My dad’s last words to me were about my son, Garrett.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I launched this blog in 2007 I was beginning to heal from a destructive marriage and a brutal divorce. With a few key exceptions (like this, this, and this) I haven’t told stories from those years. And in those exceptions I made the stories be about me and not my ex.
I could easily have written a few dozen very unflattering stories about my ex. I had considerable righteous anger and I would have loved to vent it. But I made a vow to myself that I would not do that. I feared that it would be unhealthy for me to wallow in it. And I sure as hell wouldn’t like it if my ex blogged unkind stories about me. We were a hot mess — we both have terrible true stories to tell about each other.
Proof that this father and son could be happy to be with each other
I have stories to tell about my father, too. Plenty of them are right on the tips of my fingertips when I sit down to blog.
My dad could be most unkind. He was also frequently domineering and controlling. It did damage that hindered my ability to form healthy relationships when I was an adult. It contributed strongly to why I chose my first wife and to my dysfunction in that marriage.
After Dad died and I wrote his life story I had a conversation with my cousin Susie. She’s Dad’s first cousin, born when Dad was a teenager. She has always loved and looked up to my dad. She tells stories of him tutoring her in arithmetic when she was a girl, making it all come to her so easily when she just couldn’t understand it in school.
I mentioned that I had more stories to tell and not all of them were flattering. But I was reluctant to tell them because the family respected my father so much. I didn’t want to come across as an ungrateful son, petulant, unforgiving.
Susie’s response surprised me. “Tell your stories if they’ll help you grieve. Don’t worry about how we’ll take it. We all know how he could be. It’s no secret. I’ve received it from him, too, and it hurts. It’s a Grey family trait. Some of us have learned to control it.”
I didn’t know anybody else knew. And: ooh, she is so right. I’ve had to beat that same trait down in myself over the years. To learn how to manage my emotions so I can speak and act kindly, in ways that build people up.
I’ve also learned how to choose better the people I keep in my life, and to behave in healthy ways in my relationships. I’ve done a ton of work on myself and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.
In my late 30s I was finally able to make peace with most of what happened between my dad and me when I was young. The remaining few difficult moments were damaging enough that, a couple years ago, I saw a good therapist who helped me heal.
As I continue to grieve my father’s death I’m sure I will write more about him. Or, rather, I’ll write more about me in my relationship with him. Some of what I write will likely show some of my father’s unfortunate traits. I will write it only when I can’t tell my own story without revealing those details.
Because like Susie I know two sides of my dad. The other side of him is remarkable. My father, who exited a chaotic childhood feeling unwanted and having no idea what normal was, went on to make a stable, successful family. His two children were the first Greys ever to graduate college right after high school. The conditions he created and his encouragement helped us both move from our working-class roots into upper-middle-class careers. Contrary to the American mythos, this is actually enormously difficult. My father was satisfied with what he accomplished, as well he should have been.
My father died last Wednesday, one day after his 77th birthday.
I’m sure I will have a lot to write about my father in the months to come. My relationship with my father is a key part of who I am — for better, and for worse. I’ve had to do considerable work as an adult sorting out my childhood and my adult relationship with him to find happiness and good emotional health. Writing about him and about that process will help me grieve this loss.
Today, I want to tell his life story. Settle in for a long read, because even treating his life in thumbnail I wrote more than 3,500 words.
James Grey, Sr., with James Grey, Jr.
James Wilson Grey, Jr., was born January 9, 1941 in Handley, West Virginia, a small railroad town just down the Kanawha River from Charleston. His father, James W. Grey, and his mother, Bertha (Legg) Grey, were from that little town’s two most prominent families.
Prominence is relative, of course. In the remote hills of West Virginia, what qualified those families as such was that Dad’s grandparents owned the town’s two most important businesses. His paternal grandmother owned a tavern and boardinghouse that served the rail workers, and his maternal grandmother owned a general store. Dad’s parents lived in an apartment above the general store.
“Everybody in town owed money to my grandmothers,” my father said many times. “It let me go anywhere and do anything in that little town. I was the prince of Handley.”
But there is no way to sugar coat it: Dad had a difficult childhood. He was born while his father was away in the Navy fighting World War II. He remembers clearly his father coming home from the war: this man he did not know walked into the apartment and embraced his mother. It angered my young father, who ran to this strange man and started pounding on his legs in a vain attempt to protect his mother.
His parents’ reunited marriage did not last long: late one night, Dad’s mom suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Dad, his younger sister Karen, and his parents all slept in the apartment’s one bedroom, and the commotion woke everybody up. My father, at four years old, watched his mother die.
