My relationship with my dad was difficult at times. Being the middle child probably by default meant my relationships were going to be difficult, but I often craved a male role model influence, so sought it out any time I was able.
We saw our dad (if I am remembering) around 3-8 times a year, depending. Usually for anytime from a weekend to a few extra days. As well for most holidays. He’d come down most times, or on occasion we’d all go up to him. Despite my parents being separated, they loved each other deeply up til the day he died, so they were just always my parents as I ever remembered.
For years 6 through 15, seeing dad was always a joy. We got along, I became intensely curious about him reading comics when he was a kid (sadly none of his collection existed any more), and I was always in awe at how strong he was. Years 16-18 were a bit different. Those were my rebellious years, and my contact with dad largely revolved around “Do that one more time and you’re going up to Wausau to live with your dad.” It didn’t help that the general crowd I was hanging around at the time felt I was being treated unfairly, and that I didn’t have to stand for any of it. This I agreed with!! (I was a dumb kid as you’re starting to see. and is a regular theme in my writings of youth)
18-25 was the final stage of our relationship. He had accepted I dropped out of high school. I feel there was incredible regret or at least feelings of failure that all three of his sons had dropped out of high school. Still, not a layabout, I went on to work right away and this left him with some pride of his sons entering the work force (I keep saying sons. The daughter was the oldest and thus the golden child. ?) Still, he never forgot to remind me that my job sucked.
When I got fired, I recently remember that he gave me shit for it. “Your first job as an adult and you got fired?” or something to that effect. Shortly after I began full time work at Hardees and later Pick N Save. Solidly employed food service work for minimum wage. I shouldn’t have been too surprised when he made a remark similar to “Is flipping burgers how you expect to make a living for the rest of your life?” A similar sentiment for both stocking shelves and when I was a butcher for a few months. It wasn’t more than a year or two before I began work as a CNC machinist (ironic for a guy who didn’t know what the fuck machine tooling was!). Certainly THIS would impress him, as this was also his career for nearly 25 years at that point. His comment hurt. Responding to my excitement of getting what had to be a meaningful job, he said “Is this all you’re shooting for? Pushing a button for $7/hour?”
I was stunned. I had reached the same point that he had around this age, and he seemingly had nothing but contempt for any of my progress. Almost as if from age 16 and later nothing I could do was enough. A few more years went by, and I did indeed raise through ranks of a CNC machinist career. From operator to setup to engineering. None of it mattered. Each advancement was met with biting apathy.
By the time I had started at Mount Mary College I felt defeated. I would never live up to whatever it was he deemed worthy. Then something odd happened. No jubilation. No “attaboy”. No pride. However what did come through was a tinge of curiosity. “Working at a college? What are you doing? How much are you paid? Who are you supporting, teachers? Students?” We starkly moved from apathy or even disapproval to something unexpected, both to me and possibly to him. Funny enough around this time we bought him a PC for Xmas one year. annnnnnnnddd I became his tech support. This never bothered me though. He was always gracious, always curious and incredibly grateful for being able to go online and experience more of the world in those nascent days (early 00s). I even made the drive to Wausau out of nowhere a few times to help him with his PC, and he would show his appreciation by taking me as well as his brother and sister-in-law out to dinner.
Then in 2000 I started at Morris Material Handling (now Konecranes). I received a life changing increase in my pay to develop e-commerce systems for them. I will never forget the phone call. Between the incredible pay at the time, and the “super hot it job” at the time of building not only web pages but ones that others would use to buy things, my dad finally said it. An honest heartfelt “Congratulations!” But it was more than that. We had a family reunion that summer and he couldn’t contain himself from literally bragging to all of our relatives and his friends on what I had accomplished. And within less than two years after that he passed.
I never explored his feelings regarding my promotion too much. At that same time the daughter was due within a few months, and the two years following his pride had mostly shifted to her (and by association me ?) In the years and decades after he passed, thinking back to the whole series of events it was always the pay that stuck out to me. That was at least the first thing he brought up to every relative at that reunion who would listen. Then again to me personally, he never brought up money. Never made a big deal of it, instead asking about my job and what I was working on. Only now did it occur to me what had actually happened.
“doing as good as him” wasn’t enough. That was still a failure.
Of course this is all a guess. I’ll never have the chance to ask him. I feel all of the dots connect to him wanting more for me than he ever had. Now maybe this is projection, as this is exactly how I feel about my daughter, and probably how most parents feel for their children. Still, his apathy and at times disappointment, even when doing the exact job he was (which he was always proud of), to me indicate that “doing as good as him” wasn’t enough. That was still a failure. It was when everything for my career, my life, had gone far past what he was able to achieve, that he felt he had succeeded. That everything he had done and been through was now worth it. More than that though, I was just one of four kids, the proverbial middle child. So take all of those feelings of wanting more for us than he had, and multiply that times four very different children, and it likely weighed heavy on him.
I like to believe that when he passed, he had exactly that before they put him under. Peace. Joy. His children all had their places, their successes, and had grown past the legacy he left for us. That might just be projection. Of course that sort of thought would give me peace at my time, but the truth is reality is whatever we choose to believe at this point. None of it is more or less true than any of the rest of it. When people die and questions are left unanswered, we are the ones who get to write those answers for ourselves.