Funeral ministers are familiar with the challenge of eulogizing people they don’t know well, if at all. How much stranger, then, for the son who hasn’t spoken with the father in half a lifetime?
Tom Bord was who he was, for better and mostly for worse. A shrewd weasel whose daily efforts focused on short-term pleasures. A high school bully who fondly recalled throwing rocks at cars from a bridge over the highway. A Navy serviceman sent home from Vietnam after injuring himself in a softball game. A “C” student who earned a 6-month trade school certificate and talked his way into the position of Vice President of Data Processing at Security Trust Bank. Treasurer of the Honeywell Large Systems Users Association, from which he skimmed enough money to buy two racehorses and a 21″ Zenith Color TV. (Before he was caught.)
Yet on Facebook: “…a very sweet guy.” “…a kick in the pants.” “…a true hero.” “…a good, kind man.” “I will miss him.”
My father’s wisdom:
Listen more than you speak.
Always assume you’re the least knowledgable person in the room.
If you’re in a car accident, it’s always your fault.
Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.
The first three are actually pretty good, although he didn’t invent them.
Fathers influence their sons in myriad ways, setting examples to live up to, mediocrities to surpass, failures to atone for. When I was sixteen he committed the awful cliche of going out for a loaf of bread and never coming back. Turning points in my life can be traced to that action. I married when I was barely twenty because the woman summoned his legacy (“You won’t marry me because you’re just like your father.”) I divorced when I realized that staying in an unhappy marriage wouldn’t make up for his failures.
In 28 years, I’ve seen my father face-to-face five times, for a total of less than five hours. I’ve received two letters and two Christmas cards, plus one very strange e-mail. We spoke on the phone a handful of times, always briefly. As I grew older the awkwardness shifted from my adolescent efforts to connect to his clear discomfort in my presence. Our last meeting was 18 years ago, over lunch. He talked nonstop, ignoring his own advice, about a windstorm on the prairie and a burst radiator that led to a two-year detour in Vegas and several fortunes won and lost. I remember thinking, “This guy is completely full of shit.” I doubt he knew anymore what was true in his own legend.
I had a paper route when I was fourteen. My house was on the route, and my father expected his natural perk was to pay the wholesale rate (my cost) for his copy; he didn’t tip. Shortly after he left our family, my father promised to pay me for back allowance and groceries I’d bought (he avoided child support by working under the table.) With interest, that total is up to $6,065. I’m never gonna see it.
On June 7th I received a phone call from my Aunt Carol, my father’s sister in-law, another long faded relationship. (My paternal grandmother told us we wouldn’t be seeing her after the divorce, because she had to be loyal to her son. She stayed loyal.) “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this…” I parsed the statement literally.
Later, Carol told my mother that he’d been depressed for years, seldom leaving his couch. He didn’t work. His back bothered him too much for golf or bowling, but he stayed active by smoking and drinking. Last year he experienced several small heart attacks. He remained on the couch, smoking and drinking. Last week, his wife took him to the hospital because he’d developed severe bed sores. He didn’t want to stay, but she took his clothes and keys and left him there. The hospital called and said they wouldn’t admit him, so she brought him home. She found him the next morning, half off the couch, a new bottle of whiskey in hand (presumably Johnnie Walker Red), its receipt on the coffee table. He was dead.
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On summer days I remember staying out until dusk. We were to be home when the streetlights came on, and weren’t to go beyond the range of my father’s whistle. His whistle was extraordinary, and could be heard for many blocks.
Once at the dinner table, my father told me the old joke about why one should never assume. It seemed the wittiest thing I’d ever heard.
When I was very young, my father sang in the church choir and brought me with him to rehearsals. I sat amidst those serious Catholics in their wonderful robes, awash in glorious sounds that seemed what Heaven must sound like. That’s why I started singing.
The year after he left, my high school choir sang a Christmas concert at Rochester’s Auditorium Theater, accompanied by the massive theater organ. In the midst of that sound, it felt like I was finally part of something as magnificent as my father’s old church choir. I scanned the audience because he’d said he might come, but I couldn’t tell. A few days later he asked how it had gone, and I knew he hadn’t been there.
A long time ago I wrote, “You know you’ve grown up when you stop looking for your parents in the audience.” It’s not true. For some reason, and despite everything, you never stop looking.
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