Thursday, August 13, 2009

In Memoriam

Mom, with folded flag - following burial.
Me, observing taps played before interment.

Having returned from Florida and my dad's funeral a month ago, I am only now able to put a memorial to him on my blog. I only learned of the funeral arrangements a day before, then spent the better part of the same day (Tuesday, July 14) making travel arrangements, hotel-motel bookings etc. All this consumed the better part of the day.

I flew out on Wednesday morning just after noon from Colorado and arrived in Fort Myers, Florida around 9 p.m.

The viewing of the body followed the next day in Port Charlotte, some 40 miles to the north, and the funeral Mass and burial followed on Friday. The latter at Charlotte Memorial Gardens in Punto Gorda, nine miles to the south.

As I attended all the events, and especially the funeral Mass (even though I am an avowed Atheist, there are exceptions in terms of form and formality which does not mean one is a "hypocrite") I felt a wave of conflicting emotions. At one point they were so overpowering I had to excuse myself.

Like most sons, my relationship with my father was not simple, but complex. It would be great to say we shared all the same interests, but alas, we did not. While I was passionate about baseball, for example, he was not. This probably was traced to an incident in his youth( as I often heard him recite it) where he happened to be reading a book under a tree not from the school baseball field, and a careless batter let his bat flying -crashing into his cranium. Thus did baseball earn a not particularly endearing spot in his heart.

But for me, growing up, it was everything. The Milwaukee Braves (since we lived in Milwaukee for ten years) were a particular passion: Aaron, Matthews, Spahn. Though baseball wasn't dad's game, give him his due. He went out of his way to get autographs from both Eddie Matthews and Henry Aaron, on the box top from a boxc of Corn Flakes no less, since that was the only write-worthy surface he had. He also got us tickets to a Cubs-Braves game at Milwaukee County Stadium, never mind the game was canceled after three innings because of rain - and we never used our rain check. Soon after, we were moving to Miami, FL.

In Florida, baseball continued to be my pastime, as I joined teams in the Khoury League, then in High school, as a pitcher. Though dad didn't like the game, he took me to them, and allowed me to participate in the baseball training after school. He even attended my pitching start, despite being shelled from the mound after one!

What were most memorable in the early days were all the family outings. These alas, became fewer and fewer as the inevitable financial problems arose from rearing a family of five kids in an economic backwater with few opportunities for the expression of his talent - mainly in art.
Approaching adolescence, our differences grew into a gulf, and basic communication became sparse. Conflicts often reared their ugly heads, especially when he'd lay down the law and order me to go out and do yard work in the hot Florida Sun, and when I'd frequently mutter "concentration camp!"
One major hiatus in the "cold war" came when he and mom jetted to Barbados for my wedding in 1975. It was a pleasant and harmonious interlude, in what was often a realm of interfamily strife.
Another such interlude followed in 1988 when they also visited and we treated them to a Barbados Christmas and holiday celebration.
Into the 1990s, and especially after a visit to Port Charlotte in 1990, more strife ensued - often about trifling little things. Not until I visited in 2001 did the conflict begin to ebb, and I still recall mowing dad's lawn for him, to try out his new mower since I was considering buying the same. The look of gratitude on his face said it all.
In the years after, he mellowed even more and I believe I did too. It became possible to share another sports passion with him, professional football, especially after his Tampa Bay team won the 2003 Super Bowl! Perhaps the beginning of his downturn started with a terrible fall later that year, and having to undergo hip replacement surgery.

Physically, he was never the same after that, and began to progressively lose weight. By the time he was struck with pneumonia in April of this year, he simply didn't have the physical vitality or constitution to ward it off. His demise was slow and terrible, the only interludes of pleasure arriving via the occasional Bob Evans biscuit and gravy breakfasts brought to him by my Mom.

As I saw him lying in peaceful repose, all I could think about were the words left unsaid, the activities left undone, the apologies for rash misbehavior and inconsideration not made. The regrets, pouring in, especially that we did not communicate more.

I am not sure added communication, especially in the turbulent teen years - would have made a difference, but they might have. We didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things, especially religion (much more on politics, interestingly), but then very seldom do sons do.

While at his graveside I made my peace with him, and I suppose, that is the best one can hope for. The grieving had passed the day before, now there was only the time left for taps - played by military guards, and the folding of the flag draped over his casket, and handing it to my mom. Followed by the guard shaking my hand, his oldest son's, and saying in a low voice: "We thank you for the service your father gave to his country".

At that moment, if not totally before, I understood how important it was to have been there. For a brief time, at least - and possibly a bit late- respect and a measure of filial love could replace a relationship too often marked by the opposites. I made my peace with dad, and that was the best I could have done.

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