Stories Told

“You are five times the father I ever was,” my dad said to me

I wanted to be there for my sons like my dad was for me. But I couldn’t, not fully, because of the divorce.

That’s the real horror of my divorce. Of any divorce, really, where children are involved. And I don’t think I’m overusing that word, horror. When any parent who wants fully to be in the parenting game can’t do it, it’s horrible.

The court allowed me to see my sons every Monday and Wednesday, every other weekend, and half the summer. Most of their lives happened without me being there.

I made the most of the time I got. I made sure I saw my sons when scheduled, missing maybe once or twice a year, usually due to illness. I was very intentional that as much as possible our home time together would be relaxed and easy, just us men having dinner, watching TV, reading, playing games.

And I followed the model my dad gave me: I went to their soccer games. I went along on field trips and met with their teachers. I saw Damion perform in his fourth-grade play. I went to every one of Garrett’s choir concerts and Damion’s band concerts.

Just for fun, here’s Damion in a clarinet duet with a classmate eight years ago.

Here’s Garrett singing with his choir from later the same year. He’s on the right, the bespectacled boy under and to the left of the rightmost overhead microphone, always a half step behind everyone else. He hated the dance moves — he just wanted to sing.

Our time together was of the highest quality I could make it. Yet when it comes to parenting, to do the job all the way you need quantity time. With enough time serendipity can happen — that random fun, those unexpected conversations both serious and lighthearted, those hard life events where a well-timed word from Dad can ease the difficulty. These are experiences through which you connect meaningfully, where you share deep love. We got a little of that, here and there, and I think they were our most valuable moments. I wanted more. We needed more.

Damion has let me fully off the hook. “You’ve been fantastic,” he said. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out between you and Mom. It would have been great if I could have seen you every day. But I have several friends whose dads live with them, but ignore or mistreat them. I’m better off than they are.”

Garrett was all shrugs, as the kids say today. “I don’t remember any time before the divorce,” he said. “This is all I know. It’s been fine.”

Even my dad told me not to worry about it: “You are five times the father I ever was, even though I was there every day for you.” It might well be the most encouraging, most affirming thing he ever said to me.

Still, I grieve. I loved the time I spent with my sons while they were growing up, and I miss it. But when court-ordered parenting time ended last spring, the door closed for good on the time I lost. I know that door actually closed the day I moved out so many years ago. But feeling that loss was partially deferred because during the parenting-time years I held out hope, however unrealistic and illogical, that it could be better than it was.

I’m beginning to feel it only now because the intervening time has brought several heavy life challenges to us. I’ve been in go/do mode for about a year. But fortunately those challenges are slowly clearing, giving me brain space to think and feel and process. Thinking lately about my own father’s successes in parenting has brought it up.

I’m choosing to cling to the good, kind words my sons and my father said to me.

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Stories Told

Dad was always there

It’s a steady presence that lets a child feel secure: a father who is there.

My dad had a strong singing voice. Like father, like sons: my brother and I could carry a tune and sing out. Dad encouraged it in us from a very young age. He’d ask us to sing as we rode around in his car, and we’d serenade him and Mom with the day’s popular songs. We also had a pretty good Beatles repertoire. My brother sang John and I sang Paul, our voices blending. Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody!

My parents weren’t surprised when the school’s choir director asked their permission for me to join the choir a year early, in the second grade. She had heard me sing in music class and wanted my voice as soon as she could get it.

I loved being in the choir. I sang my heart out. At our concerts I sang to my dad, who was in the audience without fail.

James Monroe School

Sometimes I’d wait backstage for my turn to walk out as part of some production, but most of the time I stood with the choir on risers at the foot of the stage. From wherever I sang, the first thing I did was scan the audience for my dad’s face. I could seldom see it in the dark. But I knew he was there and it was enough for me.

James Monroe School

I’m fortunate to have these photographs of my elementary school’s auditorium from eight years ago when they held an open house after an extensive renovation. Here’s the view my dad would have had, as he preferred to sit in the balcony.

