Sunday, July 19, 2020

Complicated, Infrequent, Maddening: Reflecting on my Dad's Life and Death

   Sigmund Freud said that the most important day in a man’s life is the day his father dies. If so, that day for me was Wednesday, July 15. My dad turned 95 on March 5, when we last had a good long visit together. On Father’s Day he suffered a stroke, and spiraled down from there. I got to see him briefly, given Covid restrictions, 6 days before he passed.

   Let me work through my thoughts and emotions in front of you now. Helps me, as a writer, to do so in this way – and I suspect my experience of people’s sympathy might help all of us moving forward. With loving intentions, we speak words of comfort to one another. I understand well that when we do so, we inject, we transfer our own feelings about our own family into the stories of others. Surely they feel as I did or would. Comforting words are all comforting, but then at the same time some aren’t so comforting, or aren’t connected to reality, feeling like little pin pricks to fend off. I don’t fault any of the hundreds of people who’ve reached out to me. I am humbled, and so very grateful. I feel loved. My story with my dad probably explains why I need that – but then why everybody else does too.

   My dad, Cecil Artus Howell (known as “Jack” as a young man and in old age) and I had a complicated, infrequent, and maddening relationship. Grieving might just be harder, or at least very different, when this is the case. And I know (given my work!) that our relationship, while unique, was hardly that unusual. I suspect that’s why Jesus stored up his best energy and imagination for that story about the wonderful father who threw a party for his lost son – as if Jesus knew some of us who have a hollow or painful place where “father” is supposed to be would desperately need to know that God is our father and is like that father, instead of like our own fathers.

   Positives: my dad was raised in a warm, hard-working, pious Baptist family in Oakboro, a little town in Stanly County about an hour from Charlotte. Growing up, I spent much time there with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. It was heavenly, like a womb of compassion and joy. I wonder if God grants some of us an experience of such an “other” place so we will know to long for and even expect that beyond this life there really is a “better place.”

   My dad’s family endured the Great Depression. Tough people - and, like many Depression survivors, always a bit fearful you might run out of money one day. He never went to a day of college, and covered this fact up deftly throughout life, which is not easy. As a mechanical engineer producing nuclear fuel at Westinghouse in his second career, he hired and supervised college- and graduate school-trained people. He always knew he knew more than they did. He could fix or build anything, diagnose what was awry in any machine and make it all good. He changed the oil in his car into his nineties and did his own plumbing, not because he was cheap (which he was), but because he wanted to be sure it was done right.

   As part of that “greatest generation,” he left the small Oakboro school after grade 11 and joined the Army Air Corps. Flew in World War II, the Berlin Air Lift, and briefly into Vietnam. He did what Sarah Palin claimed to do: stationed in Alaska, he and other flyers kept an eye on the Russians, back in the 50's. Like most World War II veterans I’ve known, he was humble about it (even about being shot down over Europe), with no trace of rah-rah patriotism.

   I was born on Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, where we lived until I was 8. My dad earned stripes, and taught me to march and shine my shoes (which were duly inspected every Saturday evening). In 1964, he retired with full benefits, moved us back to North Carolina briefly, then landed his job with Westinghouse in Columbia, SC, where he worked until retirement – which he flunked twice, returning to work after a few weeks of realizing he didn’t have much else to do.

   Having come to adolescence during the Depression, money mattered in a big way to my dad. He was frugal with what he earned, and invested aggressively and smartly in the stock market. After retirement, he became a day trader, watching the ups and downs of stocks all day, every day. If I called and said How are you doing? his answer indicated if the market was up or down. Into his 90’s, he bore that stress all day, every day. His knowledge of corporate America was astonishing. For an uneducated guy with zero family money, he made a lot, and was proud of it. And cheap. I always paid for dinner; he put up no fight at all.

   Now to the harder aspects of things. My dad was, somewhere deep inside, a tender, loving soul. His family was that way. It would peek out now and then. But mostly I experienced him as distant, cold, critical. He never said things like I love you. When he died, many Facebook comments said “I know he was so proud of you.” But this was not something he ever said, to me or anybody else about me. I read the words, and feel a slight jolt of wishing he had been. He was sharply dismissive of my going into the ministry, thinking this was a “waste” of my life. He abounded with criticism. My clothes, my car, my inability to fix a car, my friends. Nothing suited. 

   He was distant: when he was in the Air Force, his work took him away for weeks, even months at a time. When he returned home, he gave great hugs. But then he was gone again. In adult life, he just was distant. His telephone evidently was a one-way contraption. It could receive my calls, but it seemed incapable of calling me. He never ever in calls or visits asked things like How are you doing? How are your children? How is your work? I’ve wondered if he had some kind of narcissistic disorder. Intriguing to diagnose maybe, but not a happy circumstance when it’s your father who’s the narcissist. He very rarely saw my children. I don’t believe he saw my son, his only grandson, until he was nearly 3. He never came to a ballgame or a ballet recital. He rarely remembered anybody’s birthday. He never volunteered. He never made a donation to a non-profit or church.

