Personal

Comparing and contrasting grief

People kindly keep asking me how I’m doing since Mom died. I always say some version of, “This is hard, but I’m okay.” Sometimes I add, “Losing my daughter at the end of last year was so wicked hard that losing my mom feels like a walk in the park.”

Rana the last time I saw her, Aug. 2021

Rana’s death was a deep shock that wouldn’t lift for a long time. Then I was furious with her for taking her own life. I was exhausted for weeks. At first I couldn’t sleep at night. But soon I slept hard every night, but still awoke tired. I’m not normally a napper, but sometime in the afternoon I’d just hit the wall and nothing but 20 or 30 minutes of sleep would get me past it. Then I was deeply sad, and I felt lost.

In time, my grief settled into an ongoing sadness, a dull ache. By mid-summer I was starting to enjoy life again, thanks in part to antidepressants and good grief counseling, and Rana wasn’t on my mind every day anymore.

All my life I expected that my mother’s death would tear me apart. I adored Mom and always felt very close to her. She was a source of safety for me as a child, and she did many lovely things for and with me that are lasting good memories.

Mom watching my brother run track, Spring 1985

After Dad died, my relationship with Mom became unsettled. Not only was she grieving, but also she was figuring out what she wanted and who she was without her husband. This altered some of our familiar patterns and occasionally left one or the other of us feeling a little alienated from the other. It was never serious, but we needed to have some conversations to make amends and find new patterns.

We were still working things out when the cancer came. The treatment wiped her out, as treatment does. Then, thanks to osteoporosis, her vertebrae started developing hairline fractures, one by one, with treatment and recovery each time. She wasn’t able to do very much. All she wanted was to be able to run her errands, see her friends, and work in her garden, but all of this was severely curtailed. She watched a lot of TV, and she lost a lot of weight, mostly muscle. “This sucks, Jimmy,” she said. “If this is the rest of my life, I don’t want it.”

I was relieved for her when she died. I was relieved for my brother and me, too, as we felt helpless while she suffered and declined. The devastation I feared never came. I’ve felt like a hundred pounds have been draped over my shoulders, and my mood is low. There have been a few very rough days. But this grief is young yet, and who knows how it will unfold. At least I’m functioning reasonably well.

Margaret with her parents, Jo Anne and Walt, at Mass in April, 2018

We lost my wife’s mom, Jo Anne, in the summer of 2019. I’d known Jo Anne, and Margaret’s dad, Walt, only since about 2014, as I came late to the family party. They were a dear couple, devoted to their faith and their family. Jo Anne was smarter than she usually let on, and she had a wonderful creative streak.

Her deathbed was in Margaret’s sister’s home. All of Margaret’s seven brothers and sisters, plus husbands and many of the 20+ grandchildren, gathered more than once to pray the rosary over her. She was conscious for many days as she slowly faded away, and was able to interact with her family on some level until nearly the end.

When she died, I was saddened, and I felt the loss. But I’m not sure I’d say I experienced full-on grief; I had known her only a handful of years, and we weren’t close. I mostly felt bad for Margaret, and tried as best I could to be there for her.

Jeff and Mariah just after they eloped in January, 2018

In April of 2018 we lost Mariah, Margaret’s son Jeff’s wife. It was an accidental death. Jeff struggled through his 20s to find his footing and build a stable adult life. He had some staggering setbacks. So did Mariah. Their difficult experiences lined up well enough that they understood each other. They were crazy about each other, and I think Mariah is the love of Jeff’s life. Her sudden death was traumatic for us all. Margaret and her daughter Lain were devastated, as they knew her well and loved her very much. I wasn’t as close to her, but even so her death felt like being hit in the head with a baseball bat. I staggered through my life for weeks, reeling. But when that passed, I was mostly okay again.

Dad with his new puppy, Shadow, in about 1991

I say mostly okay because I had lost my father in January that year. Dad and I had a challenging relationship; I wrote about it at length. He loved me to the best of his ability, and I think I loved him. I was attached to him for sure. But I often felt terrorized by him as a child. He was easily angered, and when angry, he was harsh and punitive. For example, when I was a boy he grew tired of me not putting my Big Wheel (a plastic tricycle) away when I was done with it, so one day he made me watch while he sliced it in half on his band saw. I worked hard to forgive his bad behavior toward me so I could be at peace.

In my 40s, I finally realized that the only way I was going to have a relationship with him was on his terms. I was deeply disappointed, as I hoped for greater openness and closeness. I was never happy about it, but in time I came to accept it. He loved to argue, and I learned the hard way to refuse to be baited. He was always interested in my career, so we mostly talked about work.

