A tale of two fathers, both tough nuts to crack, that serves as a reminder to appreciate (and love) others for who they are, not who you want them to be…
by: Chris Parent
In 2004, I finally decided to undergo a corneal transplant that I had long put off. I suffered from a genetic condition called keratoconus and my right eye had deteriorated enough that my ophthalmologist decided the time had come to replace the cornea. After checking in, I was greeted by a wiry male nurse with thin black hair and glasses perched on a narrow contemplative face with a red mustache. His line of questioning was memorable only in that at the time my wife was acting far more animated than the situation called for. Melissa noticed something I had missed, mostly because I was about to have a cornea removed from one of my eyes and a new one sewn on.
“That’s the perfect combination,” she observed after the nurse left. “That nurse is the perfect merger of our dads. His mustache and hair are your dad’s. His body and face are mine. That’s unbelievable,” she claimed while laughing at her discovery.
I found the situation far less comical, even when the nurse walked into my room and greeted me before assisting the anesthesiologist in putting me under his spell. My last thought before blacking out was, “Holy Shit. Melissa’s right. He is the perfect combination.”
My father shared few similarities with my father-in-law Tom, although their lives had many parallels. Both endured tough upbringings and grew up in big families. Each set himself apart by achieving professional success, Tom as an engineer and my father as a Wall Street trader. The backdrop of Tom’s impoverished youth was space and nature. He was raised on the plains of rural Wall, South Dakota. From the age of two to seven, his family lived in a rectory while their financial situation steadied. His father died when he was twelve. He overcame these setbacks by becoming a strong student who excelled in athletics despite his small frame, later earning an engineering degree from South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.
My father was reared in the compact and chaotic New York suburb of Yonkers. He was the youngest of seven children and was influenced more in childhood by his loving sisters than his mother and absent father. Stories of his youth were contradictory, presenting an awkward child who was sensitive but who fought early and often to obtain or defend what he thought was rightfully his. Unlike Tom, my father’s career did not allow him to pontificate cerebrally over intellectual problems. He was high-strung from being forced to make split-second judgment calls in the cutthroat world of Wall Street. He thrived on pressure and conflict whereas Tom relied on diplomacy and contemplation to make a living.
I first observed Tom in a photograph that was the centerpiece of my wife’s law school apartment. The picture depicted a relaxed Midwesterner in a conservative button-down shirt and thin parted hair. The image evoked an aura that was much bigger than the modest frame in which it was contained, and Tom’s gaze was less judgmental than it was omnipresent.
I was confident Tom would like me when we finally met. I had always been skilled at impressing people older than me, especially the parents of my friends or dates. It wasn’t that I was more mature than my peers, I just had a knack for citing lofty ambitions that the parents knew were admirable even if out-of-reach.
Finally meeting Tom brought the stark realization that it was not going to be an easy journey to earn his respect, and certainly not his his affection. Throughout my courtship of Melissa there was always an underlying distance between Tom and me. To Melissa and her sisters, Tom was less a father than a hero, one whose word was to be taken for Gospel. At the outset of our marriage Melissa often looked to Tom for direction and I was frustrated that I wasn’t her consigliere for all critical matters, especially those of the heart. I sometimes expressed disappointment in Melissa that she, who had graduated near the top of our law school class, would defer to anyone, even the first man she ever loved. Tom and I were like two boxers in the early rounds of a fight neither really wanted to be in because the ultimate prize was one neither wanted to acknowledge: control.
This underlying tension intensified after Melissa announced that we were getting married. Tom’s wedding toast was received with two different reactions depending on whose side you were on. Tom talked about how he was not losing a daughter but gaining a son. Melissa deemed the invitation a beautiful gesture. I looked at it differently, noting that joining a new family was not a benefit of the bargain I had negotiated while courting Melissa. I was not against my in-laws. I enjoyed their company and admired how tight they were. I was just eager to start my own family and build my own legacy, not one tied to roots with which I had little in common. I did not sign up to be a limb in a family tree with Tom and Melissa’s successful maternal grandparents, former Nebraska ranchers, at the top of the food chain. I wanted to carve my own path. That perception was forged by the fact I still felt like an intruder around the holidays. Melissa’s family consumed every one of their destinations. It was hard for me to assimilate in a family so tight and so firmly under the helm of her parents. I made those feelings known to Melissa. I should have let time run its course. It gnawed at Melissa and yet there was nothing she could do about it.
