Early and Late
By Harry Willson
JULY 26, 1999: I'd like to report a conversation I had some years ago with my brother-in-law, Roger. We like each other and are able to talk to each other frankly. I had just returned 2,000 miles from the funeral of my father.
"Really?" Roger looked puzzled. "My father died a long, long time ago, and I don't remember any such feeling."
"How old were you?"
"Ah, and I'm 53," I said. "I guess it makes a difference."
"I was scared," Roger said, remembering. "Dad was 60, which seemed old then, but doesn't now. I was 11, like I said, the youngest of 12."
"The baby of a large family," I said. "What happened?"
"A one-vehicle wreck -- his pick-up truck just suddenly ran off the highway. Everybody figured it was a heart attack, since he was an excellent driver, but they never did an autopsy. It was sudden. Done in an instant. The whole village attended the funeral."
"I was scared. I felt abandoned."
"Even with all that family?"
"Yes. I felt like I was alone in the whole world."
"But you got over it."
"Well, sure. I grew up, somehow. It happens, you know. Got a job, got married, moved away, moved back, had children, the usual kind of life, I guess you could say."
"Somehow you managed, without your father ... "
"Sure. I had to. I quit thinking about it. Except for funny little leftovers. Like I can't stand a certain flower -- irises -- they always remind me of when Dad died."
I was quiet, thinking.
"So, what about your dad's dying?" Roger asked, finally.
"It's really strange -- the difference, I mean. My father lingered in a deathbed for many months, which turned into years. He required so much care that it literally killed my mother. Nothing quick and clean about it, like your dad's death. It seemed to take forever. My sister and I write back and forth, things like, 'When you get old, you turn into what you've really been all along,' meaning that the veneer of social interaction falls away, and the selfishness, the small-mindedness, the mean-heartedness, if that's what's really in there, are plainly displayed right out front."
Roger did not interrupt. I think he was trying to imagine what it would be like to be a grown man with a father. I continued.
"He was controlling, or trying to, until the very end. He attempted to extract death-bed promises, but I squelched them, not just for me, for my sisters, too. That infuriated him. He controlled our lives, for decades, exactly to the extent that any of us would let him. I had moved 2,000 miles away to minimize the daily contact and the psychological pressure. Distance does help, in spite of what some say. I finally grew up, with some difficulty, needing at some points what is called 'professional help.' And now, when he does at last die at the age of 89, it feels like relief -- liberation, even."
Roger said, "I'm seeing how similar, and how different, we all are. I never had that to put up with from my father. He was gone, out of the picture. No doubt I missed some training, some advice, some guidance, maybe. The advice could have been good or bad."
"But you also missed having to struggle and fight to become yourself," I said. "You could just grow into it, on your own, at whatever pace suited you."
"And meanwhile it sounds like you've been somehow asking permission for everything, or else disobeying, every time you turn around, all across the 2,000 miles."
"That's right, until now."
"But I felt abandoned, too soon, and I was angry at the world, and frightened," Roger said.
"And I felt hog-tied, trapped, attached, not trusted -- for too long."
We were both quiet, each trying to imagine the other's experience, each a little envious of the other, but not much really, each wondering how not to mess up the lives of our own grown children.
Roger voiced it: "I wonder what they'll say, someday, about us, and our dying?"
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