The following is the result of an exercise on intimacy that my Narrative Writing class did this morning. I felt it was only fair that I participate in it as well.
We sit on the back porch, he and I, facing the setting sun. And the irony of it does not escape me. His face is thin, thinner than I have ever seen it. His skin is translucent pale, with sunspots scattered up and down his arms. An oxygen bottle stands to his left. In his eyes I see the same look of defiance, of strength, that I have seen my whole life. But there is something else that hasn’t been there before. He is tired, exhausted even.
I know that there are not too many days for me to talk to my father. And even though he won’t admit it, I think he knows too. He has been the same man for 70 years, and he is struggling to remain that man. I have admiration for the man. I also hate him. Is that possible? To love and hate the same person with the same passion?
I think back three months, when I first got the call late one evening. “Dad’s sick,” my sister told me. “He’s got lung cancer.” Mom and Dad had driven a 5th wheel and pickup from California to Oklahoma to visit family. One night Mom was awakened by Dad’s rasping breath. He couldn’t breathe. They rushed him to the emergency room where they stuck needles into his left lung to drain fluid from it so that he could breathe. It was there that he got the diagnosis. Inoperable lung cancer. Fifty-five years of cigarettes had finally caught up with him.
And now they were asking me to take a week off from work to fly from Idaho to Oklahoma and help drive the 5th wheel back home to California. Would I? There was never any doubt. But that wasn’t to say I never had doubts about my father.
“He got in with the wrong crowd when he was in the Navy.” That’s the excuse my mom used for him. Mom was always making excuses. She loved him, and for most people he was a loveable man. He was the man who helped those who needed help. He was always quick with a joke, or a word of encouragement. He was the father who was good to his daughters, and his grandchildren.
But he was also the man who wanted to take baths with his 10 year old son, who clipped his pubic hair short and encouraged his son to do so as well. He was the one who constantly told his son that he was clumsy, useless, helpless. He was the man who put up a barrier between himself and his closest male relative, and refused to let it down.
But that was a long time ago. Time changes things, doesn’t it? I am no longer 10 years old. I am a grown man with a career, respected by my peers. I have a graduate degree. Me, the first person in my family to finish college. I am a published author. I have a family of my own.
So why is it important that this man respect me? I don’t know; it just is. I have given speeches and sermons many times, and yet I find myself tongue tied in front of this man. We have an unspoken understanding, with emphasis on the word “unspoken.” He has told me that all that matters in life is for a man to be able to take care of his family. And I do that. But I think there is more that matters as well.
“Dad,” I finally say, breaking the dense quiet on that back porch. “Are you proud of me?”
The words are simple. I am as direct as I can be. And yet the five words are value laden, dripping with emotion, with expectation. I wait and watch.
His eyebrows rise. His sandpaper skin slides across his cheekbones and I see the wheels turning in his emaciated head.
“Of course I am proud of you. Why do you have to ask?”
The words are somehow empty. I am looking for some sort of acknowledgment that he has failed to express it. And yet I know he has no more to give. Mom had asked him once why he didn’t say that he loved her more often. And his response was that he shouldn’t have to tell her.
That’s my father. He would never change.
I realize that communication between us—what is left of it—will be a one-way street.
And that will have to be enough. It is all I have.