At left, my dad in the arms of Bertha (Legg) Grey, his mother. Next to her is Rae Grey, wife of Dad’s uncle Tom; Ethel Grey, Dad’s grandmother, and Katy Hall, Ethel Grey’s half sister. Dad’s grandfather, John Eugene Grey, stands behind all the women. The boy at bottom might be Rae’s son Tommy.
Dad entered school that fall and refused to speak to his teacher. I’m sure this was in part because of his shock over losing his mother. But Dad said it was also because his teacher was an unkind woman who took pleasure in pushing children down the side of the hill when their backs were turned. Dad had to repeat the first grade because of his recalcitrance, but fortunately a different woman taught first grade the next year and Dad participated.
Dad’s dad was a laborer who had quit school after the 8th grade, and was also a drinker and a fighter. He had no idea how to raise small children, and he had to work. So Dad and Karen went to live with their grandmother, Ethel Grey. The whole family called her Mom. She was a tough, ornery woman, busy with her tavern and, I believe, still raising the youngest of her many children. While I’m sure she loved her grandchildren, the last thing she needed was more children to raise.
Dad and Karen
The stories Dad told me about living in his grandmother’s tavern, in a room directly above the kitchen, make me think he felt like he was a burden to his grandmother. And he missed his dad, whose work took him away for long periods. Sometimes his dad drove a truck, and he would delight his young son by making his route run through Handley. I believe one summer Dad even got to ride with his dad on one trucking trip. Other times his dad took factory and construction work in South Bend, Indiana, where some of his brothers had relocated. Other of Dad’s uncles and his one aunt remained in West Virginia and were involved in raising my father and his sister.
Dad as probably a preteen
All I have are Dad’s stories, which I heard over and over throughout my life, to have any idea what growing up in Handley was like. Through them my sense is that it was a scrappy place, one where you were expected to fight for your honor. You especially did not say unkind things about anybody’s mother. Casual words about Dad’s mother having passed on led to a few fights.
Handley was a place that the law could not easily reach. Mom Grey famously used to stand on her tavern’s front porch and kill squirrels with her shotgun so all would see she was a good shot and know not to mess with her. She locked the tavern door at 11 pm each night, and instructed all of her children that she guarded that door with her shotgun and that if they tried to enter that door after 11 pm, she would assume it was an intruder and would shoot them right through the door.
But for all her pluck and drive, raising two children may have become too much for Mom Grey as Dad and Karen got older. The story as Dad tells it was that the family liked to pick on Karen at the dinner table. Dad kept silent, but never liked it. His anger grew until one day he had quite an outburst over it. This upset and frightened Mom Grey enough that she immediately sent Dad and Karen to South Bend to live with their father. Dad was 11.
Dad learned quickly that while he might have been the Prince of Handley, he was considered just a dumb hillbilly in South Bend. His dad reinforced this thought, telling him point blank that he was going to have to fight the boys who dared call him that. But my father was anything but dumb. The schools in South Bend assumed they’d have to put this kid from West Virginia’s hills back a year, but Mom Grey insisted to school officials that he be tested for placement. He tested well and was able to stay in his grade.
Dad was tall and athletic, so he was recruited to the basketball team, his first time ever playing the game. He also played a lot of baseball and, at least by his stories, developed a pitching arm good enough that he was being scouted. His father valued work over baseball dreams, however, and insisted that his son quit baseball and get a paper route. By the time Dad reached high school, he had been recruited to the swim team.
Dad in 1958, a senior in high school
But as he moved through high school, he no idea what he’d do with his life. He felt sure college was out of the question. Even if it wasn’t, what would he study? Nothing really interested him. I think he was angry, feeling shortchanged in his life: having lost his mother, not having felt wanted by his family, not seeing a future for himself. And so his senior year he simply didn’t attend several of his classes for the first 23 days of the first semester. It earned him automatic Fs in those classes, cost him his place on the swim team, and earned his father’s anger. “You blew it, kid,” Dad told me his father said to him. The manufacturing plant where he worked was offering scholarships to employee children to attend Purdue University, and those Fs scuttled Dad’s chances.
Upon graduating, unsure what was next for himself, Dad disappeared for a couple days. Knowing he’d have hell to pay when he got home, he stopped by the U.S. Navy recruiter’s office and enlisted. Dad walked into his father’s apartment and, without a word, laid the enlistment papers before him. “It’s about damn time,” was all his father would say.
