Monday, July 20, 2009

The Man I Never Knew

I occasionally post essays from my never-to-be-published book, Soul Songs, and I believe this is one of the best I have written. I was thinking about him yesterday and, when I shed a tear, either for him or for me, I thought it apropos to post it.


I called him Dad, and when I was little, Daddy. But those were names mandated by tradition rather than by love or affection. The Dickensian “Sir” would have been more suitable, an address that denotes respect without familiarity. My father, you see, was a total stranger to me, the man I never knew.

In 2004, he died in a warehouse for old World War II veterans. He died alone and angry and soul-sick, which was only fitting for a man who, for eighty-three years, lived alone and angry and soul-sick. The only comfort he ever found in life was not from people, not from his wife or his daughter or me, but from alcohol. Alcohol relieved the pain, but the reason for the pain is something no one will ever know.

His physical death was a blessing because, sometime back in his life, he died inside. He lived on the planet for nearly a century, but he was rarely present on it; he existed, but his participation was minimal. He was a taker but rarely a giver. He subsisted on secrets that both fed and haunted him, and only death could finally, and thankfully, exorcise them.

So I have not grieved for my father The Invisible Man, The Shadow, the man who never was, because he is much better off now. I have grieved for me, though, for the things he could have, and should have, given me as a Dad. Like encouragement when I had doubts. Comfort when I was scared and when I had physical and emotional pain. Companionship when I was lonely. Answers when I had questions. Direction, boundaries, and a swift kick when I needed direction, boundaries, and a swift kick. Most of all, he should have given me a role model and a hero, someone his little boy could emulate and worship.

If grieving for me seems selfish, it isn’t. My father is gone now, and I can neither bring him back nor change the past. Grieving is a process for the living, of forgiving the hurt and the disappointment and the regret, of going forward with the remainder of my time on earth.

The Commandment tells me I must honor my father and I believe I did that. For the past thirty-five years I was my father’s keeper, his caretaker and his worrier, although I was often derelict in my duties. But as angry and as frustrated as I often was, especially during the years of dementia and contrariness, I never abandoned him. Or dishonored him. Or forgot him.

And maybe, someday, I will be able to shed a tear for him, for the man I never knew.

Charles Joseph Callahan
1921 — 2004
May you finally rest in peace


PI said...

I hope he does rest in peace. If he was a war veteran, who knows what he had to cope with. It must have been very painful for you and I hope you can remember him without bitterness knowing you did what you could.

Wandering Coyote said...

Nice post, Charlie.

Yes, we have to grieve for the relationships we never had with the people who are closest to us. I still grieve the relationship I SHOULD have had with my mother, and I continue to grieve for the things I never got from her, and never will.

kara said...

i went to send this post to my father because i thought it was beautiful and that he'd be able to relate. and then i pasted the url into the email and went...DAMNIT. you crack me up man. i sent it anyway.

Kim Ayres said...

We spend our lives trying to live up to him, or kicking against him, or both. I've been determined from the start to always let my son know I love him.

Mary Witzl said...

This is lovely writing Charlie, but so heartbreaking. How do you manage to be funny and heartbreaking at the same time?

My father was from the same generation and, like your father, he also went through the War. He never talked about the War; he relived it in his nightmares. He was very distant too. I always wonder how different he might have been if he hadn't endured the War. Like you, I'll never know.

Lady_Amanda said...

To me it's sound like you need to write your Dad a letter. I know it sounds stupid. However, I had a very unhealhty relationship with my Grandma and she died so suddenly that I didn't have a chance to talk things out with her. So I brought it up in group therapy and they said to write her a letter. I don't know if you believe in an afterlife, but even if you don't I think it would help.
Thanks for sharing such a moving experience,

Stinkypaw said...

You were (and still are!) such a cutie! May he rest in peace and you were a good son, Junior. *hugs*

Robert the Skeptic said...

Kara passed on your post to me. I too had a father from the War Years. Those guys didn't have the benefit of all the information about parenting and relationships that we do today... perhaps even an overabundance of it today.

Dad was an officer in the Navy. He was stationed in Honolulu except for a stint on the "Enterprise". That's the extent of what I know about his war experience, He never talked about it, I only knew he hated it.... My Mom told me that when he received notice to report for the Korean War he tore it up and dared them to arrest him. Mom always wanted to vacation in Hawaii, but Dad would have nothing to do with it. They never went.

My buddy William's Dad lived and ended his life similar to your father's. He was a mean SOB who died in a nursing home. William once showed me a black and white photo of his dad holding a flame thrower with bodies of dead Japanese soldiers all around him.

They told those guys to go home and just forget about it. Like your father, only death gave them any merciful release.

I try to live my life being the father my father wasn't. I still cry for him sometimes.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

That was a beautifully honest and aware post, Charlie, and really speaks to those of us who had a less than ideal relationship with their own fathers.

You're a good man.

Charlie said...


Thank you everyone for your truly heartfelt comments: I was both surprised and overwhelmed.

A special thank you, Pat, for your first comment here, and to Robert for taking the time to respond to a total stranger (although a fellow human).

For the record, I think I have grieved for my father and I hold no animosity toward him. If anything, I feel sorry for the lousy life he didn't live.

Meg said...

That was really touching. Too bad he didn't know how you felt.

Patrick said...

I got here through Peter (kyusireader) and I just wanted to say I like your post and I am very touched by it.

My father is not a war veteran but his job also requires him to be away from home for long periods of time. I'm also not in a very good relationship with him right now. Your post made me realize how more grateful and understanding I should be of my father. Just imagining how I'd feel when he's truly gone makes me feel really sad and regretful already. So thanks for the very inspiring article.

Charlie said...

MEG: Thank you, M., for your comment.

PATRICK: It would be wonderful if, because of this essay, you are able to work on your relationship with your father. We never know when we are going to lose a parent (I lost my mom when I was 18), and then it's too late to patch things up.

Thank you for visiting and leaving your great comment.