Dad learned he had lung cancer in 2007. His cancer metastasized in 2017, and he died the day after his birthday in January, 2018. I wasn’t very sad and I didn’t miss him. I still don’t miss him. But the first year or so after his death I was anguished and angry over the terrible lost opportunity, a lifetime of next to never having the close, warm relationship I always wanted with him.

Gracie and me
Me and Gracie in about 2009

On Thanksgiving day in 2013, my dog Gracie died. My first wife picked her up as a stray and it was clear she had been abused. She never fully recovered from it and was always a difficult dog.

I got our two dogs in the divorce. Sugar, our Rottweiler, died within a year. She was the best dog I ever had, and I missed her, but I didn’t grieve for long. I guess we just weren’t that close after all. Gracie, on the other hand, was the dog I never wanted. But after Sugar died, she bonded hard to me — and in time, I to her.

Gracie lived to be very old, at least 18. In her later years, she slowed down considerably and became deaf. This only drew us closer as I took greater care of her and even worked out hand signals to communicate with her.

She died on my parents’ kitchen floor. I felt my heart breaking as she lay there dying. I was torn up that she drew her last breath while I was on the phone with the emergency vet.

But she was just a dog, right? I went right back to work as if nothing had happened. But I missed Gracie terribly. I cried a lot for weeks, and it hurt for a year. I still miss Gracie, nine years later. I’ll never understand our bond, but it was deep and strong. I moved out of the house we shared in 2017, four years after Gracie died, but I never stopped expecting to see her lying in the nook created where my desks intersected in my office. It was her perch; she could see and hear much of the house from there. I never stopped being disappointed she wasn’t there. I seldom remember my dreams, but when I do, Gracie is often in them.

From all of this I conclude that the experience of grief varies widely, and depends on the relationship you shared with the person (or dog), as well as timing, namely what else has happened in your life, especially lately.

But I’m tired of grieving. I’m ready to move past it. Unfortunately, Margaret’s dad has been in painfully slow decline for a year now, and is under 24-hour medical care. He can’t do anything for himself anymore, and spends his days sitting. It’s no kind of life. We all hope he dies in his sleep, tonight if possible, so he can be released. But that’s one more grief to suffer.

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Stories Told

Remembering my patriotism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

On this Independence Day, I’m republishing this story I told in 2018 in which I reflect on patriotism.

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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Personal

Four years on

Dad
Dad in 2012. Kodak Retina IIa on Fujicolor 200.

It was four years ago yesterday that Dad died, and at last there are moments when I miss him.

I think that’s a sign that my grief has reached acceptance. I’m relieved. It’s good to feel that everything about my father is sorted in my mind.

I felt little grief after he passed. I shed few tears. I could only hope that grief was doing its work.

I think because we knew for months that he was going to pass away, I wrestled through most of my feelings before he actually died.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I will always wish we could have been closer. I tried to build closeness as best I could. But he was either not willing or, more likely, not capable of it.

He was also a hard man, angry, punitive to his sons while he raised us. There are more difficult memories than good ones.

But there is no doubt that he did the best he could. His sons turned out all right.

I wouldn’t mind pouring us a cup of coffee and telling him of all the hard times my family has faced since he died. I know he’d want to hear all about it. He’d also want to tell me exactly how to solve every problem, but finally I see that he knew no other way to express his empathy.

This link takes you to all of the stories I’ve written about my dad.

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Personal, Stories Told

Trips to the store with Dad

About once a week I wish I could forward Dad an article I found on Hacker News. Dad and I enjoyed many of the same nerdy math and science topics. We especially shared in interest in the history of mathematics. I gave him those textbooks from college, which he kept until he died.

I wish my relationship with my father could have been closer. We never figured it out while he lived. We had the best relationship we were capable of, usually cordial and sometimes warm. I guess that’s not too bad, but it was a disappointment to me. I would not be surprised if it was a disappointment to him, too. I think both of us wanted something from our relationship that the other couldn’t give.

I sometimes think that if I could go back, I’d have a heart-to-heart with him about it. But then I remember that I tried more than once, and he would never go there. Maybe he didn’t know how. I give him the benefit of that doubt. It helps me accept.

I wanted us to share more experiences together so we could have good memories with each other. It’s why when I was 22 I convinced him to make a trip with me to his West Virginia childhood home, a place I’d never been. It was a good trip, but it didn’t bring that closeness I wished for. Nothing did, not enough. Perhaps that’s why I now look back through childhood for moments I can claim.