James Monroe School

Dad was always there. He came home every night and spent his evenings with his family. He attended every school event my brother or I were in. When my brother ran track and cross country, they went not only to every meet, but even to most practices. They’d sit streetside in their car and watch. Here’s a photo of them doing just that in 1984. Mom is prominent in the frame but Dad is there, in the driver’s seat. To the right, out of the photo, is the school practice track and my brother running on it.

MomInRenault

When I did a summer basketball camp, Dad came to watch me play (badly). When I was invited to sing in an opera, Dad came to listen to me practice with the chorus. When I got braces, Dad took me to many of my orthodontic appointments and waited for me. When I flew to Germany the summer after my junior year, Dad wrote me that he wished he could be a butterfly on my shoulder.

When I got my first apartment, Dad came to see it right away. When my sons were born, Dad waited in the hospital, eager to meet his grandbabies. When my marriage began to stumble, and then to crumble, and then to flame out horrifically, Dad had no idea what to say that would help but he took every phone call through the whole mess and let me vent and rage. Those phone calls home kept me from losing my mind.

Dad was there.

If you’ve read the other stories I’ve told about Dad since he died (all here), you know our relationship wasn’t everything I wanted it to be and that he could be difficult and unkind, and that it left me with some stuff to work through.

But none of that obviates one iota that he was in the game with his children every step of the way. That it set his sons up for successful adult lives.

Where I go to church, in an inner-city neighborhood that knows poverty, families are usually significantly broken. Fathers are out of the picture. Kids live with moms and current boyfriends, or with aunts, or even with family friends. They bounce from roof to roof, from bed to bed. They don’t know stability. It shows up in their lives: the trouble they get into, the challenges they have transitioning to adulthood, the deep anger so obvious in them. They got a raw deal, and they know it.

But I have a solid sense of stability and goodness because Dad was there.

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Personal, Stories Told

I miss my father’s voice

I have a great memory of my dad. It was probably the late 1970s and we were waiting in our car for Mom to finish shopping. The radio was on low when the song below came on. It was just the kind of over-the-top song that brought out Dad’s inner showman. He belted it out, smiling at me, singing for me. He sang it better than the artist!

I miss Dad’s voice. It was big, deep, rich. He had excellent control, being able to make it very loud or quite low and tender. Until his last months.

But I’m choosing not to feel guilty that I don’t miss Dad very much otherwise. As I’ve shared before, Dad and I never figured out how to have an adult-to-adult relationship. He needed to be the teacher, the coach, the mentor, well past the point where our relationship needed primarily to be about that. But more than that, Dad was challenging in his last years. He was often in a difficult mood, often blunt and unkind.

I lived in tension, trying to be a good son who honored his father while constantly setting boundaries with him and repeatedly asserting my independence. It is a relief to be free of it.

But there was something about his voice.

Family reunion

Dad, in the pink shirt and in his 60th year, speaking at a 2001 Grey family reunion. I see Doyle and Susie and Ken and Sharon and Tommy and Gail and a couple other people I can’t make out, all Greys whether by blood or by marriage.

When I was three, he picked me up after surgery in the hospital. His low and easy voice erased my fear and filled me with security.

When my brother and I were small, growing up on Rabbit Hill, Dad would open the front door and call. “Jim-may! Rick-ay!” Every family for a mile knew it was time for the Grey boys to go home.

Dad could carry a tune and sang frequently. Especially in the morning — he loved the new day and often met it with a song. (The rest of us were night owls and didn’t appreciate his morning cheerfulness!) He fancied himself Elvis and went after most songs with all the oomph and verve that implies.

When Dad taught, his voice carried the air of authority. He taught young Robyn down the street to play chess. He taught woodworking for several summers to 4-H youth. He taught my sons to sharpen knives. In all ways, his voice carried “I’ve got this and I can show you” in perfect pitch.

And when he was angry, Dad’s voice filled with rage and fury. It was deeply frightening to my brother and me when we were small. I did everything I could to avoid hearing that voice, right up until he died.

After the cancer was found in his liver and his brain late last summer, his voice sounded strained much of the time. I think this was the hardest thing for me to take as he began to fade away. While I felt bad for him that his failing eyesight and fading strength kept him from so much activity, I accepted these things.

But his voice. I always hoped it would come back, just for a minute.

