Time With My Father
My father died 25 years ago today. Most of this blog, which started out as a column for the Herald for Father’s Day 2001 and has since undergone revisions, is written in the present tense from the point of view of January 1996.
I think of these days spent with Daddy as him getting back from the world something of what he put into it.
As my father, he gave the world a reporter. For three days this week, he must endure my questions about his life.
Coming into this I knew it would not be easy. By his own admission — not that I needed his acknowledgement to know it to be true — my father prefers “keeping still” to talking.
I’ve always wanted to know more about his older brother who was killed in a hunting accident in 1933. My dad was 13, and their father was holding the gun.
That is a topic I didn’t know if we would get to during our interviews. I questioned it even more on Day 1, when he relayed in his simple, gruff answers that he was barely tolerating me and my questions.
This is our last day together before I return to my job at the South Bend Tribune — interviewing people who actually want to be interviewed — and I know it’s now or never.
“What do you remember about Roman?” I ask. “What was he like?”
I know better than to ask, “Were you close?” I doubt my father has ever been close to anyone. I have never seen him kiss my mother, and the only time I saw my moher kiss him — on the forehead after she set his morning cup of coffee before him — he immediately wiped the kiss away.
“Just an ordinary guy,” he answers in a quiet, raspy voice about his brother. “We used to play baseball games on Sunday afernoons in Seger bottoms.”
I prod a little more. “What do you remember about when he died?”
I know my dad wasn’t part of the hunting party during which Grandpa’s gun went off while climbing through a fence. In fact, he was living full time with his godparents by then. Their only child, a daughter, died at a young age, and my dad started living with them in the summers after the first grade. He moved in full time five years later.
Daddy recalls that after Roman died, their dad ran for township trustee, hoping to earn money to pay the undertaker.
My father grows uncomfortable in his chair, and I don’t push anymore. He sits in the recliner in the living room where it seems he has been sitting continuously for nearly 20 years, ever since the doctor told him he had leukemia. This is his favorite seat in the house — which he inherited from his godparents — whence he can look out the south and west windows and see the weathered, century-old barn and red chickenhouse, cropland as well as woodland, and traffic passing on the county road at the bottom of the hill.
He is 75 and in recent years has been diagnosed with lung cancer and skin cancer. He is frail, and since we started our interviews Monday his body-racking coughing spells frequently have interrupted our conversation. When he takes a break to go to the bathroom, he has to sit down halfway there to rest.
The weaknesses of his illness seem out of place juxtaposed with the lively stories he has shared.
I can picture my dad’s favorite horses, Bert and Roy, pulling a plow through a stubbled field.
I can hear fiddle music wafting from a distant porch on a breezy summer night.
I can smell the steaming pot of sauerkraut and boiled potatoes my dad considered an after-school treat.
Like that of his siblings, my mom and many of their rural relatives, my dad’s formal education ended with the eighth grade. His informal education, however, came as the father of nine children, a farmer, a World War II soldier, a produce vendor, a poultry handler and a construction and lumberyard worker. Most recently, it’s come in medical terms and hospital stays.
My father is the person I am most like. I know time is running out to learn from him, and I hope that some of what I learn can keep me from sitting in a recliner for 20 years. He won’t talk about his depression, but I recognize my own. I have been in counseling ever since I moved away from my hometown four years ago.
I decide to broach another topic that I’ve never heard talked about since it happened in the ’60s.
“I don’t remember Uncle Victor at all. When he committed suicide, what was going on with him?”
“I think he had something...” Daddy left the sentence unfinished but tried again:
“He wasn’t feeling good or he probably wouldn’t have done it. Something was bothering him.”
End of subject.
I consider this man looking at me from behind thick, brown-rimmed reading glasses and from beneath a thin cap of gray, disheveled hair. I wonder how he can continue to believe in “keeping still.”
Four months on, my father dies. I talk to my mom on the phoe the evening before and when she gives me the latest medical update, I know absolutely that I must get to the farm as soon as I can the next day. I need to make my father laugh, to remind him that there is joy in this world. If I were him — and in many ways I am — that is what I would need someone to do for me.
The following morning I get a call at the newspaper office where I work: Daddy has died. I am not given details, and I don’t ask. I don’t want the truth sitting in the passenger seat on the five-hour drive home.
My mother and one of my sisters meet me in the barnyard. One look at their faces, and my denial shatters. It was suicide. I begin to cry — not just for my loss, but for this seemingly inevitable legacy I have inherited and from which I do not yet know how to free myself.