A tale of two dads

Even after all these years, it’s hard to talk about my dad. He died more than 40 years ago but I still haven’t “gotten over it.” Do you ever? And I find myself thinking about him in the runup to Father’s Day.

My father was tall, handsome, gentle and athletic—the favorite brother in a family of seven, favorite uncle among the cousins on his side of the family, or so many of them have told me. He had a wonderful singing voice and for a while did local amateur musical theater productions (he made a cute sailor in “South Pacific”). He could whistle double, something I’ve never heard anyone else do. When Dad whistled a tune, it sounded like two people whistling in harmony.

Dad had a keen sense of the absurd and he loved verbal shenanigans—puns and every other form of wordplay. “If you can mend a situation, mend it. If you can’t mend it, darn it,” was a favorite line. On a family road trip out West, we learned of a bird called a goshawk. Dad would point to the sky and say, “There’s a goshawk. Gosh, what a hawk!”

He taught my brother and me to skate, swim, ride bikes and drive a stick. And he took part in our pickup softball games even though his trick knee sometimes brought him down. In the end, leukemia was what brought him down, at the age of 52. We’ll never know if exposure to the chemicals of the industrial workplace—he was a quality control inspector in a factory—was the cause. It might just have been bad luck, as apparently is the case with most or many cancers.

I often wonder what my father would have been like as an old man. Would he have lost his hair? His marbles? My second dad, aka my father-in-law, kept the one (he had the impressive head of hair of a Hollywood-style Southern senator—think James Whitmore) but not the other.

If I never knew my dad as an old man, I didn’t know my husband’s father as a young one. I came into the family late—it was my second marriage—and he was already in his 70s. Then, Alzheimer’s came creeping inexorably in. My mother-in-law did her best to compensate for his deficits. When she died, they became frighteningly apparent.

He spent his final years in a VA nursing home across the river in New York state, and he was happy there. The nurses liked him and he enjoyed being fussed over by them. My husband visited faithfully every week and I went with him when I could. Although the two of them had butted heads repeatedly when they both were younger, the Alzheimer’s sandpapered my father-in-law’s rough edges and made it easier for them to relate. It was a weird but welcome gift from an otherwise remorseless disease.

My father-in-law passed away at the age of 90. I’ll be thinking of him as well as my father this Sunday. RIP, Dads.

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