I watched one of my oldest and best buddies come unglued last week.
He told me how much I meant to him. He said he admired me. He for the first time called me “Chris” without a profane modifier.
It was completely out of character. I’ve known him 30 years and the hallmark of our relationship has always been an enduring exchange of insult that elevated humiliation to high art.
It’s just what guys do.
I wrote about him last year in this post about his indifferent reaction to my near-death experience from choking on a chunk of bacon-armored shrimp at a NYC dim sum.
What could cause someone so sarcastic and sacrilegious to express such common humanity?
He’s taken membership in man’s most macabre club.
He’s now one of The Sons of Dead Fathers.
John’s dad died last week. He was 70.
Like so many of my good friends’ parents, I barely knew him.
It’s a real flaw of mine, one I’m trying to change. I think I was raised to hold parents in high regard and have thus been eager to hustle myself and my friends away from them so we can commence to swearing, drinking and talking about how our parents are always driving us crazy.
That’s begun to change as I’ve become a parent myself and have come to understand most parents are just folks, too, and unworthy of any special regard.
I wish I’d have known John’s dad better. He sounds like a hoot. At least that’s the way his grieving son described him.
It’s an alchemic trick of time and nature that the flaws of a father turn to charms the instant the father expires.
This became clear to me as the two of us were out waking John’s dad in a Pittsburgh-area tavern. John told story after story of his father’s insane rages in traffic, at home and in restaurants that didn’t serve A-1 Steak Sauce.
I kept hearing these stories and exclaiming, “Wow! What a jerk!”
And John would just laugh and say, “No, he was a really great guy! He never hit my Mom and the only time I ever thought he was gonna hit me was when I accidentally spilled some oil on a car he really loved.”
That’s one of the things about The Sons of Dead Fathers Club. Only sons of perfect dads earn entry. And dead fathers are always perfect.
There’s not a single flaw of my father’s smudged character that I couldn’t dismiss as a sign of the times, a bad break or a valiant response to a deck that always seemed stacked against him.
He was the perfect father.
I thought so even before he died and I told him that.
And that’s the key to finding peace in mourning a relationship that’s fraught with so much euphoria and despair.
That’s one of the first things I told John when he called seeking my advice on how to deal with the emotional tumult.
“I remember how beautifully you handled the death of your father,” he said. “You were so graceful.”
I don’t remember feeling very graceful.
I remember feeling devastated. I remember feeling rage over my shortcomings and forlornness that the man who’d given me so much love and laughter was gone from my life forever.
The only thing that got me through it and still does -- and I think about that man many times every day -- was that he knew I really loved him.
I don’t know how I’d be feeling today if he’d thought otherwise.
We were blindsided by his sudden death in 2004. It was different with John. They all saw it coming.
That gave John time to make peace with a complicated relationship.
And that’s an important lesson to all the sons and all the daughters of fathers with whom they occasionally war, confound and share mutual wonders about whether one or the other was somehow switched at birth.
You need to tell the people who matter you love them if you want to eventually carry on with your life giving the impression of inner grace.
It’s cool to convey that with friends, too. It’s what John and I did beneath the surface of our talk about our dead fathers
And now I know that John knows that I know that he really loves me.
And, yeah, I love him, too.