Dad turned 75 this year. It’s been a hard 75, filled with successes but also with pain both physical and emotional, all honestly earned. Dealing with his declining health has been difficult but it has afforded me the opportunity to frankly assess my relationship with him, my attitudes toward myself, and, with apologies to Dan Jenkins, life its ownself.
In one scene in the classic 1985 movie “Back to the Future,” the Michael J. Fox character, Marty McFly, encounters his father, George, as a teenager. George has been writing science-fiction stories, and Marty asks if he ever shows his stories to anyone. George says he does not because nobody would like them, concluding, “I don’t know if I could handle that sort of rejection…I guess that would be hard for someone like you to understand.”
Marty, who in George’s eyes is the perfect teenager, earlier in the movie reflected the same sentiment. The look on his face as he sees his father expressing his own demons, is heart-rending, equal parts understanding and guilt. Chastened, he says, “No, not hard at all, George.” Marty has just had the good fortune of seeing, unbeknownst to his father, a small indication of why his father became the adult and parent that Marty knows. It is an opportunity, absent a time-traveling DeLorean, that none of us has.
In those rhetorical exercises that ask whom I’d invite to a fantasy dinner party, one of my invitees is always my father as a young man, so I could know what shaped him into the person I’ve known over the years. But at a certain point in life we must acknowledge that each person, even our parents, lives with his or her own demons – sorrows and regrets so personal that nobody else will ever know about them. And we must reconcile with that to accept the person. Dad is Dad; he’s not going to change. He did his best when my sister and brother and I were kids and younger adults. We didn’t always appreciate it at the time, but I see now his best was pretty darn good.
Earlier in the same movie, Marty is seated in a diner. Exhausted, trying to figure out his next move, he bends his head down and rubs the back of his neck. The camera pulls back and we see his father, still as a teenager, making exactly the same gesture. For perhaps ten seconds they move in completely in concert, each for the moment completely unaware of the other. The scene is almost poetic, speaking irrefutably to how blood always tells, no matter one’s effort at denying biology, or destiny.
I spent my late teens and twenties distancing myself from my father. All evidence to the contrary, I refused to concede that I resembled him; I was simply determined not to be him. Now I look in the mirror and listen to myself talk and I know I look like him, walk like him, sound like him, and act like him. I regret the years I spent effectively denying my father. He could be only who he was – a product of his heredity and experiences, as I can be nothing but what I am: an extension of him, as every child is an extension of those who came before.
Dad’s travails of late and the recent death of my girlfriend’s father have me thinking about legacy, which has never held much currency for me. (A recent family reunion also contributed to my pondering. After you eat the barbecue and coleslaw and really look at three or four generations of a family, it’s a little humbling.) I sense that the questions of what one contributes to humanity and who will remember you when you’re gone, and how they’ll remember you, are more important than dollars earned, things acquired, and places visited.
A friend who is a psychologist says this is the “generative” stage of human development and that it is common in people after age 40. Whatever the technical term, these thoughts are both unbidden and scary. Dad’s legacy is solid: several thousand patients whose lives he touched as a physician, as well as his family. My own legacy, however, or apparent lack thereof, gives me pause “That’s what I’ve been sitting here contemplating.”
This is a chance to take what may be a final lesson from my father. All I know is that, whatever my legacy will be, I want my father to be proud of it.