Stories Told

Grieving the relationship I wanted but never could have with my father

Dad hadn’t been home to West Virginia in more than 25 years.

And I’d successfully moved into adult life: I’d graduated college, gotten a good job, and had an apartment and a car. I was making it.

I felt it was time to steer my relationship with my father from parent-child toward adult-adult. Because of his greater life experience he would still sometimes have wisdom to offer that I needed to hear. And our shared experience of me growing up under his roof would always shape our relationship. But I wanted to signal clearly that the game was changing: I wanted us to know each other as men.

My first car

I proposed that we drive together to Handley, his West Virginia boyhood home. Just him and me in my brand-new car. I imagined him telling me his childhood stories and us bonding in a new way. Son and father sharing an experience and moving into an exciting new phase of their relationship.

It took a little convincing, but Dad finally agreed and we laid in the plans.

I didn’t know much about Dad’s childhood then. It’s strange to remember that now, because the last 25 years or so of his life were so characterized by him telling his life’s stories over and over. Frankly, I was tired of hearing them when he died.

But when we made this trip it was 1990 and he was 49, a year younger than I am now. In his 50s his last child graduated and left home, and his father’s generation aged and died. We lost his uncle William first, then Tom, and finally Betty. It was probably no coincidence during these years that he started to tell his stories. They were rough; details and even outcomes changed with each telling. By 2000, when Betty died and Dad became the oldest member of the family, his stories were complete. He told them the same way for the rest of his life. I am sure that through them he made sense of his difficult youth. They gave him peace. They made it possible for him reconnect with the Greys still in the hills.

Dad had done none of this work when he showed up at my Terre Haute home that summer day in 1990. We drove all day to Charleston, where we roomed for the night. The next morning we drove a half hour down Highway 61 to Handley.

Handley, WV

There Dad showed me the place where he was born, the place his mother died suddenly four years later: the upstairs apartment over what had been his Grandma Legg’s general store. He pointed out the place where his Grandma Grey’s tavern had once stood. We drove Handley’s few roads up and down the hill and he pointed out a few other places he remembered. Dad spotted his half-brother John’s big white house up the hill and we stopped in to visit. John and his family were surprised but happy to see us. That’s when I learned that Dad had told nobody we were coming.

We drove down the highway to Montgomery to see Dad’s half-brother Rick and his wife Becky. And we went way out to Mt. Nebo hoping to find his mother’s sister, Zelta. Dad was Zelta’s favorite nephew. Dad had said that, as a kid, one of his nicknames was “Jimbo sneezer.” After getting directions at a general store we found Zelta’s house and knocked on the door. Zelta opened it, burst into tears, and cried out, “There’s my Jimbo sneezer!”

We stayed that night at the lodge at Hawk’s Nest, a state park with commanding views of the lush New River valley. As we breakfasted over those views, Dad told me that he and Mom stopped there for the night on their honeymoon.

It was great to see where Dad was from and to connect with a few family members. You have to understand that I had almost no contact with Dad’s West Virginia family when I was small. John and Rick and their families had each once visited us in South Bend when I was a boy, but I couldn’t remember what any of them looked like. And I’d never met anybody from Dad’s mother’s family before. On that front, the trip was a success.

But I utterly failed in my goal to connect with my father as a person. As we drove, I tried to just talk with my father as men might, sharing what was going on in my life and asking what was going on in his and what he thought of it. But he spoke of himself only briefly, only in generalities. He was interested in my life only insomuch as he could tell me where I was going wrong and needed to do things differently.

So I played tapes of some of my favorite music, hoping to find connection there. He asked if we could listen to talk radio instead. So I switched the radio to AM and found a talk show. Rush Limbaugh. Dad was delighted. Neither of us spoke, except when Dad criticized my driving.

I was frustrated that he and I did not come one bit closer on the trip. But I was not defeated, not yet. I decided to keep at it. He would surely come around.

He never allowed it.

There were times when I needed his help. I always called him when I did. He was a rock when I went through my awful divorce — he showed me powerfully what it meant for your family to have your back. One of my young sons struggled heavily, in part due to mild Asperger’s syndrome, and I fumbled every time I tried to help him. I called Dad frequently through my son’s most difficult years. Dad seemed to understand my son almost supernaturally, and his advice was frequently spot on. In part through Dad I finally learned to give my son the space he needed to be who he was. It transformed my relationship with my son.

But the older I got, the more I built my own capabilities and experience and the less I needed Dad’s help. I ached to know him, man to man, all the more. Yet all he would offer me was his perspectives and teaching, even pushing it on me when I didn’t want it.

