Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving funk

 My dad died on Thanksgiving day, 1981. He was 43, I was 13. This time every year I'm forced to reflect on this fact and try and understand how it affected me and still shapes me today.

I truly enjoy Thanksgiving. I love seeing everyone and seeing all the kids play together. I love how excited they get. Even my almost 2 year old son seems to understand that something big is less than a month away. After the festivities, we pile the kids into the car, and everyone but me falls asleep on the hour plus drive home. It is that quiet time that always gets me. I have often, like this year, made it through the whole build up and excitement without even spending time thinking about my dad. But that quiet solitude of driving, always gives my mind just enough time to reflect on what this day means.

I'm the second son of a big strong athletic Dad. My older brother was the athlete. Tall and strong with good hair and good looks. I was the skinny, artsy, band geek, with thick glasses. I enjoyed playing outside, but never was good enough at any sport to get picked. My first season of soccer, I broke my leg (not playing soccer, of course) before our first game. The coach didn't see any reason to give me a team uniform, but my mom complained. The coach came back with a T-shirt with the team name, but it didn't look like the other kids' shirts. Their shirts were printed with a nice script of the team name and looked somewhat cool, for '77. Mine had the same words, but was made with those iconic '70s iron-on letters. It looked like what it was, an afterthought. It sat in my drawer at home, as a reminder of what a loser I was. I didn't play soccer much after that.

I was in the eighth grade when my dad died. I was the class Vice President. I had been class President in 5th through 7th grade. Not bad for a skinny geek, but that was all to change.

I had always enjoyed math and was in the eighth grade Algebra class. This was the advanced math class, You had to earn your way in, with good test scores and good grades. It seems after my dad died, I just couldn't 'get it'. My mind wouldn't wrap around the intangible theories of Algebra. I'm not sure the cause, but I lost my ability to focus enough on math, or anything else, to makes sense to the 'a + b = c' stuff. Looking back, I'm certain this was a byproduct of not wanting to focus on anything too hard. Of course, I did poorly in math and earned a D in the fall grading period. You can't have below a C and be in student government so I lost my post as class VP. Rules are rules, you know, and the math teacher was the head of the SGA so that chapter in my life closed. Looking back, I'm certain the teacher didn't mean me any harm, but at the time I hated him for it.

My dad grew up in Clarke County, Virginia, in a little town named Boyce. He was a total country kid. He hunted, camped, worked outdoors and worked at home in their small farm. Dad played high school football and started college on scholarship. He injured his back early in the first season and lost his free ticket. After that he spent time in the Army, then back to college while my Mom worked, then he worked for many years as a Boy Scout Executive. Essentially, he started troops, raised money, attended various Scouting events and raised more money. he was good at it, but it didn't pay well and he was often gone at night and on the weekends. I never really got a feel fr who he was, or what made him tick. I know he loved my mom and us kids. He did what he could to provide for us and protect us. He died hunting deer. He was supposed to go shopping with my mom, but she let him have to day to go hunt instead. His plans were last minute and he ended up hunting alone, which he had never done before. He had shot a ten point buck and was dragging it back to his car when he had a heart attack. He died there in the woods, all alone.

My grandfather, Jake, was a drunk. He was a classic old-school, whiskey drinking drunk. My dad had suffered Jake's drinking for years. My grandparents got divorced when my dad was in high school, most likely related to Jake's drinking. Dad always did double duty at the holidays to make sure we saw Jake and my grandmother, plus my mom's family. Around 1978, after a very bad trip to Jake's house, my dad finally told Jake that he would "not come see him, or bring us kids to see him until he got himself straight". Jake never sobered up. Dad passed away without resolving the problem with Jake. We kids never saw Jake again either. I never knew if visiting Jake would betray my Dad or not, but I wouldn't dare take that chance. When I was in college, I got a call from my mom that Jake had passed way. Of course, he had passed away weeks before we were informed and was already buried before any of my family knew. The act of intentionally not informing us seems cruel, but maybe it was just payback.

This time of year I feel lost, alone and 13, all over again.

This day is a reminder that I need to be a good father, each and every day, to my kids. I need to make sure they know me, know that they are important and that they are loved. I don't ever want them to not know that. I don't want to take that chance.