When he was 5 or 6 years old, my middle son, Brendan, entertained his brothers and me with elaborate stories about my father. The two of them went to the circus, amusement parks and restaurants. In each vividly cheery scenario, Papa Bill (that’s what his grandchildren called him) was kind, affable and most of all a really good time.
The problem with these explicitly rosy memories was that my father died three years before Brendan was born. None of my sons, not even my oldest son, Weldon, knew him. These were not recollections he inherited by way of animated dinner conversation or assumed from another’s descriptive storytelling; my father never took my brothers, sisters and I to the circus. Brendan’s was an imaginative hoax he believed in his soul.
I interpreted Brendan’s memories as wishful thinking.
My father died 26 years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child. My dad had suffered a stroke when he was out to dinner with my mother and a core group of friends they affectionately called The Group.
It was in the weeks before Christmas 1987, a cold December night. He dropped his fork and stuttered his words; my mother took him to the closest hospital adjacent to the Chicago suburb where they had lived for nearly 40 years. He was 63 and no one in their tight cadre of friends since high school and college had yet passed.
The shrill phonecall came after midnight from my mother, I think. It could have been from one of my five siblings on the phone tree. Truth is I only remember the piercing ring and dashing to the phone on the side table in our bedroom in the Oram Street duplex in Dallas. I knew in my bones that good news has better timing.
Taking in the words like toxic gas, I couldn’t breathe deeply. Dad had a stroke, he has not died. Come home.
I flew home the next day, stayed for a few days, flew back to work, and then flew again to Chicago to see him on his birthday, January 14. I left after two days. My father died in the hospital four days after his birthday, a month after the first stroke, never recovering from the initial systemic assault.
Instead he endured “stuttering strokes” until he was mostly unresponsive, tethered to life support. My mother had been staying over in the hospital for days at a time; he died on one of the rare intervals when she left his side to go home to change clothes and repack a bag.
Back then in 1988 I was working for a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper now defunct in a job that I loved. I was a columnist and feature writer for a rotogravure Sunday section called “Unique,” delivering narrative stories on the rich, famous, quirky and interesting, or features on any subject I dared pitch and my mercurial editor always allowed. It was 80s Texas when money flowed like $100 barrels of oil and you could sample Beluga caviar at the opening of a shoe store.
I was, however, married unhappily to a man my father mistrusted.
“How long will you stay in Dallas?” my father asked in 1984 when I moved away from Chicago.
He was visibly upset when I said I didn’t know.
During the four years I was away from home — that’s what Dad called my Texas job — we talked on the phone at least once a week. These were not the hurried pass-the-phone call check-ins to both my mother and father, no, these calls were to his office midday so I would be sure to get him alone at his desk. I talked to my mother more often — she knew more of my day to day or at least what I would tell her of it; I saved the big picture for my dad.
Growing up my father was a favorite parent with my friends; he was sweet, polite, gentlemanly when he said hello passing by us in the kitchen or on our way to the basement to play pool or ping pong and strategize about boys we liked. My dad told corny jokes and gave my friends rides home if needed, sometimes whistling, sometimes humming, always in a good mood. He was like Johnny Carson that way — predictably calm.
My high school best friend, Jenn, adored my Dad — likely because her father had a caustic streak and stringent rules about everything, from how the beds were made to how the food was prepared and how she looked. Even though they healed their relationship years later, I remember a particular story about the kind of paint that her mother bought for their bedroom and how he was livid, demon-like in his fury.
But I had no such father training. And I knew I was lucky.
In the years after my father’s death, I divorced the man who is father to my three sons. I have grown to mourn the kind of father my boys have never known in their home; someone who is as predictable in mood as a late night talk show host and as calm as a flutter of curtains when the wind sails through the house.
The shorthand, sanitized version is that my boys, now men, or more accurately boymen at 26, 24 and 21, have not seen their father in 11 years. It was back in 2004 that he moved to Amsterdam and that is when we lost track. He has not seen his sons for that long unless you count Weldon’s trip to see him the next summer, the handful of times he appeared for a few hours to foster some kind of strained meeting, or when he turned his back on them in the funeral home receiving line before the funeral of his own father. The boys wore new suits and broken hearts.
It is safe to say my sons are fatherless. Safe is the wrong word of course.
Over the years I have grown weary of trying to explain it to people when they appear incredulous that yes, it is indeed, the case. Their father, a charismatic former lawyer, has nothing to do with his sons. He did not see my oldest graduate from high school or college; or my middle and youngest sons graduate from grade school, high school or college.
“Really? I can’t believe he doesn’t see them. Why would he do that?”
A friend I had not seen in more than 10 years asked me recently over wine at a restaurant where we should not have ordered the antipasto plate but did anyway.
I know it is normal to ask, but the hundreds of times I have been asked make me brittle and impatient. Because there is no why. It seems illogical, improbable, so it must be false. Most mourn a missing father, why would a father intentionally go missing?
Lately I have contemplated responding to anyone who poses such a question is that he has nothing to do with his own children because he didn’t like macaroni and cheese, or the shoes piled in the mud room, or their middle names, or January or October birthdays or the way we folded the towels.
Just so they would realize the question is moot.
What I have started to respond — and I get that this is aggressive — is there is no reason that justifies pretending children do not exist just as there is no reason for genocide, hate crimes or a hit and run accident. But people behave atrociously and without neat explanations. History demonstrates such inhumanity.
The best answer is there is no answer. The impotence in that admission could be paralyzing. But you can’t let it be so.
When Weldon was a senior in high school, his wrestling teammates had a Facebook group called, WWMPD. It stood for “What Would Mike Powell Do.” Not that Coach Powell had the equivalent influence of Jesus on his friends, but close. For my sons, he was the most important man in their lives. Still is.
In the heat of raising teen sons, I could threaten taking away driving privileges or a cell phone, even grounding indefinitely, but nothing mattered more than the possibility that Powell would be disappointed. That he might lose respect for you was an unfathomable amputation of the spirit.
My sons all wrestled in high school and each one of them had an abiding loyalty to the man who taught them more than how to takedown an opponent. He taught them integrity, kindness, accountability. And for his influence on hundreds of young men — and most importantly to my three — he was named earlier this month to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
‘In the end, it doesn’t matter what kind of wrestler you are,” he said. “It matters what kind of man you are.”
I hear his words still.
Last Saturday morning, I sat still and incredulous in the church a few blocks from my house. Every pew was filled, the sporadic spaces in the angled wooden benches earmarked for a late-arriving friend with the printed mass booklet, a clutch purse or sweater.
Overhead, thousands of painted crosses stood attention in the vaulted ceiling panels, gold on white. At the end of each row of pews, mourning friends held small white candles the size of cigars, gripped tightly in fists as the cortege passed, the casket bearing a son.
In the days before Father’s Day this year and the years before the son would become a father, the bravely strained eulogies tempered the pain of the crowd, spoken by a grandfather and lastly a father.
The tears and sighs of the brothers and sisters, the convulsing shoulders, the swollen, reddened eyes of a thousand friends and family, heralded the death of a 24-year old boy.
“Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself,” the aunt of the boy I have known since kindergarten read from the pulpit, after she slowly climbed the iron circular steps to read through her tears.
The bagpipes played as the casket was wheeled to the hearse and the family bent one at a time inside its black steel borders. We made our way to their home layered in sadness where under white tents with yellow tablecloths blowing, we ate fussy sandwiches, damp fruit and small luscious desserts trying to imagine when we would not feel so lost.