The memories I have of childhood moments with my father are fleeting ones, Polaroid snapshots in the mind blurred by time.
Walking through the Mississippi woods below my grandmother’s house, my hand in his ... sitting on a bench beside the Tennessee River at 8 years old, confused and scared as he and my mom explain why I need surgery to correct a hearing defect ... watching in fascination as his face screws up with emotion, eyes welling with tears, when his beloved Tennessee Vols score a touchdown ... the weight of responsibility and exhaustion on his shoulders like sacks of stone as he sits beside my grandfather, dying slowly in a hospital bed.
I have a thousand such slices of life, his and mine, stored in the long hallways of memory, but it troubles me that I can’t think of something more specific — the perfect afternoon spent fishing, or at a baseball game, or playing catch in the backyard. Those things happened, I’m sure — my dad was a good man, and he never failed to show both of his sons the love that can only come from a bond between a father and his boys. But such specifics are hazy ones at best.
Oh, I can remember the dark times with crystal clarity — the shouting matches between him and my moody teenage self ... the 2 a.m. phone call from Myrtle Beach to his work voicemail because I was too ashamed to listen to his voice while I sat in the bloody ruin of my bathroom, a needle hanging out of my arm and begging him for help ... the worry and near-hopelessness etched into every line around his eyes as he picked me up from Peninsula Hospital after a six-day detox stay, driving me to a halfway house after informing me that my addiction had cost me a place under his roof.
I remember those low points so very well, and it bothers me how much more vivid, how much more painfully real they seem, than the other memories it seems a son should have of his father.
If anything, I think my father’s presence in my life is so big that a part of him is tied to everything — therefore there’s no one thing that I can point to and say, “That’s my dad.” There was a time when I couldn’t have imagined my life without him, and even today, on what would have been his 77th birthday, I have trouble accepting that we have no more tomorrows, that time is an unyielding master, and that for the rest of my days, I’ll have to rely on my memories of him for guidance.
More than two years after his sudden death, his ghost is a comforting presence. I imagine telling him about tinkering around my house and pulling out some scrap of metal or piece of shoelace I’ve tucked away like a squirrel, knowing that I’d find a use for it sooner or later, smiling as I do so because my dad did the same thing. In my mind, he’s sitting on the couch beside me while the Vols play football, oblivious to how I’m smirking at my brother across the living room as we roll our eyes at pop’s unabashed display of emotion when his team makes him proud. And there are still times I have imaginary conversations with him when I run into a problem I can’t fix or don’t understand and need his advice.
Did I tell him often enough how much I loved him? I’d like to think so. My life has taken me far from home and back again, and what I’ve built for myself often seems miles away from the community where I grew up and where my mom still lives. While he was alive, I was guilty of taking him for granted some days, of not taking seriously the unstoppable crawl of hands across the clock of their lives. I didn’t take time out to savor what I had in the moment sometimes, and there will always be some measure of regret for that.
It’s a lesson we all seem to learn the hard way, I suppose, and even in death, he’s taught me things about grief and loss and getting by. Time does indeed heal, but there are spiritual wounds that the loss of one’s father carves into our hearts that never close completely. More than two years later, I have a job and a family and my recovery and friends and a myriad of other responsibilities, but every week, I come across an old text or a photo or an unbidden memory that reminds me: My dad is gone.
Most days, I live in peaceful co-existence with that reality. Others, like today, his birthday, I feel that empty place where he always was and where he should be still, and I struggle to focus more on the smiles and the laughter and the good times than I do the regrets. Such is the nature of the human condition, I suppose, but man, those lessons aren’t always easy ones to learn. If there’s any comfort to be had on this day, it’s that he’s celebrating in a better place, that he lived long enough to see me get clean and find a new way of life, and for almost 15 years, recovery taught me how to be a better son.
That, I think, is worth smiling about.
Happy birthday, pop. I miss you, and I’ll love you always.
Here’s your Friday motivation, friends. Hug your loved ones close.