When I was small, once in a while when Dad needed to buy something he’d take me along. Not usually — I think he rather liked running his errands alone. I’m just like that myself. I love the feeling of freedom and autonomy. But when Dad brought me along I knew the deal: I had to keep up with him, stay quiet, not touch the merchandise — and never pester him to buy me anything.

Brite-Way. Joe Yaciw photo.

Dad went to two stores in particular: Cook’s, a cut-rate department store in a strip mall, and Brite-Way, a hardware store, more or less. Both are long gone. Brite-Way in particular was an institution on South Bend’s south side and longtime residents still miss it though it went out of business more than 30 years ago. But I have clear memories of both stores from the trips with Dad, even though our trips there were short. Typical of men, he didn’t shop. He went straight for what he was there to buy, and then we were out.

Even as a small boy I wished Dad were warmer on those trips, and that he would do something small and special just for me — buy me a candy bar, or carry me on his shoulders, or even just talk to me about the thing he was buying and why he needed it. That wasn’t my father.

But I can still hear his voice in my head: “C’mon, Jimbo! Let’s run up to Brite-Way.” I still remember my mind and body filling with feel-good vibes when he said it. It was just us men on the trip! I watched Dad closely to take in his behavior. This must be how men behave when they’re out in the world by themselves! I noticed how he moved through the store and how he evaluated this brand versus that. He was unfailingly pleasant and engaging with the checkout clerk. I paid close attention and emulated it the minute I was old enough to go to the corner drug store by myself. I still do it.

Me on the bumper of Dad’s van, used to haul lumber and finished pieces

There are other memories. Dad started making custom cabinetry and furniture in the 80s. It was a side business when the plant was running and his primary work when he was laid off. He usually had me help unload lumber or load a finished piece, and sometimes he’d need me to hold a piece in place while he cut or joined it. Mostly, he pressed me into service sanding his assembled pieces. I hated sanding! But it was time together in his basement workshop, building something that mattered. Many of his pieces went to the University of Notre Dame, where they are still used. He had learned classic joinery, techniques to connect wood without fasteners like screws or nails, and he frequently showed me the techniques. He was clearly trying to teach me something in case I could ever use it. I think that this was the only way he knew how to be close to me.

Several times a year our family drove up into Michigan to the little lake my grandparents lived on. We had no money for vacations, making these trips the closest thing to unstructured family downtime we had. I saw a different side of Dad at the lake, one of some relaxation and leisure. He rose before dawn to fish for bass, and would be gone for hours. He usually went alone, but sometimes my uncle Jack went with him. Dad came back in a good mood even when the fish didn’t bite. In his good mood there was an ease, a permissiveness, that let me settle into the good times there.

I made only one photo of Dad at the lake. Here it is:

It was a hot summer day. It was probably my brother’s birthday, because he’s on a blurry photo later in the roll blowing out candles. Dad uncharacteristically needed a nap that afternoon and stretched out on my grandparents’ big green davenport. That’s what Grandma always called it, the davenport.

I also remember going to visit my dad’s Uncle William. He and Aunt Frieda lived in an old house downtown. We used to go over there to watch the city’s Fourth of July fireworks from their front porch. Sometimes Uncle Tom came over and the three men sat around William’s parlor talking about work, telling stories from their jobs past and present. When Dad was just starting out, William and Tom got Dad his first good job and they worked together for some years, so their mutual work history went way back. My brother and I were welcome in the parlor if we sat quietly, but we mostly watched TV in the room across the entryway. We could hear everything, of course. Those men obviously loved swapping their stories.

In the last couple years we had Dad, his vision deteriorated. After a minor car accident, he finally admitted he couldn’t see anymore and gave up driving. Of all the big-box hardware stores I prefer Menards. But to get to the Menards nearest my home, I had to pass a Lowe’s, a Home Depot — and Dad’s place. So anytime I went to Menards, I called Dad to see if he wanted to ride along. He always said yes, his voice unmistakably eager. We always talked a little about the home project that brought me to Menards that day; if he had any experience to share he always shared it. To the end, he hoped to teach me something. Then he’d ask me about my work and listen to my stories. Sometimes one of my stories triggered a memory of one of his, and he’d regale me with his tale.

I will always wish he had stretched himself, met me in the middle, to connect with me in the ways I wanted. But Dad connected with me in the ways he knew how. I stretched myself as far as I could to try to meet him in the middle, but it wasn’t enough.

