Friday, November 14, 2008

Happy Birthday, Dad

Father, Son - Peter Gabriel (mp3)
Life Class - W.G. "Snuffy" Walden (mp3)

One of my more enduring memories from childhood is sitting in our living room on Saturday morning and watching Looney Tunes. My father would take a break from working in the yard or from whatever project he was buried under and plop down with a drink in his swivel rocker. I would sit on the floor next to him, and we would watch together.

My father had three different kinds of laughs. He had:
  • a social laugh -- "heh heh hehhhh"
  • a snicker intended to amuse others -- it was a cross between Mumbly the Hanna-Barbara dog and a duck quack
  • and a sincere, deep, belly laugh.
It was that last laugh, the un-self-conscious laugh of someone alone in the den with his young son, that was the most infectious to me. Although Foghorn Leghorn was one of his favorites, it was Daffy Duck that seemed to evoke the most laughter from Dad.

My biological father died just a day after I was born, which, while certainly tragic for my mother and relatives, meant I never really knew what I was missing or had lost. So the man I knew as my father was actually my step-father. He adopted me when I was five. I practically begged him. Not to get all conservative and preachy on anyone, but we all have this aching need for parental figures of both genders in our lives, from childhood on up. And I hungered this man to be in my life. I don't remember asking him to be my father, but I can vaguely remember the sense of emptiness that his presence somehow made go away.

Frank was a grossly imperfect man. He drank too much. He conferred too little. He was a little too antiquated with views on gender and race. But he was also a lifelong example of a man who prioritized humility and championed respect, loyalty and responsibility, and he loved his family -- even his adopted son -- more deeply than he was ever capable of expressing. The only ways he knew were by keeping all of our birthday cards and notes we wrote him tucked away in a file cabinet and other similar, small gestures.

I can't say I ever idolized him. I can't say he's my hero, not in the way many sons think of their fathers. But it's frustrating to me that praising him as simply being a devoted and loving (and imperfect) father isn't good enough. It was more than good enough for me, and a far better option than 99% of the alternatives. I never expected perfection, and he gave far better than I deserved.

It's been just over a year since Dad died. (Cancer. Not a particularly unique story there, although suffering doesn't have to be unique to feel that way.) He lived longer than I ever expected by making it to 74. I honestly had no idea how losing him might affect me. I spent years preparing for the inevitability of his death, but no time accurately contemplating what it would mean.

In 2006, the two of us traveled to Auburn. It was the first time he'd been back to his alma mater in decades. He'd always settled for watching the football games on TV. I can't imagine being much happier about any single decision in my life than I was about arranging for and enjoying that weekend with my father. I go back to that weekend frequently, and it's a sign of our odd biology that recalling such happiness could be so seductive and yet so agonizing.

Dad would definitely snicker that I've struggled more with his passing than I ever thought I would. I'm trying my best to show it in small gestures. The father's way, handed down to the son.

Everytime I watch Looney Tunes and find myself laughing un-self-consciously, I end up crying a little bit, too.

"Father, Son" is from both the
Barnyard soundtrack (no kidding) and Gabriel's 2003 compilation Hit. "Life Class" is from the thirtysomething soundtrack. The first can be found at iTunes, the latter I couldn't find anywhere outside my own CD collection.


Daytimerush said...

Very moving. Isn't it strange how we work through death in stages?

Billy Bob said...

Billy, you were quite a cute little tyke.

The "work through death" stage that I don't like is the one where I forget about my mother altogether, sometimes for days at a time, and then, all of a sudden, like a shock, I remember her and remember that she's dead.

Daytimerush said...

Yeah, I experience the same with my brother.