Last week as we celebrated Father’s Day it struck me that it has been 48 years since we lost our father to cancer when he was just 55. So much of my life was spent without him that I confess many milestones passed when he did not enter my thoughts nor did I have any wishes that he could be with us or any sadness that he was not. He was simultaneously a larger than life, boisterous presence in my life, and a shadowy one that I could never quite connect with. His job often took him away from us for periods of time but my clearest memory of his work life was when I was in grade school. His normal schedule at the railroad was 4 pm to midnight. That meant he was asleep when I went to school and gone to work by the time I got home. Life at that time with my father was 4 to 12.
I have snippets of memories of time spent with him. He was a mechanical supervisor for the Canadian Pacific Railroad and by any example was a hard-working family man who did the best he could for his wife and 6 children. As with any parent though we are products of our own upbringing, culture, religious beliefs, and society that teaches us what being a good parent is all about. One memory I have is of him coming home from work and entering the house he built for us by the side door which had steps leading up to the main house. My younger brother and I would greet him at the top of those steps and jump into his arms so happy he was home. A few years later I remember him lamenting that as we grew older that we never did that anymore.
I also remember being told by him on more than one occasion that children should be seen and not heard. I learned to stifle my voice amid the din of 5 other voices vying for his and my mother’s attention. And yet he was charismatic and funny and loved to dance. I remember him going to gatherings with my mother at the Legion Hall and needing to bring an extra shirt because he would sweat through the first one. He loved music and electronics. He gave me my first transistor radio when we lived in a small railroad town on the north shore of Lake Superior and on its scratchy reception I could actually get a Chicago radio station where I could hear the latest music of the ’60s in my little room where we lived in railroad housing. He never knew the escape that gave me and the dreams spawned there. I remember visiting him at work after school one day and my Catholic School uniform white tights got engine grease all over them. I didn’t care because I was proud to be climbing those monstrous machines but my mother was less then pleased. He teased my older sister and me that he was going to make us marriage matches with Italian men but he was so convincing that we secretly rebelled and never married one.
I’m not sure why my father came to mind so clearly this week but it may be because of a conversation I had with my son who pointed out that we seem to be experiencing the Biblical signs of the end of days; a global plague, clouds of locusts descending in India and Africa, the desert sands of the great Sahara Desert traversing the Atlantic to the United States. Social upheaval against old norms and outdated systems that divide us racially. It is a scary and uncertain time, none of us knowing when this will end or what is around the corner. I know previous generations experienced this same fear and uncertainty. My father served as a navigator on reconnaissance missions over the North Sea looking for German warships heading into the Atlantic with the Royal Canadian Air Force in Great Britain during WWII and he must have wondered how that would all end and whether they would survive. I am certain he thought about that beautiful young woman back in the States he hoped to marry if he ever made it back. Then power unleashed by the atomic bomb ushered in a new era of fear and mistrust. The Civil Rights movement, more wars engaging his contemporaries and their children, social change. He died before the AIDS epidemic brought new worries or to benefit from the great strides in cancer research. I believe he knew fear for his family, for the future. All parents do.
I thought about what my son had said, about the future for my children and their children and what that may all look like. I have no doubt we will survive this because as many mistakes we make as humans we also make great strides into innovation and seem to constantly recreate a brave new world. And I am one who must believe to stay sane. But we are still in the eye of this hurricane so the aftermath eludes us. On Father’s Day, I saw my daughter and her significant other in person for the first time in 4 months. A mere few months before if I had been told my daughter, who lives but an hour away could not visit me for months I would have said “never”. My son and daughter in law are not able to travel for a visit and we all want to stay safe as we long for the sight of each other. What advice would my father give me if I could reach back those 5 decades and ask him what to do? I can only speculate. What words of comfort and encouragement can I give my own children? I have yet to find them.
REM wrote a classic song in 1987 called “It’s the End of the World” singing that the world as we know it has ended and yet the singer feels fine. It is definitely time to change the way the world has been and I have said before in these pages that I believe Mother Earth has taken over, unleashed a plague that has sheltered humans and allowed nature to regenerate. But also people have stepped up, speaking out against racial injustice in a voice louder then ever before. Time to pay attention. Time for the way we live to be better and stronger. It is the end of the world as we have known it. And you know what? I do feel fine. Rest in peace, Dad.