When my father was about to die
Answer the Call
Steven R. Lundin
I was alone in my office when the telephone rang. It made the sound of a traditional ringer and caused me to turn away from my desktop and look for the time: Five minutes after ten. I have learned to distrust calls coming after ten o’clock at night, and so it was that I paused to consider the possibility the call would deliver bad news. I have never received good news in the dark. All three of my teenage children were out with their friends, my wife was working late, and the dogs were nosing a back window. My suspicion fell on the four nonagenarians who live just up the road from my house. Because my wife’s relatives are ninety-seven, six, three, and two, I thought of them when I lifted the receiver.
“Yes, hello,” came the reply. The voice was that of an elderly woman. She sounded both anxious and short of breath. “Your father died today.”
“My father? He’s dead?”
I took what should have been devastating news, asked questions, listened to the woman’s anxious answers, and ended the call wearing, of all things, a grin on my face. The ninety-year-olds next door were fine. It was only my father; Pour soul. He died that day.
The night air outside was warm, dark, and still, and it was quiet too. When I reached my porch swing, I sat down and kept my feet on the ground like they were heavy stones, tethering the swing so it could not move. The distant sounds of crickets, croakers, and sprinklers carried from the golf course next door, but that was it. I heard nothing else and saw only night black in every direction. That is when I began questioning my lack of emotion. Intellectually, I equate the moment a man loses his father to the other critical moments in his life, like his marriage, the birth of his child, loss of his mother, and so on. It is the patriarchal moment at which every man feels his age, whether he is twenty, forty, sixty, or eighty. But my father had just died, and I felt nothing. What was wrong with me? Wasn’t I going to cry?
There are plenty of reasons explaining why one-half of first marriages end in divorce (www.divorcerate.org
), but I cannot understand why a father would live estranged from his children. It’s wrong. Paternity does not break with the home. There were four men who fathered me and my five siblings. Mine was not the black man, the Indian, the lucky patron of a bar, or the dentist in San Francisco. The man who fathered me was just like them, though, for he spent his life without ever knowing his child. From my experiences with my own children, I understand what he lost. Everything! Every moment in a child’s life, from kitchen to campus, is a jewel of memory that fathers need for their later years. This treasure has a rule: the one with the most when he dies is the winner. How strange it is, then, that my biological donor would miss his rewards. All that I missed were feelings for his death.
The following night I received another telephone call. My family was on the porch with me this time, so I was reluctant to answer the call. My daughter learned this summer how to marinate steak, slice pineapple, onions, and peppers, and spear the arrangement onto wooden sticks that I cooked on our barbeque and we ate for our dinner. Though we had finished eating and the sky was just beginning to get dark, the five of us had remained at the table sitting, talking, and laughing. That’s when the phone rang.
“Answer it,” my son said. “It might be about your dad.
The words sounded strange coming from my son. I thought to say that the word, dad, should be reserved for someone who was more than a biological donor, but I held my tongue. Boys who’ve grown up close to their fathers know the truth. The caller turned out to be from the coroner’s office in Denver, Colorado. He bestowed upon me the title of “next of kin” and sought to know my plans for the body. The stranger on the other end of the line expressed such heartfelt sentiments of compassion that I thought he might cry. At least one of us felt the emotion.
Parenting is the great challenge for fatherless men. Without precedents, they find themselves learning how to parent by watching television, other fathers, their wives, friends, and the people they see everywhere out in public. I thought fathering in the early years was fairly obvious. Hitting: Bad. Teaching: Good. I ran into problems with punishment, but the scars of those lessons bled my heart alone. The kids did fine. They remember nothing of their correction.
I have a different need of a father’s advice today, especially as I feel like an exterminator swatting boys and girls away from my children. With my oldest now in college, the next a senior in high school, and my baby almost seventeen, their needs change almost hourly. I watch and help where I can, but two of them are legal adults, and all three will be gone from our home in just a few short years. Still, I know my treasure of memories is far from full. I suspect a father’s work ends at his death.
Tomorrow I leave for Denver to bury a man who lived and died alone. He was my father, but I will not cry at his funeral. If I feel anything, I expect to feel sorry that the man died without ever knowing his grandchildren. He missed out on one of life’s greatest rewards, but he wouldn’t care. Neither should I but tomorrow, for only one day, I’ll be my father’s keeper. I only wish he would have taught me what that means.