The Long Good-Bye
Listen to “The Long Good-Bye” by Fred Smith
Virtually every time I mention my father in a blog people will comment about how interesting he must have been. Some who knew him will write with anecdotes about his wisdom and humor or ways he became a father figure in their lives. Dad was someone people wanted to know or felt they already did. His ability to put people at ease while at the same time “stretching their categories” made him both a fine consultant, mentor and speaker.
His aphorisms and phrases like “Wait To Worry” or “Giving Drains My Greed” are almost countless. His stories and humor gave him a rare gift for “putting the pin in the balloon” without hurting anyone. He was, ironically, always the outsider that everyone wanted to include. But, like many public figures, he kept parts of himself hidden and protected. It was not shame or failure. It was privacy he valued.
My father and I were distant for many years. Not enemies – just not friends. We had exchanges but not what you would call conversations. In fact, it was not until we were both much older that we began to understand each other.
Partly as a result of his health failing, we spent more time together, and I accompanied him a few times on his annual trips to Mayo Clinic for his appointments. It was during one of these that his doctor told him he probably had a couple of years – give or take – to live. It was a difficult moment for both of us and, as usual, we handled it in different ways.
As I thought later about what the doctor had said I told Dad, “Why don’t we go off together? We’ll just walk and talk and get to know each other. You pick the place and we’ll spend a week there.”
He chose England, and we spent three days in London and then four days in Oxford and the Lake District. We walked everywhere! We ate in both fine restaurants and small pubs. We even had lunch in a crypt near the British Museum. Dad struggled up the steps to the roof of St. Mary’s in Oxford. He stood in the pulpit where John Wesley denounced the sloth of the senior members of the University and was, predictably, never asked to preach there again: “I have preached, I suppose, the last time in St. Mary’s. Be it so. I am now clear of the blood of these men. I have delivered my soul.” We talked about that for days.
Because I was determined to know more about Dad I asked him questions the whole time, and he would talk about areas of his life into which I had never been invited or asked to be admitted. For those seven days he responded to every question I had, and it was both satisfying and sad. Why had we not done this before? Why had we waited so long?
Two months after we returned to the States I received a package. It was a 200-page typed manuscript Dad had pecked out with one hand. (From an accident his right hand had been almost useless since he was a boy. In typical fashion he turned it into a phrase: “I don’t have a handicap. I have a fact of life and it is my choice what to do with it.”) His whole life was contained in the manuscript. Like John Wesley, he had delivered his soul. In those pages were everything we had talked about and more.
His words were not arranged by time or topic but by relationships. Each chapter was about a person in his life – some famous and many who had been, I suspect, invisible to everyone but him. Although there had been moments in the past when I had a glimpse of who he was, it was only after this trip that I began to understand.
He fooled the doctor. We took trips for several years after that and, again, went wherever he wanted for a week to walk and talk. Only when he was unable to travel did we stop. Dad died in 2007 but during those few years we recovered the “years that the locusts had eaten” and then some. We found out what it was to be a father and son.
I don’t want to preach in these blogs, but I would like to say something to young men who are working through their relationships with their fathers. Think about a trip where you just walk and talk. Think about a way you can both have the time to tell your stories and discover what it means to be father and son.
Don’t regret waiting to purchase “Where The Light Divides” here.
Art by Jean-Michel Basquiat