He always wanted me to be tougher than I am. Physically tough. Not the fat, bookish boy I was, but lean and as strong as my shoulders–inherited from him–implied I could be.
More than that, I knew he wanted me to be mentally tough. Not so quick to emotion, not so easy with tears. He wanted at least one of his sons to learn to be cool in an emergency, level-headed, in charge. He wanted this so once I wasn’t under his roof anymore, he wouldn’t feel the need to worry about me. I know he always has, even though after I turned 18, he rarely said a word.
I’ve tried. I’m in okay shape for a 47-year-old man born and raised in the south, eating southern cooking most of my life. I lost 100 pounds between age 43 and now and kept it off and most days feel better physically than not. I’m still prone to severe bouts of depression, but at some point in adulthood I discovered there were times I was great in an emergency. I could maintain my cool and save the freakout for later–a pretty handy skill to have. At some point I also discovered I could survive the bouts of the blues. It took getting help and patiently riding out internal storms, but the clouds have usually lifted, eventually.
And I’ve been thinking about this a lot because both my family and I–I think–fear my capacity for falling apart. Or just being useless. I did the best I could to be strong for my parents when my brother committed suicide, and I may have done better than I thought I did, but I still felt like my sister Sherry shouldered the greater burden. My personal life was chaotic at the time, so I came home to Nashville for my brother’s funeral already heavily burdened with all sorts of bullshit. My internal load was creaking, and my brother’s death almost cracked the undercarriage.
Then about a year later Dad had a stroke, and I did what I could then, too. But it didn’t feel like enough.
Now I’m at a place in my head where I feel like I could help my parents. Be strong for them, and for my sisters. I can’t explain it without going into a lot of bullshit that would be more personal than this already is–I tend to blog about news stuff or history because “personal” blogging makes me uncomfortable–but if I lived close to my family, I think I could help take some of the burden away while Dad copes with his cancer.
Since 2012, I’ve lived over 1000 miles away. A big change from before, when I rarely lived more than a 3-4 hour drive from any close relative.
And I love living here. I have a Tennessee twang and get sentimental about my hometown, Nashville, but something in my temperament was always meant to live in New England. I suspect that part of me is a lot like my father, who had an implied attachment to this region for as long as I could remember. He hated living all his life in the south.
But it’s very far from my folks, from my sisters. And learning that Dad’s cancer wasn’t gone, that he would need radiation, well, it made the distance stretch. I am distracted lately because my brain is trying to ford the distance and find ways to bridge it. To do something. Anything.
My father was never an actual cowboy. The photo above was made at the Grand Canyon in 1968, on a trip out west to see his uncles. He was always a working man and a part-time military man in the National Guard. He was also cool if things felt crazy. His level voice from the front yard as a tornado approached, then waiting to watch it come, until the last moment. Taking groceries to my brother who was in the throes of a psychotic, manic episode as if that was natural. Striding through the hospital cafeteria the morning after my first child was born 2 months premature, solid and energetic as ever, good old Dad–I’d never been more happy to see him and though I was 27, I kept holding his hand like I was 6 again.
My father has always wanted me to be tougher than I am. Now, more than ever, I’m going to try.