My father was old school, an anachronism from another era. He was born in 1942, technically not a baby boomer, but he married one. His view of the world formed in the 1950s, and his approach to fatherhood mirrored that wistful era when America prided itself on the sheen of progress that it projected despite disturbing realities that were locked in an attic somewhere rattling chains. He was a working man who came home and expected a meal on the table and left the care of his brood to the woman he married.
He didn’t have time to be philosophical or think too deeply about much other than the decision to switch from regular Salems to Salem Lights, which he smoked one after the other. He expected his three boys to behave enough so that it didn’t bother him. Children were best seen, not heard, and if we got out of line, the rise of his voice was enough to put us back in our place. He didn’t kowtow to whining and he didn’t care if we were bored. There was a great, big world outside the door to the small, old house we all shared, plenty enough to consume the attention of young boys.
If we were lucky, he’d feel like joining us outside on the weekends in between his naps and treks to the store to buy more cigarettes. We’d toss the baseball back and forth or shoot baskets at the tattered basketball goal that leaned at the end of our driveway. Those were great moments, however many there were. As we grew older, those moments stood out as the ones that defined our childhood in some idyllic way, probably more so than they actually did.
Many years later, in the waning moments of his life, when he lay in a hospital bed writhing in pain from the cancer that had slowly robbed him of his strength and dignity, he had a moment of clarity. He had grown more sentimental in the intervening years as our childhoods had faded into memory and grandchildren gave him a joy that seemed familiar. Maybe he felt something had been missing or that he had missed something. We never really discussed it because, like I said, he didn’t veer too much into the philosophical, but in that moment of clarity he uttered, “I did the best I could.” He didn’t say much more because he was drowning in pain and sedatives. It was a hell of a way to die and a haunting last few words to say to his oldest son.
His words felt like some sort of apology where none was needed like he had somehow come up short in his 45 years as a father. None of his sons would ever say that Dad had something to apologize for. Even when things were their most difficult, more times than we’d like to admit, we never doubted that he loved us. He didn’t have to say it or announce it to those passing by on the street. We knew it in our heart of hearts, an internal gravitational constant that guided us without fail. Our father loved us and that’s all we ever needed from him.
I never really understood it until I became a father myself. The love you feel for your children is unequivocal and incomprehensible to those who are childless. This visceral feeling manifests itself in many ways nowadays, often missing the mark. Too many parents set out to be the best, to win the parent of the year award for the sake of the trophy. They spend so much time obsessing over the perfection of parenthood to the point of self-inflicted misery that they forget the point, they miss the most important aspect of being a parent – love.
My dad was not perfect. I doubt he ever changed diaper. He didn’t attend parent-teacher conferences and he infrequently went to the games I played. I remember seeing him at some baseball games when I was in Little League and a handful of basketball games, but he didn’t attend a single tennis match during my four years of high school. He did show up at my graduations, but he always had the look of someone who’d rather be somewhere else. While these events or milestones were important, they weren’t as important as knowing that I had a father who loved me. That’s all I really needed.
I keep this in mind with my own kids. If they know anything, it is that I love them without fail. I’m not the perfect father. I don’t always get it right, but I don’t beat myself up over it either. I’ll always love them, and that’s all that matters in fatherhood. That much I learned from my dad.