My relationship with my father was deeply immature.
By that I do not mean that either one of us individually was immature; though in fact we were, both of us.
I moved out, for all intents and purposes, when I was sixteen; living most of the time at a girlfriend’s house. When I was home, it was mostly to party with my brothers’s friends, or with my cousins who lived with my family at that time.
When I turned 18 I took a night job, sleeping all day and working til after midnight. We saw each other rarely, and I moved out officially not long after.
So when I describe our relationship as immature, what I mean is, the development of our relationship ended when I was still a teenager.
Once I was out of the house, my life went off it’s own way. I developed a career, a social life. I grew up. I made that glacial crawl from boy to man, with every mistake and triumph, every lesson in love, finance, job, every mistake with the law.
My father, though, never saw me group up. He knew me as that son who left, the one who’d visit on holidays. And I never got to know my father, the man. I only knew him as my father, the father.
My father, I know now, was a deeply cerebral man. A deep thinker. He taught himself mathematical systems; he studied statistics, semiotics, symbolic logic. He transcribed music into different keys for fun; not to play it (he had only a rudimentary ability as a musician, and no real appreciation for music in it’s own right); he did it because the intellection exercise of the system was, for him, relaxing.
When I was 19, I knew little of that, and understood none. I knew my father as an emotionally distant man, a man who was uncomfortable with teenagers. A sensitive man whose feelings were easily hurt. I knew him as a man who backed down too easily when his kids challenged him, and who never stopped thinking of them as babies.
It wasn’t an easy relationship for me; I am aggressive, argumentative, dominant, intolerant of weakness. Everything about me challenged my father. I had no respect for him; I had no idea there was anything to respect. In my brash teenage arrogance, I felt I already knew everything there was to know about the man.
There would have come a time, I think, when we’d have ‘met’ each other; when we’d gradually have found common ground and begun to listen, more than talk. We shared interests in science, semantics, logic. We shared interested in engineering and problem solving, in sports, in art, in jewelry, in language.
My brother Ian’s illness interrupted us.
It wasn’t simply that my brother was there, living with my parents for the last several years of his life. It was that my brother utterly dominated my parents life. It’s hard to say exactly why; something was fundamentally broken in the relationship. Certainly, the injury he suffered as a infant was the root of all this; my mother never in her life forgave herself for it. But more, it was the system they built around him. One in which his needs must be met, his well-being insured. In which all else was secondary to his care.
My parents were obsessive people. It’s why my father was so good at what he did; why he overcame his handicap (dyslexia) to become an expert is his field. It’s why my mother was so incredibly clever with language; she studied it every day of her life. They were incredibly organized, with filing systems I can’t even imagine building and maintaining. When they committed themselves to something, they would not let go of it. Once they accepted that my brother was broken and needed care beyond what a child normally needs, they never let go of that commitment.
Typically, when one has children of one’s own, the playing field levels somewhat. Parents relax into the easy role of grandparents; they witness their children as peers and parents. For some, this becomes a battleground, but for us, it would have been the opposite. MY mother, certainly, only got to know me as I am now after my father and brother were both gone.
Timing can be a bitch though. Ian’s decline began around the same time my first daughter was born. And my parents, with typical single-minded commitment to the role of caretaker, pushed the lesser task of grandparent aside. Later, they seemed to say; when Ian’s better and we have time.
We never had time. My brother’s care went on and on; he never got better. My father’s heart, weakened by a life of too much food, too much drink, and too much smoke, gave out under the stress. He died one morning, while I was in europe with own family.
He died without ever getting to know the grand child who was so much like him, and without he and I ever having a chance to know each other as men.
Today, I was clearing out files in what was once my father’s office, digging through decades of incomprehensible tests and papers, still in perfect, obsessive order. And I found words of my father’s, neatly filed.
I found business correspondence; letters between faculty members at San Jose State and Cal State LA. I found scholarly papers and cover letters to journals requesting consideration for publication.
I found letters to the editors of various newspapers, and a fan letter to Phil Frank, the writer of the comic strip ‘Farley’.
I found a poem or two, a number of essays, and even several short pieces of fiction.
I found my father’s voice in all this. I could hear him in my head; but not as he spoke to me. I heard him as he would have spoken to his colleagues. As he must have spoken to my mother when they were dating. I heard a strong, confident writer’s voice. A man who knows that his greatest gift is with language.
I felt as if I’d found a window into time, and could see the man – not the father, but the man that I never knew. Yet it was one-way; like a recording. I could hear this sliver of who he was, and I wanted to say, look, dad, that’s me too. You never met the man I am; you never heard my writer’s voice. You never saw me as I am with my peers, my friends, my co workers. YOU never saw me parent my children. You were gone too damned soon.
I sat on a dusty floor in the room that was once my pernets, with old type-written, hand corrected paper around me, and struggled to understand what my father did for a living; his words and obscure symbols as foreign to me as the code I write is to my children. But it didn’t matter that I couldn’t make sense of some point, debated in memos between my father and his his friend Lou. What mattered to me was the profound intellectual respect in the dialog. The confidence.
My father rarely showed his creativity and brilliance to his children. Once we’d passed the age where he could tell us bedtime stories, he seemed to lose track of who we were, and we of him. While our house held his paintings, I never saw him paint, and had no idea he could write.
There is so much there; drawer after drawer. I’ve only begun to delve into it, in all the dusty work of clearing out the fragments of my parents lives. But I look forward to something I never was able to do while he lived; getting to know my father, the man.