Tom paid for everything and that made me self-conscious. Melissa and I had more debts than assets, but I was building a legal career.
“Here you go,” Tom would say as he handed me a fifty-dollar bill after I walked in with a dozen donuts from Safeway, a purchase that had set me back around ten dollars.
“No that’s OK,” I’d reply. “It was a five-minute ride And they’re practically giving the donuts away.”
I set it aside, but Tom insisted. “For the gas,” he’d push back.
The tug-of-war would linger until I acquiesced after Melissa offered hand gestures to me like a baseball coach signaling a hitter to take the money.
“He’s just looking out for us,” she’d say later.
“It’s embarrassing and I’m trying to pay my share,” I’d reply.
The challenges I faced in securing Tom’s affection paled in comparison to the hill Melissa had to climb. My father was equally difficult in finding connection points. He had a good sense of humor, but he was rarely at ease. I tapped into my father’s better side when I was in high school and we drove across the United States and into Canada to drop off a car he had purchased for my brother, who was attending college in Colorado. The prospect of spending a week in the car with him was terrifying. My father’s aggressive driving style was legendary among my friends. He was the personification of road rage and if there were mobile phones at the time, he would have had his own YouTube channel.
Once, while driving on the Merritt Parkway to a dinner in Greenwich, a car with three young men were boxing my father in and preventing him from passing. They were looking back and laughing at him. My mother did nothing to diffuse the situation, instead infuriating my father more by calling the kids a “bunch of assholes.” After continuing the trap and putting our car and others in jeopardy as my father came within inches of ramming them, the kids peeled off into one of the parkway’s gas stations, to escape the madman behind them. My father adroitly maneuvered the car and parked behind them. My mother and I remained in our vehicle while my father exited. We heard a rant that juxtaposed insults, threats, and swears in curious yet spectacular ways: “Orifice…shit down your throats…Vietnam…rip your eyeballs out…Vietnam…punch you in the Goddamned mouth if you keep smiling.”
By the time I heard Vietnam a third time I got out and approached the car to reign in my father. I tugged at him in the hope of closing out the encounter and saw three frightened young men, each of whom seemed precariously close to defecating himself.
Our father-son road trip in the summer of 1988 through the more serene parts of the United States brought a calm to him, especially in and around Mount Rushmore and the Badlands of South Dakota, which he cited as among the most beautiful places in the world.
“Would you look at this place?” he would say repeatedly as our small red sedan sped through the same backroads that Tom had navigated throughout his youth, and which foreshadowed a time when our families would ultimately cross paths.
It had taken a day or two for my father to unwind and lose his hardened shell.
“That was weird,” he said of a waiter who greeted us pleasantly after we sat down in Ontario, Canada to enjoy dinner after visiting Niagara Falls during the first leg of our trip.
“How was that weird?” I replied. There was a long pause.
“Just keep an eye on the car,” he said.
“I’m pretty sure nobody wants to drive off with a Honda Civic sporting a United States Air Force Academy sticker on the back,” I offered.
“You never know. This is where they getcha.”
“A coffee shop outside of London, Ontario is where they getcha? You’re sitting in a booth stirring an iced tea. It’s twilight and you’re wearing sunglasses and glaring at a sedan that every patron now assumes is filled with cocaine that you’ve just taken across the border.”
My father didn’t find the give-and-take disrespectful. He appreciated it. He had only a handful of friends. It wasn’t that he was unlikable. He had a difficult time opening up, and often rendered judgment after quick impressions like he was back on the trading floor. My brother, mother, and I knew him best. While he called us his best friends, my father struggled with my brother and me because sometimes he wanted to be our buddy and at other times, he aimed to play the role of erudite mentor with lessons to impart on his next of kin. He was embarrassed though by his lack of a formal education. The opportunities he gave us created a distance between his sons and him. We were experiencing things he didn’t know were in reach. He wanted to be a part of it but was awkward about toeing the line between friend and father. In truth, he was a little bit of both and yet fully neither. He was somewhere between a provider and a protector. He enjoyed our success and was terrified of anybody threatening it.
When Melissa walked into our lives, a time when my brother was going through a complicated divorce, he was hesitant to embrace her. He failed to appreciate the love we shared and the future we were trying to build. He still thought of me as a child, naïve and unprepared for the real world. Marriage did not fit his perception.