I was in my early 40s when I finally realized that this was not going to change. He would not be his authentic self with me. I wondered, still wonder, if perhaps he could not.

With each passing year since then, cancer increasingly robbed him of lung capacity and macular degeneration increasingly robbed him of sight. In the last two years he largely gave up, spending most of his time arguing with people in Internet forums until his failed eyesight took even that from him. And then late last summer, when the cancer came back and spread, he soon became entirely dependent on Mom to care for him. You might not have known it if you saw him in my home last Christmas, holding court, telling his stories. But he was very tired and probably in pain.

Most of the last several years I’ve tried to figure out how to be a good and caring son while asserting my own independent manhood. It’s been a delicate line to walk. I regret that I lost my temper with him a few times over it.

In the last couple years before he died, I feared that I would grieve losing him less than irrevocably losing the relationship I always wanted with him. And to a large extent, that’s come true.

But I see now that I did know him, deeply. And it’s because of his stories.

In my 40s, to make sense of and find peace with my own past difficulties I began to write my own life stories. You’ll find some of them sprinkled about this blog; others I keep close to the vest. But as I did that work I kept thinking about my father’s stories. As I arranged them into a timeline I came to see just what tragedy and pain he suffered and how it shaped him. It allowed me to have great empathy for him. It showed me how astonishing it was that he did as well as he did by me and my brother.

I wish we could have spoken of it.

See more photos of Handley here. Read about his Grandma Grey, who I was fortunate to know, here. And here’s a story about a time Dad gave me good advice.

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17 thoughts on “Grieving the relationship I wanted but never could have with my father

  1. It is awesome that you initiated that trip. The child-son to adult-son transition can be tough.

    This story reminds me more than a little about my own father-son relationship. At the age you were on that trip and for quite a few years after I had many of those same frustrations. I finally started to figure out that what I had really wanted was a relationship with the man I wanted my father to be instead of with the man he actually was. I made some progress on that before he died, but I was just 40 at the time. I like to think I would have gotten further along this project had he lived longer. Thanks for telling this one.

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    • All I hoped for from Dad was a lowering of the guard, a willingness to be transparent and even a little vulnerable. But perhaps, as you say, that’s who I wanted him to be and not who he really was.

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  2. Jason Shafer says:

    A wonderfully touching, story. It has certainly prompted some thinking on the complexities of father-son relationships. To some extent every man endures the tumult associated with that relationship.

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    • It’s true. I expect my experience is common: I’m enough like my father that I wanted to get to know him deeply, be even inside his head — but enough different that our differences made that very challenging.

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  3. DougD says:

    Wow, great story Jim. And you can take some comfort in your efforts, that did have some results if not to the extent you wanted.

    When I was about 25 I brought my Dad on a wilderness canoe trip. I was eager to be in charge, to show him my outdoor skills. The first night a bear came on to our campsite, it was moving around but we could hear it but not quite see it. I was afraid, but having Dad there made me feel better. So he turns to me and says “So what do we do now?” and I almost freaked out “AAAHHHH, Dad doesn’t know what to do!!!”

    He suggested getting in the canoe and going for a night paddle to get away from the bear. When we got back it had left without disturbing anything. We became a bit closer on that trip, and I learned that Dad still knew a lot. All these years later he is not much of a talker, so I’d say our relationship is solid but quiet.

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  4. Hey Jim wow that was deep! It seems like your Dad was from the old school, full of pride kind of like my Dad. Took Dad a long time to say I love you or even hug us. Just take comfort that you tried to get closer to him so that’s all we could ask.

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  5. Sean says:

    Jim, I always appreciate your photos, your book, and comments on film photography across the spectrum of blogs you frequent. Opening up even more as you’ve grieved this loss has been heartbreaking to follow but in such a gripping way that I’ve been driven to consider my own relationship and how I relate with/to my father (I’m 42 he’s 71) in new ways. Thank you for your continued openness in this way.

    Sean

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  6. Tom in Phoenix says:

    Jim, thanks for sharing this. My dad died when I was 26, and like you, I always wished we could have had a closer man-to-man relationship. Many things in your story resonate with me.

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  7. Kevin Thomas says:

    Great posts about your dad. I think men from that generation, especially those raised in a more rural environment, had a hard time being open about anything. I know my dad was that way. I’m glad you at least tried to connect with him – I never got the chance, my dad passed away when I was in college.

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    • Yes, I think generation plays a role here. Dad was also surprisingly private about some things (yet not at all about others). I do feel fortunate that I got all these years to try to build that relationship.

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