When does the pain of a father’s death ever end? Especially when that father dies at a especially cruel young age?
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist wrestled with that question the day after Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile was found dead at 33, leaving behind a wife and three kids. It’s a problem I’m all too familiar with.
Kile’s dad died of heart failure at 44. Kile didn’t make it that far. I’ll go ahead and say it. It’s unfair that an athlete who has to be in top physical condition in order to compete can die of heart failure while people who just let themselves go can outlive them by decades.
My dad made it to 51. He was a great doctor but a horrible patient, which no doubt contributed to his early demise. Decades of too much fatty food, too many cigarettes and pipes, too many cold ones and not enough physical activity caught up to him and didn’t do him any favors.
He was anything but perfect. But I miss him.
He was the smartest man I ever met. Everyone thinks that about their dad at some point in their lives, but in Dad’s case, it was true. I keep hearing about “the latest studies” that just repeat stuff Dad was saying 15 years ago. I’m sure that if I knew jack squat about biology, he’d be even smarter because I’d be able to remember and understand his observations.
Sometimes I’ll be reading a piece in an IT publication or book and I’ll just say, “Duh!” I know it from months or years of observing behavior and recognizing patterns. How I understand computers is nothing new. It’s the same way Dad (and my grandfather) understood medicine and the way my great-grandfather understood business deals. Science is still looking to prove things my dad and his dad knew from experience.
Dad didn’t have a dazzling IQ, but he did have a dazzling memory and a knack for processing the information he remembered. He also had a firm grip on reality.
But I know a lot of smart people who are complete and total jerks.
Dad gave a rip. He didn’t have a lot of close friends and he got burned a lot of times by people, but that never stopped him from doing the right thing. If someone came to him needing help, he offered it. I still remember coming to him one night with a question.
“Dad, tell me about LSD,” I said. (How many parents have a good enough relationship with their 18-year-olds that they’ll feel comfortable with that question?)
Dad gave me some superficial textbook answer like how it wasn’t something you should mess with but there are worse things you can do. I interrupted him.
“Dad, it’s–” and I said the name of one of my closest friends.
Dad dropped an f-bomb and asked what I wanted to do about it and how he should help. Within an hour, he and I were sitting with my friend’s dad, talking about the problem. I told what I knew, and Dad told what he knew from a medical standpoint why this wasn’t a good cure for boredom. And Dad knew when to shut up. As a doctor, he could tell you what the drug’s effects would be. But medicine didn’t have a good answer to the underlying problem and he knew it. Medicine was no substitute for psychology and accountability in this situation, and Dad was quick to say that.
I don’t know how many times Dad would notice someone needed something, and that something would just suddenly show up. Dad might or might not say something about it. Dad’s philosophy about money was that it was for helping people, and credit cards were for helping them immediately and giving yourself a little time to figure out how to pay for it (which he always did).
And yeah, sometimes Dad was impatient and harsh with me (especially when I was young) and there were lots of times he wasn’t there when I needed him or my sister needed him or Mom needed him. He was very human. But so is everyone else I know, and Dad did a better job with what he had to work with than the majority of those people.
Sometimes I still have dreams that it was all a big mistake, a misguided practical joke gone horribly wrong, or something else, and I hear his boots clomp into the room in their inimitable pattern and hear his inimitable roaring laugh.
Dad died of a heart attack eight years ago this November.
There’s not much I can do about it. What I can do is remember him, learn from him, and try to improve on him. I cringed this past week when I found myself dealing with unruly and destructive kids the way Dad would have. When a cooler head came in and handled the situation better, I thanked her later. When one of Dad’s cousins developed a heart condition at a similar age and had a triple bypass, I decided I’d better change my diet immediately. That was about two years ago.
I want to take Dad’s good qualities and with God’s help leave as many of his bad qualities as possible on the shelf. When I do get married, I want to outlive my wife by a few months so she won’t have to deal with the pain of burying me.
But I don’t want the pain of missing Dad to go away. To do that would require the loss of the capacity to love, which would mean that life couldn’t–and shouldn’t–go on.
10 October 2007
It’s been more than five years since I posted this, and it’s proven to be one of the most frequently read of the 1,800 or so posts on this blog. A lot has changed since 2002. I’ve gotten married. I’ve had two sons. I’ve bought a house and moved. I’ve changed jobs several times. But at least one thing hasn’t. I still think of Dad every day. He would have turned 67 this year.
Sometimes there are things I would like to ask him. But there’s enough of him in me, and he spent enough time with me, that I usually know what he would have said. Every once in a while something will happen and it will occur to me that Dad would have been proud of that.
And a few years ago, I found something that Dad and I liked to do together, and I developed that latent interest again. The specifics don’t matter. I found a torch I could carry for him. And sometimes, it’s almost like he’s there, even though he isn’t.
I gave up trying to find an easy cure a long time ago. There isn’t one. Just a few things that help. I remember him. I grieve when I need to, but I don’t let the grief consume me. And I try every day to be just a little bit better of a man than he was. Some days I succeed. And that’s really all that Dad ever would have wanted from me.