FATHER’S DAY

 

by Scott Beller

Painting: Waiting For Dad - Longing by Winslow Homer

Ed’s father was jealous of him before he was even born.

Having been adopted as an infant, Ed’s father Jack Breslin never knew his birth parents and claimed he didn’t care. Both supposedly had died – his father in World War II, his mother in an auto accident.

The way Jack saw it, Ed would come into the world already one up on his old man: a baby boy showered with attention from “real” parents, grandparents, and siblings of his own. This baby boy would be blessed with affection and a sense of belonging that Jack worked hard to attain, but always just beyond his grasp.

Grandpa Breslin, Jack’s adopted dad, died two months before his grandson Ed was born. The morning of the funeral, Ed’s mother whispered to Jack, “Eddie would have been the apple of your father’s eye. I wish he could have held him – just once.”

Jack watched silently, rain masking tears that didn’t come easily, as they buried the stranger that took him in. The one he called “dad.”

 

Thirty years later, a grown Ed Breslin fought for position in the morning rush around a notorious stretch of the Capital Beltway.

They’ll never finish this damn mixing bowl.

A freelancer, he had a home office, which meant he usually didn’t deal with this mess. Today, he made a rare exception.

A light drizzle added to the dreamlike haze of his stop-and-go drive. He switched from morning sports-talk (the Orioles were again headed for the American League East basement) to a CD, desperate for something more calming to distract from the gridlock keeping him on the road with thoughts he’d rather not dwell on.

No big deal.

His father was never in a hurry to see him. Besides, the traffic delay and country-tinged blues of Hal Ketchum might help him collect his thoughts – figure out what to say.

Getting a Father’s Day card for “papa Jack” was always a challenge. “Dad, you’ve always been there… we share wonderful memories…”

Please.

Those clichéd sentiments might work for other people’s dads or remembering someone else’s childhood. But not for Ed.

So, each year, Ed loitered on the card aisle. Peeling back card edges to read bullshit greetings without even lifting them from the rack. And every year, he arrived in the checkout line holding an appropriately “blank inside” selection.

This time, he’d filled that void with a generic “Happy Father’s Day – Love, Ed.” Not even an exclamation point. The card still lay on the passenger seat next to him, visions of happiness on the outside, empty on the inside.

He drove on.

He crept through a construction zone, gripping the steering wheel tighter as dump trucks and loaders thundered around him, indifferent to his presence. Rain obscured his view of the behemoths that gulped ground concrete and other debris to be carted away.

Wish the rain would end.

The rhythmic wipers squee-geed back and forth offering momentary clarity while Ketchum’s tenor crooned in rhythm:

“I tried to run, though I knew it wouldn’t help me none…”

It seemed like it had been raining for weeks. A slow, relentless front bearing down on him. His thoughts wandered as the drizzle coated his windshield between delayed wipes.

He hoped his son’s baseball game wouldn’t be rained out again and made a mental note to have a catch before taking the 9-year-old to the ballpark.

His cell phone rang calling him back to the present.

“Hullo?” he said, reaching to lower the music volume.

“Hey, happy Father’s Day, honey!”

His wife Emma was a morning person. He wasn’t.

“Where are you? Wish you hadn’t left before I could tell you in person.”

“I’m stuck in traffic,” he said. “Thought I’d get an earlier start and see my dad before the day got away from me.”

“Well, I’m sure he’d be happy to see you,” she said. “Did you remember the azaleas?”

“Dammit.” His teeth clenched.

Ed’s father had been a devout landscaper, and azaleas were his favorite shrubs. He worked long hours, leaving the house for work by five each morning when Ed was a kid, long before the rest of the family awoke. When not working on customer projects, Ed’s father dedicated weekday evenings and most weekends to working in their own yard, mowing, edging, planting, pruning, mulching, watering, and myriad other meticulous gardening tasks.

Suppressing his adoptive past, Jack Breslin longed for and found comfort in one place: the solitude of yard work.

The Breslin property was draped front to back with hundreds of red, pink, and white azaleas along with a variety of other botanicals accenting a thick carpet of rich green. Ed and his sister were strictly forbidden to play on or even go near the front yard. Dad’s warnings to “keep off the grass” mostly heeded, the Breslins were perennial winners of the neighborhood Garden-of-the-Month award, and Ed’s father beamed with pride each year.

Jack Breslin loved that yard, and he put every drop of himself into its nurture. It made him feel…worthy.

“Gotcha!” said Emma, again breaking Ed’s trance.

Realizing her joke was poorly time, she added, “Sorry, Eddie, I put them in your trunk last night. I figured, with you being so preoccupied this past week, they’d probably slip your mind.”