Unlike Tom and me, who kept any differences in check, early in their relationship, Melissa and my father had a heated exchange in the driveway of my parents’ house. The origin was a perceived slight he thought Melissa had directed at my mother. Tensions had always been high, and they had now reached a crescendo. My father was nose-to-nose with Melissa. His rage and verbal assault were indefensible. What surprised him was that Melissa did not back down. Unlike the kids on the parkway, Melissa was in for a fight and was not going to cower in terror from the onslaught. Before they heeded my pleadings to stop, and my father had slammed the door behind him, he yelled that it would be a cold day in hell before he ever saw her again.
I mourned for days and felt that my life was crushed in between two worlds, the past and future. The problem was that there was no now. Melissa clung to her roots by seeking counsel from her parents, especially Tom, who advised that we “just needed to work it out.”
The adage that “time heals” is only partially correct. It is people who cause the healing, people who forgive and show courage by moving on and recognizing that other priorities are worth more than a misunderstanding. The journey to the détente between my wife and father was long and stressful. Little by little my father and Melissa opened up to each other and gave back when they received. Despite the display of raw emotion during their argument, Melissa had ultimately earned my father’s respect. He had grown up fighting for what he loved, and he saw in Melissa the same indomitable spirit. Melissa told me that a few years after their argument, my father and she were in my parents’ kitchen. They were chatting about our daughters and Hurricane Katrina, which had begun to impact the docile community outside of Dallas, where my parents then called home.
“I guess hell has frozen over,” he said to Melissa, while putting his arm around her and referring to his parting words that fateful day now a distant memory.
After my father died, no one cried more than Melissa. She bawled while sitting behind my mother as an Army soldier handed my mother a flag in honor of my father’s military service in Vietnam, a tour of duty that included the Battle of Hamburger Hill. He spoke little of his experience but when he did, we knew it still haunted him. As much as Wall Street and his difficult childhood, Vietnam defined much of who he was. While he could be kind, there was an edge about him that was fostered from memories of spending a year in fear and witnessing the death of a best friend named Paul, who died next to him in an ambush. It was one of the few stories he told of his experience, usually after the third or fourth glass of wine while sitting at our dinner table. It often came after my brother and I had just expressed disappointment in some setback, which in my father’s eyes was trivial.
My father’s death was sudden, but it did not come as a surprise. He had been ill since the Fall of 1991, when he collapsed in our driveway from severe cardiomyopathy. He left his Wall Street job soon after. The inherent pressure of his job was unsustainable due to his tenuous medical condition. My parents had a decent nest egg but not enough to live the lifestyle they were accustomed to. In 2002, they cashed in on their house and left Connecticut for Dallas to be closer to my brother, who had just gone through a divorce. The move was less strategic than it was desperate. My father had only ever known Wall Street and as much as he disliked it, his profession was a critical part of his identity. Afterwards, he tried his hand at financial advice but struggled, often coming across as crass after a career on the trading floor.
“That’s a stupid idea,” I heard him say to one client. When I pressed him on it, he said people had hired him for his honesty. But I knew, and he knew, that he wasn’t built for client relationships. He was still a foot soldier. He had always been. He wallowed in the trenches fighting for everything that he wanted.
Following his move to Dallas, my father’s stress about my parents’ financial stability made him downtrodden. He worried about his fate and what life might still have to offer.
Recently, when my mother and I met for a trip to New York City, visits which energize her and make her equal parts nostalgic and sated, I asked her if my father had committed suicide. It was a difficult topic, but unlike conversations with my father, everything is fair game with my mother. Our conversation flows and there is a wide berth when it comes to subjects of controversy or observations that might offend.
“I don’t know,” she said pensively. “Not in the sense you typically think of. He was ready and knew he couldn’t care for us — for me — like he used to. So, he lost purpose and willed himself to die.”
The answer is one I have struggled with for years. Like the advice he offered his clients, he was always direct to the point of being painful. “Don’t be a candy ass,” he would say. “Don’t be a quitter,” he might admonish us even though other situations called for us to retreat if we were being mistreated and thus leading him to advise, “Don’t let them fuck you over.”
One summer night in July, my guess is that he just quit and walked away. He didn’t pull a trigger or tie a noose, but he felt it was his time and the amount of self-infliction will always be left in doubt and a question for which I don’t necessarily need an answer. For clarity will not quell the regret I still feel in never saying goodbye or telling him one more time that while he was a complicated man, he was a good father in whatever definition you used. And that I was his friend, and that I did respect his advice, his work ethic, and most of all his ability to forgive as well as his ability to apologize, even if those words never left his mouth but were found in the form of a hug, not with me but with my wife, and a recognition that hell had frozen over.
