My Dad passed away 34 years ago, one month after our son, Sean — his first grandson — was born. I remember my Mom’s early morning phone call breaking the news. I cried for a short while, then ... nothing. No sadness. No anger. No regret. No loss. Nothing. And I was OK with that, because how can you truly shed tears for someone you didn’t really know?
My father, John Wesley Dalby (Wes to his friends) was a handsome and big man with a gorgeous speaking voice that he could amplify effectively on demand. Unlike many fathers in those days, Dad was not a violent man. I don’t believe he ever laid an angry hand on me. The point being that, while Dad was a physically imposing figure, he did not register emotionally with me in any meaningful sense. How he saw me, what he hoped for me, what he hoped for himself or the rest of the family, remain to this day completely opaque. And that haunts me.
Sadly, fathers are not given a “how to” manual when the first kids arrive. Neither is the poor, first time mother, for that matter. But between sons and dads, there is an unwritten expectation that the father will pass along to his son the rules, the do’s and don’ts, the social cues for how to be a man. Unfortunately, my dad did not get that memo. During our years together under the same roof, he certainly gave me the opportunity to watch him engage with life, but never, not once, do I recall him sharing his reasoning with me, nor did he ever ask me what I was thinking. And without that guidance, from a very early age, I found myself making up rules for male behavior that did not always serve me well. It would literally take the birth of our first child, a son, to force me not only to examine the efficacy of my improvised code of male ethics, but also to wonder if I could do a better job with my own boy.
My Dad died of a slow progressing cancer in 1987, and my mother asked me to do the eulogy for his funeral service. I remember trying to prepare a speech that would do my father justice while, simultaneously, comforting our family and friends. But how do you speak glowingly of someone you never knew that well? Scribbling on a note pad in my basement, I literally cried out in frustration when I could find no sincere, happy-ending sentiment for the man. “The one true sentence” that Hemingway urged writers to seek eluded my pen. Then, like clouds parting, I saw the way forward and stopped trying to write a crowd pleasing ode to my father, and instead began his eulogy with the words, “I was angry with my father when he died.”
That one true sentence unshackled me. The eulogy I gave that day was raw, angry, grateful, confused and honest. I shared with the mourners my sadness and frustration over never really knowing my father. But I also attempted to put myself in Dad’s shoes, seeing our family and the world through his eyes. At that moment, for the one and only time in my life, I felt a real connection to my father. And to my eternal surprise, it worked. I was standing off by myself in a church corridor after the service, hoping to avoid what I thought was coming next: a line of angry and bewildered attendees who wanted to know why I had besmirched my father’s memory. Instead, friends and family sought me out to say how much Dad’s eulogy meant to them, and to share with me their own deeply conflicted relationships with their fathers. Most meaningful, however, was one of the final comments from a close friend of Dad’s, who told me, “You did a good job. You got your dad perfectly.”
As Father’s Day is once again upon us, I find myself wanting to say how much better I understand my dad now than I did then. However, Wes Dalby remains a mystery. Life rarely allows us to tie up complicated stories in a neat bow, but that’s OK. Along with my wife, I take comfort and feel joy in the fine human beings our two children have become. How well they know us is something you’d have to ask them. But I do take some consolation in the knowledge that I kept a promise I made to myself and to our children: You may not always like what you learn about me, but I will make myself known to you.
John Dalby (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Northern Virginia, where, as a freshly retired advertising exec, he reads, writes, lectures and ponders what to do with all this free time.