“Oh…geez… thanks,” he said, at once relieved and irritated at how right she was. “Hey, before I forget, what time is Morgan’s game tonight? I wanna be home in plenty of time to warm him up.”

HO-ly Coooow! First pitch is supposed to be at 8,” she said in her best (but not-as-good-as-she-thought) Harry Carrey voice.

Emma worshipped the woeful Cubs. Because Ed’s father was an avid Orioles fan, Ed’s allegiance naturally moved to the heartbreaking Red Sox. The two of them were fans of star-crossed baseball teams. They found solace in each other’s misery, and seemed to be destined to suffer long, hot, hoping-against-hopeful summers together for years to come.[1]

“Um, you’re breaking up a bit,” he said, then made a fake static noise to drive home his point. “Thanks for calling – g’bye!” His mood lightened.

“Love you,” she said before she hung up.

She always seemed to know how to draw him out of a funk.

With the drizzle now stopped, Ed silenced the monotonous groan of the interval wipers. As he checked the movement of the clouds to the west, he saw the local recreation center dissolve through the trees bordering the highway.

Ed remembered playing on the fields there as a kid. He also remembered his anxiety on game days when clouds threatened. He’d pace in front of the living room window – in uniform, glove on – desperate to go to the ballpark, the one place he felt confident, safe, in control. Even as the skies opened to soak diamonds across the area, Ed begged his parents to take him to the field anyway, insisting that the rain wouldn’t last and they’d be able to get a few innings in.

“Dad, pleeease? Look – it’s clearing up over there!”

“Go find your mom – see if she wants to take you,” his father would counter, dismissing him, eyes fixed on the TV. “I’m not letting muddy cleats in my car just so you can run around a few minutes before a rainout.”

Muddy work boots and gardening equipment, sure. But cleats? Not on your life.

After a few minutes of his father’s patented silent treatment that often lasted days, Ed would sulk from the room to hunt for his ally and willing chauffeur.

Mo-om!”

Ed knew if the game was rained out, he’d get no pitching practice for another week.

Please stop raining.

His dad was always at work or claimed to be too busy in the yard to play catch (or anything) with him most days, and it was near impossible to find anyone else available or able to handle his developing curveball.

His only option was his big sister. And she once caught a fastball smack in the forehead, which instantly retired her as his backup backstop. And without her, he had to settle for throwing a tennis ball against the side of the house.

Please, God…make it stop.

Beyond the rec center and a mile past overgrown Howery Field was the elementary school where Ed’s wife taught 2nd grade. Twenty-five years before, it had also been the home practice field for Ed’s Little League team the year his father coached.

Those AAA Rangers enjoyed a perfect 0-18 season. What stood out more vividly to Ed than the team’s dismal record was the satisfaction his father derived from ridiculing him in front of his teammates.

“C’mon, Tubby, hit the ball,” his father taunted him while throwing batting practice. “Hey, bird legs, you call that a batting stance?”

His friends would laugh. Ed would say nothing. He pushed it all down. Any response would probably have prolonged the laughter or triggered a typical retort from his father: “Don’t be such a crybaby.” Then maybe silence at home.

Everyone else on the team thought his father was funny. But they didn’t know him like Ed did.

As much as he wanted to retaliate with a good “I know you are but what am I?” Ed learned it was better to just keep quiet. Instead, he pretended the teasing didn’t bother him. He tried to use it as motivation to hit that goddamned ball, hard as he could, back at his father’s head.

Now on his way to see Jack Breslin on a day celebrating all fathers, Ed still wondered why a grown man had to use his 9-year-old son as the butt of every joke.

Was it envy? Did it somehow make him feel better? Ed was a straight-A student, had many friends, and was usually the best player on the team. Yet he grew up trying to please and earn the respect of a man who didn’t seem to love or respect himself. He wanted to look up to his father. Instead, he feared him.

As a child, Ed couldn’t know he and his dad actually shared a fear of rejection. Jack spent his childhood striving for perfection in order to win the affections of his adopted parents. He thought that being a “model son” was the only way for him to avoid returning to foster care.

One thing Ed did understand was his father’s sense of loss. Jack lost his dad to war. Ed felt he lost his father day by day, with each criticism, taunt, and silent treatment – painful wounds, inflicted gradually and never allowed to heal.

The stereo hummed:

 

“There was a place where love used to stand,

You turned it into a castle of sand,

scattered and blown like the wind, with a wave of your hand.”

 

Traffic slowed again. Gimme a break – just two… more… miles.

Just shy of his exit, the car rolled to a stop behind a minivan whose driver was both applying makeup and brushing her teeth. Taking a break from her Elmo DVD, a toddler in the backseat turned and waved at him. He rubbed his eyes. The girl made a frowny face and laughed, still waving.

