As I climbed in the car this morning the song In My Life sung by John Lennon of the Beatles was playing on the radio. I’ve sung and played that song many times on guitar, and know the lyrics well. But never have they sounded so prescient as today.
There are places I’ll remember All my life though some have changed Some forever not for better Some have gone and some remain All these places have their moments With lovers and friends I still can recall Some are dead and some are living In my life I’ve loved them all
Yesterday my father died at 3:00 in the afternoon. The call came from the hospital, a kindly doctor trying to ease me into the knowledge that my father had passed away. He was beginning to go through the medical aspects of how my father had been cared for during the week, but I already knew the details. So I stopped the doctor and told him, “Your entire staff was wonderful. You gave my father an extra week or so to live, and all his sons got to come and be with him.”
In fact, my youngest brother had just visited that morning. He was in town by chance for a collegiate volleyball tournament with his daughter. He was quite close with my dad in many ways, perhaps the main son in the family that has dispensed wth any felt difficulties over time, and it was appropriate that he was the last son to visit.
But of all these friends and lovers There is no one compares with you And these memories lose their meaning When I think of love as something new Though I know I’ll never lose affection For people and things that went before I know I’ll often stop and think about them In my life I love you more
My father was a passionately curious and often insistent man, willing to challenge our perceptions on any front. I recall the evening I stated that I’d seen some ducks on the river ice that day. “They were huddled together for warmth,” I said casually.
“How do you know they’re huddled for warmth?” my father asked.
To which I responded with some sort of angry retort. But that was my father. He wanted us to know the world did not accept everything we assumed we knew.
That was a lesson to be learned over and again. But the need to understand his thinking became a quality fo life issue when he had a stroke in 2002. That was when I first began assuming responsibility for his care. At first, it was my job to support my mother in her decisions about how dad should live. He moved through several care facilities with good and bad experiences before finally returning home with a live-in caregiver in 2004.
Then my mother passed away in 2005, and the direct opportunity to care for my dad presented itself. At first it was enormously difficult, because my father lost his ability to speak with his stroke. There were still seizures, and his body was compromised with loss of function on the right side. He could grow angry and frustrated at times, and my caregiving skills were put to the test in those circumstances.
All those changes and challenges are compounded when there are emotional patterns at work. The father-son relationship we had was transformed over the years as a result of the need to work together. I became adept at asking questions in sequential fashion to ascertain what he was thinking. This was an ironic rehearsal and reversal of the challenges he had long put to us growing up. All those probing questions were his teaching style, but too often we took that as an exasperation
But as we worked together our relationship softened somewhat. The same thing ultimately happened for my brothers as well. So while we’ve ostensibly lost our father to this life, in many respects we also found him again.
Though I know I’ll never lose affection For people and things that went before I know I’ll often stop and think about them In my life I love you more In my life I love you more
Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8“Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”9And He was saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” –Mark 4:8
The inner dialogue of a person engaged in weeding a garden can go in a number of directions. There is the associative focus of separating good plants from bad, and yanking the weeds by the roots. There is also the dissociative tendency to let your mind wander and weigh your life along with everything in it.
A little of both is likely required to do a good job weeding. One must pay attention to identify weeds amongst the plants we choose for ornament and beauty. But sometimes weeds are so thick it does not take much thought to do the job. You stick your hands in there and yank for all you’re worth. Little thought is required, only muscle.
Over the years, one learns the best way to weed through practice. There is no other substitute for experience. One learns which plants are easy to pull up by the roots and which break off in your hands four to six inches from the soil. That makes for bigger problems. A trowel needs to come into play. There is not enough leverage left on the slimy stem of the weed to get a grip and yank up the roots.
Otherwise the weeds come back. Well, they come back no matter the method of removal. They’re weeds. That’s what they do. There’s always a supply of new weeds to fill in for the old ones.
One learns this lesson in your own yard and garden easy enough. Weeding is a required activity if you attempt to grow anything at all.
Of course, weeds are also at times a matter of perspective. Gardeners grow some varieties of plants that can escape and propagate places where they are not welcome. Purple loosestrife is one such beautiful pest. In a garden they are quite beautiful. But unleashed in a wetland they can take over an entire ecosystem. At that point, they must be yanked or otherwise killed off.
There are entire woodlands that need to be managed for the influx of plant colonies such as garlic mustard and buckthorn. Natural area restoration crews descend on these colonies and yank, burn and poison them to death. But the weeds almost always come back. It’s what they do.
