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Published: Sunday, 6/17/2007

Memories of Dad give gift to me on Father's Day

"It doesn't matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was." - Poet Anne Sexton

That spring, just months before he died, we got an automatic garage door opener.

As commonplace as a microwave today, of course. But in 1966, hitting a button to open the garage seemed like very heady stuff.

"It makes it easier for Daddy," my mother explained.

From my 10-year-old vantage point, it made no sense that a lean, strong man who stood 6 feet, 4 inches tall would need to simplify so basic a task as opening a door.

Years would pass before I understood that cancer was already anchoring itself in my father's bones, causing ominously persistent back pain.

In May, he disappeared behind the doors of Toledo Hospital for "tests." In early July, the people from Neville Funeral Home took him back out.

For me now (just five years younger than my dad at the age of his death), the time between May and July lasts no longer than a sneeze. Hell, at my age, entire years whoosh by barely noticed.

But the summer my father died, we went to the hospital at least once a day, every day, and it seemed to last my whole life.

His, too.

My mother, seeing widowhood on the horizon, had gone to work by then. My father's brother came to help us (indefinitely shuttering his business on another continent with no complaint), and during the day he and I would stay at the hospital with my father.

After dinner at home, back we'd go with my mother in tow.

In 1966, we let people slip away differently than we do now, I think. I hope.

No one ever mentioned the obvious - not while I was around, anyway - and the summer passed in a surreal blend of ordinary daily routine during an extraordinary process. I don't remember a single instance when anyone - not my mom, my uncle, any doctor or nurse - ever said: "Why yes, you're right, he's starting to look skeletal."

"How are you today, Daddy?"

"Good, honey. Did you have lunch?"

The inarticulated relief I felt the night he died straitjacketed me with guilt.

Later, when friends sometimes asked what it was like to grow up fatherless, the only word that came to mind was "normal," because it was.

Should a parent die while you're still a little child, this is one sure way to hang on forever to childhood. All memories of that person are glimpsed only through the eyes of childhood; you have a sad ability to stay frozen in time. When someone asks your twentysomething self what your father was like, all you can say is "nice." He read you bedtime stories. He took you for ice cream.

And so instead you harvest the memories of others. My dad lived on for me in the voices of my mom and uncle and family friends, and eventually he ceased being human and became something like a legend.

I grew up without a father, yes. But no one could say I grew up without both parents. That's what I remind myself, anyway, each Father's Day.



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