After my father died, I was hoping that I would develop the same bond with Tom that Melissa shared with him. There was a void I needed to fill even if I sought a version of Tom that did not exist, one that would open up, take me under his wing and offer heartfelt messages of love and inspiring pep talks. Tom rarely shows emotion, choosing the practical over the emotional. He is different from his daughter, who cries at commercials and hugs people shortly after they’ve met. Right after my father died, he addressed the subject briefly.
“I lost my dad when I was young,” he said. “And, you know, you just got to let it all out and then move on.” He was right that over time I gradually accepted my father’s death even if I grappled with the questions left unanswered by his demise.
Tom later sold his engineering firm and fulfilled his dream of living in the Caribbean. It marked a stark contrast to the way my father had struggled with his own financial stability at the end of his life. He and my mother-in-law Lynda lived on a yacht called the Dakota Spirit, for about three years. They invited us to visit, and while I balked at dedicating so much of our family time confined to a boat with my in-laws, a week hopping between the U.S. and British Virgin Islands was difficult to pass up even if I don’t swim as much as I cling to survival in the water.
As I settled into my own role as a father, I grew to appreciate Tom more for who he was, not who I wanted him to be, especially the lack of demands he placed on me. I no longer viewed his generosity as insulting. He teased me and gave subtle compliments about my work ethic. “Just keep doing what you’re doing. You just have to keep grinding it out.” He started understanding my sense of humor more and although it rarely resulted in a belly laugh, I knew he got it.
In the Fall of 2018, Melissa’s parents visited us in Seattle. While Melissa, Lynda, and our daughters were out, Tom and I watched his beloved Denver Broncos. We talked about the ups and downs of life. Tom spoke from the heart more than he had in the past. Perhaps retirement on a yacht in St. Thomas had loosened things up. At one point, he told me about a book he had just finished. It had made Tom think of my father and he told me I should read it. Later that night, he gave me a copy of Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, a novel about the trauma of being a grunt in Vietnam and the absurdity of risking life over a hill that was of little strategic value. I soon dove in and noted a page that Tom had marked.
He suddenly understood why the victims of concentration camps had walked quietly to the gas chambers. In the face of horror and insanity, it was the one human thing to do. Not the noble thing, not the heroic thing — the human thing. To live succumbing to the insanity, was the ultimate loss of pride.
The passage helped me process a lot of my feelings over the way my father had left this world. Perhaps my father had not quit. Perhaps he had done an inherently human thing, forever seeking to protect my mother and his sons via a split-second decision that was harsh in its impact but compassionate in its underlying sacrifice.
When I finished the book, more than understanding my father, I learned about Tom. This was his way of reaching out and trying to connect. Hell had never frozen with us. We had always skated on solid ice. But this was his way of saying that he understood my pain and that he always had, even if he had not expressed it in the way I wanted.
Two months after Tom and Lynda’s visit to Seattle and a few days before Thanksgiving of 2018, Melissa received a call from her sister informing her that Tom had collapsed in his bedroom. There had been no signs of the trauma that was ultimately diagnosed as a spinal cord stroke. He collapsed soon after finishing his daily exercise routine and was rushed to the hospital.
As my mother arrived in Seattle for the holiday, Melissa flew off to be with her family in Colorado. She landed to find that Tom had been placed in a coma and was clinging to life. His vitals were abnormal and the damage to his spine was catastrophic. Melissa, Lynda, and her sisters were trying to piece together answers. At 70, Tom was in excellent shape. He had maintained his wiry thin frame throughout his life, and until the incident, had played golf, snorkeled, and lifted weights. The verdict was that if he did survive, he would be a quadriplegic.
Besides monitoring her father’s fate, Melissa was shuttling between hospitals as her grandmother, at 95, had been placed in hospice the same week. By the time they buried Belva, who would have had been honored with numerous namesakes had her name been, well, not so Nebraska-ish, Tom’s prospects were improving. Answers were hard to come by as Melissa spent the next month flying back-and-forth between Colorado and Seattle and working to get Tom into Craig Hospital, a renowned rehabilitation facility for spinal cord injuries. We had decided to gather with Tom, Lynda, and the families of Melissa’s three sisters in Denver for Christmas. Not wanting to leave our dog behind and hoping the trip would be a relaxing respite, I opted to drive with our two daughters rather than fly.
