As one of that despots of the “older” generation who has ruined Facebook for Millennials and younger folks, this past weekend I posted a couple of pictures of my very own father, Pops Rush. And, why not, it was after all a Father’s Day weekend. I got to thinking, next month — July —will mark the 22nd anniversary of my father becoming nothing more than a memory to those who knew him.
Smoking 97 packs of cigarettes a day since he was a kid, caught up to him. By the time he was 55, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He lasted five years eating nothing but Ensure protein drinks and other adult beverages, and cutting down on the cigs to about 50 packs a day. He was “on” hospice from November until his body finally gave up nine months later. He was home, with Mom and his morphine for the pain. One of his last lucid comments to me, the oldest of he and Mom’s four kids, and his only son, namesake (though, not a junior) was this, “One of the worst things about this is I forgot my memory.”
He lived just a couple months after his 60th birthday.
On Sunday morning, Father’s Day, after making a post on Facebook, I quickly turned off the social media site. I didn’t want to dwell on seeing my father’s smiling face and thinking about still missing him, all these years later, nor did I want my eyes to leak. And, of course, on and off throughout the day thoughts of Dad filled my head. At some point in the evening, trying to keep cool in front of a fan while the temps hoovered 95 degrees I thought of my dad’s words, “One of the worst things about this is I forgot my memory.”
Further, I thought, “Donald, you better write down some of your memories of Dad before you forget them, and then nobody, especially your sons will have a chance to know him.”
That, I concluded, would be a shame.
* * *
Like many father-son relationships, I reckon my father’s and mine was quite ordinary, pedestrian even. While scribbling out thoughts for this column on my yellow, college-ruled legal pad, I drew a circle. The circle, or cycle of this father-son relationship, from the son’s perspective, starts and ends with love and admiration. In between the dynamics change from hero worship to not understanding the old man, to scorning him, to that defining moment of talking man-to-man (versus know-it-all young man to older, dominant man), to understanding, friendship, respect and then, ultimately missing him, while loving and admiring him.
* * *
Most folks who knew my dad, liked him. Not many however, really knew him. Hell, I didn’t really know him until a few years before he punched out of this earthly life. When I learned the secret he shared with me, my heart both cried and filled with appreciation for the man, my father, who sat before me.
While spending a year in Korea in the mid-1950s affected Dad through the rest of his life, what really molded him, I think, was something from his childhood. Dad, was the consummate American male: athletic he played sports, football, baseball, basketball, hockey, handball, softball (both fast-pitch and slow); he believed in respect and working hard. He loved history, reading and John Wayne movies. He smiled and sang Irish songs. He loved his wife, kids and country (in that order). And, he smoked and he drank.
The man he wanted everyone to see, was the one I just described. But, what folks didn’t know was the pain and shame he kept inside him. Once he shared with me, that shared-knowledge explained a lot.
I had done a story about child sexual abuse. It was a long, two-part series. One evening, Dad and I were at his favorite watering-hole, the Clarkston Eagles club. He wasn’t sitting at “his” stool at the bar, which was unusual. He sat a table, in the dark. When I saw him, he waved me over. I sat down across from him. “About what you wrote,” he always critiqued everything I wrote for the paper, so this conversation started like many, many others before. “It was a good article. It might help some people.”
He paused a long pause and then looked at me. “And, it happened to me. I haven’t told anybody this.”
That was it. That’s all he said. I didn’t pry. I didn’t cry. I just said, “Thank you.”
Knowing the cycle of abuse (sometimes the abused become the abusers when they grow up), things started lining up in my mind. This explained why dad was uber competitive, macho, athletic — he needed to prove to himself who he was. This was why he super protective of his kids. This explained drinking and drinking and drinking. I think at that moment, though I didn’t think it was possible, I loved him more than before. He fought his battles, and maybe he didn’t win the war, neither did he lose.
Despite his faults, his wife loved him and his children loved him, even to this day with plenty of time to have ruminated on the subject. I think that is all he really wanted. Unfortunately, I am not sure he loved himself, though I sure hope he did — at least at the end.
While there are many conversations and movies in my head revolving around Dad (and I should write those down somewhere before I forget them, too) a couple of the best things he said to me, his only son were:
1. It’s okay to cry.
2. The best things to have happened in my life was meeting and marrying your mother and the opportunity to be your guys’ father.
3. I love you.