Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day - Our True Father Is Not Always the Biological One

My father was not the man most people think of as a good father. He did not teach me to play sports, never attended any of my soccer games (he wanted me to play baseball, but I preferred soccer), and he generally ruled the house with an iron fist. Authoritarian, rigid, and distanced.

On the plus side, after he retired (at 50, due to heart attacks) when I was 9 years old, he too a little more interest. He taught me to bow hunt, how to grow fruits and vegetable and tend to the animals, and when I was 13, he began teaching me about balancing the checkbook and other seemingly adult things. At the time I was just pleased that he was spending time with me.

Six months later, he had his 5th and 6th heart attacks - his last. He died while I was at school.

Years later, in helping my mother move, I discovered that had stopped taking his meds. The pill bottles had their full allotment of tablets and the fill dates were 7-8 months before he died.

In essence, he had suicided. He abandoned me with a mother he knew was incapable of taking care of things (like his cremation, driving a car, paying the bills, arranging for Social Security, obtaining the life insurance, and raising my little sister). At 13, I was the man of the house and awkward, scared adolescent.

Naturally, I rebelled. Pot, alcohol, pills, hallucinogens, meth, coke, sex - anything that could make me numb. I was arrested, spend time in detention, expelled from and readmitted to school, and generally lives a strange life as a standout soccer player, druggie, talented and gifted student, and criminal. I didn't any of them well.

But I survived my teen years. After bottoming out in 1986, as an 18 year old, I went back to college and became an honors student. Doing so saved my life in more ways than one.

When I was 20 and attending Rogue Community College in Southern Oregon, I met an older man (about 12 years younger than my own father) who taught writing and literature - Bill Hotchkiss (that's him at the top of the post, in his later years). When I looked him up in the school library I discovered that he was a publishing poet and novelist.

I took his WR123 class on how to write long papers, or term papers as they called them when I was in school (our final paper had to be at least 12 pages and have X number of citations, all in MLA style). For that class, we could write on anything we wanted, as long as it was a long poem from Robinson Jeffers' Selected Poems. [Back then 12 pages seemed impossible, now that seems like a short paper.]

He had a heart attack during that quarter while teaching another class. His then-wife, Judith, who was working on her PhD in literature at the time took over for him for about 3-4 weeks. When he came back it was like he hadn't missed a beat, except that there was no more cigarette smell when he came into class.

As we got to know each other in the class, he encouraged me to show him some of my poetry. After reading it, he invited me to join his poetry group outside of school. I was often the youngest member of the group, which met once a week under Bill's guidance.

As much as we worked on poems, we talked about ideas behind the poems, and we always touched on psychology, philosophy, science, nature (Bill had an encyclopedic knowledge of plant and animals, and most other things for that matter), and anything else that came up. I loved it - I lived for those group meetings. And I was flattered that he was always trying to convince me to continue school for my PhD - even after I had been out for 10 or more years.

Over the following 20+ years he became a close friend as I finished school, did my masters, and fell in and out of love (I brought two of the young women to the group over the years and I regret that he never met Jami - he would have liked her a lot). I moved to Seattle after school, but still visited when I could, sleeping on Bill's couch.

One by one the members of our poetry group began to die. Letitia took her own life around the same time that Bill and I both lost significant relationships - his wife Judith left and I left Celeste after 6 intense years. We talked about love and loss, shared our pain and confusion. He eventually met and married a wonderful woman - Lee-Marie. I enjoyed driving down from Seattle to visit them.

In the next few years we lost Harry and Bob, whose back room we used to meet in when I first joined the group, then last year Bill suffered a major stroke and died quite unexpectedly.

I immediately regretted never telling him that I experienced him as a role model, a mentor, and a surrogate father - our relationship had many of the qualities of a father/son dynamic. We argued about politics, walked his dogs in the mountains, read poetry around a camp fire.

I will forever be grateful for the role he played in my life - he was the father I always wanted in many ways. A born teacher, a lover of sports and knowledge, an avid hiker, and a genuinely caring man who just wanted to see me happy and living out the gifts I have been given in life.

I wish I could tell him about my experience seeing counseling clients now, how nature it feels once I got past the initial fear. He would smile . . . then ask me when I was starting my PhD.

On this father's day I pay tribute to the man who was my truest father with no biological link whatsoever. A man can be a father without a biological connection - and some of us who have been through fatherloss need that "father energy" in our lives.

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