My father died this evening. He was in a pretty advanced state of decline--almost completely immobile, couldn't speak or feed himself, but still semi-aware--and had been for some time. He was in a condition such that most would surely regard death a blessing, and I can not imagine otherwise.
It is a temptation to say something pat like my relationship with my father was complicated--but that's actually an unjust simplification. My father and I did not much get along. He was overbearing and I was rebellious and we were both much too stubborn to yield. My great regret is that we never came to know each other as people, to recognize our common humanity free from the burden of being father and son. By the time I was ready to share such a thing, his faculties had degenerated to where even basic conversation was barely possible. He lingered long in that state and I am glad he is released from it. I don't know what comes next for him--or for any of us, for that matter--but I hope he is somewhere free from the grinding worry and concern of being a parent and provider that I know wore him down and, all things considered, he faced admirably.
Often, it is said of fathers and sons who clash that they are too much alike. Perhaps. I certainly find many echoes of him in myself. But he was a product of his age and background, of an era that admonished a man who showed any doubt as displaying weakness. If I am harsh or overbearing to my own son (as I can not deny I sometimes am), I hope... I hope... I temper that with an awareness of my own limitations and, frankly, the humility to apologize when it is warranted.
My father was an engineer. He worked for the Navy for 30-odd years making sure nuclear submarines stood ready to annihilate Russia at a moment's notice. Yet, he was no single-minded Cold Warrior. He regarded jingoistic military rah-rah with the kind of cynicism only found in those intimately familiar with its folly. He knew war was largely a pointless venture... and he had the research to back it up. But, as it was his livelihood, he applied himself to its strategic planning with full dedication. He enjoyed it: plotting out the great, global chess game he well knew must never be played. My best memories of my father were watching him tinker with machinery--the car, the TV, the fuse box, the plumbing--often disastrously (he had an engineer's vast knowledge of theory, but riddled with gaps in practical experience). The times he called me, as a child, to come and see the innards of something he'd disassembled, to show me how it worked at its core, were the times I think I saw him closest to being simply himself. He never actually taught me much, but he shared a profound enthusiasm for figuring out how things worked that sticks with me to this day.
I have an image of my father standing at the golden gates of Heaven. They are closed--and locked by a ridiculously elaborate, Rube Goldberg-esqe mechanism of cogs and pulleys and weights and levers. He tinkers with it, aligning components and setting the cascade of gadgetry in motion. In the clatter, the gates part slightly, then slam shut again.
"Shit," he mutters under his breath, then turns and declares, "Now that should have worked!" He turns back and has at it again, resetting the contraption, tweaking it by degrees, and testing each configuration over and over and over.
I think my father could spend a good chunk of eternity thus happily engaged.
Have at it, Dad. I'll join you soon enough.