It’s taken me forever to see him as anything other than what I wanted him to be: proud, strong, and flawless.
It wasn’t until I reached my thirties that I saw him for what he is: tragic, profound, and lonely.
At age twelve, I was prone to mishaps – gnashing scrapes from climbing (and falling from) the large oak tree dividing our house and the Jones, broken bones from riding my bike too fast over a makeshift ramp, and hornet stings from nests I couldn’t resist poking.
So yes, all things I shouldn’t have been doing, but reveled in the fact I could. The “could” came from my mother being the sole disciplinarian. Her voice just never seemed threatening. That, on reflection, stemmed from the time she got pulled over for speeding and cried her way out of the ticket.
It was hard to see her as an authoritative figure after that.
My father worked midnights – long hours against the night, and sometimes into the late morning. He was determined to rack up as much overtime as he could, convinced he was saving up for a family vacation. He had this grand idea that we’d all go camping in the Wisconsin Dells, nothing but nature and family for a week.
As things were, because of his long hours, I barely saw him, and when I did, his eyes sagged, and his voice cracked from years of inhaling cabosil, a dusty white chemical that seemed to float home with him.
When I was six, I called it snow. I remember him coming home, covered in cabosil, and he’d shake wildly for me, showing off the powdery white substance, which would float in the air like snow. I would call him “Snowman” until I outgrew it.
As I got older, I saw less of “Snowman”.
The factory installed showers in the locker room, so he would come home as he left.
He would often look at me from his favorite chair, one I dare never sit in when he was home, and point to the RCA console TV we had just purchased.
“Change it to channel 3, son.”
Those words always made me feel proud, that my father would trust me to touch his beloved television. I never considered he was just too tired from working midnights to get up to change the channel himself.
I often remember those moments when I pick up my remote control and flip through the 155 channels I have now as an adult.
It’s easy to see him differently now. My mother left him. He worked those long hours for a vacation we never took, and his skin is drying from years in a chemical factory.
With his retirement impending, I took him out for breakfast on a return trip back to Central Illinois last year.
We sipped coffee, the sports section always split between us, and he put it down, his bifocals obscuring his eyes.
“I’m afraid I’ve failed you as a father.”
I wanted to tell him there’s respect in failure, to tell him he only failed me where I let him, and that he was the best father for a wayward son, who tried to subvert his authority at every turn, whether he was there or not.
Instead, the waitress gave me the chance to recalculate words never said by sliding two plates of biscuits and gravy with shredded cheese on top in front of us.
“Dad, no worries. You worked so much because you had too.”
And we left it at that, as we always leave it, and quickly moved on to debating whether Albert Pujols would re-sign with our beloved St. Louis Cardinals.