Personal

One year on

“Maybe you pre-grieved the loss of your dad,” my pastor said to me.

Father and son, about 1970

I sure hadn’t felt much grief since he died. It bothered me.

But my pastor has a point: we knew it was coming for a long time, and I was actively preparing myself for it.

I’d found a level of peace with my relationship with my dad. It would never be as close as I hoped it would be; he was probably not capable of it. But he had shaped his two sons into good men, and he provided well for us. From his working-class life he helped his two sons into upper-middle-class careers and lives. I have to call that successful fathering.

But it’s obviously not a perfect peace, because for many months I wondered why I wasn’t sadder over his death, one year ago today.

I won’t belabor the terrible year my wife and I had, except to repeat that it was terrible. The stream of hard stuff that came our way and the need to respond to it all surely got in the way of whatever grief I might have felt.

The last photo of my dad, with his sons and grandsons. 2017.

During my recent unemployment I had about a month between securing my new job and my first day at work. I worked on my blog, I made a lot of meals for my family, and I learned a little of the Java programming language. But mostly I was at loose ends.

In that downtime sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, tears came. One rainy afternoon I was burning calories on our treadmill, watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It was just an ordinary episode. The Vidiians had attacked and had boarded the ship. Routine stuff. But the emotional plot points brought me to heavy tears three times.

That was just the pregame show. On the afternoon of Christmas Day I could feel depression fall like a heavy theater curtain. By evening I was so sad that my body ached.

Margaret suggested we take an immediate impromptu road trip to help me cope. She was so right to suggest it. Road trips were a major way I coped with the grief over losing my first marriage. Being on the road kept me screwed together.

North into Plymouth
The Michigan Road entering downtown Plymouth, IN

So up the Michigan Road we went on the day after Christmas, through Logansport to South Bend, my hometown. The afternoon was chilly but sunny, fine for photographing the old houses and charming downtowns of Rochester and Plymouth along the way. After we checked into our downtown hotel I rang up one of my oldest friends. He and his wife were totally down for meeting us for drinks. It was so good to see them. The next morning it rained, so we drove the Michigan Road straight to Michigan City and shopped in the outlet mall there. We took the long way home. The trip took away the worst sadness for a little while.

The next several nights were choppy. I alternated between bad dreams and lying awake processing. And crying, lots of crying. It seems like every night something different was on my mind: my dad, the job I lost, the challenges my wife’s elderly parents face near the end of their lives, the challenges several of our children have had, how disorganized our lives have been through it all, how it has challenged our young marriage.

It felt like all the deferred grief came all at once. Thank heavens I’ve built good skills at just sitting with my feelings — not wallowing in them, not denying them, just noticing them and letting them be, even when they’re uncomfortable.

By New Year’s Day the worst of it had lifted. I didn’t exactly feel light on my feet, but the sadness had returned to a low level and I started sleeping through the night.

What I know about grief is that it crashes in like waves. This was a tidal wave. I hope the remaining waves are gentler.

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Essay, Old Cars

Buy a fun car while you’re young

1968 Chevrolet El Camino b

When I was a kid, my dad wanted a Chevy El Camino. I mean, really really wanted. He imagined himself driving in carlike comfort while being able to haul lumber and other large items with ease in its bed. He was so hot to own one that he tried to convince my mom that our family of four would fit just fine shoulder to shoulder across the front seat. 

Mom wasn’t having it. Thank goodness, because the four of us shoulder-tight on that bench seat did not sound like fun to me. But I feel bad for my dad that he never got his El Camino.

As Dad aged, that spark for fun motoring left him. I think that’s natural for anyone who didn’t get to sow those oats when they were younger — he never knew the joy of the fun car and so those synapses never formed in his brain. By his middle age he declared that his cars were meant only to get him from A to B.

BMW 3-series coupe

I’m in the middle of making the same mistake. When I was young I wanted a 3-series BMW coupe. Really really wanted one. But I never felt like I should extend myself financially to buy even a well-used one. I could have, but I always played it safe with my money.