Dad home from boot camp, probably 1959
Dad said many times that while he was in the Navy, he was drunk as often as he could be. Yet he also expected to make a career out of the Navy. He became a radarman. He served during the Bay of Pigs Invasion; his ship raced toward Cuba as fast as it could but it was all over before they arrived. Dad’s ship also participated heavily in building US goodwill, possibly as part of Dwight Eisenhower’s People to People program. Dad’s ship visited many ports all over the East with the purpose of allowing sailors to meet and mingle with local people. Dad told stories of a state dinner in one obscure country where he got the governor’s son in trouble, of eating sushi in a dark Japanese pub where when he got to the bottom of the plate he found two fish eyeballs staring up at him, and of singing his best Elvis impersonation on stage in a small Philippine town.
Dad’s sister Karen was found to have ovarian cancer while Dad was in the Navy, and she died. He was granted leave to attend her funeral. The timeline is not entirely clear to me, but it was during this time that he lost his zeal for a Navy career and let his enlistment end, and that he met my mother.
Carole Ann Frederick, 1963
Carole Ann Frederick grew up in an upper-middle-class South Bend neighborhood, the daughter of an engineer who worked for the Bendix Corporation, a prestigious South Bend employer. There was no end to the men from her family’s social circles who were interested in her, but none of them drew her in. Then she met my father. She knew he was a drinker, that he was always out at bars hustling pool, and that other women hung loosely around him all the time. But she fell, and fell hard. And so did Dad.
Mom expected she would live a party lifestyle with my father. Her parents didn’t approve, and it wasn’t how she was raised, but she was head over heels for my dad and was going to live whatever life he made for them. But when they married, Dad turned his life around. He learned to weld and got a decent factory job, ending up at the Oliver Corporation, which made farm implements. He stopped drinking and insisted that they be asleep by 10 pm each night so he could be ready to work each day. Dad built his life around his work and his wife.
Dad was proud to work at Oliver. Here he is in one of the company’s tractors, in about 1968.
They first rented an apartment in South Bend above a real-estate office. Mom worked downstairs while Dad went off to Oliver’s.
But then in July of 1964, one month to the day after their wedding, Dad’s father fell to his death in a construction accident. It was an awful blow to Dad, who adored and idolized his father. Dad withdrew deeply into himself. It was a terrible strain on my parents’ young marriage.
Everyone to whom my father would have been closest in childhood, his parents and his sister, were gone. But Mom Grey was still alive and had retired to South Bend. Three of Mom Grey’s children, Dad’s uncle William and uncle Tom, and his aunt Betty, all lived and worked in town, too. And, in time, Dad remembered that he had his wife and was building his future with her.
927 Lancaster Drive, South Bend, our first family home
I came along in August of 1967. I was named for my grandfather, a man I never had the fortune to know. My parents moved from their apartment into a tiny ranch house. Dad made little money then; were they not able to assume a mortgage from a family desperate to get out, they could not have afforded even that basic house. We lived there, in a neighborhood we called Rabbit Hill, until 1976.
Mom Grey, my brother, and me, 1969
My brother Rick came in July of 1968 and then our family was complete. Dad kept on at Oliver’s, which became White Farm Equipment, and moved from the factory floor to be the plant’s quality control man. With increasing fortune we were able to buy a larger home in a nicer South Bend neighborhood. Our lives were typical for the time: a nuclear family with Dad working, Mom staying home, and the kids walking to school.
Dad and me, about 1970
We lived a quiet life. We weren’t joiners. We didn’t go to church. We were home a lot. It was by Dad’s design. His young life had been so chaotic that he absolutely insisted upon stability for his family. It was stability almost to the point of stagnation — yet there was real comfort in knowing that Dad would be home by 4, dinner would be on the table by 5, and we would spend our evenings quietly, with the newspaper, the TV on low, and our homework.
In the early 1980s, as manufacturing began its downturn in northern Indiana, White was sold and its pension fund liquidated. Soon the plant closed. Dad had nothing to show for 18 years of service. Dad spent a lot of time in bed. It wasn’t spoken of, but I assume now that he was deeply depressed.
Our family with Aunt Betty, Dad’s father’s sister, in about 1980
But back on Rabbit Hill, a couple had moved in next door in about 1966 who became my parents’ best friends. Dean Porter moved from New York state to South Bend with his wife Carol to join the faculty at Notre Dame and curate the school’s art gallery. My parents played Canasta with them almost every Saturday night for more than 40 years. Dean achieved his Ph.D. during those early years, and worked to fulfill the university’s goal of building a large, new art museum. He raised the funds and oversaw the construction, and when it completed he became its first Director.