Dad would have been 80 on Saturday. He died three years ago yesterday.

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The freedom to live life on your own terms

My youngest son, Garrett, turned 21 yesterday. Were it not for COVID-19, I’d have taken him out last night for a drink. We were both looking forward to it.

Garrett has what they used to call Asperger’s syndrome. I’ve danced around naming it for years in stories like this one and this one, but have always shied away because it’s more his story to tell than it is mine. But I’m taking the risk today because I have a story to tell about him and me and my dad, and how there may be a common thread that runs through all of our lives.

Garrett is a junior in college and he’s on track to graduate. He seems happy. I think he has a great chance at launching into a successful adulthood, on his own terms.

That wasn’t always true. Starting in about middle school he seriously struggled with communication, organization, and school deadlines. He broke some school rules, and ended up in trouble — if the rule didn’t make logical sense to him, he would follow it only if it were convenient to do so. He was once suspended for repeatedly walking down an up staircase. (That rule did make no logical sense.) If a class didn’t interest him or if he felt the teacher was unkind, he couldn’t bring himself to participate or do the homework. He didn’t have any friends, and I think he was desperately lonely. He was easily overwhelmed. He felt a lot of stress.

I worried endlessly over Garrett. At first, my approach to him was not helpful and may have been counterproductive. I rode him hard on getting organized and getting things done. I was scared to death that he would not succeed through school. I succeeded in school, my brother succeeded in school, my other son Damion succeeded in school. I had no script for a kid who didn’t. I had no idea what to do. I needed this kid to be all right.

You all know I was divorced after a disastrous and destructive marriage. There was no co-parenting with Garrett’s mom. At her best, she simply wouldn’t engage; at her worst, she was deeply unpleasant. So I turned to my parents for support and advice. I talked to them a lot about Garrett and how best to help him.

Dad had an almost supernatural understanding of this kid. He seemed to get Garrett at the deepest levels.

Garrett and Dad

That doesn’t mean that Dad always knew what I should do for Garrett. His advice was sometimes obviously and painfully wrong. Dad believed that if you just were able to reason with people, say the right thing, get them to see the light, that their behavior would suddenly change for the better.

I know better, because he tried to raise me that way. I endured hours of him trying to convince me of his view. I hated it. I wanted our relationship to be characterized more by happy shared experiences. But moreover, I deeply wanted to figure out my life for myself. I could listen to Dad’s perspective and advice as long as it was okay to adopt what made sense to me and leave what didn’t. I did adopt some of his way, the part that made sense to me. I did leave the rest — and that was hard for Dad to accept.

But when I talked to Dad about Garrett he was always able to help me find a calm place. His advice sometimes helped.

When I called, Dad always answered the phone. “Hey Dad, it’s Jimbo,” I’d always say. He always replied, “Jimbo! Let me get your mom.” But if I needed to talk about Garrett, I’d say, “wait, no, I need to talk to just you.”

It was obvious that this pleased Dad. Dad really, really, really wanted to be a source of wisdom and advice to his two sons. When it came to Garrett, he could be. I’d talk to him about what I was experiencing, and Dad had an uncanny way of giving a rationale, an explanation, or a perspective that fit.

I called Dad over and over and over.

And then one day after Garrett had started high school, I wrung my hands to Dad over Garrett one more time. One last time. Because then Dad said something that probably changed Garrett’s life: “Son, you can’t save them all.”

It hit me like a brick. I had been trying to save Garrett through helping him find success in life as I defined it. My dad tried to do that to me and I hated it, resisted it hard, even occasionally rebelled against it. I was determined to find my own way. I was smart, and I was capable, and even though in many ways I was like my dad, in many key ways I was not like him. His way would not be a perfect pattern for my life. I needed to find my own pattern.

So did Garrett. I finally saw it.

I immediately radically changed my relationship with my son. It had largely been characterized by me riding his ass about getting his homework done, about staying organized, about achieving.

I put all of that away. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just enjoyed my time with my son. I made my home and our time together into a quiet and safe space. No matter what was going on in his life, he could come to my house and find peace and, if he wanted it, connection.

I backed off and let him fail or succeed on his own merits.

Garrett and I began to connect on a level we had not before. He started letting me in through sharing his interests. We built a lot of Lego sets alongside each other. We played Minecraft (on computers in separate rooms) and he taught me how to build all sorts of things in that virtual world. He introduced me to Rick and Morty and other strange and funny cartoons.