The weather cooperated and the drive through Idaho and Montana was scenic and relaxing. The trip lacked the drama or curiosity of the expedition I took with my father years before. The conversations with my daughters are effortless, except when I push too hard to solve one of their problems or seek to inspire them. I suffer from the same infliction as my father — desirous of being their friend, coach, and counselor all at the same time. My failures are offset by my hope that they one day recognize that I approached fatherhood like I did everything in life: I gave it my best shot and learned from my mistakes.
Most of the time we listened to their music. I have eclectic tastes and I appreciate the new. But every so often their playlist would surprise me as the sounds of Sam Cooke, The Rolling Stones, or The Beatles would echo across the vast Montana plains. At one point, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” came on. Like the nurse years ago, the song was a juxtaposition of my two fathers. It’s a melancholy song about a man named “Tom”,” hitting on themes of impending loss, abandonment, and loneliness.
Tom, get your plane right on time
I know you’ve been eager to fly now
Hey let your honesty shine, shine, shine now
It made me think of how places like Wall Street and Wall, South Dakota could be so different and yet the same. I reflected on Tom and my father and about how far they had come.
We arrived at Craig Hospital just before 9:00pm. Visiting hours were over but the nurses made an exception considering the holidays. My daughters reconnected with Melissa and were first to see Tom while I stayed behind. As I sat in the idle car, I thought about the trip and my father’s demise. I still missed him. He would have enjoyed another cross-country road trip, but now with his grandchildren in tow. The anguish over my father was matched by my admiration for Tom, who had clung to life against all odds and heeded his own advice to keep grinding it out and move forward.
I saw Melissa and we embraced, the emotions of the past month all coming into focus now. She left with our dog and daughters to stay with her sister. Lynda had secured a guest room for me at Craig. By now, she understands how much I cherish space and privacy.
I entered the doors of Craig Hospital alone. I checked in and boarded the elevator. The hospital was decked out in holiday decorations, which feebly masked the sadness of a cold place that houses patients no longer able to enjoy the freedom of walking. I exited Tom’s floor. His room was around the corner at the end of a long hallway. It was dark and the loneliness fostered an overwhelming fear and realization that one day I would walk down another hallway to my own demise. Perhaps I’ll be greeted then by my father and be able to convey the words I wished I had said before he left. Or perhaps I will see the nurse who was a combination of my father and Tom.
For now, though, when I entered the bright room at the end of the hallway, I only saw Tom. For while he was clinging to life, he was alive. I walked to his bedside. His head peeked out from a blanket that meekly hid a broken body. The strong confident version had been replaced by another frail form. We just looked at each other. We said nothing at first, each still trying not to encroach upon the other’s dominion, and me trying to process the transformation of the man whose respect I had been chasing for years. We both knew it was my turn now. I resorted to what I know best. Humor is my safety net.
“Geez Tom,” I said, “what the hell happened to you?” It was not my best line, but it worked for the moment. Tom began to grin.
He struggled to talk. His voice was fragile and barely audible. His Dakota Spirit had survived a major storm but just barely.
“I can’t tell you how great it is to hear your sense of humor,” he said.
The relationship between fathers and sons is always a tug-of-war over family. It’s a fight, deep down, nobody wants to win because triumph only comes via death or alienation. I caressed his head. He balks at affection, but I was in charge, and this was my way of saying I am happy he did not quit. Most of all, I was happy to be his son, to accept the invitation he offered me years before, but which I had declined due to stubbornness, fear, or naïveté. It was a door, like so many before me, I preferred to be closed because I was unaware of what was behind it.
“I’m just so happy you’re here,” Tom said. “I’m just so happy to see you.”
And with those words I realized that we had both finally found what we had always been looking for. It was the same fuel that drove my father in his quest to be my friend and mentor, that drove Tom in his invitation of me to join his family, and that had driven my desire to prove that I was worthy of his daughter: Acceptance.
Chris Parent is a writer and intellectual property attorney currently living in Zurich, Switzerland. His work has appeared in law reviews as well as in Kairos Literary Magazine, The Good Men Project, Memoir Magazine, Ginosko Literary Journal, Points in Case, Public House Magazine, and The Haven. Chris won the Fall 2020 Memoirist Prize for a story about my early introduction to racial inequality. Links to some of these works can be found on www.chrisparent.net.