"Academe, n.: An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.
Academy, n.: A modern school where football is taught."
-- Ambrose Bierce
My father died the summer before last and I didn’t cry. I still haven’t. But when my dad told me he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer last spring, I cried like a little kid.
I felt sad that my father had died, mind you; after all he brought me into the world and was a dad for eight years. But the last time I talked to him was the day my son was born. He said he couldn’t talk at that moment and he’d call me back. Twenty-eight years later, I still hadn’t received that call. It was ok, though. He had changed for the better. Any revenge I had harbored growing up waned when we had met again when I was twenty. Anything I wanted to prove no longer mattered.
I remembered him as a mad Grizzly, red-eyed and gigantic; growling angry Death that reared on its hind feet. He was six foot five and when he was in shape, hovered around 265.
He was in shape when I met him again at twenty, but he was just a big teddy bear. The only real reason I played football and tried to play in college was with the idea that I would one day dominate my father in a game. That I would one day upend him and grind him into the ground on a head high tackle for all the beatings he drunkenly inflicted on my mom and my siblings. In that same game I would straight-arm him on a punt return and cleat mark his back as I high stepped over him for all the disparaging remarks he made about her, about how all of us would grow to be the failures that was insured by her terrible mothering. I would fill the gap from my strong safety position as he cut back on a sweep from his college-days full back spot. We would meet shoulder pad to shoulder pad as I drove him out of bounds for his religious hypocrisy; his taking the Eucharist without suffering Penance from the confessional.
Maybe it was that I grew to six foot one and 200lbs that he didn’t seem so big when I met him again at twenty. Maybe it was because I had been reading Merton and Forgiveness was for the first time a palpable Grace that washed over me. Maybe even it was because we all change and evil can in time turn contrite and apologetic and sincere. I forgave him and let him have his life. It didn’t even really bother me that he never returned my phone call to let him know of his grandson.
He was my father, but he wasn’t my dad.
My dad adopted my baby brother, my two sisters and I when he married our mom. I was a precocious ten-year old when they married, schooled in the pre-Vatican II rigors of Greek and Latin. I was an altar boy and could pontificate at length on the merits of St Francis of Assisi as opposed to those of St Augustine. I was accustomed to stern nuns and beatings at the hands of my father.
My dad never beat us. He was a college professor. We would be lectured at length for our childhood transgressions, we sometimes wished for beatings just to get it over with, but he never laid a hand on us. He never demeaned us but rationally made the argument that we have to be honest with ourselves and to each other.
Beatings are not an effective strategy to teach that character trait, I learned.
He had almost 8,000 books in his home library and another 14,000 at the University and not one was denied our scrutiny at anytime as we grew. He and my mom started the first ACLU chapter in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California in 1966; he wrote policy papers and researched historical points for local politicians, he was on the platform committee for the State Democratic Party. We all learned civic duty is not a chore but something gladly embraced.
He married our mom. She was not quite eighteen years old when I became her first born. By the time she was twenty-five, she had my two sisters and then my brother. In between my two sisters, she had five miscarriages. I figured my mom was pregnant so often because of my father’s idea of what made a good Catholic.
But it did give me a much better appreciation of what she was about when I had my son several months before I turned twenty-three.
One of the major conflicts my mom and my father had was over her being a jazz singer; it offended his idea of Catholic manhood, I guess. Her independence was a threat and she paid for it.
My dad by contrast, encouraged her independence. She looked like Anne Sexton but had the certainty of an Adrienne Rich; she was a survivor in the true Loretta Lynne myth.
My dad advocated for her and promoted her endeavors. She sang briefly and then "retired" of sorts and owned a few cafes and clubs over the years. Because it wouldn’t take much cajoling by her patrons for her to sing her version of "Strange Fruit" or an Ella Fitzgerald be-bop style song.
My dad has been stable and his PSA’s are what the doctor says they should.
My mom has not smoked since the early 80’s and a spot on each lung showed up on an image test a few days ago. It’s too early to tell, according to her doctor, what they might be. The spots are microscopic, but they are there.
I wrote a poem to my son when his son was born that has been published a few times. In it I tell him to kiss his son while he can, because any number of factors will intrude eventually.
Though I’ve been the dutiful son, writing and phoning my parents a few times each week all these years, because of distance I don’t get to hug and kiss them enough.
It’s a little like the long passing game in football. You’re throwing downfield all game, post and fly patterns, deep corners at will. Then Death intercepts and the whole game changes.
Passing is a little like that.
© 2007 by Justice Putnam
and Mechanisches-Strophe Verlagswesen
(cross-posted at Daily Kos http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/4/1/318394/-Passing )
(update: The photo is of my dad, the historian Jackson K. Putnam and myself; he is still healhy and writing another book. August 2009)