That makes it all the more triumphant when the results of weeding actually do work. Perhaps there is no more profound example than that of a managed prairie. It can take years of propagation and burning to kill off the weed colonies and invasive species. But when prairie plants are given a chance, their competition strategies are smart and strong. The roots grow deep and the soul of the plant lies below the surface. That means burning takes off the dried up stems but does not affect the rich underground root system that also taps deep into the soil to gain moisture. Hot summer days do not kill these plants.
So nature invented weeding, on its own. But humans love to create environments with the appearance of natural balance that are, in fact, a stripped down version of nature that can be hard to sustain. Golf courses are one such example, and for years their strategy was to bathe the fairways and greens in dangerous chemicals as weed control. The monoculture necessary to allow the game of golf to be played requires intensive weed strategies that for decades contributed to ground pollution and other problems.
Our lawns at home often depend on such chemicals. Some are relatively benign and go away quickly. Others persist, and it would be much better for the world if these strategies were weeded out of our eco-strategies.
One of my neighbors does not believe in lawn chemicals. That meant her yard become overgrown several summers in a row. She could not tell the weeds from her plantings. Finally I offered to help weed her lawn. She is a good Christian woman and had been praying about what to do for her lawn. Money was tight for her at the time and a full-on landscaping company was out of the question.
So I offered to weed. My late wife was glad that I did this. The Creeping Charlie from her yard had grown all the way through her lawn to reach the edge of our garden. When I dug into the mats of Creeping Charlie it could be hauled up like sheets of laundry. That work revealed an entire system of hostas and small groundcover plants that thrived once the weeds were removed. There were giant, towering thistles as well, and old, dried-up cedar trees in need of removal.
The process took several days, and my wife grew impatient with my dedication to the task. I quietly told her it was a duty that somehow called me. Nothing else. There was no husband or helper available to our neighbor at the time. So I lent my services in that department. I knew how to weed.
Since that time a man has come into her life, and a bit of money too. First he tore into the landscaping and removed many of the weeds, mulched the gardens and tore up funky trees. Then a landscape service began to show up and a beautiful new fence was installed. I love her new fence. It’s a wonderful backdrop for my own garden.
The property of life
Recently a family I know also needed some weeding around their yard. The husband has been dealing with the progressive effects of ALS for years now. His devoted wife keeps up with everything the best she can, but the duties and commitments of things like yard upkeep are not possible, yet are relentless. The family now also has grandchildren to enjoy. This is the property of life, which is so often counterbalanced by the weeds of existence. It takes a strategy of caregiving to manage these priorities.
So it was with some joy that we organized a small community of workers from our church to do some weeding around their yard. The resultant piles of thick weeds piled five feet high. Along the north side of their property the landscaping was obscured by groundcover gone out of control. In fact some of it had died for lack of light. The daylilies competed with thistles and mulberry trees shot up through the arms of the spruce trees. All the weeds and overgrowth had to be inspected, sorted and removed. The tall mulberries were sawed up and heaped on the curb. The weeds were stubborn and thick, but the loose mulch gave up the roots easily enough. It was hot, and it was thirsty work. But it was worth it.
All the time I was out weeding I thought of my friend Steve inside the house. This was his garden, and his love. It exhibited his character. I could see the organization of the plants and the landscaping at every turn. His wife told me how much he loved to garden. There were beautiful plants; butterfly weed (how ironic?) and many more.
As the shape of the garden emerged again I thought of how Steve and I first met. Our children were in high school music and drama together and something between us clicked after we met. He’d join me for lunch over at the Country House restaurant where they served nice fat burgers and cold beer. There were several meetings where he talked me through issues of depression related to some of life’s changes and work issues. Then my wife had cancer and Steve was there for that too.
Meanwhile his own health issues began to emerge. It became difficult for him to open the huge wooden door at Country House. There was a growing weakness in his system that could not be identified. It progressed and was finally diagnosed as ALS.
He has never let it stop him from living life, thinking through his writing and enjoying the company of all those who love him and his family. And there are many.
Steve and I helped each other weed through those depressive instincts years ago. We weeded out the negative thoughts to make room for positivity and hope to grow. That is a garden worth tending every day. Every year. Every life.
The morning that my son Evan was born was both a great joy and a tremendous relief. My wife had gone through fifteen hours of labor contractions every three minutes. He came into this world around 7:00 a.m. on October 30, 1986.
The thrill of having your first child is complemented by the arrival of the second. Our daughter Emily arrived around 9:00 p.m. on a warm April 26, 1990. That delivery rushed along so fast that we needed to call friends and family to watch our son when we rushed off to the hospital on the heels of a spicy Mexican meal a few hours earlier.
