Mom and Dad sat for one of my early portrait sessions back in the mid-1980s.
So I’m hanging out, chatting with my wife and daughter after running some errands, having a salty snack — the usual slow afternoon things — when KABLOOEY, it hits me; I’ve outlived my father.
Dad lived until 1988, smoking and drinking himself toward an early exit. I loved the man, yes, but I went to school on his foibles, his missteps. I think my brothers did too. Most of the credit for learning from his mistakes goes to my mother, who’s still an incredibly active 86-year-old. Each of us boys managed to sail past Dad’s demise — me being the last in our family to do so. I didn’t even realize I’d passed his mark until I went to our kitchen calendar and did the math.
Cancer, then a heart attack killed my father. And yes, I had a deadly cancer and lots of associated heart issues with it, all combining to try and keep me from beating Dad’s record. But those are all in my rearview mirror and I’m not backing this car up.
It’s a weird feeling, but a smile creaks across my face as I realize my “accomplishment.” I am buoyed. Beating your father at anything is always a dicey prospect; it knocks them a little bit off their pedestal. But Dad never really spent much time on anyone’s pedestal, not because he wasn’t kind and decent, it’s just that no one ever really elevated him to statue form.
Although Dad was never on a pedestal, he was in LOOK Magazine in a story about revolutionary new peg board back in the 1950s.
I decided to call my brothers, who are six and seven years older than me, to see how they dealt with passing this moment in their own lives.
Dean lives out in Southern California and has since early adulthood. “I’d have to think about it; it’s a very good question,” he responded.
“I know Dad thought about this same question, like with his own dad. Is this age the cap; am I going to live beyond this point?” Dean continued. “Dad was worried about his lifespan because his dad died at an early age. I think Dad was wondering about it in a superstitious way in regards to his father and if it meant anything about himself.”
I never knew that. It’s pretty cool to learn new things about a family member decades later.
Dean went on, “I try to keep Dad quite present in my every-day. I don’t think about him in the past tense. I have a picture of him on my desk; his birthday present is his ever-presence.”
I wanted to press just a little bit more; it had to be my years of journalism welling up.
“No, I don’t really remember digging into it when I outgrew him, other than to note it,” Dean said. “It was always wonderful to have Dad as a dad.”
We chatted about some other stuff; his wife’s birthday, a conference he just attended, the latest cool project he’s working on. Then he dropped a beautiful little tidbit to end our conversation. “Just yesterday when a friend was visiting, a video I had created on my computer for a project I’m working on started up on its very own; I put it down to Dad. And I know you do too, Rodney.”
God, that’s great to hear. Dean knows I love those types of mystical messages. They come to him; they come to all of us. It was the subject of a chapter in my first book, Spiritual Wanderer. Dad used to communicate with me through blinking streetlights. And today, an hour or so before I realized I’d outlived him, I “randomly” came across a short video I shot years ago showing a streetlight popping on just as I was filming.
Scott, Mom and Dean joined me for a recent family photo.
Scott’s my other brother. He lives much closer by. I called him next and caught him out in his backyard. “I’m sitting on my half torn-up deck right now trying to get a chainsaw started,” he reported. “I had the whole thing apart in pieces then put it back together. It should work, but nothing.”
That’s perfect. That’s so much like my father. Scott pointed it out first, “Dad used to tinker with things, repair things, try to get things working. I may not always be as successful as him, but I love trying.”
Asking him the same question about what it was like outliving Dad, he responded, “It hit me after a little bit; I realized it after the fact. I wasn’t waiting up for it one night on my birthday and then said, ‘Dad died at this age.’ I don’t even know what day he died. It might not’ve hit me until I was a year older.”
What does he think about in relation to his own mortality? “You know, I was a little reflective, but I don’t really dwell on that kind of thing. He seemed older than I am now, maybe because he was dad. He seemed older than I was at that age. Not that he was infirm. He enjoyed life, just like me right now.”
And before he went back to figuring out his chainsaw dilemma, he said, “Congratulations on your milestone, Rodney, on joining the club.”
I like that; it’s a milestone to pass, not a millstone around my neck.
There were five of us in my family growing up before Mom adopted my sister, Ngoc, after Dad died. I had a question about Dad’s dad, so I phoned Mom.
“I know exactly what you’re getting at,” she jumped in just as I was asking about my grandfather. “I’m the same age as my own father when he died.”
Wow, no, I was asking about my other grandfather, not Mom’s father. But do go ahead, please!
“Grandad was born in 1904 and died before his birthday in 1991. That made him 86. I’m 86 and he was 86. I was doing exactly the same thing you were doing,” she explained.
It’s wonderful when a different narrative pops up unexpectedly.
“You just outlived Dad, I am about to outlive my dad,” she continued. “It feels interesting. I don’t want to say ‘good,’ but interesting.”
You’d better believe I pushed a little more, but gently. “Of course it’s the same thing as you, Rodney; he was my dad and he seemed so much older than I do now.”
How does she feel? “I’m pleased and proud that he was my dad, VERY proud. And I’m pleased and proud that I am going to outlive him.”
Our conversation, too, moved to other topics. She’s heading off to a movie tonight and is in the middle of — not fixing a chainsaw — but making up a salty snack for church on Sunday. It almost floored me when she said what she was whipping up. It’s a snack just like dad used to make for himself late at night.
More suns have risen for me on this planet now than rose for Dad. I’m still trying to figure out how significant that is or how important that will become. But it feels meaningful.
The best I can do is enjoy my time, quietly thank him for showing me what to do and — probably more importantly — what not to do with my existence. And yes, maybe eat a few less salty snacks. But when I do indulge, I’ll try and remember to savor it, smile and tip my cap to dear ol’ Dad.
It was the mid-1970s; don’t judge us!