Nearing Father's Day, pondering fathers' way

June 12, 1999|By ROB KASPER

USUALLY I DON'T think about paying homage to Dad until the Bermuda shorts ads appear in the newspaper reminding all that Father's Day is approaching. But since my dad's death last November, I have at odd times found myself paying tribute to the man, and hearing his words.

The other day, for instance, while struggling to repair the refrigerator's ice maker -- an epic conflict that seems to have lasted almost as long as the Civil War -- I heard my dad's advice, "Take it easy, breezy," ring in my ears. That was his euphemistic way of telling me not to lose my temper; to use my brain, not my hammer, to get what I wanted.

Next Sunday will be the first Father's Day I will be without my father. Like many parts of life, the part without my dad has been different than I expected. Life has thrown another curve ball.

I thought these days without Dad would be just like the last years of his life when, weakened by illness, he was virtually unable to communicate.

As I look around me, there seem to be two ways that folks like me, baby boomers in mid-life, lose their fathers. One is quickly: Your dad dies suddenly. There is no chance for leave-taking, for long goodbyes, but there is some comfort knowing that he didn't suffer.

I lost my dad the other way -- slowly. As disease, Alzheimer's, gradually and painfully took him away, it also steeled me, or so I thought, for life without him. But in the months since his death, I have found myself surprisingly overwhelmed by the fact that he is gone.

It is an old lesson -- I believe it is called facing mortality -- but it is a powerful one.

My dad's death has also got me thinking about what it means to be a father. A big part of the job, it seems to me, is being there and being yourself.

When I was a kid, I railed against the edicts put forth by my dad. I thought his notions about how the household should be run, and what time my brothers and I had to be home, were old-fashioned. But they were constant.

Usually I disagreed with my dad's ideas, sometimes I submitted to them, occasionally I slipped around them. But they always were a force to be reckoned with.

I take some comfort in that thought now when my sons, teen-agers, howl against my pronouncements. My kids and I disagree on a wide variety of topics -- from the importance of sitting up straight at the table to the question of what time they should be home Saturday night. In their view, I may be "a fogey" and I may be "out of it," but I am still in the picture.

My dad also taught me that there is also some conflict involved in fatherhood, some times when you have to lower the antlers and butt heads. Another metaphor, and maybe a better one, would be a sharpening stone. My dad taught me that kids, like dull knives, occasionally benefit from some friction to sharpen them up.

Odd things now remind me of my father.

A few days ago, the sight of a shovel I had left in the garden brought back the memory of what a stickler Dad was for always putting away his tools. And the compelling urgency I felt recently to repair the refrigerator's balky ice machine was probably genetic.

A household without an ample supply of ice cubes was, my dad believed, a household in crisis. That is why I ministered to the ice maker the other day. I fought off the urge to clobber the machine and instead simply lubricated it. When it didn't respond, I went to the store and bought a bag of ice. But when I placed the store-bought ice in the bucket underneath the ice maker, the device suddenly sprang to life, dumping out fresh ice cubes. Dad also believed you could never have too much ice.

Another insight my father's passing has given me is that sons often end up imitating their fathers, sometimes to the consternation of their wives. For instance, I now not only realize my brothers and I have a fetish for road maps, I also know where we got it, from our dad.

Whenever our families are taking a car trip together, my brothers and I must first pull out road maps and plot every twist and turn of the journey. As we do this, our wives roll their eyes, and wait, impatiently, for us to get rolling.

They can't change our behavior, even if they would like to. It is ingrained. It is what our dad taught us to do. In some respects, this road-map routine is a pretty good description of what a dad does. He is supposed to know both where his family is, and where it is headed.

Pub Date: 6/12/99

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