As he became a junior in high school he suddenly started earning decent grades. He had been a C-D student, but out of the blue was a solid B student.

We talked about it. “You really seem to be getting it at school now. Do you know what changed in you?”

“Two words,” he said. “Stereotype threat.”

I didn’t know what that was, so I asked. “Well, we learned about it my psychology class. Basically, it means that I was seen as the screwup in the family and so I naturally tended to meet those expectations. But then Damion went off to college at the beginning of the year and it changed things around the house. I don’t know how to describe it. But I realized somehow that I could be what I wanted to be. I wanted to be someone who did well in high school.”

I knew just what he meant about Damion leaving. He had been the family’s dominant personality, and we didn’t see it until he was gone. If nobody else was talking, Damion was happy to. We did things together that were Damion’s idea or aligned to his interests. Damion’s absence gave Garrett room to be himself and to express himself.

Me getting off Garrett’s back and Damion going away to college gave Garrett the space to figure himself out.

It was a triumph for Garrett, and Dad played an important role. I wonder if Dad was also not neurotypical, and that’s why he understood Garrett so well. I’m no diagnostician, but I do see some patterns in Dad’s behavior that align. He was undiagnosed, of course. During Dad’s World War II childhood, Hans Asperger had only recently written the first papers describing the condition that would later bear his name. Asperger’s work was largely ignored until the 1980s. Even then, for a decade or more after that, autism was seldom diagnosed unless it was profound.

For that matter, I see some neurodivergent patterns in my thinking and behavior, too. I’ve written before about what a geek I was growing up, how poor my social skills were. I have some mild sensory issues — noise can be problematic for me, and I cut tags out of my shirts because they can feel like needles poking into my skin. I was even a precocious reader, figuring out words largely on my own as early as age 3. I’ve read that’s sometimes a marker for high-functioning autism.

To make it as an adult I’ve had to learn a lot of skills to fit in and get by. I started with social skills. I realized at about age 25 that I was missing out on experiences I wanted to have because I was so reticent. It was too hard to say hello to people I passed in the hallway at work, so I looked at my shoes everywhere I walked. But I wanted those new experiences, and so I worked to connect with others. I started with just saying hello to my co-workers. Later I added their name if I knew it. From there, I identified other behaviors I wanted to learn. I studied people and started to recognize social patterns. I practiced sets of responses to those patterns so I could participate with them. Now that I’m in my early 50s I pass for someone with good social skills. But even now there are still moments when I can’t recognize what’s going on socially and don’t know what to do.

I have built good executive function — that is, I handle the day-to-day stuff of life with flexibility and self-control. Many neurodivergent people struggle with this. But I learned as a teenager how important it is for me to have strong routines. They keep me from forgetting important things and let me feel in control in my life. If I abandon even one of them for more than a couple days I feel considerable stress and run out of energy long before the day is over.

One of my current routines is to spend an hour or more each morning writing and processing photos. It somehow sets my mind right for the day. If I skip it for more than a day or two, I start to come unraveled. I also have built several strong habits and follow a number of strict rules to keep myself organized. For example, my car keys are either in my pocket, on top of my dresser, or in the car’s ignition — period, or I will lose them. And thank God for Google Calendar, which reminds me when to pay the mortgage and when to change the furnace filter. It takes a lot of work to keep all of this up, but it’s far easier than the life chaos that follows when I don’t.

I’ve also had to learn how to cope with overwhelm. Too much input still blows me away. In my early 20s a good therapist taught me how to identify and label my emotions. Sometimes just knowing I’m overwhelmed is enough for me to get a handle on myself. In my late 30s another therapist helped me learn to soothe myself and tolerate distress. I also taught myself to meditate, which lets me use my breath to find calm.

All of this may or may not make me neurodivergent. I’ve thought about seeking a diagnosis, but I’m not sure it would let me access any therapies or treatments that would help me more. I am who I am, I’m reasonably happy, and I’m reasonably successful in the way I define success.

Was my dad? I don’t know. I fear not, especially late in his life. But Garrett looks to be on track for it. I’m grateful. He has his own journey ahead to figure out his life. If his journey is anything like mine, it will be a grand adventure.

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Redeeming the sins of my father

My father taught me that men work. It was a regular theme of his parenting. He demonstrated it every day: in bed at 10, up at 5, off to the plant by 7, home at 4, rest with the family all evening. He did this week in and week out all through my childhood.

