mix of sadness, loss and the weight of existence.  It’s a mystery that I can still touch today – especially today – when I think of him.

My sense of this is captured in Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Visitor.”

My father, for example,
who was young once
and blue-eyed,
returns
on the darkest of nights
to the porch and knocks
wildly at the door,
and if I answer
I must be prepared
for his waxy face,
for his lower lip
swollen with bitterness.
And so, for a long time,
I did not answer,
but slept fitfully
between his hours of rapping.

But finally there came the night
when I rose out of my sheets
and stumbled down the hall.
The door fell open
and I knew I was saved
and could bear him,
pathetic and hallow,
with even the least of his dreams
frozen inside him,
and the meanness gone.
And I greeted him and asked him
into the house,
and lit the lamp,
and looked into his blank eyes
in which at last
I saw what a child must love,
I saw what love might have done
had we loved in time.

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