Dad’s best friend, Dean, in our home at Christmas, 1984
This was about the time Dad lost his job. Dad had dabbled in woodworking as a hobby and had made a small wooden keepsake box for Dean as a birthday gift. Dean called Dad: “I need someone to design and build benches for patrons to sit on, and pedestals for art to rest on, throughout my new museum. I want you to do the work.” Dad said, “But Dean, all I’ve ever made are little boxes like yours! What makes you think I can make these benches and pedestals?” Dean’s reply was simple: “I know you can do it.” And with that, Dad went into the cabinetmaking business. It was a family affair: Dad designed and built the pieces, my brother and I did grunt work like moving lumber and sanding, and Mom managed the books. Mom also got a job as an aide at the nearby elementary school. It kept our family going. If you visit Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art today and sit down in a gallery, you will be sitting on one of Dad’s benches.
Dad alternated between cabinetmaking, including building furniture for private clients, and working in various manufacturing management jobs. These were the years my brother and I were in college. My father’s entire goal of parenthood was to see that his sons went to college. He always felt that his lack of education limited him. There was evidence for that: at one company where he rose to Plant Manager, when it came time to build a larger plant (because my father had increased productivity so much) they replaced him with a fellow with a master’s degree. But more than that, I think he was ashamed to have only a high-school education. A college education would prove to all that he wasn’t a dumb hillbilly.
My brother and I were both intelligent and did well in public school. Thanks to need-based federal financial aid and a large grant from the Lilly Foundation, which was then helping first-generation college students attend private colleges, I was able to attend Rose-Hulman, a top engineering school, and Rick was able to attend Notre Dame. Still, the portion of tuition, room, and board that Mom and Dad had to bear left them with next to nothing during our college years. But my brother and I both graduated, Rick with honors. My father wept openly when I graduated.
Dad kept making furniture and running various manufacturing operations after his sons had transitioned into their adult lives. Mom continued to work in the school system. They settled into empty-nested lives.
The Greys, in my home in 1995
But then Dad and Mom decided to make a go at building furniture full time. It turned out Dad was better at building than he was at sales. Moreover, he insisted on making only the finest furniture, bespoke, and there wasn’t enough of a market within reasonable range of South Bend. Cash flow became a serious problem. It drove Dad to look again for a manufacturing leadership job. He found one, helping build operations at a startup company. But it did not work out and he was fired.
These two failures flattened him. He never sought a regular job again. Mom found a job as a clerk in the county probate court to make ends meet. Dad took cabinetmaking work when it found him, mostly through word of mouth around Notre Dame. He also bought a mat cutter, and matted and framed art for the museum at Notre Dame.
Mom and dad with my sons in about 2005
Dad turned his energy to service. He became involved in the Republican Party in his county, serving as Treasurer of his local party office. He also sought to advance social concerns that would improve conditions on the impoverished west side of South Bend, where he lived as a teen with his father. He hoped to build entrepreneurship and encourage higher education in those neighborhoods. He worked hard to turn a vacant west-side K-Mart into a community market where locals could produce and sell wares, as a way of helping people find their way to brighter economic realities. His dream never came true, unfortunately, as he was never able to build a sufficient coalition of backers. He also joined the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Senior Men’s Club, a group of men who promoted social concerns in South Bend.
And my father began to actively practice Stoicism. He declared that he was a natural born Stoic, that the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus resonated so deeply with him that he felt they were kindred spirits.
Dad at my home in 2012
Dad had smoked for 50 years in 2007 when lung cancer struck. In the eleven years since he had his left lung surgically removed and underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.
We have all felt like most of these last eleven years with him have been bonus time. And he has been in reasonable health, all things considered; he was able to do most things he did before. His reduced lung capacity limited his activity a little. And we believe the chemotherapy affected his cognition; he struggled to make connections and once in a while even to form coherent sentences. It also made him grumpier, to the point where it was sometimes challenging to be around him. And macular degeneration was robbing him of his eyesight. Rick and I kept buying him vision-assistance gear so that he could see well enough to argue with people in Internet forums, which had become his second favorite pastime after he and Mom retired to Indianapolis in 2014. His favorite pastime was telling stories from his life. While I readily admit to being frustrated to hear the same story for the hundredth time, it was this repetition that made Dad’s life story stick so that I could write it.
