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Archive for Friday, June 18, 1999

FATHER SPURS FOND MEMORIES

June 18, 1999

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— My father died when I was 24. It was much too soon. For both of us.

In the last months, this most articulate man who loved humor and debate was literally at a loss for words. In some final cruelty, cancer took his language before it took his life.

On my last visit, we didn't say much to each other. He couldn't locate the right words in the vast, jumbled dictionary of his remaining consciousness. It was if he typed RED on a piece of paper and it came out a DOG or SHE. He was cursed with knowing that.

I couldn't find the right words either. Goodbye was too simple and too terrible. I busied both of us with the comfort of daily bulletins of family life.

In the year that followed his death, on the long flat Michigan highway between home and work, I held conversations with him in the car. The car was always a good place to talk.

I was a grown-up by every formal measure, but I often felt like a fatherless child. On those commutes, I was trying to talk with him as one adult to another. We'd never quite crossed that bridge.

This dialogue went on for a long time. In the late '60s, I imagined how this veteran and I might have argued about Vietnam. In the early 1970s, I wondered how this patriarch and I would have sparred over women's liberation.

In three decades of fatherless Father's Days there have been dozens of moments when I felt the presence and absence of this family man.

Sometimes, when my daughter was a toddler, restless and affectionate, I watched her wiggle off my mother's lap and wished that she had also had this grandfather. Again and again, I felt the loss for a child who didn't know what my sister and I had known -- the man whose smile graced our childhoods.

Through my adulthood, he was there, at the outer edge of my vision. As the parent of a schoolchild, I would ask myself, how did he do this parenting thing? How did he get us to meet his high standards without making us fear his disapproval if we fell short? As the parent of an adolescent I wondered: How did he teach us -- relentlessly at times -- without sowing a rebellion?

Parents remain our touchstones -- fellow travelers -- even after death. They are both missing and present. So when I succeeded, I would glance sideways and see a snapshot of how my father handled success: with wry pleasure and a strong sense of the capriciousness of life.

When I failed, I would glance sideways and remember how he handled failure: with grit and perspective. He got up, put on his tie and went back to work. "Well, it isn't cancer," he would say, until of course, it was.

I always think of him when Father's Day comes with its offerings of greeting cards and gifts. But for me, this Father's Day is different. This year I have officially, numerically, outlived my father. I am just now older than he ever became.

I am older than my own father. I cannot tell you how oddly that rings in my middle-aged ear.

You know the questions that precocious children ask about heaven? "What happens if an old widower meets his young wife in heaven -- will they both be 30 or 70?"

For me the fantasy is much more earthly. If my father and I met here and now, I would be older. If he and my husband finally met -- a long harbored wish -- my husband too would be the older of these two men. We are the elders of the man who is my elder.

This is a passage of no small proportion. In the past year or so, when I tried to think about my future -- what happens next at midlife? -- I kept hitting a blank wall. It was only when my birthday came and went that I understood the nature of that dead-end. What my father did at my age -- to put it as bluntly as I experienced it -- was die.

To outlive a parent -- especially a father -- is by no means my unique experience. To live beyond our parents' age is the norm. But that moment carries an unexpected echo of the original loss. The father-in-my-memory, the man who was once out there ahead of me or beside me -- this is how you do 30, 40, 50 -- is no longer available as a guide.

Age is an accumulation of life and loss. Adulthood is a series of lines crossed. So I pass a father threshold in middle age, just as I did at 24. From here on out, I'm on my own.

-- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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