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Personal, Stories Told

A man needs to feel useful

My dad’s last words to me were about my son, Garrett.

DadAndGarrett

My dad and my son Garrett in 2005, before the cancer.

It was Dad’s birthday, his 77th, and we had planned a quiet celebration. Mom called me that afternoon to warn me that Dad had not gotten out of bed all day. More than that: he had taken a turn over the weekend and was in real pain.

As I stood at the foot of his bed Dad experienced several spasms. First his face clouded, and then he grimaced and grunted low for the few seconds each one lasted.

I tried to wish him a happy birthday, but Dad had something to say. “The younger one,” he said. “The younger one,” his voice strained, wobbly. Weighted down.

“Garrett? You mean Garrett.” Mom hovered anxiously.

“Yes, Garrett. He asked about the knives.”

knives

My middling-quality knives always cut beautifully because Dad kept a perfect edge on them.

Several years ago my father taught my sons how to sharpen knives. He was extremely good at it. When I was a boy Dad made a friend at work, a fellow of his father’s generation named Pat, who taught him how. Dad and Pat used to spend their breaks at their whetstones in friendly competition to see who could get the best edge.

When my brother and I were young, Dad tried to teach us, too. But his patience was terrible. When we didn’t get it right away he lost his temper. It pushed us away

But a man mellows with age. Time and life burr off his rough edges, much like the whetstone burrs off metal splayed along a dull blade. Dad taught my sons with a level of patience that, while still not perfect, was greater than anything I ever experienced from him as a child. I envied my sons, who learned it readily and were and happy to present me my knives, sharpened.

I can only assume that Garrett had lately asked his grandpa for a refresher. And here was Dad, concerned about it more than his pain.

“Garrett wanted me to show him again about the knives.”

Or at least that’s what I think he was trying to say. Morphine slowed and slurred his speech. Pain spasms interrupted him every fourth or fifth word and caused him to lose his place. He kept trying again to say it. Finally, exhausted, he fell asleep.

Dad stayed asleep. No candles were blown out, no cake was eaten. My gift to him, two pairs of new Levi’s 505s, the only jeans he would wear, went unopened.

Early the next afternoon I was at a coffee shop with my brother discussing some matters of our mutual employer. Mom called: “Your father stopped breathing about an hour ago. He just quietly passed away.”

A man needs to feel useful, to know he’s offering something valuable and meaningful. In my dad’s cancer years he seemed less and less sure what purpose he served.

Actually, his search for purpose went back farther than that. Dad had been all about his family while my brother and I were under his roof. After my brother and I grew up and moved away, Dad went into business for himself making custom wood furniture. After that venture failed, he returned to manufacturing management. But it was a kick in his teeth when that job encountered surprising difficulty and ended involuntarily. He seemed simply to lose his will to work.

My father drilled into his sons that a man works, period. It was extremely challenging for me to see my mother have to return to work to put food on the table.

Dad threw himself into building coalitions that might revitalize South Bend’s economically depressed west side, where he lived as a teen. He had admirable aims but seemed only to want to be a catalyst for something happening. He simply would not roll up his sleeves and do the hard work to make something happen. None of his initiatives bore any real fruit.

When their home became too much for Dad to care for, he and Mom sold it and retired to Indianapolis to be closer to their sons and to the VA hospital where Dad got all his medical care. But with that, Dad withdrew from everything. He had only his Internet forums and his family.

When my brother or I visited, Dad mostly wanted to hear how our jobs were going. We’d share our frustrations and challenges and Dad would always offer his advice. Unfortunately, his 1970s-1980s manufacturing experience seldom informed my brother’s and my modern software-development reality. It frustrated and sometimes agitated him; more than once I had to deescalate his anger and change the subject. Sooner or later our conversation would remind him of one of his on-the-job stories, such as how he ended 300% annual employee turnover at one plant, which improved productivity so much they soon needed to build another plant. We’d just lay back and let him tell it again; it seemed to let him feel better.

During these years I always had some major home-improvement project underway. Mom and Dad were always eager to come and help. But by this time Dad’s health limited the physical work he could do.

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Destroying my front yard to connect to city sewer.

