My father was born on July 22, 1944.
The most famous person I can find who was born on that day is Sparky Lyle, the American baseball player. Famous to me, anyway. Dennis Firestone, apparently an Australian automobile racer, and who may be as well known to some as Lyle is to me, was also born on that same day. Other luminaries who share that date of birth, if not the year, include game show host Alex Trebek, American football player Keyshawn Johnson, and musicians Don Henley and George Clinton.
That information, while entertaining in a certain sense, means absolutely nothing towards understanding my father. If you know anything about human gestation, birth is an event of happenstance – babies come when they come. To imagine that the fact of one's appearance on Earth has something to do with anything other than nearly random biological processes is pure folly. He probably would chuckle reading that paragraph, finding it a waste of bandwidth.
My father was born just ahead of the Baby Boom generation, the wave of humanity that is still swamping societies around the world, and wound up a bystander for most of their notable activities. He owned Beatles records, along with Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, and Pete Seeger, but never Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, which always puzzled me. He never admitted to doing drugs – but given what I learned of his personality, that isn't hard for me to imagine. He had work to do, so he had no time for nonsense. He worked at NASA during college summers – pictures of him from that era look like one of those engineers with a pocket protector and horn-rimmed glasses in the film Apollo 13. He was ineligible for service in the Vietnam War. He learned basketball by watching Red Auerbach's Boston Celtics, and learned the special kind of self-loathing fatalism Red Sox fans carried with them until 2004. He loved peace, voted Democratic, and yet worked for a defense contractor for most of his life.
My father read – constantly, voraciously. Professional publications and general interest, science, art, literature, non-fiction, fiction – seemingly everything ever published, but always with an eye towards learning something, anything, he didn't know before. The number of authors I found among his discards and learned to love number in the hundreds – Updike, Mailer, Don DeLillo, Robert B. Parker, Vonnegut, Asimov, Hemingway, Heinlein, Spider Robinson, Tom Clancy. My father sang in choirs and barbershop groups and when alone, and went camping, and walked the dog, and thought, and wrote (one of the things you get when you Google his name is a paper published in a computer industry journal), and served his church for decades.
One of my clearest and most tender memories is of my father, holding my just born son, telling him, in a voice he thought no one else could hear, that my son shared his first name, Frederick, and that my father didn't understand why. I have no doubt why I did it, and I also have no doubt he didn't know why. My father was an insecure, overweight, depressed man, and, as I approach 40 years old, I can now see clearly how careless he had been with his own physical and mental health. Which is logical, if you consider it for a moment: if one believes one is worthless, there is little point in engaging in self-care.
Anyone's life is impossible to encapsulate – as writers, we tend to pack together all the good bits to keep a tale moving. Surely there were days Hamlet just cleaned his sword and ate an apple, and sometimes after lunch Jay Gatsby would just take a long nap. My father was more than the times he lived in, more than the things he did and felt and said. I can tell you a dozen stories, and it won't be enough, and, with the sad wisdom of my own advancing years, I now realize there are things I will never know – things my mother knew and will never tell, and things he took with him to the grave.
On July 12, 2009, my father said he didn't feel well at the dinner table, asked my mother to call 911, and that was it. I was never able to honestly say that it was shocking – he was desperately unhealthy, and not willing or able to change. Friends and relatives, neighbors and coworkers, poured in for his funeral, the man who thought he didn't exist remembered for a thousand kindnesses, professional and personal, financial and physical. I am still learning more things about him – things he did and said and cared about that I never learned.
His loss leaves me with a child's question. Where is he? His matter is gone, of course, rendered into carbon and oxygen and hydrogen in a manner that would have pleased a lifelong scientist. The secrets he had winked out when he did, the neurons containing them starving and dying as their life-giving blood was cut off. Convention says that he lives on when I repeat a joke of his ("If Richard Nixon told me it was raining, I'd go look out a window") or when his namesake matures into a man and perhaps forms a family of his own. His genetic legacy lives on in his three grandchildren. His reputation lives on in stories and anecdotes, all of it a shadow of what he was.
My father was born in 1944, and died in 2009.
I know those two things. Sometimes that is far too little to know. Sometimes that contains everything.
published 28 May 2011