Thursday, September 6, 2012

Like Father, Unlike Son

A cold front rolled in over Lake Washington as I left Renton in the early morning, making my ride back to San Diego a chilly and tense experience.

The tears running from my eyes could just as well have been from the cold morning air drafting through my raised visor, but there was more to it. I sensed I had just hugged my father goodbye for the last time.

Memories of him and I from decades ago, when I was just a little boy in adoration of his strength and wisdom, contrasted against the thin, tired body now ravaged from cancer and months of failed chemotherapy.  He seemed so frail, practically a shell of what he once was, I couldn't help but weep for what the cancer had done.

Having made my way into California, I lean into a curve on Highway 12, running from Sacramento to Jackson, past fruit stands, old barns, and 100 year old oak trees.  Emotions that had boiled over manage to simmer down as my focus shifts towards negotiating 40mph curves at 75mph.

It seemed I was drawn into riding faster as the wind rushed into my helmet and created a howl that somehow reflected my feeling exactly.  I just want to get Hell out of Washington, far from the roots my father had dug down into that land.

"I don't want him worrying about all this turmoil going on in the family", my step brother told me, trying to address the animosity brewing between family members. I knew what he was talking about, but took issue with whom was responsible for the turmoil.

The past 35 years my step-mother and father built new lives for themselves.  He raised his step-son as if he were his own son, and now had grandchildren.  I could see that son rushing to his defense when he addressed me about the turmoil, and it made me jealous that my father had such devoted family around him.  I could see he and I were still worlds apart, and would never get as close as we were when I was his only child.

I had simply come to make peace with my father, to heal old wounds, and show him that I'm still here, carrying his flesh and blood.

For years we never had a relationship, he never seemed interested in calling me or visiting me, and I had given up pursuing that old father-son bond we had when I was a kid.  Yet with his life nearing an end, I was encouraged to go see him, open up to him, and rekindle that old bond.

But having never grown up with him, nor with his new family, I found that my principles and perspectives didn't coalesce with his.  His wife and step-son saw me as a threat to the peace they had enjoyed for so long.

I realize I'm just a ghost of my father's past that he likes to entertain, something that gives him the same sort of pleasure as flipping through pages of an old photo album.  He didn't want to renew a relationship with me unless I was willing to sacrifice my principles and perspectives in exchange for assimilating into his family structure.

I told my step-brother that I wouldn't be back.

As Highway 120 winds further away from civilization, large, old growth oak trees take over the scenery, and shade me from the afternoon sun.

There's something solid and reliable with these trees that gives me comfort.  The fact that they have grown roots into this area, spread their acorns, and developed a loyal following of people who protect them from developers, humbles me.  I could easily slip past them as a ghost, with all of my insignificance and invisibility, admiring their  centuries old wisdom.  It's nice knowing that a tree will always be there, offering a hiding place to a soul with no foundation.

Many of us were born to put down roots, integrate into a community, and develop a support system.  But some of us were just meant to drift from one place to another, staying in one place long enough to rest and enjoy, but leave before trouble starts.

I still took some solace in knowing that I showed my father a reflection of himself living in an entirely different way, with an entirely different set of principles, suggesting that the chip off the old block could thrive and succeed in a different world.

Maybe I really am a ghost, and not necessarily a ghost of his past.


  1. Sorry about your fathers illness. Fathers always seem to have different expectations for their eldest male offspring. Sometimes I think it is a generational thing, but it is real. May you find peace in knowing you made an effort before it was to late.

    1. There could be some truth in that, he's very concerned that his family will fracture and fall apart upon his death. But he never made a serious effort into bringing me into his fold when he remarried, so I never became the son he wanted. I guess my visit to him was just to settle my own conscience before he dies.

  2. I can't imagine this was an easy post to write but thank you; it is both moving and thought provoking. (It's not many posts I reread multiple times.)
    Saying the last goodbye to a family member is never easy. No matter how much water has passed under the bridge, or how long ago, they are, and will always be, family. What's really important is that you got to say goodbye, and the rest will unfold as it will.

  3. Steve,

    Thanks for sharing your story. It reassures me to read. I went about 18 years without any communication from my father. But finally, about 12 years ago, we started talking again mostly through my half-sister who resulted from his second marriage.

    Like you, I'm not much for roots myself. I tend to move every 3 or 4 years, but for a time I was living in Northern California and my dad lives in central Oregon, so I started visiting him once a year.

    The only thing we really connected on was that we both road motorcycles. But that was enough to bring us back together. I left California a few months ago and now I live on the east coast. I don't know if I'll ever see him again.

    Thanks again for sharing your story.
    - G

  4. Sorry to hear about your dad, Steve. Your story really struck a chord with me. My dad has been fighting cancer for the last year, and I think his time is close. My relationship with my dad has always been strained, and has grown more so since the death of my mom a couple of years ago. To this day, I can't just pick up the phone and call him without a good reason; our conversations are always "polite" I visit him behind the crutch of my wife and his grandchildren--who he adores. Something about being the eldest son--we're always the experiment. I'd like to hear more about your dad.


  5. Give me a call sometime Larry and let's hook up, I'd be glad to tell you all about him.


About Steve

A vagabond who hauls a motorcycle around the country in a toy hauler, earning a living as a website developer. Can often be found where there's free Wi-Fi, craft beer, and/or public nudity. (Read more...)