(An earlier version, “On the Death of My Father,” appeared in the Texas Observer)
When my father died, I felt, more than anything else, relief. A long battle was over for him. He had fought to live a long time, and for eighty seven years, including rehabilitating himself from strokes both small and great, he remained victorious.
And a long battle was over for the two of us. My most frequent critic was at last silent. Never again would I be told that, whatever I was doing, it should have been something else.
My mother eventually put this problem with my father in a homey Scott County context. She said that the Taylors, my father’s family on his mother’s side, always felt called upon to give advice, whether it had been requested or not. I realized that thirty years of bitter arguments could have – and should have – been resolved with laughter.
And he could not accept a gift, at least not from me. I was inevitably told I didn’t have that kind of money to spend.
Finally, each sought from the other what he gave. I wanted more respect, while he wanted more love. I wanted more distance, as from a cactus, while he wanted the closeness that his prickly nature and my sensitivity made difficult.
But there was more to us than that. I respected him for the man he was, and he loved me for the son I would always be. I can remember him, bent with age, barely able to stand, reaching an arm around my shoulders to tell me he loved me.
He liked one of my essays well enough to give it his highest accolade, “That’s a classic.” I don’t remember which one it was now; but if the man who could quote Bobby Burns’ “A man’s a man fa’ a’ that” from start to finish, and who snuggled me down between him and Mom to read aloud Carl Sandburg’s volume on Lincoln, “The Prairie Years,” for a bedtime story—if Dad liked it, I figured it was probably OK.
After he died, I got out all the letters he had written to Mom from overseas during the Second World War and read them to her. Captain McClellan longed for nothing more than to be out of the frozen muck and away from the cannons’ roaring, and home with his wife and child in the warm Texas sun. He wanted the scene he had left.
But of course he could not come home to precisely that. Peacetime brought its own struggles, and the ideal family that memory must have built had never been. His only son was an oedipal four-year-old, rather than an admiring two.
To an extent our difficulties with each other rested on that foundation, and I have had cause since to wish that in understanding our central dilemma I had also resolved it.
Like any other man worth his salt he changed and grew as he aged. I saw the man who had walked through a German bunker counting corpses of enemy soldiers jellied by the artillery barrage his battalion had delivered, saw him gaze at the body of a ground squirrel he’d nailed with a pellet gun and suddenly weep.
As his end drew near, his very age provided the distance I needed. When he fulminated now, he was simply an old man blowing off steam. And he became more vulnerable, still crabby but soft-shelled. We seemed to have reversed roles at times. A veteran of some very foreign wars myself, I had become the callous one, he the sensitive.
But he could still hurt me if I didn’t keep my guard up. He once confessed that his life seemed to him to have been a paltry thing indeed, and I answered with a letter filled with praise, listing his accomplishments. He had fought for his country, he had taught farmers to farm, he had taught and counseled high school students, he had taught poor and disadvantaged adults. Rather than allow strokes to disable him, he had struggled to regain control of his brain and body. Later he characterized it as the obituary I had written.
There we were again, at odds. I had offered him a gift, and he had refused it. He had offered me an opportunity to laugh at myself, at us, and I’d bristled instead. In retrospect I wish I’d been tough enough to admit the truth of his charge—it was an obituary of sorts—but not so tough as to retort that he was about due for one. The bent and weakened frame of an old war horse invalided in pajamas commands deference and kindness. Especially when you remember that figure with an arm around your shoulders, telling you he loves you.
When I reflect on how we become more and more creatures of habit as we age until we threaten to shrink to nothing more than a collection of predictable behaviors, it seems less likely to me that we are indeed possessors of that much-advertised divine spark. I even wonder if we mortal wrecks are salvageable at all, and if so, why the Almighty should bother with us. I guess the love of Him who knows truths about us closer than the dirt dug from under our nails, nearer than the seat of our unperfumed underpants, must outshine human love by a good half-mile.
But even simple human love, without divinity or angels to help it, beaten and twisted like iron banged straight at the forge’s mouth, even that seems to me at times enough.