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An Abundance of Fathers

This is being written on Father’s Day, which like the day for mothers, is bittersweet for the childless person whose parents are dead. The perfect gift, cards, families out celebrating – it’s something in which you no longer participate. You’re left alone to ponder what you’ve lost.

Today was a little different. A chipmunk darted out in front of my car. I swerved. It kept running, safely to the other side of the road. Because it is Father’s Day my next thought was of my dad. He would’ve let that chipmunk die. Raymond Triggs swerved for no one and nothing. God help the chipmunk or kid that got in his way.

My dad was the kind of guy who didn’t believe in swimming lessons. He was more likely to throw his kid in the lake. He assumed I’d figure it out and so in I was thrown, alone in a huge lake, struggling to get to shore.

My dad was smart. Generous. He loved to laugh. He and my mom threw great parties for the whole neighborhood. The good times always ended in a drunken argument with one of his cronies because of addictions to liquor and anger. That's what caused him to self-medicate. Unresolved anger. In a coma, hours before he died, he was growling like a bear. His last emotion was anger.

Ten years later I went to get my mom’s vacuum cleaner repaired. Simple. The attendant upon hearing my last name said, “Were you related to Ray?” I nodded. “God could that guy drink.” First thought, ten years after he died said to the son by a stranger. What a sad thing by which to be remembered.

In odd ways I’m thankful for my dad’s drinking. Childhood left me very self-sufficient. My adult years have been privileged in ways I wouldn’t have allowed myself to imagine when I was a kid. A lot of that is due to how I was raised.

So, on Father’s Day, I remember the good & the bad. I also remember other men because no one survives something like that alone. I was blessed with many fathers for whom they don’t make greeting cards. Saying thank you is long overdue.

Bob McKiernan, I went to my little garden yesterday to pick kale & chives for a salad. Going there always reminds me of the first garden I saw, which was yours. I treasure the moments you put Laurie and I to work, taking time to teach us. I smile at your loving use of “knucklehead” when you’d teach a gentle lesson on how to do something better. Somewhere deep inside me there’s the knowledge of how to handle illness with grace. I can still hear my little brother Butch asking, “When will it grow back?” after your leg was amputated. Instead of shock or sadness, you chose to be touched by his hope.

You took me to my first fireworks. When someone referred to me as your son you didn’t correct her. That felt great. I think of you each time I watch fireworks. I try to pick out a kid seeing those colors for the first time because I know it’s a moment they’ll never forget.

Henry Barney, you will forever be the world’s best 5th grade teacher. Smart, handsome, creative, playful & just edgy enough to keep it unpredictable. You brought so much pure joy to your classroom, but never shied away from guiding your students in a better direction. You took many of us camping for the first time. You taught us how to harmonize and build a chord. You taught me to pursue passion beyond logic. That you somehow found me years later in the middle of New York astounds me. That was a great day. Thank you.

John Smith, you are the world’s coolest dad and one hell of an umpire. You always managed to wedge a 4th kid into your tiny green VW Beetle without making me feel unwelcomed. You taught me that there’s always room for one more. I bought my own Beetle just last month. I thought of you when I signed the paperwork. Today I used that car to save the life of a chipmunk. He owes you a thank you note.

Bill Fuller, the guidance counselor who never stopped guiding. I knew you before your daughter became one of my best friends, before I came out. You were the first adult in front of whom I said the word gay. You showed me how adult men put family first.

Bill Warfield, Sr., when I was a kid I was sure you hated me. You were so gruff. Such a dad. I think you wanted to make sure I wasn’t a bad influence on your kids. Too bad. I win. I was a bad influence; but spending time in your home pointed me in a better direction. The grace you showed when losing wonderful Sharon helped me with my own losses. The joy you’ve found with lovely Betty proves there’s always a chance for new adventure.

Wayne Martin you make the world a better place. You help people in ways they’ll never even know. You, not our fathers, drove when Patrick, Tommy and I left Wisconsin to tackle Minneapolis. You drove the U-Haul back the same day, so it would be a one-way rental. You saved us money we didn’t have. You treat everyone like they’re family, because to you they are.

Art Radke, more than a big brother, you were my dad for the first 6 years of my life. Driving around town in your light blue convertible was better than a carnival. I remember the cookout we had before you left for the army. I locked myself in the garage to stop the government from taking you away. It didn’t work. You had to break a window to get me out when it was discovered that while I knew how to lock, unlocking was trickier. When you asked me why I did that, I broke down and cried, “I don’t want you to die.” You survived the army, but it happened anyway. You died.

You’ve missed so much. You’re so missed. You’re missing. Always.

So here’s to dads in whatever form they take. Perhaps after our near miss that little chipmunk went home to a bunch of baby chipmunks, who will remember him with cards and tie tacks for years to come. Legacies they'll treasure.

I ended up with my dad's favorite jacket – as far as I know, the last one he wore. Not wanting to smell of cigarette smoke & 30 years-worth of Canadian Club I washed that coat. Inside the right-hand pocket was a wooden nickel inscribed with the Serenity Prayer. It was smudged as though it had been passed between thumb and fingers a lot.

Evidently on some level Ray never stopped trying to quit drinking. Problem was, he couldn’t swerve on off the path. One little nickel, such a big cost.

Knowing he had the courage to try gave me a little serenity and the wisdom to know we don’t always get what we want. No one would choose addiction. It sneaks up like a chipmunk. Sometimes people plow right into it and leave a mess with which others have to deal. A kind neighbor or a family friend can help, but the mess can’t be erased or unseen. It leaves a stain that lingers and memories that endure.

My dad loved me, but I wasn’t the son Ray Triggs dreamt of having when he was fighting WWII. He was expecting a guy, a buddy, a fisherman. That wasn't me. To his credit and my appreciation, he didn’t try to change me. I wish we knew each other now when I know to say thank you for what I got instead of dwelling on what I didn’t. Each passing day convinces me I got more than I ever knew.

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