Remember when your child brought you home a lop-sided ceramic dish or a woven key fob? Those were always the most beautiful gifts you received because you knew how much effort went into them. (Although I will say that the fill-in-the-blank interview that my then-preschool-aged daughter completed for Mother’s Day fell a bit flat when she completed the sentence, “My mother likes to spend time…” with, “on the toilet.”)
At 8 a.m. this morning, the phone rang. After answering it, my husband, Todd, brought me the handset. “Good morning, Bets,” said my Dad in his gravelly voice. “I just wanted to say happy birthday.”
My Dad doesn’t really use the phone anymore, except to call when he hasn’t received his pills on time at his assisted living facility. It took a big effort to think about calling, then find my number, make the call, and speak clearly. It was a very brief, bittersweet moment. In recent days, he had mentioned several times that he wanted to give me something for my birthday. But, since I’m his gift-buyer, how would he arrange a surprise of some kind since he no longer drives and doesn’t know how to shop online? His call was a wonderful gift.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with my father, how it has changed over the years, and, even more, how it has evolved since he first became a father in 1942.
My mother and father married the day after Christmas, 1941, less than three weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My father had been commissioned as a second lieutenant with the Marine Corps Fifth Reserve Officers Commission class, and had been asked to stay on at Quantico as an instructor. U.S. forces had been stretched to the limit across Europe, North Africa and the Pacific. My oldest brother was born on the day that the Japanese Imperial Army launched its final attempt to regain control of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. Around the time my brother turned one, my father shipped out with the 4th Marine Division to take Kwajalein, an atoll in the Marshall Islands, landing on Roi-Namur in February 1944.
I came along 15 years after my older brother. All of our relationships with my mother and father have been shaped by context. My oldest brother’s, certainly, by the distraction and separation of the war. My middle brother was born in 1947, a time when people refocused on family in the peace following the war. He was also born with medical challenges that required multiple facial surgeries beginning when he was just a few months old. Next came my sister, who was diagnosed with leukemia when she was one year old, and succumbed three years later, despite the efforts of my hematologist-oncologist uncle Ed. My mother learned she was pregnant with my youngest brother when Midge’s last remission ended. Navy physicians advised her to abort the baby, as they feared it would be too traumatic for her to have a baby during a period of such psychological distress.
And I’m “the girl who lived,” born three years after my brother. My father only recently admitted that I was not planned.
My Dad says that he feels as if he has lived several lives: childhood-through-college, the war years, the period before Midge’s death, the period after, and the period after his forced retirement from the Marine Corps following his massive heart attack. He has also had several distinct “fatherhoods.” There is the father of the war, the father before Midge died, and the father after.
Although people will point to my Dad’s bronze medals as a symbol of his accomplishments, I think his greatest success was his evolution into a good father, a better father than the one who raised him. To put it bluntly, his father was a … well, he wasn’t a nice guy (I just edited what I was going to say, recognizing that grandchildren or great grandchildren may read this). He had most likely been abused before running away from home on a mean farm in Kentucky, later to bully my grandmother, and bully his sons. Neither of my Dad’s brothers escaped that legacy, but my Dad did.
Over the years, my Dad evolved, and softened. Fathers and daughters do have a different kind of relationship than fathers and sons, although my Dad raised me to be able to take are of myself and held me accountable, just as he did my brothers. In the years since my mother has died, I have become his female confidante even as I have become his caregiver.
But I’ll admit it: I probably saw the softer side of Dad more often than my brothers did. And today, my birthday, I am grateful for all of the events that converged to give me the time that I have with my Dad, now. And grateful for this morning’s phone call.