2 DEAD DADSby Warren Gray
It was March 13, 1961, and I had just celebrated my thirteenth birthday. My father and I had something of an argument about the fact that I had too much homework to do and could not go to that night's Boy Scout meeting. Actually, you didn't really argue with my Dad, but he left angry with me. He was the scoutmaster, so he went alone.
Later that night, my mom received a telephone call to the effect that he was sick and had been brought to a small hospital on the west side of Houston. She took my sister and me to a neighbor's house; it was only three houses down the street, but I remember it as a long walk in the dark. The darkness was only just beginning. When she returned from the hospital, we learned that our father had died of a heart attack; her words were: "God wanted Daddy."
I remember the next couple of days sketchily. I remember staring at the bedroom walls, unable to sleep, unable to cry. I remember riding to Beaumont, Texas, with my grandfather and uncle, who came to get us early the next morning. I remember not wanting to have anything to do with the death; I did not go to the funeral home, except for the funeral itself. I didn't want to talk to anyone - not even my good friends from Houston. I didn't know what to say, and I was too young to understand that small talk is the mainstay of funerals
. In later years, my mom and others would always say that I felt guilty because our last words had been angry. I regretted that, but it is not what I felt guilty about. I felt guilty about my own emotions. I felt that I should be visibly grief-stricken, that I should be able to cry. I felt that I should feel badly, not for myself, but for my Dad.
Instead, what I was feeling was shock and fear, leavened with a bit of relief. The fear came from not knowing what the future held. Life had seemed very secure, and my Dad had made it so. Now he was gone. I had no idea what we would do without him. I was a frightened little boy, and I was ashamed of that. Several people, including my grandmother, told me that I was "the man of the family now." But I knew I was no man, that I could not take care of my mom and sister the way people seemed to expect, and that I had no idea whether or not I could take care of myself. The relief I felt produced the most guilt and is the most difficult thing to explain. My father had been a wonderful Dad, very actively involved with his children. Although he worked full-time and then put in overtime to enable us to afford any extras, he was very active in the church, in Boy Scouts, in encouraging me with my music, in encouraging us to be curious and to enjoy learning. He was an admirable man who took firm stands against racial and religious prejudice during the integration controversies of the time and the 1960 election. He was also very affectionate, and I remember well that it was not unusual for him and me to hug and kiss, even though I was 13 years old.
But he was the disciplinarian of our family. He set the rules, and he enforced them strictly. He drove himself hard, and he drove me hard as well. I could not think of quitting anything; actually, I thought of it, but was always afraid to bring it up. He was the one who made sure I practiced playing the accordion an hour per day. I had lost interest in the Boy Scouts a long time before, but I didn't know how to tell him I wanted to quit. I was afraid of his temper. He could spank really hard when he was angry.
To my Dad I owe the fact that I can still play the accordion in a way that gives pleasure to a lot of people who had no idea they would ever enjoy hearing the accordion. To him I owe the fact that I had the drive to make excellent grades in high school and college and to do reasonably well, by my own standards, in my work and career. But I resented him a lot at the time, and therein came the relief.
My Mom moved us to Beaumont, where we could rely on help, as well as constant love and attention, from my grandparents. I wanted to move; I did not want to talk to anyone about my Dad's death, and that would be easier in a new school. But I think I descended into my own personal hell. I made only one good friend over the next year, and that was a girl I "dated" for about six months, so that really didn't count. I spent a great deal of time alone in my room and cruising the streets on my bicycle. I invented my own country, made myself its leader - I even came up with my own language, which I used to talk to myself in privacy.
My mother re-married much too quickly for my taste. And Mike, the man she married, was a very different man from my father. As I came to formulate my own views on religion, race, and politics, I seemed to mirror my father's views and clash with Mike's. It was as if I was carrying on a legacy. I was never really openly rebellious, but we argued constantly, and I later realized that Mike relished every minute of it.
Though I was unhappy with the re-marriage, things began to turn around for me afterward. I changed schools again and began making new friends. Most important, I began retrieving some things I had put aside in the wake of my father's death. I had stopped playing the accordion, I had quit the Boy Scouts, and I had even let my schoolwork drop a bit. Although I never rejoined the Scouts, as I started coming out of my shell, I started reclaiming other parts of my Dad's heritage, such as my music and my studies. He was no longer there to force me; I was doing them on my own. But I'm convinced that he left voices inside me which prodded me into doing them. In time, Mike became a real step-father to me. He was a good man in his own way. He supported us financially and in every way he could. He was the only grandfather my son ever knew. He never tried to replace my father; he was just himself.
On May 17, 1976, thirteen years after he became my step-father, Mike died undergoing by- pass surgery. At the time, I concentrated on being strong for my mother, who had lost two husbands, and my sister, for whom Mike was more of a father than he could be to me. When they were not around, I allowed myself to cry, and I was able to cry. But it wasn't until recently that I realized that in my concern for my Mom, who had lost two husbands, I lost sight of the fact that I had lost two Dads.
I would have liked to have gone through adolescence with my father. I would have liked to have clashed with him the way fathers and sons are supposed to do, to have worked through the tension which both separated and joined us and emerged as an adult, able to love him as an adult, just as I did as a child. What I do have is his legacy--his intelligence, his talent, his persistence (some would call it stubbornness), his temper, his integrity, his sense of fairness, and his affection. I don't have all of his drive to over-achieve, which is probably why I am still alive and well at age 47. I miss him even now, after 34 years, yet I treasure what I retain of him. I hope I have found some ways of sharing him with my own children.
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