I have one especially good memory of Dad from those project days. Four years ago the city forced me to fill in my septic tank and connect my home to the sanitary sewer. It destroyed much of my front yard. Dad and Mom and my sons and I spent an entire Saturday spreading topsoil, grading, and planting grass. I issued my sons shovels and stationed them by the giant mound of soil I had delivered to my driveway. All day long they’d load the wheelbarrow and Dad would push it into the yard, where Mom and I waited with rakes. Dad would dump the dirt, Mom and I would spread and grade, and Dad would go back for another load. It was a very good day, the five of us working together. Dad did go inside twice to nap. He probably needed two or three more naps that day. But he pushed through because he wanted to be in the action. He was happy to be in the action.

KitchenCabinets

My kitchen on the day I last saw my old house, the cabinets still aglow from Dad’s expert waxing.

But that was the last time he was able to help much. As I got my house ready to sell last year, Dad and Mom came over frequently to do what they could. I found jobs that his terrible vision allowed him to do. The best of them was waxing my kitchen cabinets. He had perfected a wax-finish technique in his custom furniture days and could make bare wood glow. Even with his poor vision, his work on my cabinets deepened the dark finish and made them look almost new.

But no matter the job, Dad could work only for minutes at a time before his breathing became too labored and he had to stop. He spent a lot of time sitting on the deck, watching his dog run around my fenced back yard. Whenever I needed to run to Lowe’s, he always ran along. Eventually he’d nap. He tried not to show it, but he clearly hated being sidelined.

I’ll probably never understand why he gave up on working when his last job ended, or why he wouldn’t go all in on his economic improvement initiatives, or why after he moved to Indianapolis he gave up on almost everything.

Because when his life came to an end, the thing that was on his mind was being useful, giving something of value. And it was too late.

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Personal, Stories Told

Re-integrating joy

As I remember my father, who died last month, I want to rerun this story I first published here in April, 2007.

My dad once told me that I was the most joyful little boy he had ever known. During my first few years, he said, I seemed to constantly have a big beaming smile on my face, and everything seemed to make me happy. The few memories I have of my first three years seem to support his perception. Here are all of them:

First, I watched on TV as Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I don’t remember the landing, but I do remember that it was sponsored by Gulf Oil with its big red-circle logo and its name within. Mom says that at every commercial break, I pointed at the screen and exclaimed, “Gulf!”

Next, I used to get up when Dad’s alarm went off at 5 a.m., go quietly into my parents’ room, and lie still on the corner of their bed in the dark. The radio played softly, always on the Hit Parade station, while Dad dressed for work. I heard Karen Carpenter sing and when I closed my eyes her voice made me see colors that flowed and shifted with her song. I hoped to hear her song every morning.

Finally, I woke up in the hospital after surgery groggy and angry, but very glad when Dad came to take me home. He picked me up and, as I moved through the air on my way to his chest, my anger faded. I felt secure way up there with my head on his shoulder, looking down at the recovery room. He says that I said to him, “They’re not doing that to me again!”

These memories suggest to me that I took life as it was and easily experienced the feelings that went with it. No wonder I found it easy to feel joy. I felt easily.

James Monroe School

My next memories, much more vivid and detailed, are of Kindergarten. My school looked like a castle in red brick trimmed in white with a slate roof and copper gutters. Room 001 was just inside the east entrance, and although the room had two entrance doors, you had to go in the far door because the near door was always locked. The room had a dim cloakroom with cubbyholes for coats and rubbers, and I’m pretty sure there was a tiny restroom in there with just a sink and a toilet. There were five or six low rectangular tables that held six children each, and the teacher had placed a big wooden block on each one, each block a different color, to identify the groups. We did most things with our color groups.

At the other end of the room was a wide fireplace, and before it a red circle laid into the tile floor. The whole class sat on the circle when Mrs. Coles read to us or we showed our toys at show and tell. We also laid mats down there when we napped. The teacher’s desk was by the fireplace; behind it was a nook chock full of toys including a child-sized kitchen and a big gray wooden box with an old Ford steering wheel and column sticking out of it. Mrs. Coles was a stout, grandmotherly woman with sliver and white cat’s-eye glasses and white hair. She drove her gray 1968 Chevy Malibu coupe (which had a black vinyl top) one whole block from her home to school every morning, where she parked on the street across from the school’s east entrance. Curiously, she always sat in her car for five minutes fiddling with her purse before coming inside.

