Father’s Day will be an easy one for me this year. No scrounging around at the last minute at CVS Pharmacy for a Father’s Day card. No online order of Omaha Steaks. No necktie.
For the first time in 64 years, I am facing a Father’s Day without a father. Mine died earlier this year at the age of 92. Most of us would take his deal in a heartbeat: Still driving his companion Kay around town up until a year ago (at age 86 he bought a 142-horsepower Miata roadster, which at age 88 he traded for a 215-horsepower Chrysler Crossfire); living in his own house until almost 92, when he moved to an in-law apartment at my sister’s house; shooting a game of pool with my brother and me on March 9 (and then going out for pizza); sidelined by a minor stroke 10 days after that, leading to a brief stay in the hospital followed by only a week in a nursing home, a place he always said he never wanted to be.
No complaints from him, and only minor complaints from me and his four other children, along with his many friends and fans. We all knew what was around the corner. But that does not mean you don’t feel pain. As someone pointed out to me in a thoughtful card (and those cards were especially appreciated), losing a family member at an advanced age doesn’t mean it’s easy. No matter how much you prepare, the final lingering glance through a hospital door is still final. The end — announced in a 6:30 a.m. phone call from a sibling who breaks down in tears before the words are out of her mouth — is still the end.
But the advanced age does give you some time to say and do a few things you might not otherwise say or do. When my father turned 85 back in 2003, I wrote a column in this space dedicated to the life’s lessons that I had gleaned from him over the years. People don’t do what you expect; they do what you inspect, was one. Another: Never send a boy to do a man’s job. And my favorite: There’s a right way and a wrong way to open a stubborn lid on a jar. (The right way involves keeping the pressure on the lid for a prolonged period of time, a lesson in the value of persistence.)
A few years later the IBM Corporation, for which my father had worked many years, came into the news, and I reminisced about his early days with the company. “Like many good IBMers,” I wrote in 2004, shortly after his 86th birthday, “my father participated in the company’s stock purchase plan, getting the shares at a discount through a payroll deduction plan. He got a few fractional shares, and sold some to me, which I bought using profits from my paper route.
“I hung onto the shares. They split another time or two, and by the time I was starting the paper I had something like $3,000 in IBM stock. It wasn’t a fortune even then, but it came in handy in launching a small business.”
Later I arranged to have reprints of both columns framed and — to my surprise — he put them up on the wall at home. They were with him up until the end.
Those extra years gave the father of five and me, his oldest son, plenty of time to talk.
No, we did not talk about profound matters of life and love. For my father, sometimes not saying something made the point as well as a torrent of words. The worst thing I ever did as a kid involved a 1966 Corvette convertible, which I had purchased during my senior year in college with my profits from the student newspaper (those were the days — even the college newspaper was making money).
My first job after college would take me to midtown Manhattan, not the place for a car. So my father (the car enthusiast, remember) agreed to buy the car from me. We completed the transaction on a Friday. The next day I needed the car to drive up to Cornell for some partying. En route from the family home in Endwell to Ithaca I wrecked the ’Vette — his ’Vette, no longer mine.
When I told my father his only reaction was “I can’t believe it.” Then silence. More silence. Several days of painful silence.
My father and I didn’t take time to talk about life and love because — after nearly 64 years together — most everything that needed to be said had been said. The root cause of my failed marriage, for example, was no mystery to my father. And he knew that I knew that he knew it.
We talked about cars, kids, the price of IBM stock (which he noted the last time I saw him, eight days before his death), and home maintenance. And the cottage in northeastern Pennsylvania. He and my mother (who died in 1997) bought the lake property in the early 1960s, and I took it over in the 1980s. Now it’s facing some serious maintenance issues. Last fall I met with the architect responsible for one of the few designs at Wrighter Lake that is not an out-of place, out-of-scale McMansion.
The architect walked back and forth across the lot and stopped at a spot between the cottage, built by a contractor from plans my mother had purchased from a woman’s magazine, and the boathouse about 30 feet away, built by hand by my father with no plans whatsoever. “Here’s the center of your lake experience,” the architect said. “I’d replace the cottage, but I would keep the boathouse. I could work with the boathouse.”
After the meeting in Pennsylvania, I drove an hour north to visit my father, eager to share this piece of news. I repeated the architect’s enthusiasm for the boathouse. My father listened carefully. “The boathouse,” he repeated. “Really.” He took a moment to consider the architect’s views, and then added matter-of-factly: “I remember when I built the boathouse.”
I marveled at the fact that my father, at the age of 92, allowed himself a small measure of pride but still tempered it with the recognition of the irony of the compliment — it was a handyman project, after all, and any man raised during the Depression in Syracuse, New York, was likely to know how to swing a hammer.
Handling a compliment gracefully — not always easy. I wondered if I could be as wise in a similar situation.
Father’s Day this year will be easy. The interminable silence may not be.