Posted by boakley59 on March 5, 2008
Dad was always there. My heart remembers it that way, even if it’s not exactly true.
In the earliest years, when I was in grade school, it was Mom who was always there because Dad was at work. In his last years, Alzheimer’s left him without reliable memory of me and so in one sense my father wasn’t there anymore.
But my heart knows different. Even in those last years, the core of his character that made my father wonderful remained. His only reliable memories were of family and duty: He remembered his youth and especially his mother, and he remembered going off to basic training in California to serve in World War II. It is befitting that he was buried on Pearl Harbor day in 2006, this man for whom the equation was so simple: You fought for your family, whatever the world threw at you.
Dad was a fighter not so much in the Rambo sense as in the Lassie sense. He loved and protected and always found some way to get his family what they needed. He could be menacing, too, in a quiet way. Once, my aunt, Dad’s older sister, had a pool party. I didn’t like water much, but my cousin’s husband decided I should get wet. I was a scrawny young teen, but I could run. And I did, into the house, but he caught me and tried to carry me back out to the pool. I grabbed at every door frame along the path, and when we finally got to the doorway to the back porch and I was still saying “Noooooo!” and clutching at woodwork, Dad just quietly said, “Put him down.” That was all. It was over and I was safe and dry and loved. A few minutes later, I high-jumped the wall of the above-ground pool and splashed in. It was my decision when to get wet, and my father who gave me every opportunity.
I said I could run, and my fondest memories of my father go with running. I ran cross country and track in high school and Dad found a way to come to almost every meet. We typically had very cold days, sometimes even snow by the last races in October, but Dad would try to arrange a call away from the office or just take a break so he could come stand out in the cold and watch us run the park lake course. You can’t see much of a race on a 1 1/4-mile lake loop, but watching me for a few hundred yards was plenty for Dad. Track meets in the spring might last three hours, and my races would amount to about seven minutes out of that time, but Dad was there.
He wanted something different for me than what he had. Dad was a very good baseball player, good enough to be on a sort of division traveling squad during his World War II service. But his father worked in a factory and didn’t get to see him play. Dad said he was playing in a high school all-star game when his father walked by the park on his way home from work. He said his father stopped him after the game and said, “I didn’t know you could play.” So much his father and he had missed together, and Dad wasn’t going to have that for me.
Baseball players didn’t make much money in those days and Dad became a newspaper man, eventually becoming an advertising salesman. Ad salesmen didn’t make a lot of money in those days, either, but Dad found a way to send me to Catholic grade school, high school and university. When I married and became a father myself, I tried to always be there for my son. But his mother and I divorced, so I missed many of his formative years. I missed Courtney playing on his state championship soccer team. And though we were a two-income family, we had no hope of being able to afford to send him to a private college and it would have been tight to send him to a state college. I am not a big spender and my degree presumably puts me in a higher pay bracket than that of my father, who had one semester of college, and yet he shames me as a provider for my family.
The difference is the fight in him, the fierceness of his loyalty. Whatever sacrifice it took, even giving up baseball dreams or hope of going to college, Dad did it. I did almost whatever it took, but ultimately I was so important to me that I couldn’t find a compromise to keep my family together, let alone provide for them. “He was always there” will not be the way my son remembers me.
Would Dad be disappointed in me? No, he would try to find some way to take away the hurt, some way to persuade me that families are harder to keep together these days and failure isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault.
Of course, he also raised me to believe that no mountain is too high when you put your mind to it and keep going. Now there is a mountain of absence between us. But when I think I have fallen and need a lift, I know where my thoughts must turn.
As the friends of William Herbert Oakley often said when he came into a room: “Look, WHO’s here!”
As Dad would say, “You bet he is!”
Through tears, his only son whispers, “Always.”