Clearly, my memory had switched on.

I often felt lonely in that room with 25 kids. I often drove the pretend Ford by myself, in part because I liked cars but also because it was safer not to risk playing with others. The boys pushed and shoved and chased each other and sometimes I got hurt. The girls never caused pain, but I didn’t enjoy always being the husband or the son in their endless games of House. Also, at a time when schools didn’t teach reading until the first grade, I started Kindergarten already able to read. I was proud to be able to read, but Mrs. Coles didn’t believe I could. When I read her a page from a book, she seemed annoyed rather than pleased. I was crushed that she wasn’t as happy with my reading as I was. I also have a couple vague memories of her forcing me to write with my right hand, which confused and upset me because I was just as good with my left hand and liked writing with whichever hand felt good.

I faced school as earnestly as I could, but I was lost. When my first report card came, the teacher had remarked in it, “Jimmy should smile more. He’s so serious.”

I’m not sure what changed in me. Maybe I wasn’t quite emotionally ready for school. Perhaps something about my upbringing squashed my natural joy. Perhaps I was just depressed. Who knows; I can’t reach those memories.

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A clue came when I was 16. I spent a summer in Germany on an Indiana University exchange program where I would deepen my German language skills. Even though my family always lived on a tight budget, my father stunned me by making the funds appear to send me on this trip. It took me a couple weeks to let my hair down and find my groove, but once I did I had the time of my life. I made some friends, lived with a nice family, studied German language and culture intensively, and traveled around Germany. I walked 539 steps to the top of the Cologne Cathedral. I drank beer in a little pub in Düsseldorf with a crusty but amused barkeep who explained the secret of the beer coaster and why you never turn it over. I got lost in West Berlin with a friend and spent an evening wandering streets to find our way back to the hostel. I touched the Wall and heard the stories of many who died trying to cross from east to west. I toured a prison where Nazi political enemies were hanged.

I stood on the ground where Christian writer Thomas a Kempis lived. I took a slow boat down the Rhine River and saw the Lorelei. I swam at a pool where clothing was optional from the waist up for everybody. I drank beer with East German teenagers and found that our differing political ideologies mattered not at all compared to our common desires for girlfriends, cars, and beer. It was heady stuff that produced a natural high, but I also was given the freedom and trust to handle myself over there. It let more of the real me come out — and so joy returned. But when I came home, I experienced more than the natural letdown from such a wonderful trip — I found that the world to which I returned didn’t fit the joyful Jim; instead, it was shaped for the serious Jim. With sadness and resentment, I put joyful Jim away, and then the black curtain fell on my first major depression, which did not lift for months.

20 years or more ago popular psychology started talking about how everybody needs to get in touch with their inner child. Then as now, the idea makes me want to gag. But as I’ve worked over the years to improve myself, joyous Jimmy kept appearing and asking for an audience to air his grievances for being put away for more than a quarter century. As I have listened to him, he has slowly been returning to his place within me. My, um, inner child is back! But I also find that the serious Jim isn’t going anywhere. They are both parts of me. Maybe the inner-child crowd really means to say that without being all of who we are, which means bringing back all the parts of us we put away when we were little, we will always struggle to find wholeness, contentment, and peace.

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Kodak Brownie Starmatic
Kodak Portra 160
2012

This might be the remains of the place where my father was born, and lived until he was 4. I don’t know for sure, and neither did Dad when we stood here that summer day in 2012.

When we visited his hometown of Handley, West Virginia, together in 1990, the building still stood. I remember it being painted yellow. But Dad couldn’t find the building on this visit to town, and he just had to guess that this was probably it.

When I was a child my dad sat on the edge of his chair one night as a news report showed a house on fire — the one where he had lived as a teen with his dad. I remember Dad’s face, grave, grief-stricken.

Dad seemed dispassionate as we stood before this ruin. Perhaps he had cultivated a level of stoicism to cope with so much loss.

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