The pain and humor of fatherhood is never-ending. Your children grow up so fast that it is the small moments you accumulate in your mind that constitute being a father or mother.
I remember one late afternoon when the sun was falling through the front window of our tiny Geneva home. My daughter was crawling around on the bare floor chewing on a flexible teething ring. The sun was bouncing off the floor and struck her blue eyes. I raced for my film camera and snapped off a few photos before the sun went down. Later when I showed those photos to a friend she quietly murmured. “Her eyes look like cracked glass.”
I also recall the first word of my son. He was sitting on the back porch with my wife who often held him in her lap and pointed to flowers and other natural items around the yard. A small sparrow landed beneath their feet and my wife said to Evan, “Bird.” And he repeated the word, “Bird.” He was six months old.
In fact word games became a big part of all our lives. On our way home from grandma’s house one December, we drove through Geneva where the Christmas lights were blazing and Evan had a question for us both. “What’s the word, ‘wreath?”
He was always asking questions about language. We laughed years later when he admitted that he never knew what we were talking about when referring to Forced Preserves. That would be ‘forest preserves.” As Emily Latella might say, “Never mind.”
With Emily it was always the purpose of language and song that mattered. We have a wonderful video of her in a pink ballerina dress practicing a Disney song. If the words did not come out just right she would stop and huff in frustration. Then she’d begin again. But you dared not interrupt her either. This was her challenge to complete and she did not want help recalling or repeating the words. That was her job, and hers alone.
It is true that the character of your children emerges early and lives in their core their whole lives. Through creative means we learn how they think and believe and play. But it is through their character that we really know them.
Sometimes as a father of adult children I want desperately to know what they are really thinking. It is of course easy to dwell on our personal failings as a parent. When a child calls and the phone call ends, you wonder to yourself, “Did I give them what they need? Was I enthusiastic to their purpose? Am I being a good father to them?”
Those questions surface more frequently in absence of the mother that raised them. I know they miss their mother because she was superb at saying the right things when they called. I listened to hundreds of conversations over the years. Her attention to their needs was superb.
But these questions exist whether someone is alive or gone to another place. All it takes is a missed phone call in this life to get behind in our relationships. While modern technology is great, and we see each other on Facebook and catch up by phone when we can, there is a strange back-pressure that comes from so much attenuation to communication. If you’re not careful, the pressures of communication can become an undertow. That’s true for all of us, and with everyone.
It’s important as a father to remember that your family needs their own space as well. So much of my own children’s upbringing was done by other adults and friends in life that I cannot claim all the facets of their character as my own. Those summers that my son spent over at a friend’s house building forts and beating each other up with floats in a tiny pool were critical in the formation of his personality. A father simply cannot provide all that input. That friendship. That love. It has to come from other sources too. The same goes for my daughter and those concert trips with her friends. It’s not the same if your father’s standing around at a concert. That has to be experienced on your own, and with your own community.
I do know that many parents struggle to know their full roles. When I encouraged my daughter as a teenager to invite the bands she’d met at concerts to crash at our house overnight during a tour, it was not always with permission of my wife.
Yet I knew the importance and resonance of that connection because where else in the world would you encounter such amazing people in a close circumstance?
The morning she woke up to find a fantastic group of musicians sitting around her bedroom singing and playing guitar could never be replicated again. Later she leveraged her musical connections to recruit the group Goldhouse to play at her graduation party. The band was about to embark on a concert series called Warped Tour. Their set was polished and when the first notes of the first song rocked through our oversized basement with 60+ people crammed into that space, people shrieked in amazement. My son turned to me in wonder and joy, shouting, “Ohhhh Myyyy Godddddd!” It was fantastic. And it was ours to share with our friends and the world.
It is our job as parents and especially fathers to support our families any way we can. Yet it was the morning after a long drive down to Illinois State University that made me realize the ultimate role of a father. We had left late the night before because my son was involved in a school play. Leaving at 10 p.m., we made it to the Interstate just as a deep fog settled over central Illinois. As the fog thickened, my son nodded off in the seat beside me. I focused on the tail light ahead of me for a couple hours until we pulled into the hotel parking lot. I turned to him and asked, “Were you at all nervous about the fog?”
“I decided to go to sleep,” he said matter-of-factly. “I figured if I woke up dead it didn’t matter.”
We chuckled about that and piled into the hotel to catch a few hours of sleep. He was excited to rise early and join his friends for the student state government convention he’d been invited to attend. We exchanged quick greetings and a partial hug. Then he walked confidently down the hall without turning back. I watched him go and realized that I’d helped raise a reasonably confident son. That made me proud. Yet is also made me feel alone. That’s fatherhood in a nutshell.
