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When My Dad Dies

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“Mark apparently had imagined that he was going to have his father around to hate forever. To hate and hate and hate and hate, and then, in perhaps his own good time, after the scenes of accusations had reached their crescendo and he had flogged (his father) to within an inch of his life with his knot of filial grievance, to forgive.”

–from The Human Stain, by Phillip Roth

Several years ago, when my friend Matt’s dad died, he said something I’ll never forget: “Be sure to tell your dad you love him, and remember that if you’re going to blame him for all of the things you don’t like about yourself, you have to give him credit some of the things you like.”

My dad can annoy the hell out of me. Usually it’s when he’s doing something I hate about myself. I’m what they call an unconscious eater, which means I eat too much, too fast, and always regret it. So when my dad comes over I actually feel my face getting hot when he sets up shop at the chips and guac like an alley cat who hasn’t eaten in weeks. He’ll jam 17 chips without making eye contact with anyone.

But when he steps away, just out of my sight, I’ll throw down 18 chips, then go right back to judging him.

I’ve heard you guys complain about your dads. Maybe it’s when he dozes off in front of the TV and starts snoring. Maybe it’s when he sends another article he knows you’re not going to read, or when he regales you with the details of the latest TV series he’s binging on (for my dad it’s British crime shows).

I’m fascinated by the inverse relationship between how old we are and how much we idolize our dads. When we’re kids, he can do nothing wrong. When we’re adults, he can do nothing right. For some of you guys, I know you would love for the worst thing about your dad to be that he eats all your guacamole; some of you barely speak to your dads.

And some of you have already lost your dads. I know because I’ve been to their funerals, because my dad taught me to always go to the funeral. He also taught me to be a man of my word, to work hard, to accept and forgive people, to put my family at the center of my life, to seek a spiritual path, to put others before myself, to always show up, even when I don’t want to.

I’m happy to take all the credit for those qualities, but then I’ll fixate on my dad’s flaws like eating too much guacamole or laughing at the same stupid commercial.

At those funerals I always think about my dad and how I’ll respond when it’s his turn. Will I be resentful like Mark in The Human Stain? And now that I have kids of my own, how will they react when their grandfather (also their next-door neighbor), dies?

I’ve been reading Sam and James the Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales, and there’s one, “The Old Man and his Grandson”, in which a man’s father lives with him, but the man is so disgusted by the way his father eats, during dinner he makes him sit across the room, behind the fireplace, to eat out of a wooden bowl. At the end of the story the man’s son (the grandson) is building something out of wood, and the man asks him what it is.

The boy responds, “‘I am making a little trough for father and mother to eat out of when I am big.”

I’m already starting to see some of my flaws manifest themselves in Sam and James. Sam got the unconscious eating gene. James never knows when to stop joking. They still idolize me, but there will come a time when they realize I’m human, and they may begin to judge or even resent me. When that happens, I hope somewhere deep in their psyche they’ll remember how I treated my dad.

And I hope they don’t start building a trough.


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