Fathers & Sons
A contemporary slice of
by Don Gazzard
The old man had a problem hearing his son well on the telephone. And when they did speak they rarely got past the workload of his hand-to-mouth business and how his grandsons were getting on in their last years at school. Invariably his son found an excuse to break off the conversation saying he'd ring back soon so they could have a long chat, but they never did.
He kept asking himself what did he expect? Indeed, what could he expect from his son who had lived at the other end of the country for the last thirty years? He reflected on the lack of contact he'd had with his own authoritarian father during those last years when he was dying of cancer. Even writing the word 'father' made him realise that he'd never thought of his father as 'dad' and had never called him by his given name the way his children did with him; his father had been a different generation!
He'd been on holiday in Italy when his own father had died and hadn't come back for the funeral. Whatever his father had been, he'd always regretted that, not coming back. But he remembered writing to his mother every week while he was working overseas; long distance calls were too expensive fifty years ago and email and skype didn't even exist then.
He'd found the pale blue aerogramme letters, all six years of them, tied up in bundles when he cleaned out her house after she died. He'd been embarrassed to realise how much they must have meant to her, and what a chore he'd found them every Sunday night. His behaviour hadn't been that much different from his son's after all.
The old man remembered with pleasure how his mother had blossomed after his father had died, and how she'd adopted an Italian family who called her Nonna or grandmother! It was only after his father died and she'd moved to be closer to her grandchildren that he really got to know her. Most days he called in after work and they usually had a polite sherry but she wasn't much of a drinker. She wasn't much interested in politics either but she was a reader so they mostly talked about books or the family.
The day before she died he had wheeled her around the garden of the hospice, and as he was leaving she'd said to him, 'I was never the person I might have been'. It was the saddest thing he'd ever heard, it's almost thirty years ago now and still upsets him when he thinks of it. How little we really get to know what other people are thinking!
He wasn't a sentimental person but had recently found a photo of her taken a few years before she died, and had taped it on his computer; he might have failed his difficult father but not his mum!
As he got older and had to deal with his own life problems, the old man had developed real compassion for his own father now long gone more than forty years. It couldn't have been easy bringing up a young family in the Depression, and he regretted not trying to get to know him better; alas, it's too late now!
He reflected on the biblical distinction between the wise son and the wicked son. What does this mean to me, asks the wicked son; what does this mean to us, asks the wise son. The grammatical change between first and second person makes all the difference, and he could see clearly that his own history was in danger of being repeated with his son. And what's more alarming, he was almost ready to simply accept in the time he had left that this was the way it was.
The old man was managing well enough for eighty-five. He walked every morning after breakfast and did a few simple exercises but was conscious of being a bit lazy about his heath. He'd had treatment for prostate cancer and other running repairs over the years and found that he didn't have as much energy any more.
One of his three remaining teeth had broken off recently and couldn't be repaired. The tooth in question had helped hold the lower plate in his mouth so now he couldn't chew as well and found himself leaving the hard bits on his plate and cutting the crusts off toast; all little indications of his inevitable physical decline.
The old man stared his past, his loneliness and his regrets in
the face; what had happened had happened and no good would come of
dwelling on the past.
He accepted his physical decline with as good a grace as possible and couldn't get excited about many things that had once seemed so important to him. Increasingly he felt resigned that nothing much mattered, that in the long run we're all dead.
On the other hand Dylan Thomas's oft quoted exhortation not to go quietly into that dark night also resonated with him; there was still a lot of fight left in him! The older he became the less he thought he really understood much about anything at all, but he still had a strong sense of social justice and wrote about the issues closest to him in his blog.
On his morning walk the old man picked up litter along his route to the Bay. It probably made him look like a mad old nutter but he didn't care what people thought. His wife didn't wait for him and walked on ahead, she wasn't embarrassed just impatient that he slowed her down. Over a six months period there was far less litter than previously and he wondered if his actions had helped? As JFK said, 'Ask not etc', it seemed such a simple thing to do, and was good bending exercise too!
And he was wryly amused when his wife's five year old grand daughter, explaining who he was to a little friend, said, 'He picks up rubbish!'
It seemed as good a summation of his life as any.