   I don’t blame him all that much, oddly. He married my mother, and they waged a long, dispiriting, bloody war with one another (like so many marriages, although people cloak this fact and pretend otherwise). Shouting, throwing things, physical battle, stomping out in a rage: this was my home life. It is a gross understatement to say my mother was a prickly, difficult person. Yet he loved her. A touching moment, very late in his life: after he was mired in the nursing home, with no visits allowed due to Covid, I began printing out and mailing him old photos every day – from his teenage and early military years, of his siblings, his parents, his flying buddies. He loved this! I found photos of his wedding to my mother. After hesitating, I sent them anyhow. He phoned me: his phone actually was a 2-way phone! and spoke tenderly of how beautiful she was, how much he had loved her, how he wished he could have made it work.

   But it didn’t work, and their battlefield was littered with the debris that was my childhood, and my sister’s. I remember telling him I was going to college. He seemed puzzled, and tried briefly to dissuade me, suggesting I get a job and support myself. Mind you, he didn’t support me. I worked my own way through school, and with no regrets at all. About that time, he reconnected with an old flame, Bonnie, the deep love of his life. An ugly divorce case ensued – but then he was free from my mother. He and Bonnie spent every waking minute together. In their 30 years of marriage, they spent one night apart. But she was icy, didn’t want to be around my dad’s kids, or my kids.

   And so I don’t blame him so much. Yet, people say “Enjoy your happy memories!” I can recall a handful from childhood. His hugs when returning home. Playing catch a few times. He came to a couple of my football games in high school. But in my entire adult life, it would be hard to point to some moment and say Aha, now that was a happy memory. Naturally, I blame myself too often about this. What could I have done to make things different? I tried. But maybe I was too proud? Did I get this trait from him, along with a tenacious work ethic and a resilient stubbornness?

   I was impressed at times by my dad. His third wife, Lorraine, began to suffer from Alzheimer’s shortly after their marriage. I watched him visit her in the nursing home, when she showed no flash of recognition – and he held her hand, kissed her, spoke tender words of love to her, combed her hair, every day. That is a memory that makes me happy.

   People have said many religious things to me since he died. “He’s with God,” or “You’ll be together in heaven,” or whatever. I most certainly hope so. Yet he not only thought it was a waste of my life to be a pastor. He seemed to believe church was a waste of time. He never said so, but then he never attended. Well, he came to my wedding in a church, and to one of my three children’s baptisms in a church, to an occasional family funeral, and even to worship at Myers Park Church a couple of times, clearly dragged there by Lorraine before her dementia set in. I did ask him late in life if he ever prayed. He laughed, and then growled, “Yeah, I pray for my stocks to go up.”

   So if you believe my dad is in heaven, now, you have to have a pretty expansive theology of who goes to heaven. I have space in my theological mind for people like my dad who don’t go to church, who don’t pray, who don’t believe, who don’t make the slightest effort to follow Jesus, who don’t do anything for anybody else, to be with God forever. I’ve been stridently criticized by church people over many years for writing and thinking such thoughts. Yet I know I am in good company with many of our greatest theologians and church leaders, from Origen to C.S. Lewis to Karl Barth. If you prefer to think of him in eternal perdition, I pity you. I believe he is with God, not because he was my dad, but because of what we know about the heart of God. Fortunately, God has liberated us from having to know or decide on such things. Ours is, of course, to hope.

   I suspect Freud was right in some ways I cannot fathom just now. Since my dad died, I’ve been in a funk. No tears. At least not yet. But a numbness. I’ve not been answering the phone, even when called by my dearest friends. I don’t really have words I can attach to this mood, the drumbeat of feelings that aren’t the usual kind of grief. I’m not mad, or resentful. Even his impassioned admonition to me as a 20 year old who had just announced I was going into the ministry, “You only have one life; don’t waste it,” I still welcome as giving me the laser focus I needed for why I would do such a thing. I think I’m just sad. Maybe. I’m not fond of could’ves or should’ves. My father died. Period. A complicated life. Like everyone’s, I suppose. With lasting impacts on others. Like everyone’s. He was my father. I favor him. He's tangled deep in my soul. Always will be. 

   Thank you, thank you, thank you to every person who has reached out to me. You’ve buoyed me up and encouraged me. I think of the times I have most likely assumed things about relationships that were off kilter, maybe a little hurtful. I hope they too were well-received as bumbling but sincere expressions of love and care. Let’s never assume though. Let us never say I know how you feel. If you ask How do you feel? you might get an earful, like this blog. Or the person might do the best she can muster in the moment, which is to say Fine. We are. And we will be. Mostly likely, and hopefully, forever, if God our Father’s love is as all-encompassing and tender as we dream it surely must be.