Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine Heartache for a Father

I thought I would never get inside the library where I sit and write at the moment. There I was, stuck in the front seat of my car, sobbing like a child who didn't get enough Valentine candy.

For 15 or 20 minutes I kept trying to hold back the waves of grief, like a fool raising his hand with a presumption of pausing the tide or dimming the sun. But the waves were stronger than my resolve and they crashed and pounded my heart, with the same wild abandon they demonstrated the day after my Dad's funeral when I could not get out of bed.

Except that was going on four years ago. I'm supposed to be over this, right?

I didn't realize this was what was truly bothering me across the past 12 hours. Some other things had disappointed me. I was struggling to write the next chapter in my book. I was having a moment of being completely fed up with what our marketing culture says I'm supposed to feel about Valentine's Day. I left Wal Mart after an early-morning oil change and drove straight into a giant sinkhole of grief I never suspected was in my path.

Growing up,I don't think a boy realizes just how much his father means to him. Some fathers aren't there very much in terms of proximity or emotion, and some fathers would leave their children better off if they weren't there at all. My Dad was probably a mixture of all the good and the bad dynamics that go on in this roller coaster ride known as the parent-child relationship...but one thing was certain. He was the only male alive, past, present and almost certainly future, who loved me without condition.

Nearly four years since the summer day when he breathed his last, I'm left here with tears pouring down my cheeks in a public library. What a mess. I hope no one notices. There's some guy across the large atrium with his own laptop. Just ignore me, fella. I'm just a typical grown male who cries at libraries. Must be the exquisite beauty of all the books, all those volumes of passion and observation poured into print by other bleeding heart characters like myself.

Jesus emerged from the waters of baptism. A voice greeted him. You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.

I heard that message often from my Dad, especially as an adult. I hear it from my mother also, certainly.

But there's something about affirming words from your father, a quality that can never be replicated or replaced. When Kevin Costner's character played a game of catch with his youthful father near the end of Field of Dreams, his brokenness was healed with every smack of the ball into his glove. Joseph Campbell's "Journey of the Hero" meta myth includes atonement with the father as a key component. Our hearts long for male affirmation, and our fathers leave deposits of warmth or longing within us. Writer Frederick Buechner, who was just 10 when his father committed suicide, reflects that all of his books have in a sense been a search for his father.

It's very quiet up here on the second floor, just a few scattered whispers here and there. The rows of titles are as endless as the flickering images of moments with my Dad that pass through my memories. There he is, tossing a football with me. There he is, watching me type a novel. There he is, teaching me to drive, suggesting I not hit that telephone pole. There he is, reading my published newspaper articles. There he is at a park, my oldest daughter on his shoulders in his twilight years.

Beyond the shelves, through the large glass library windows, I see clusters of tall trees absent their leaves and waiting patiently for spring. Before long they will again bloom in color. For now, it is still winter.


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