By Christopher Nyerges
When my father’s 80th birthday coincided with Father’s Day some years ago, I wrote and illustrated a pictorial booklet for my father which outlined key aspects of our life together. It was my way of thanking my father. My wife Dolores and I went to his home after the wild cacophonous family gathering had ended. We didn’t want an audience in an atmosphere of laughter, sarcasm, and possibly ridicule. I only wanted to share the thank you story with my father in a somewhat serious atmosphere.
Dolores and I brought some special foods, put on some music, and I began my short presentation beginning with my earliest significant memories. I shared with him my memories of how he told me I would be an artist when I grew up. He always told me to put my bike and toys away, so “the boogeyman” wouldn’t steal them. As I grew older, I learned that the world was indeed full of very real “boogeymen” and my father attempted to provide me with ways to protect myself against these unsavory elements of life.
I recalled to my father, while my mother and Dolores listened on, the birthday party adventures, getting hair cuts in the garage, and how my father tolerated my interest in mycology and wild edibles.
Everyone found the recounting amusing, even funny, but there were also tears mixed with the laughter. As with most memories, some things my father recalled quite differently from me, and some he didn’t recall at all. Some things that I saw as life-and-death serious, he saw as humorous, and vice versa.
But above it all, I felt I’d finally “connected” with him at age 80 in a way that I’d never managed to do before. My “Father’s Day card” wasn’t pre-made by a card company, but consisted of my own private and secret memories that I shared with him. I managed to thank him for doing all the things that I took for granted — a roof over my head, meals, an education, a relatively stable home.
Of course, all our family members — “insiders” — knew that my father was no saint. But I was at least acknowledging the good, and sincerely thanking him for it.
My mother died two years later, and we all knew my father would be lost without her. They’d been married over 50 years. His health and activities declined and he finally passed away on the Ides of March a few years later.
Though his death did not come as a surprise — I was nevertheless left feeling his absence. That early Saturday morning when I learned of his death, I even felt parent-less. My view of the world changed and I was forced to acknowledge the limits of life and the futility of pursuing solely a material existence.
After I learned of his death via a phone call, I walked out into the morning rain, in shock, crying, thinking, remembering. I was not feeling cold or wet, and somehow I was protected by that unique state of mind that enshrouded me.
During the next three days, I did as I had done with my mother when she died. I spent the next three days reviewing my life with my father.
At first I allowed the random memories and pain to wash over me. I talked to Frank constantly during those three days, inviting and allowing him to be with me as we did the life review together. I felt his pain, his frustration, his emptiness and loneliness in his last few years of life. I did nothing to stop the pain of this — I allowed myself to feel it all.
I spoke to Frank as I’d speak to anyone living. I felt his presence and even his responses. I did this for myself as much as for Frank and his on-going journey.
I began to see him as a young man, who met, fell in love, and married my mother. Somehow, this was a major revelation to me. I had never seen my own father in that light before. He had simply been “my father.” Suddenly, he was a unique individual, with his own dreams, aspirations, and goals. Amazingly, I’d never viewed him in this way during our life together.
And then, after perhaps 12 hours of this, and miles of walking, I began a more chronological review of my life with my father, point by point by significant point. I saw his weaknesses and strengths, as well as my own. As I did this review, I looked for all the things that I’d done right with my father, all the things I’d done wrong, and all the things that I could have done better. I wrote these down, and the “wrong” list was shockingly long. The “right” list only contained a few items!
I asked my father to forgive me, and I resolved to do certain things differently in order to change and improve my character. I know I would not have imposed such a rigor upon myself had it not been for the death of my father.
A week later, when there was the funeral at the church, I felt that I’d come to know my father more than I ever was able to do in life. I briefly shared to the congregation my three days of “being with” my father, and learning what it was like to be Frank, in his shoes, and how we forgave one another.
More importantly, I shared to family and friends gathered that day the importance of constantly finding the time to tell your living loved ones that you indeed love them, not waiting until they die to say the things that you should be saying all along.
I remember Frank now on Father’s Day, and continue to express my heart-felt thanks for all that he — and my mother — gave to me.
Nyerges is the author of “Til Death Do Us Part?,” a series of stories describing how he and his wife attempted to deal with death in an uplifting manner. The book is available on Kindle, or from School of Self-reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041 or www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.