The Father I Never Knew

It was an early morning in August of 1999. Too early, in fact, for someone like me who isn’t a morning person at all. My wife and I were all packed up and ready to get going on our first big trip as a married couple. Williamsburg, Virginia awaited and we were all set to embark on our 11 hour ride. It was a big celebration for us as we had just reached our one year wedding anniversary. We were up, fairly awake and all packed to go. We stopped by my parents’ house to say goodbye before we headed out.

“So you are all ready to go then?” asked my Father.

“Yup. All set. A little nervous, but we’ve got our directions printed out and we’ve got Daryl’s cell phone with us.”

Daryl was my father-in-law. He let us borrow his cell phone as we didn’t have one of our own. Not many people that I knew had one back in 1999. He wanted us to be safe and have a phone in case of emergencies. Truth be told, I think he was just worried about his daughter, not both of us. But that’s okay. I’ve always been more concerned about her than myself too.

I gave my mother a hug. She had tears in her eyes, always worrying. I gave my Dad a hug goodbye next. He hugged me tight. He told me to be extra careful and to take my time.

“Call me as soon as you get there.”

“I will Dad.”

“I’m serious. I want to know you made it safely.”

He seemed extra troubled by me leaving for my trip. I reassured him that I’d be careful and that I’d call when I reached my hotel. I knew that he loved me and he worried, but I think that me traveling so far away really made him fearful. If I had known that the call home to check in would be the last time I’d hear his voice, I never would have left.

On the second day of my trip, I had a message waiting for me in my hotel room from my mother. She said that my father had been rushed to the hospital and he was dying. I dropped everything and packed up for home. I made the 11 hour trip home in just about 9. I was able to see him briefly in his room the day I got back and it was awful. He was hooked up to a ventilator and shaking violently. They sedated him and I was able to see him long enough to hold his hand and tell him I love him. He died later that night.

This August will mark the 20th anniversary of his death and it still hurts. It hurts to not have my father here to share my life’s journey with. It hurts to have 4 kids who will never know their grandfather. It hurts that there were so many things I wanted to say to him. And I’m now finding out it hurts to understand that I never really knew him at all.

My father was a good man. He was an army man who ruled his household with an iron fist but he did so with love. He was tough on me and my siblings because he wanted us to be strong. I knew him as a loving dad who lived his life in a wheelchair, limited in most of his daily activities. I knew him as the dad who was sick but made the most out of life. I knew him as the dad who came to my baseball games and my awards ceremonies at school. He was the dad who helped me work on my first, second and third cars as they were all garbage cars. I know he used to be a mechanic and an army man, but never knew much of him beyond those titles. He was simply my dad. Being a dad is never a man’s whole story, now is it?

My father was a mechanic for many, many years for a Ford dealership. He was even featured (as I found out only after he had passed) in their newspaper ads. He was an army Staff Sergeant. He was in the Corps of Engineers. He was also a tank mechanic. I heard things like this as I grew up, but never gave them much thought. He went to Vietnam during the war on three separate tours of duty. I remember seeing some pictures from back then, but again, never gave it much thought. This was his former life so I didn’t care much as a young kid up into my teen years. What I now have, instead of a lifetime of happy memories, is regret and lots of it.

I was barely 21 years old when he died. I had just started my adult life and I was too busy to make time for him. I was married young (age 20) and my wife and I spent most of our time together and not with our families. I am finding out now, as the years fly by, that my memory of him is fading. I remember some things, but not as much as I wish I could. I wish I could have spoken to him man to man, but those opportunities are gone. It’s 20 years too late for that now.

I miss him terribly. I missed out on my chance to know my father on a more personal level. I knew him from when I was a child until he died. He didn’t have me until age 35 and my earliest memories are probably only from age 5 or so. That’s 40 years of his life that I missed out on. I want to know his war stories, even though I despise war. I want to hear all about what it was like to be a mechanic in the 1960’s, even though I’m not so mechanically inclined. I want him to look at how I raise my kids and tell me his thoughts on it. I want to know what his childhood was like growing up in the 40’s and 50’s. I want to know so much, but I’ll go to my grave knowing so very little of him.

I try to share as much as I can with my kids. My younger three don’t have much of an attention span, but my oldest is just about 14 now so he listens a bit more. I try to tell him what my life was like before him. What I was like as a kid. What I did for work before he was here. What the world was like before the internet and cell phones. I try to be as open and honest as I can be and share all I can with him. I want him to grow up knowing exactly who his father was and remember all the times with me that I missed out on with my own father.

Time on this earth is brief. Life is unbelievably short and our relationships are all that matter here. Don’t take your family for granted. Don’t waste your life being angry about the little things, pushing loved ones away in the process. Get to really know each other and share your life’s journey with them. There’s a lot about your life you can change. Regret is not likely to be one of them. Regret is something that usually follows you wherever you go. I know my father loved me and I know he knew that I loved him. I just wish that him being my father wasn’t all I remember about him. I wish I had built a friendship with him and was more than just a son to him. I wish I really knew who he really was before it was too
My father (age 55) and me (age 20) at my wedding. August 8, 1998.

2 thoughts on “The Father I Never Knew

  1. If they invented a time machine, I suspect some of us might use it to go back into our parents’ pasts, to see them as the people they were once, before we came along. The tenderness we feel towards our parents: we can only experience that later, as adults, in retrospect. As children, you can’t feel that towards your parents, because tenderness is generally that quality of feeling protective towards those more vulnerable than yourself. Children can feel that towards animals, though– especially pets — which is where I think we learn those important life skills.

    It’s hard –and cruel– to lose a parent when young. It’s hard to watch a parent age, too, and become more and more dependent on others. Either way, no-on escapes lightly. But we owe it to our parents to take as much interest in their former lives and selves, and give them a kind of narrative due and status beyond the parental one we sometimes took for granted.

    Liked by 1 person

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