Men and Their Sons

by Roger Reid

In my senior year of high school, one of my teachers told me that when I was much older, I would be able to look back and remember three or four days that had been the most important—celebrations, landmark birthdays, accomplishments—all sorts of occasions that ultimately became the major events that shaped my life.

Having reached that point where I can look back and see quite a distance, I realize he was right. There are those few days that I remember as significant. But not necessarily because they were full of joy, or discovery, or happiness. But because they were the days that changed me—forever.

The one that immediately comes to mind is the morning I received the phone call from my brother-in-law telling me my father had suffered a stroke.

Like most young men receiving the initial news of a parent’s failing health, my reaction was predictable:

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Strokes and heart attacks happened to other people. My dad was strong and healthy, and at sixty years of age, he should have had another good twenty-five years left in him.

Lots of thoughts ran through my head as I hurriedly packed a suitcase and booked a flight from Denver to Phoenix. At twenty-two, I’d given very little thought to death, and how the loss of a parent would affect me. Sure, I knew my father wouldn’t live forever, but I’d never considered the possibility he would be missing from my life so soon.

I made that flight over forty years ago. And yet, I still remember sitting in the aisle seat, turning down the meal offered to me by the attendant, and trying to shake off the numbing sensation that kept me asking, is this really happening?.

I spent most of that two-hour flight staring at the seat-back in front of me, overwhelmed by a mix of memories, questions, and most of all, regret.

I thought back to all the times I was going to call him . . . but didn’t. Because I was too busy.

I remembered the countless Saturday mornings I’d slept in—instead of getting up early to go to work with him, so we could spend a few hours together.

I never considered the real value of those mornings . . . what they meant to him, and what they would mean to me—later. A twelve year-old doesn’t think that way. I’d assumed there would be plenty of Saturdays waiting for both of us in the future.

I’d always rationalized my one-sided priorities with a promise to spend more time with him as I got older. But I think it was more truthful to say that I planned to have those long father-son talks when I found myself confused, or overwhelmed, or needed his opinion. I’d even imagined sitting down with him on some future evening and asking his advice on buying a house, or choosing a wife, or making a career move.

I’d never given it a second thought that he might not be there, to offer suggestions, or to listen to me brag about my promotions at work, or my plan to start my own business.

And now I wondered . . . was it too late?

Then came the BIG question—the one I couldn’t answer.

Why had I waited? Why hadn’t I spent more time with him last year, or last month, or yesterday?

The morning I received the phone call from my brother-in-law was a significant day in my life because it changed me, altered my future. Because on that day, I lost my champion, a man who always had my best interests at heart. Always mine before his. Always.

The relationship a man has with his father is a mixture of advice, example, and sacrifice.

My father offered me the first example of how a man treats a woman, and how a man treats another man. I saw how he handled pressure, and stress, and disappointment. And how he managed the assets of time and money.

And as I watched him maneuver his way through life from year to year, I never saw him growing older. I never noticed the changes that time brought, both physically and mentally. I only saw the persistent qualities that made him who he was, both to me and the rest of the world.

I learned many things from my father, but surprisingly, the ones that were most important I didn’t recognize until years after he was gone. So on this anniversary of his passing, I’ll offer what has become true for me.

1. He was human. He made mistakes.

2. Sometimes he did the best he could. Sometimes he didn’t. (See number one.)

3. He had also been a child, and grew up being influenced by his father. His values and priorities came from another time and place. It’s only natural his goals and aspirations did not always perfectly align with mine. But his advice, urging me to be careful with my time, money, and my heart, was timeless.

4. There’s a good chance my presence had more of an impact on his life than his did on mine. Having a child changes everything. From the day I was born, I now realize my life was a constant influence on his. At the time, I never wondered what my dad’s life would have been like without me in it—if I’d not been born. I should have. I should have considered how much more he might have accomplished if he’d not dedicated his time – his life – to me. And I should have been grateful.

5. If time travel was a reality, and it were possible to go back and change just one thing in the relationship with my father, it would be this:

“I wish I’d taken more time to listen. Just sit with him and listen.”

There are so many things a father wants to tell their son. But they hold back. Because they know we’re busy. They know we want to spent time with our friends, or that we have other interests. They were young once, too, and they remember. And so they wait, choosing their moments carefully, until we can spare a few minutes. To talk about what’s important.

In hindsight, it was all important—especially the parts that I missed.

Father and son walking on beach at sunset