Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thank You, Dad

An acquaintance of mine, “Robert,” a recovering alcoholic, told the following story on himself recently.

Robert had fetched his collegian son “Robby” at the airport and was driving him home for the holidays. Robby talked about his new girlfriend and her family, a mom who lived normally on Long Island and a father who had run away to do “crazy stuff” in Miami. Robert asked Robby, “I’m curious. When you talk about our family, how do you describe us?”

“You really want to know?” Robby asked.

“Yeah.”

“Well,” Robby said, “I tell them my dad was a womanizer who cheated on my mother, then cheated on her again. Then he made a fool of himself and embarrassed me at my bar mitzvah, then my mother threw him out of the house.

“Then,” Robby added, after a pause, “my dad found this program called Alcoholics Anonymous, and six years later he’s the best father in the world.”

My own father never drank much. In his younger years, he enjoyed the occasional beer, and at the end of life, his idea of a fling was a second half-glass of Dubonnet before dinner. But he didn’t always like the way it made him feel.

Still, like “Robert,” like me, my dad felt his own imperfection as a father. As I grew up, he confessed that he had been hard on me as a young child, his oldest of six, and the namesake of his sainted older brother, Web, who died when the Flying Fortress he was piloting went down over the Zuider Zee in winter.

We fathers all want redemption, whether we recognize the hurt in our own hearts, or not. The Church teaches us that we need it. So does Sigrid Undset, by the way, which is perhaps why I find her Master of Hestviken series so powerful. It speaks to the father in me, who made mistakes from Day One but still harbors the hope of redemption. Some of us need redemption from alcohol, some from other things. 

I cannot watch the final cemetery scene from “Saving Private Ryan” without thinking of my father, a World War II vet himself. I cannot see this scene without weeping, though not for my father alone. The Matt Damon character, grown old, breaks down upon visiting the Normandy grave site of the Tom Hanks character, who gave his life for him. Then he turns to his wife and says, “Tell me I’ve led a good life. . . . Tell me I’m a good man.”


All of us fathers want to know that we were good men.

I visited my father’s grave today after sitting a few minutes in the silent church where we had worshiped side by side (pictured at the top of this post). I said thanks to God for sparing my father in the war, and for my father’s life.

You lived a good life, Dad. You were a good man. Whatever I am as a man and as a father began with you.

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