I’ve never been one to marvel at the mystery of fathers and sons. Rather, I never questioned that those relationships are anything if not imperfect and a little bit bleak from the onset. And I’ve always been OK to leave it at that.
My own father has come to the end of his life. I know this because even though I live several hundred miles from him, I get updates on the events of his final days and hours via text from my sister and mother.
It seems we’ve gone back to the days of the telegram. Throughout the day, precisely at the moment I’ve dived back into work and temporarily forgotten about what is about to transpire, I receive a staccato smoke signal from the front lines in the form of truncated updates that read both cryptic and true: “He’s no longer taking food and little water.” “His breathing is forced and labored in bed.” “He is frustrated and weak.” “He talks but barely. It doesn’t make much sense.”
I stare through these submissions and wonder what it is they’re really trying to say. Is it “Come up now, we need you here now”? Is it “Abandon your desk, there are more important things”? Is it “We don’t know how long it’s going to be now, but misery certainly loves company”? Is it simply, “What are you doing being there and not being here because we know your there there isn’t really there”?
It is all of these.
The events that led to this have been balled up into a neat summary of what you tell people who are just being polite by asking. I can rattle it off quickly in the narrow space of an elevator ride.
It goes something like this: The men in my family have always died relatively young, on my father’s side especially. Dating back to my great great grandfather, no man lived past sixty. On the occasion of my father’s own 60th birthday there were no fewer than three remarks over dinner that ranged from the topic of his own eminent passing to the fact that he’s still here, dammit. He made it well into his seventh decade before snapping his collarbone during his backswing on the first tee of the Brockway Golf Course in Lake Tahoe early last spring. The broken bone was mostly cyst and it was decided by doctors later in the week that cancer had taken over his body. He was given a four-month life expectancy. That was more than nine months ago.
Though my family has adopted the mantra that my father has been “playing with house money” as we breezed through something of a farewell tour: weekends in Tahoe, three cycles of chemo, a Giants game, visiting his great grandfather’s old ranch on the Central Coast, time with his grandchildren — his run is over. A new dealer is approaching the table. The yellow card is showing in the shoe. The stack is down to his final chip.
The hospice bed is in place. The last cup of water by his bedside. Those very long days of the last goodbye now cast a permanent shadow over his bored-out features and his breathing is shallow and distant.
My dad was the most complicated simple man you’d ever meet. From what I can tell after almost 40 years of study, he liked three things and three things only: Lake Tahoe. His wooden boat. His dogs. He only ever admitted to liking the first two.
He was many things in his life: A lawyer, a procrastinator, a Little League all-star, an alcoholic, the one who did the laundry, a reluctant Giants fan, a terrible golfer, an army cook, a mostly distant older brother, a lefty, a dutiful if not tortured son of a dentist, a faithful husband of more than 45 years, a grandfather and a man who didn’t beg for it but always sought approval.
My older sister, the apple of his eye. She picked up where he left off and showcases the best of his talents and abilities. She practices the same law. The family traditions she carries on are the direct product of his bloodline. They always had an easy, conversational relationship, mostly because there was an understanding, a practical message on the right way to do things that ran deeper than what words could say.
And I was his son.
If you asked him directly, he may have said otherwise (or not), but I’m sure there were times, many times, he wondered whether I was put on this Earth simply to torture him. If my sister is the human embodiment of my dad’s highlight reel — I am the personification of his imperfections.
I’m not sure whether there’s an actual gene a father passes on to a son — but if there’s a disease, a syndrome, an -ism …something along the lines of having to sit by and watch as the man who was put here to carry on your name makes pretty much the exact same mistakes as you at almost the exact same time of life throughout his adolescence and early adulthood …even adult adulthood — well, I got it.
Rather, I was it.
The fact we shared this sort of doomed-yet-determined biological code resulted in a pretty large-in-years gap in our communication. I’d say two decades went by, as I was aged 13 to 33, where the only things we had in common on the surface were the Giants’ box score and the Kirkland boxers we wore. Dubious distinctions, both.
We never had “that” conversation. The one where we both got it all out on the table. Everyone who actually lives in something other than a movie knows those don’t happen. But if there’s one thing I am OK with about this whole thing, if there’s one thing that is fair, it’s that things left unsaid aren’t always the best things.
I also try to remember that history is for revisionists, and is especially skewed when the son is doing the revising on the subject of the relationship with his father.
For every JV basketball game he missed because he was idling on the 101, he came home early on a summer evening to play slow-pitch homerun baseball with me and my two best friends.
For every fatherly piece of advice he didn’t give — whether it was career or women or whether I should split sevens against a five — there was a window of time we both lived in Tahoe that I would just simply go to his place after work and he’d have dinner waiting. We’d watch the Giants lose in silence and I’d go home.
For every moment I regret having not spent with him, or not enjoying the things he liked with him (which is actually an accurate summary of the whole of our time together), I remember standing on the golf course laughing in silence as he yelled at himself and the surrounding wilderness, “Pridgen, you HACK!”
And for all of this, for all his time, for everything I’m not able to tell him now and every mystery of us left unsolved, I am but one thing: just so so grateful to have been his son.