I regret it. While it’s important to be good stewards of our finances, it’s also important to seek good, fun experiences in life.

I’ve already told my wife that after the kids are done with college I’d like to buy a fun car. I’ve lost my BMW lust in middle age, so I don’t know yet what that car will be except that it’ll be older and will not be my daily driver. Whatever I choose, it’ll be our road-trip car and we will make memories together in it.

This one’s for my dad, who would have been 78 today.

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Personal

Connecting with your children as people

I’m not a gamer. I grow frustrated trying to keep up in any game more complicated than Monopoly. And while I was a teen at the dawn of the video-game era, I played pinball instead.

DamionMy life feels full and complete without games. But my son Damion is a serious gamer who finds deep and legitimate meaning and satisfaction in gaming both online and in person with others.

A feature of my relationship with Damion since he was old enough to speak has been him telling me of his gaming exploits at length, and me having no idea what he is talking about.

I was happy to listen, though, because I loved hearing the joy in his voice.

When he was four, he spent hours trying to teach me Yu-Gi-Oh, an adventure card game. It was too complicated for me and I couldn’t get it. I eventually gave up.

My lack of ability to connect with him through gaming sharply limits our ability to connect as whole people. I wonder how much disappointment he feels. I’m still disappointed I couldn’t manage it with my dad. But I can see that there are just limits. The apple may not fall far from the tree, but we are still different people. There will always be parts of each of us the other will never truly know.

I tried a few times to connect with my dad through his interests. Dad wanted for years to teach me to sharpen knives, something he took pride in. I let him try a few times, but he was so unpleasant when I didn’t pick it up perfectly from the start that we never got past the opening lesson. I thought for a while we might connect over hitting balls together at the driving range, something he enjoyed. But even there he felt the need to teach me to be perfect at it, which robbed it of all its fun and pushed me away.

Damion and Pentax KM

Then last fall Damion tried the same thing, asking me if I’d lend him an old camera and show him how to use it. Aw hell yes! I showed him how to spool film into my Pentax KM, taught him how to match the needle to set exposure, and gave him a couple composition tips.

Then I backed off and let him explore on his own. That was hard. Just like my dad, I wanted to hover, and guide, and teach. I resisted with all my might because I didn’t want to suck all the fun out of it for Damion and squander this golden opportunity.

Damion enjoyed the experience and asked to keep a camera. So I gave him two, a Pentax K1000 like his mom used to own and a Pentax ME because I love mine and shoot it most often. When we see each other now we often go for photo walks together.

I feel like I’m atoning for my father’s sins by doing this better with my sons. It’s helping me let go of my bitter disappointment that my dad and I could never manage it.

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Stories Told

The ultimate car for the man who hates to spend money

My dad pinched his pennies so hard he had Lincoln thumbs. It had galled him deeply to borrow money to buy his 1983 Renault Alliance (read its story here). Knowing Dad, he paid off that note very early. He submitted to those payments only because Mom fell in love with the Renault on the test drive and insisted he buy it. She knew she could play that card only so often – like, once each decade. But the Renault was, to her, a slam dunk: attractive, comfortable, well equipped in top-line trim.

Then in 1987, when Dad was driving 50 miles round trip to work and the Renault piled up the miles, Mom fretted. “I don’t want you to be stranded on some back county road!” So Dad went car shopping – and didn’t take Mom along so he could get what he wanted. Dad returned to his first love, Ford, and found the biggest bargain on the lot: a leftover new 1986 Ford Escort as the 1988 models were about to be delivered to the showroom. He got it for a song and paid cash. He was so tickled by that deal that he talked about it for years.

IMG_2164

It wasn’t a bottom-of-the-line Pony, as the pictured Escort is. But it might as well have been: the same utility white color, manual transmission (though a five speed rather than the Pony’s standard four), steel wheels, AM radio. It had cloth seat surfaces where the Pony was all vinyl, but it had the same plain interior door panels with the most perfunctory armrests I’ve ever seen. It did have air conditioning; Mom told him not to come home in a car without it. But that was a mighty stripped-down car even for the late 80s. No wonder this pig had languished on the lot so long.

