Why Didn’t I Ask More Questions?

Dad meeting a great-granddaughter

I have been thinking about my dad recently. His birthday was last month. He would have been 98; he died in 2015. Growing up I remember our family life only in positive ways. Maybe my optimistic nature has blocked any negative thoughts, but I don’t believe that to be the case. My brothers and I were in a home filled with love and support.

During his last few years, after his wife of 63 years died, he lived alone in an assisted living setup, about 20 minutes from us. Betty and I would visit him several times a month for lunch, to take him to doctor appointments or fill a prescription. Considering that my mom was the center of his universe, he seemed surprisingly content and settled into his solo life.

When I asked him how he was doing or if he needed anything, the answer was always some form of, “I’m fine.” I can’t remember any conversation about how he was coping with mom’s death, loneliness, or what would seem to be normal topics after such a long marriage.

Probably jogged by his birthday, I began considering more about what his life must have been like. I thought of all sorts of questions I wished I had asked, but, he was always reserved and not emotional, at least on the outside. I don’t know if I would have learned more about the man.

I knew that his dad died when he was a teenager. He became “the man of the family,” taking on all sorts of odd jobs to help support his mom and his two brothers. When he was able he joined the Navy. That was the only way he could afford college. His timing was excellent: his training ended just as WWII was over. He never had to face combat, got his college degree, met, and married my Mom.

I’m not sure he ever really liked the work he did. Trained as an electrical engineer, he was employed by a few companies that were involved in the developing electronic side of society. His last few jobs were in sales, something his personality didn’t really seem to fit. The glad-handed, back-slapping, swap-stories-to-make-a-sale type of guy he was not. 

That fact alone probably explained why he had a hard time holding onto steady work. There were several times as I was growing up that he was unemployed. I remember stacks of resumes on the dining room table and him being home for long stretches of time. Mom’s teaching salary supported us while he struggled to find employment. He never talked about his problems; he did everything humanely possible to isolate his family from the economic effects of his lack of work.  

At one point he did invest a substantial sum of money to buy an executive recruiting company. Located in the high rent district of downtown Boston, his venture quickly failed. A severe recession eliminated the need for such a service and his seed money ran out. I wish I had talked with him about how that felt and the lessons he learned. It might have helped me during my own low period after being fired just after a move to Tucson.

Until his later years, he showed no interest in anything that wasn’t directly related to family or my mom. He sang in the choir because she did. He played bridge because she enjoyed it. He would do whatever she suggested with total commitment.

After marriage, he had no relationship with his two younger brothers and we never found out why. When I asked the answer was a generic, “this is my family and they have theirs.”  So, my brothers and I never met or knew our uncles or cousins. That always struck me as a loss. To have blood relations that are never even a small part of your life is a missed opportunity.

Not an outdoorsman, I still remember him buying me a fishing pole and some silly rubber worms to go fishing only because he believed a dad is supposed to teach his son that skill. He had no idea what he was doing but he and I spent a few hours by an urban lake near our home, casting those orange worms in a vain attempt to entice some nibbles. The fishing pole was retired that evening and was never mentioned again.

In the last few years, while living in a 55+ development but before moving to a retirement community, he discovered painting. I have no idea what prompted him to try something seemingly alien to his personality. He had never shown any interest in that type of expression before.  He attended regular classes with an instructor he liked and began to turn out increasingly sophisticated works. 

Unfortunately, at some point, my mother made a comment or two about them that was not fully supportive. Overnight, he stopped. I had hoped he would begin again after her death, but that was not to be. He never picked up a brush or expressed any interest. I wish I had gotten the whole story behind his abandonment of this form of creativity and maybe done more to encourage him to start again.

Now, I wonder what made him tick, what were his passions and interest beyond mom, and his three sons. I puzzle at the distance between him and his brothers. I struggle with the feeling I should have done more to get him to do something with the last five years of his life as a widower. When I broached the subject, he was quick to assure me he was happy sitting alone in his apartment, reading. I accepted that, but wonder if I could have led him into something he would have enjoyed.

My questions remain unanswered. If there is takeaway from all this, it is to ask what will allow you to have a better understanding, a fuller picture, of someone you love before it is too late.  Dad was a rock in my life, always loving and supportive. But, I never really understood what motivated, stimulated, irritated, and drove him. I never dug beneath the surface, and that is my loss.