22 Jun When Daddy’s Gone

For Father’s Day, my mother sent me an old photo of my father holding me and my two brothers. I was two at the time.  It breaks my heart to look at the photo because Dad was handsome and healthy and could not have  imagined that he’d be dead twenty years later, just as my brothers and I would be growing into manhood.  I’m lucky to have had a father for that long, I know. But his sudden death by stomach cancer when I was a senior in college was a blow that felled me for years.

I held my grief in abeyance for the longest time. In fact, the day after he died, I helped a friend move into a new apartment and, thinking myself brave, never said a word about my loss.  We call that denial. For the first several years after he died, I dreamed of him frequently. Most of these were dreams of reunion: I’d fall weeping into his arms. When awake, I was haunted by the prospect of seeing him in passing — across the street or a few aisles away in a department store. I knew he was dead, of course, but I couldn’t help but look for him. Once, on a city sidewalk, I did see a man who looked very much like him. Quickly I approached him. But as I got closer, I saw that he wasn’t nearly the man he should have been. Not my father. That was the theme of my loss: Not My Father. Nobody would ever be Dad. It’s useless to look and pointless to long for. But that’s what loss does to us, reduces us to senseless wandering.

Dad was a quiet man, a World War II vet who never talked of his military service. I never saw him shed a tear, though I know he was a feeling man. He was especially reactive to natural beauty and wild animals. I recall him crawling under our station wagon to coax out a spooked squirrel that the neighbor’s dog had chased under there. When I built a bird feeder in the back yard, he set up his camera at the dining room window so that we could take photos of them. He took us camping every summer. He was a big believer in self-sufficiency, so he taught us boys how to tune a car, use a hammer and saw, cook over a camp fire. His lessons settled me and my brothers in deep ways that we would appreciate only much later in manhood.

My brothers and I aren’t exactly fearless but we were the kind of boys who loved to break into abandoned houses and crawl into caves and get lost in the woods. Dad’s love of travel and trekking made us adventuresome. My oldest brother, who inherited much of Dad’s quiet demeanor, became a competitive sky diver for a time, then sold everything he owned and traveled around the world for a year. He and his wife still travel widely. For years, my middle brother sailed the world on a ship, laying communication cable. I fell in love with Jill in part because she’s similarly disposed to adventure. I could not have taken on (at her insistence) this trashed former frat house we now call home had I not been Tom Tanner’s boy.

Dad came from nothing. His parents were itinerant farm workers who lived in tents. His father was a hopeless alcoholic. Dad himself failed at farming but went on to earn a masters degree in electrical engineering. He was the all-American, self-made man. That’s why he was, and remains, a hard act to follow. I’m not sure that my brothers and I tried to follow him exactly. He wasn’t perfect. We had our share of differences. But there was no escaping the energy and ethics of his example. We owe him a great debt.

Will, the young man who helps me and Jill around the house, learned recently that he is the father of his ex-girlfriend’s baby. When the DNA test confirmed this, Will shook his head sadly. He’s in no position to be a father, he says. He doesn’t have a steady job and he’s recently out of rehab. I remind Will that he has an opportunity to make a huge impact on his five-year-old son. He can show the boy what it means to be a good man — to work hard, to treat others fairly and kindly, to appreciate what you have. Fatherhood is not an impossible task. Daunting maybe, but not impossible. Will says he is determined to try.

I never became a father — by choice. But I did become a teacher because a large part of me wants to nurture as my father nurtured, by teaching young people to be self-sufficient, if not fearless. Just today I conducted an advising session for first-year students at my university. They are so young and so full of promise! When I talk to them, I feel tremendous hope and a quiet thrill and I think this is what a father must feel, motivated by the conviction that what he has to say, the many things he might show them, could make all the difference in their lives.

Tom Tanner