I drove Dad’s Escort a few times. It had good power for the time. I remember the shifter being vague and rubbery but the clutch being sure. I always turned off the radio with its tinny center-of-the-dash speaker as it would give me an instant headache. You could hear the gas sloshing around in the tank when you made a turn.

Dad drove that Escort until 1993. He’d have cheerfully kept driving it, but it had racked up the miles and Mom began to fret anew. So Dad returned to his Ford dealer and came home in a well-optioned Escort LX four-door hatchback. It was so much better a car than its forebear – more comfortable, more fuel efficient, more lively – that even Dad had to allow it was worth spending the money.

I originally shared this story on Curbside Classic, back in May. It’s a good memory of my dad and I wanted to share it with you, too.

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Stories Told

The safety to express our anxieties

I’ve written before about how my dad always needed to be in control in our relationship and how never really were able to relate to each other just as men.

There was one time when he did it, and it was through seeking my advice about whether to buy what turned out to be his last car.

Dad was a Ford man. He owned eight Fords in his lifetime, turning to other makes — Chevy, AMC, Renault — only during the ’70s and early ’80s when Ford’s build quality had taken a serious nosedive. When quality became Job One at Ford again in the mid ’80s, Dad went right back to his first automotive love.

Dad had driven his 2006 Ford Focus to about 70,000 miles. Being a product of his time, he thought this was a lot of miles and that the car was nearing the end of its useful life. But I knew that his Focus easily had 100,000 miles left in it, especially because he had taken very good care of it. I was ready for a new car myself, so we negotiated a price for his car. After he bought his next car, I’d write the check and drive the old Focus home.

Looking Over my Car

Dad soon found the car he thought he wanted, a one-year-old 2012 Ford Focus. I waited patiently at the dealer while he and Mom test drove it, in case it was “the one” and we’d complete the deal on his old Focus.

When he came back from the drive I asked how it went. He said it had good room, power, and handling. He wished it were a hatchback rather than a sedan. He also thought the car had high mileage for its age.

Then he looked straight at me and asked it: “Do you think I should buy this?”

The wavering tone of his voice, and the unsure look in his eye, and the very question itself all startled me. I noticed that he was fidgeting a little and sitting crooked in the chair. He had always seemed so sure about everything. He had never asked my opinion about a personal matter before.

He needed to be pushed off the fence, and it was clear that my word was going to do it. “Do you like the car?” I asked. “I mean, can you see you and Mom being comfortable and happy in it as you drive around town and on your trips downstate?” He didn’t hesitate in saying yes, but he still worried about the car’s mileage. “Oh Dad,” I assured him, “you put 5,000 miles a year on your cars, tops. That’s far less than most people. In a couple years the car will be at the right number of miles for its age. You’ll get lots of years out of it. And I’ve checked online: this car is priced fairly. If you negotiate a little, you should get it at a very good price. There’s no reason to hesitate.”

Dad loved a bargain. He stopped fidgeting and sat up straight. He bought the car.

Then I drove home in his old car. I drove it daily for five and a half years, commuting to work, taking road trips, and even driving my sons on a Route 66 vacation in it. It has been the most fun-to-drive little car I’ve ever owned. Despite a couple expensive repairs, I’m happy I bought it. It’s been a good car.

But now it has rolled to 150,000 miles. Little things had been going wrong and I was getting to know my mechanic a little too well. After a failure last winter that required a tow, I knew it was time to put this car out to pasture. The Focus is still in our fleet on light duty. One of my sons currently uses it to drive to his summer job.

My wife and I have two newer cars now, a 2013 VW Passat for me and a 2017 Kia Soul for her. I certainly felt my own anxiety over these two major purchases! Will we like it long term? What if it’s a lemon? Wow is that a lot of money to spend. It’s normal to feel this anxiety, and it can be helpful to talk it out with someone.

I wish my dad could always have felt safe in expressing his own anxieties. But at least this once he was willing to share his with me and let me offer a perspective.

