Sometimes it’s difficult to believe my father’s been gone 17 years, and then I remember that the terrible hammer blow of his death is no longer the ache that it was, and hasn’t been for a long time. That’s fortunate, because I couldn’t have endured for long with that much daily pain. It faded, as it must, and now sometimes days and even weeks might pass without me thinking about him.
He was a good man. He wasn’t without his flaws, but few of us are. At one point, after I realized he wasn’t perfect, I felt a weird sense of betrayal and tended to downgrade him a little, for which I still feel ashamed. Then, much later than I should have, I realized his part in the world was much more than just “dad” to me and my sisters. And as I’ve aged and had teenagers of my own I’ve come to understand him a little better. Many’s been the time that I’ve wish I could have asked him for advice, although I’ve become so used to not having it now that I don’t think about it much any more.
Today, though, I’m many hours from home, traveling with my wife. I left her at her meeting and drove to a McDonald’s to sit and work prior to the library opening. As I walked for the entryway I recalled sometimes meeting my dad in the early mornings at a McDonald’s for coffee. I don’t think he ever enjoyed McDonald’s coffee itself much, just my company (which I was too young to appreciate) but he was an early riser, just as I’ve now become, and since he was up and I was passing through he wanted to see me. My God, do I grieve for not getting that until my own kids are almost completely out of the house. I’d give a lot to meet him for one of those coffees now, just as I’d give a lot to swing by the old campus cafeteria where he’d often be waiting for me in the mornings when my mom dropped me off before school. My grade school/junior high was only a block from the university where they both taught, and Dad would arrange to be there in the mornings to hang out with me until school started.
I took it for granted then, but I look back now and smile thinking about the games of Hangman and Battleship we’d play on napkins before the start of school.
When I was young I naively assumed that the people I loved would always be there, and that the future was long and I had endless amounts of time. How things change. Sometimes I tried to imagine various changes, in a maudlin way, but I just didn’t understand.
As I entered that McDonald’s today there was a man in late middle-age waiting to order. He had a similar hairline and nearly identically colored white hair to that of my father in his last years. Moreover, he was wearing khaki shorts and a blue polo shirt with slim horizontal stripes. It looked so much like something that my father would wear that as I turned to place my own order, from the corner of my eye he looked like my dad.
I have to confess that I stood there longer than I needed to, looking from the corner of my eye, just imagining that my father really was nearby. I did the same thing after he took his seat with his wife, turning my head just slightly to briefly revisit the illusion.
I still miss him a helluva lot. I wrote earlier about that high bar he set.