Beautiful.

Ed stuck out his tongue and the child, giggling, returned to her video.

He reminded himself there really wasn’t a rush. He took a deep breath and eased his car onto the exit ramp.

To atone for his momentary display of frustration, he allowed several other cars to merge ahead of him the rest of the way – one was another minivan with a back seat percolating with preschool kids. A tow-headed toddler gave a toothy smile and wave, which he politely returned.

Ed had been blonde, too, until about the age of four when his hair began darkening to brown like his father’s. Virtually everything about his adult appearance could be traced to Jack: 6-foot-2, dark hair, chiseled jaw.

When people remarked how closely they resembled each other, Ed tried to take it as a compliment. Although a handsome man, his father exuded a poor self-image that adult Ed made a daily effort to avoid.

Ed still had his mom’s blue eyes. He was proud of that. It made him feel more connected to her – like it helped him see the world as she did.

He turned off the road and through an iron gated entrance with a sign that had fallen and been propped against the stone wall of Parklawn Memorial Cemetery.

Meandering through the parking area, he turned down Ketchum’s music for the last time.

 

“…what makes you grow old is replacing hope with regret.”

 

Ed parked and closed his eyes for a moment. He picked up the card from the passenger’s seat. Got to write something.

This year he tried something new. He bought a card that said “Happy Father’s Day, Grandpa.” The more he thought about it, the more he realized cards for grandfathers were somehow more appropriate for Jack.

Despite being a lousy dad, Jack Breslin was wonderful with his grandchildren – supportive, loving, playful, attentive, and compassionate. All things Ed wished his father been with him as a kid.

Reading the front of the card again, Ed thought maybe his dad lavishing grandkids with affection was the only way he knew how to make up for past failures as a parent. Maybe it was an indirect way of showing love for his adult son and to finally earn his forgiveness.

Ed got out and stretched his arms above his head to loosen tensed muscles. The misting rain had returned but it soothed him now. He breathed deep and welcomed the cool air against his face. It felt more like late March than June.

Card in one back pocket, hand spade in the other, a small azalea in each arm, he walked among the headstones of strangers to the place where his grandfather, Grandpa Breslin, and father rested side-by-side. One man he never had the chance to meet and the other he had never truly known.

It had been more than nine months since his father died. He still had no idea what to say when he arrived at this place, on this day.

It was his second visit. The first was on Christmas Eve. At the time, all he could think to do was bow his head while his eyes clouded unexpectedly. Now, for several minutes he stood, emotions controlled, and stared at his father’s headstone, which read: “In Loving Memory.”

In fact, most memories of his father during his early childhood were unclear and needed prompting from old photos. Of the ones he could recall, few were as loving as he would have liked.

Ed’s mother, on the other hand, dominated his earliest memories. His father had missed most every one of Ed’s milestone moments: his birth, first school play, a no-hitter senior year, high school and college graduations, celebration of his first byline, wedding ceremony, even the birth of his son Morgan.

Instead of joy and praise, the thing his father shared with him most was silence. Now that his father was gone, it was Ed, a writer by trade, who struggled for words.

He knelt beside his father’s grave, took the spade from his pocket, and picked away wet leaves that partially covered the marker. He placed the card against the headstone and began to carefully dig two holes for the azaleas already beginning to flower.

“I know you did your best,” he whispered. “Despite everything, dad, I think I turned out OK.”

# # #

====================

[1] In 2004, a year after this story was written, the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series Championship in 86 years. They came back from a 3 games to 1 deficit to beat the New York Yankees in the ALCS and swept the St. Louis Cardinals 4-0 in the World Series. It was the first of four world championships the Sox would produce over the next 15 years. The author is sure this is purely coincidental.

 

Scott Beller is the proud dad of two mighty girls and also Editor of the Daddying blog, DCG Director of Communications, and DADvisory Board member. He's a seasoned writer and PR agency veteran with 25+ years experience helping organizations of all sizes reach audiences and tell their stories. Prior to launching his own creative communications consultancy in 2003, he led PR teams with some of the world’s most respected agencies, including Fleishman-Hillard and The Weber Group. As a consultant, Scott has helped launch two other parenting advocacy nonprofits with DCG founder Allan Shedlin. His first book, Beggars or Angels, was a ghostwritten memoir for the nonprofit Devotion to Children's founder Rosemary Tran Lauer. He was formerly known as "Imperfect Dad" and Head Writer for the Raising Nerd blog, which supported parents in inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers, and creative problem solvers. He earned his BA in Communications from Virginia Tech and resides with his family in Arlington, VA.

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