As my brother and I entered our teenage years he all but ordered us to find work in the neighborhood. We shoveled driveways in the winter and mowed lawns in the summer. We delivered newspapers in all weather, including one Christmas morning when the snow was up to our waists. Once we painted a neighbor’s privacy fence. A couple times I minded a vacationing neighbor’s house and took care of their dog.

The four of us with Dad’s Aunt Betty in about 1980

During our college years Dad insisted we work to help pay our way. I was counterman at a Dairy Queen, a courier, a programmer, a gift-shop manager, a switchboard operator, and an administrative assistant.

While my brother and I were in college, the plant where Dad had worked all our lives closed. Manufacturing was in steep decline and jobs were scarce. Dad’s best friend ran the art museum at Notre Dame and had him make pedestals for sculpture and benches for people to sit on. Dad found he had a real talent for cabinetmaking. Well-heeled museum patrons began to ask Dad to make custom wood furniture for their homes. This kept the family going until Dad found another manufacturing job. He rose rapidly; by the time my brother and I graduated, he was plant manager. He worked hard all week at the plant and all weekend making furniture.

After my brother and I had both flown the nest, Dad quit the plant to make furniture full time. He designed and built beautiful original furniture for a wealthy clientele all across northern Indiana.

Dad hoped that word of mouth would build his business. I think he wanted to be sought out and chosen, and so he resisted making sales calls. He was advised to move downmarket, to hire a crew to make similar but simpler furniture in assembly-line fashion at lower cost, and to open a store. He resisted that, too.

The business never took off. After several extremely lean years, he found a job with a startup manufacturing company as plant manager. He found a building for the company to operate from, bought the equipment, hired a crew, and got the plant operating. But he had some difficulty navigating the politics with the company founders and was fired.

These two failures were a one-two punch to Dad’s gut. He gave up. Except when cabinetmaking work happened to find him, he never worked again.

I forget how old Dad was when all this happened. 55 maybe? 60? I was well into my adult life by then, was probably married with kids, and have lost track of the timing.

But I remember being deeply disappointed in my dad as he threw up every excuse for not finding a job, and instead donated his time to various social causes in my hometown. When Mom was forced to go back to work to put food on the table and provide health insurance, I became full-on angry.

I’m not sure that anger ever left. I just had to live with it. I broached this subject gently a few times but Dad wouldn’t let me go there.

I think for all these years I’ve lived with ambivalence toward my father. I loved him, but I lost respect for him and harbored, maybe even nurtured, a disgust for what he’d done. I yearned to be close to him, but I was repelled by how he let my mom down and by how he didn’t live up to the ideals he taught his sons.

My dad at Christmas just before he died, with my older son

Over the last couple years I’ve had challenges in my own career. Just as my sons were entering college a few years ago, I was laid off. Then last year I was fired from another job.

Meanwhile, it turns out I have a knack for writing and photography and I’ve built this reasonably popular blog around my work. I deeply enjoy how people have found and follow my work here.

I am very aware of some feelings and desires within me. I imagine that my dad must have had much the same ones. He and I are more alike than I care to admit.

I believe Dad wanted to be well known and loved for his furniture more than he wanted to have a profitable business. I believe he hoped he would become the wood-furniture darling of the wealthy and well-known. I believe this because I want to be well known and loved for my photography and writing. I’ve gotten a taste of that through this blog and have considered, even dipped my toe in the water of, turning it into a living and leaving my career behind.

And I believe that when Dad’s business failed and he was fired from his last job, a voice in his head screamed at him that he was always a failure and a fraud. I believe that voice told him that his age was a disadvantage, that he couldn’t keep up with the younger crowd, that he was being pushed out. I believe his urge was incredibly strong to let his career go. I believe this because when I lost my job last year, these are the things the voice in my head was yelling at me.

I wish I could say that I thought about what my dad would have done, as a way of seeking guidance. But I can’t. Instead, I’ve doggedly, determinedly done the exact opposite of what he did.

I resisted the urge to double down on photography and writing, and have kept them as hobbies while I kept pursuing my career. At the same time, I’ve worked to promote my blog to put it in front of more eyes, rather than just lay back and hope people will find me.

Both times I’ve lost a job in the last few years, when the voice in my head yelled at me to give up I told it to leave me alone, to get bent, to fuck off. I’ve worked hard to stay employed in my field. I refuse to let my family down.

It’s given me some compassion for my father. However, that compassion has yet to overtake my anger and disappointment. I hope it does, in time. Perhaps that will finally unlock my grief. Dad’s been gone for two years today.

Read Dad’s life story here.

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