The Denver skyline shot up during early 1980s, and, my dad helped build it. Dad, a welder, came to Colorado in 1979 for the construction boom. However, for much of his seventeen and half years in Colorado he was a long distance truck driver hauling beer over the Rockies to California and bringing back fruit and cereal.
Eighteen years ago this Friday, my dad died. He was forty-eight years old. Soon, I will be forty-one. Dad died in Oklahoma, is buried in South Dakota, the state where he was born and raised, but I’ve remained in Colorado where he raised his four children.
While he was still welding, during his mid thirties, Dad was severely injured in a construction accident. He nearly lost his foot, and lost use of it for two years. It never fully healed, and he never returned to welding. I can’t imagine how horrible it was for him to be trapped in a small home with his four young children and wife, unable to provide more money than his workman’s compensation checks. It must have been devastating to be in so much pain when he was used to being so productive. His career had been building metal structures, but for prolonged periods he was confined to bed or his reclining chair as he healed.
Of course, we didn’t understand the complexity of adults’ feelings in the 1980s. We were young children, unable to appreciate the gift of our father’s presence. When he was home all the time, we couldn’t have guessed how little time we had left. We were children with young parents and had all the time in the world.
People thought Dad was funny and people enjoyed his company. He was generous and kind, and strangers never saw his angry side. His children did because children always feel their parents’ fear, disappointment, anger, and frustration, no matter how they try to hide it with jokes or laughter. We all felt it, but we didn’t understand it. Now, in my forties, I’m starting to understand.
During my early childhood I constantly worried about money. The construction industry was full of booms and busts, and Dad had a couple of truck crashes before his most devastating accident. Later when he could work again, I worried less about money, but I came to accept that there would never be extra. What I worried about most from age twelve to eighteen was that my dad would die in another truck accident. Every night I prayed for his safe return. Then I left and forgot I ever had parents because I was practicing being an adult.
Now it is my own children who feel my secondhand fears, frustrations, and disappointments. I try to put on a brave face, but grownup life is scary in ways childhood never was. It seems adulthood is full of fears about what has happened as much as what may happen. Though as a mother I try to shield my children from the ugliness of the world, I fear the strongest vibrations of my negative emotions still reach through me and touch them. As children grow their lives become too big for parents to eclipse the darker parts of the world, and in our smallness and futility, our own fears grow in proportion to our kids.
As Fate would have it, and She always has it her way, my son’s cardiology appointment is on Friday, the anniversary of my dad’s death. I expect difficult news that day. We know another heart surgery is unavoidable, even expected, sometime in the next 18 months if not sooner. So the topic will be raised. Even if delayed, this thing I fear will come to pass sooner rather than never.
A week and a half ago, my son was in the ER. He fell and his teeth pierced his mouth. He’s OK, but I spent this past week in the shadow between unplanned and planned hospital visits. My fear is palpable, it’s the resurgence of something that’s plagued me since before he was born, this fear of losing my child. It’s a rational fear that began more than twelve years ago and has never left me.
My children must have felt and still feel my fear vibrating off of me, even if they can’t understand it, even though I wish I could hide it better. Knowing they can read me, though it’s just the tune and not the lyrics, makes me feel a new compassion for my father and mother that, of course, they deserved all along, but that I could not understand until I stood in their shoes trying to keep my fear in check and save face in front of my children.
Like the child who feared losing my father, I am now a mother fearing the loss of my son. My dad did die, but not as I expected. My larger-than-life dad didn’t die at a construction site or in a truck accident. Rather, he died, diminished by cancer in a hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma with my mother by his side. After eighteen years, I’ve missed having a father in adulthood and getting to know the person who raised me as more than just as a dad. Now as I’m closer to the age he was when he died, I can’t imagine my dad turning 67 this year, retired but alive. That person never existed, will never exist. That’s the harshest thing about death, the dead are trapped in memory, and we lose them again and again with each passing year that we change and they do not.
On Friday morning, as I approach the Denver skyline on my way to the Colorado Children’s Hospital with my son in the backseat, I will be glad I wrote this because I’m the bridge between the lives of my father and my children who never met their grandfather. I know my dad worked on more than one of those skyscrapers in the photo at the top of the post. Though his body is buried many states away, the Denver skyline is a sort of monument to my father’s existence that I can see on the horizon to remember a man I lost when I was twenty-two, but who left enough of himself in my heart that I understand him a little better with each passing year.