It hasn’t been easy for our family in a number of ways over the years. Yet my children have told me that they appreciated the stability and love found in our home. As parents perhaps we were sometimes a little too lenient in making them do chores. Yet our children were involved in positive things that occupied their time. There was plenty of time in life to learn chores it seemed. Many times they’d come home to tell of us some onerous task they’d just done for someone else’s parents. We’d laugh and confess, “Well, at least they’re learning responsibility somewhere.”
In the wake of my wife’s death I elected to begin dating and have been in a relationship now for two years with a woman named Sue that appreciates the legacy of my wife and respects my children. I try to do the same for her. Now her daughter is an intern with the magazine where my daughter is managing editor. We are an evolving family. Our lives have converged and convened in positive ways. We spend time together with my mother-in-law and other relatives. My wife’s best friend confided to me last year that my wife said she knew that I would date after she was gone. I thanked that friend for sharing that insight. This is not about forgetting my late wife. It is about companionship and love and supporting each other and our families.
It troubles me sometimes that so many people fail to grasp the value of loving relationships wherever they occur. This obsessive absorption with the idea of a “traditional family” is so lame and disaffecting it should be trampled underfoot by the crowd of people truly seeking love in this world. Aren’t we all sick and tired of the loss of love in this world? Can’t we dispense with the angry ideology that emanates from this selective reading of the Bible and its ugly byproducts.
After all, it was the literalistic approach to scripture that was used to justify slavery for years, and racial discrimination for the century after that. Long ago it generated crusades over faith and then helped lead to the death of millions of Jews through anti-Semitism. The rigid practice of patriarchal faith still foments a disturbingly immature view of women as property. Biblical literalism fuels an ignorant brand of politics that denies science and the educational process that goes with it. In the face of so much ignorant history why do we still even listen to people whining about “traditional marriage” based on a religious view that is clearly anachronistic and damaging to society?
Parenting skills and simple tools
Into this social void we wade… while wondering what the next generation will bring. Some people seem to worry that this generation of children is irresponsible and somehow lacking in important social skills. As a father that has met dozens of my children’s Millennial friends, I do not share that worry. I know their character because they helped raise my own children. I see great hope in a generation that cares not what race a person is. I see love in the fact that they don’t care if someone is gay or not. I (somewhat radically it appears) think this generation of so-called Millennials has an etiquette and a respect for self and others that older generations are simply failing to grasp.
For example, I know now to occasionally text my son or daughter if I’m going to call them. Why? Because it’s not always appropriate to answer you cell phone, but you can handle a quiet text to call later. If they’re occupied I don’t get voice mail. And quite often they’re occupied with other tasks and cannot take a call. There’s no imposition there.
That might seem like an affront to some. But as a father I look at it from a completely different perspective. I respect my children as well as love them. It simply makes sense to try to understand their social constructs and not impose mine on them. As a society we seem to have migrated toward this world where holding people at a disadvantage is considered something of a power chip and a point of pride. But it’s the wrong kind of pride. Barking about how millennials are poorly trained and communicate differently is not a sign of maturity. It is a sign of emotional immaturity and selfishness.
The right kind of pride is taking the time to examine why people react the way they do to the demands of social pressure, communications and opportunity. I think Millennials have evolved a patent way to accord each other respect. It’s the blunderbuss of a generation that complains about entitlement and then acts like they’re entitled to have everyone do things their way or the Old-Fashioned Way that is hopelessly out of touch. But that’s no surprise in a society where Winner-Take-All is now the social style of both politicians and the religious. It’s no wonder Millennials are running from politics and the church. Would you stick around to listen if people were sending their message in ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME?
Father’s Day lessons
It seems the real lesson we need to learn on something so familiar as Father’s Day is this: parenting is not a one-way street. It’s a partnership and a revelation as well as a responsibility.
The ultimate vision of a Father is that of God. And if we’re wise we also recognize that God doesn’t just want obedience and contrition from the human race. There’s a relationship there as well. God the Father, if that’s how you prefer to visualize the ultimate form of love, is basically wondering how we’re doing. He wants to know. Sometimes it’s the smallest moments and the smallest things that matter. If you cease paying attention and miss those, then life is not so abundant as you might like.
And that’s the real message of Father’s Day.
Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, Character, Caregiving and Community, which chronicles the journey of his family through cancer survivorship. It is available on Amazon.com.