Last summer Dad decided to drive Mom to South Bend for a family reunion. He had been keeping to himself that his eyesight had recently and suddenly gotten much worse. While on that trip he crashed his car into a median he simply could not see. Fortunately, neither he nor Mom was injured.
His rapid vision loss seemed suspicious to my brother and I, and we pressured him until he agreed to see his doctor. It turns out that not only was his lung cancer back, but it had spread to his liver and his brain. By this time, he was functionally blind. A scan showed a tumor pressing on the part of his brain that controlled vision. Radiation at that site restored enough of his vision that he could see to walk around, but his Internet-trolling days were over and he never drove again.
Me, Damion, Garrett, Rick, and Dad, Christmas Eve 2017
Dad’s doctors warned us that this would be the end of him, that he had weeks, maybe months, left. He received good care that kept him in the family game and in pretty good spirits through autumn and the holidays. He told his old stories to anyone who would listen at our Christmas Eve family gathering. But in the new year he took a sudden and rapid downturn. He lived to see his 77th birthday last Tuesday with his family around him, but on Wednesday he slipped away, quietly and peacefully.
I have a complicated relationship with the futon in my family room. My wife and I bought it while we were still married. The day we brought it home, I regretted the bright blue mattress cover that we chose. Later, as my marriage splintered apart, I spent a good year exiled to it at night. I couldn’t resent the situation, for it would acknowledge that our marriage was over, so I resented the futon instead. And then it was the one major piece of furniture I got in the divorce, the only thing I owned on which I could sit. I made myself feel glad to have it. Then bouts of mournful insomnia expelled me from my new bed back to the futon, where I could always eventually find sleep. I still start my nights on the futon, but wake later and stagger off to bed. More than a dozen years in, I’m no longer happy with its style, springs are starting to poke out on the sides of the mattress, and I still hate its cover. But I fall asleep on it so reliably that I’m reluctant to replace it. A new couch might not carry that nocturnal magic.
My relationship with my futon is not as complex as the relationships with those I love, of course. I’m thinking specifically of my youngest son, a teenager. He broke the futon the other day.
My boy lives fully in the moment. He makes no plan and weighs no consequences. Once at motion, he tends to stay there; Newton would be proud. If you spent a day with him you might call him absentminded, but that would be an injustice. He becomes consumed by his activity and the world falls away. His inner world is his best friend. He lives there.
In that state, he has damaged or broken many things. I used to think he was careless or, worse, deliberate, and so I meted out consequences of loud and harsh words, limitations of his freedom, or both. But slowly, thankfully, I’ve come to see the truth: The boy means no harm. He is usually very surprised when he damages or breaks something.
Even though these things are just things, they do belong to somebody, usually me. They have an important purpose or some sentimental or emotional value, and I feel the loss.
My son matters more than these things, and so I absorb those losses. But it’s also my job to help shape the child. Trying to help him to be more self-aware was a losing game that frustrated both of us, and so I gave up. Perhaps time and life will bring this growth naturally. Meanwhile, I intend to teach him to repair the things he’s damaged – both physical objects and relationships. All of us sometimes damage our relationships through our quirks and limitations. All of us need to know how to make amends.
He was deep inside a video game when he leapt exuberantly backward and landed on the futon. I am sure he’s done this many times. But he was much smaller and lighter before a major growth spurt this summer, and the poor futon could no longer bear him. The main beam supporting the mattress split wide, and the futon collapsed.
I called my dad, who made custom furniture for a living for many years, and described the damage. “Easy,” he said. “Get some wood glue and some long wood screws. Glue the board together along the break and then drive the screws in every inch or two. It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke.”
I assembled the materials and the tools and called my son. I showed him what to do and had him do it. As he worked, I spoke gently about repairing damaged relationships. He is my son, and I love him, and he will always receive grace from me. He should accept no less from those who are in his life. But when he causes damage, he needs to try his best to fix it, if he can. I hope my words connected with him.
The repair is ugly; we couldn’t quite get the halves of the board to line up on one side of the break. My son didn’t have enough strength to drive the screws all the way into the hard wood, so I finished them all. As we put the frame back together, I could feel our relationship coming back together, too. I hope he felt the same way. After we finished the repair we turned the futon back over and sat down on it. It supported us as before the break, and I could see the satisfaction of accomplishment in him. Here’s hoping this creates a connection in him that he can mend things broken, including relationships. That he should. That it’s satisfying to do it.
“It’ll be stronger than it was before it broke.” Was Dad really talking about my relationship with my son?