Thanks to Paul Niedermeyer for this article over at Curbside Classic, a Father’s Day memory of the one time his dad took his carbuying advice, which reminded me of this story.

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Stories Told

Remembering my patriotism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Arlington National Cemetery

My dad was in the Navy, as was his dad before him. At enlistment age I was college bound, but Dad asked if I’d at least consider Navy ROTC. I said no.

That had to be hard for my Dad to hear. In his family, men served their country, period. Looking back, I’m surprised now that he didn’t insist.

I was excited about building a future in software engineering. I didn’t want military service to stand in my way.

Also, I was afraid I couldn’t cut it. I was not sure I had, and I felt sure I could not build, the physical toughness to serve. I have always been far more of my mind than my body. I remain unathletic, even clumsy.

I have also always had a hard time blindly following orders. In my younger years I needed to internalize the logic behind an order to execute it wholeheartedly. Even today, unless I am all-in on something I struggle to do it well.

I was sure these barriers would lead to military misery for me. Middle-aged hindsight tells me that ROTC could have helped me overcome these physical and intellectual challenges. If nothing else, it certainly would have paid for engineering school.

Yet refusing to serve my country led me to question my own patriotism. Did I love my country? To what lengths would I go to support it in a time of need? Could I fight and die if necessary?

I had a long conversation with my uncle Jack about it. He was always easy to talk to at a time when Dad often wasn’t. I could fight and die, I allowed, in a war where our very nation was threatened. I could not fight and die in the only kind of war fought during my lifetime, which I judged to be about policing foreign interests. Jack listened carefully and affirmed my concern. He then reminded me that whether I had already enlisted or if I were drafted, Uncle Sam would not care about my feelings if he needed me to fight. He also said that if I skipped to Canada as some had in that last conflict, that I would be turning my back on my country and I should never return. I left that discussion grateful to have been fully heard. But I had no better answer than before.

When the first Gulf War began I was out of college and working in software engineering. My anxiety spiked — I was draftable and this conflict looked serious.

By then I’d grown up enough, and Dad had mellowed enough, that we could talk about the most serious matters. So I called him. I could hear it in his voice: he, too, was deeply worried that his sons might be called up. He wouldn’t fully admit it, but I caught a whiff in his words that he wasn’t sure he liked his sons being drafted to a conflict that wasn’t clearly about protecting our nation. His patriotism remained firm, however. He gently reminded me that when your country calls, you simply go. On that call I reconciled it in my mind and, finally, agreed with him. It gave me a sort of peace.

But then no civilians were called. Since then, no other conflicts grew serious enough that the draft was a possibility. And now I’m well past the age when my country would require me to fight.

Lately I’ve become deeply interested in 20th-century history, and as our family trip to Washington approached I had coincidentally been watching a Ken Burns documentary about World War II. It told the war’s story through the memories of several soldiers and some of their family members. I came away from it feeling hell yes, that was a war worth fighting and  a cause worth dying for. And so, so many men died.

Those thoughts and feelings still filled my mind when Margaret said she wanted to go across the river to the National Cemetery. Exiting the subway we realized we had to rush to make the next changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We hurried up that hill, arriving seconds after the ceremony began. And what a ceremony, filled with every ounce of somber precision a soldier can muster.

Until then I had thought high military ceremony to be cartoonishly ridiculous. But as I watched the changing of the guard I realized how much training and practice are needed to achieve that polish and perfection. And I saw how it was this very effort that made the ceremony an appropriate honor. That unknown soldier had given his all, and so we offer our utmost in tribute. A long-lasting tribute, as a guard has been posted continuously since 1937.

It brought fully back to me what I had been taught from the time I was a boy: the good life we enjoyed in the United States existed not just through our natural resources, hard work, and ingenuity, but also because many people stepped up to protect it when it was threatened. It was good to be reminded, and to remember those that died in that protective service.

One more changing of the guard remained that day, and we lingered to see it begin. I had moved into a position directly across from the tomb, where I saw how all of America stretched out before it.

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