Reflecting on my dad — and my kids’ grandfather

Posted 6/19/20

My dad, who would have celebrated his 83rd birthday last week, has been gone 15 years now.

When Father’s Day and his June 9 birthday come around, I invariably end up reflecting on the …

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Reflecting on my dad — and my kids’ grandfather

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My dad, who would have celebrated his 83rd birthday last week, has been gone 15 years now.

When Father’s Day and his June 9 birthday come around, I invariably end up reflecting on the trajectory of our relationship. Father’s Day and dad’s birthday come a short time after the anniversary of his death from esophageal cancer. This year was the 15th. His passing was a particularly difficult thing for me because it was at about that stage — he was 68 when he died, and I was 42 — that we had figured out how to make our sometimes-stormy relationship into a meaningful friendship with the kind of closeness we missed early on.

Dad was a complicated man, and his estrangement and divorce from my mom — and the subsequent move mom and my sister Belinda and I made from North Carolina to Kansas when I was 8 years old — complicated things for us. Growing up mostly away from him (my sister and I would do summer visits, which were often fraught with tension) made us like strangers. He didn’t always know how to be a dad, and I often didn’t make an adequate effort to assist in that process. I blamed him early on for that and then learned, as I matured, to take responsibility for my part in what could best be described as a clumsy relationship.

We worked together at the newspaper in Sanford for 13 years. He fired me once, in anger, but in all fairness — and I’ve relished in telling this story — my grandfather fired my dad twice (also in anger). Dad and I both got re-hired, and ultimately, dad succeeded my grandfather and then I succeeded dad in the publisher’s chair before my own retirement in 2016.

After his cancer diagnosis finally happened following a year or two of other health problems and misses by his doctors, dad began to weaken. I started taking a day nearly every weekend to make the drive to his home on the Intercoastal Waterway at Sunset Beach. A regular ritual of our visits was sitting on the porch talking about life, and our life. Despite a few stinging memories that I can’t unforget, there are many, many wonderful recollections. Those on his porch with him are among the best.

Dads are vital, of course. I had the privilege two days last week to serve as lead judge for the N.C. Boys & Girls Clubs’ “Youth of the Year” contest. A group of us judges — including Mark Reif of Mountaire Farms, Chatham County Board of Education member Del Turner, CCCC President Dr. Lisa Chapman and state Sen. Jim Burgin — spent hours poring over the applications, essays, letters of recommendation and academic transcripts of 20 state finalists.

An unfortunate recurring theme: absent fathers. The majority of these kids either didn’t know or had little interaction with their dads.

These “best of the best” advanced to the state level in part because of what they’d overcome. The adversities and obstacles they encountered are heartbreaking, but it makes the triumph of their successes even sweeter.

Struggles strengthen us, and prepare us, but rampant fatherlessness is an epidemic on a much greater scale than COVID-19; the destruction it creates in families, and individual lives, is a tragedy so immense it’s hard to measure. For every “state finalist” who had a good story to tell this past week, I’m sure there are probably 30 kids with not-so-happy tales who face extraordinary challenges in overcoming obstacles most of us can’t imagine. They carry burdens no child should be asked to bear.

So as this Father’s Day approaches, I consider myself both blessed and lucky: I grew up apart from my dad, but spent nearly every day around him later in life. The happy end to the story is that the few years before we said our last goodbye were fulfilling ones; there were no regrets or apologies necessary at the end.

Today, I have three incredible children of my own. Timing and circumstance, certainly fortuitous, allowed me to work for the last year and a half with Zach, my oldest. It has been a magical time for me that I’ll cherish (see his column on this page to read about his next chapter), but I’m still lucky because a) we’ve had this rich and rare experience, and b) I’ll still see him regularly, because he and his wife Sarah just love hanging out with Zach’s “old man” and his mom.

As for my dad? I miss him, of course.

But what I miss most, though, is the lost opportunity to have seen my adult kids connect with my dad. He may have struggled early on being a dad, but he “got” being a grandfather. With 15 more years of practice, I bet by now he’d be the best in the world today.


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