Twenty years ago today my dad died. He was 59.
We had a troubled relationship. I wasn’t the jock son he wanted as his namesake and I punished him whatever way I could when, my freshman year in college, he left my mom. My bitterness often caused friction between me and my brothers and sisters, but by the time he died, all that was behind us. He was remarried, my mom was remarried, I was married and I truly mourned him. In some ways, I still do. Time, it seems, really does march on and actions that once seemed monumentally selfish and destructive become understandable, maybe even forgivable.
Poets seem to write a lot about their parents, and not always in favorable ways. To mark this occasion, I pulled out a book I love, “Fathers: A Collection of Poems” edited by David Ray and Judy Ray, to see whether anything there might capture my feelings for my father. I discovered many fragments that spoke to me.
In “To My Daughter, Vance Crummett writes “I had thought the word ‘father’/meant failure, inadequacy, loss/until a friend reminded me/how ‘father’/applied to me too.” I liked the sentiment, but it went too far. And the number of poems lionizing fathers, turning them into heroes the likes of which the poets would never find again weren’t right, either.
In the end, I kept coming back to the poem below. The speaker is a man who has left his wife and son.
Over the years I have often wondered whether there was anything my dad regretted about his decision to leave the family. I would like to think there was, as in this poem, something, however small.
My wife, who met my parents as members of other couples long after the dust had settled from the divorce, said “I can’t imagine your parents together.” I could, at that point, see what she meant, but even today, I have trouble imagining them apart, and mourn the life my family might have had. Perhaps that is what this poem, by Robert Stewart, moves in me.
The Job Left to Do
No matter what from now on
my son will not know his father
hugging and loving his mother.
Tonight in the dark, I turn
to a woman my son has never met
and I think of the job left to do:
Like this, my boy, hold her
a long time in your arms.
(P.S.: Sorry to be such a downer.)