One year for Christmas, I got a remote control airplane. I had seen this thing in the hobby shop and had bugged my parents for six months about it. Come one Christmas morning, there it was, in Santa style, meaning it was unwrapped and out there in the open. I was probably 9 or 10 at the time.
While I was ecstatic at getting the gift, there were some things that I never liked to hear about as well. “Some assembly required.” As it turned out, this was more of a model than a flyable remote control airplane for beginners. My dad had understood this and explained how we would build the plane together. I liked the idea of working with my dad on something, we hadn’t done much of that in my life. I’d heard stories of how he had helped my brother build an electric motor out of an old spool, a pencil, and some wire. I never saw such a thing from my vantage point. And that may be where I went wrong, my 9 or 10-year-old self. I may have expressed some disappointment at that point, but I wasn’t disappointed with my father, or the gift, it was the impatience of youth and not being able to tear open the package and run outside and play with my new toy.
After Christmas, the box went to the basement. We didn’t’ have a workspace for it, my dad was an engineer, he didn’t do projects that required a workbench like other dads I knew. But we worked on it from time to time, each piece being glued together with pungent model airplane glue, each brittle piece of balsa wood needing to be identified and painstakingly held in place and glued. This was not a project for an impatient 10-year-old and his engineer father.
So the airplane sat on its impromptu workbench in the basement in various stages of incompleteness for many years, if my memory serves correctly. We had done most things needed to complete the plane, but the skin was something that needed to be heat shrunk, and we never seemed to get around to that.
I’m not sure what happened to that airplane, I’m sure it got thrown out when we moved from that Illinois Tudor house, but I didn’t see it get thrown out. It probably would have brought tears to my eyes. I remember working fondly with my dad on that project, protracted and inexact and frustrating as it was. To this day the smell of model airplane glue immediately brings back the memory of working with my dad on that one project.
I wonder how it made him feel when it got thrown away. I tear up now just thinking about how I only had that one experience to work with him, and my impatience had completely destroyed it. I can forgive myself – I was very young, and I’m still pretty immature. And of course, I forgive my father. He was doing his best, and never wanted to disappoint me. He died a year ago, so I’ve had a year to remember my time with him, realizing that I never got enough time with him, and lost my chance.
My son recently turned 24. We used to spend a lot of time together, but now, with school, work and a girlfriend, we don’t get much time together. And when we do, I sense that he’d rather be doing other things, so I rarely ask him to help me. I wonder if he’ll feel the same way when I’m gone. I wonder if I’ve tried enough to make time for him in my life. I wonder at the cruelty of life that places us in situations that we want to change, but can’t. They are vague recollections and simulations of our real feelings, and we try to make them proxies for our mistakes in life like if we could fix this one thing, it would retroactively fix other issues in our lives.
And while I know that’s not the case, I’ll keep reminiscing about my dad, and I’ll keep wishing my son wanted to spend more time with me, knowing that that’s not the way life works when you have a son who marries. As I approach 50 rapidly and can see just over the hill of old age, I see what’s in store for me, and it looks very lonely. It looks sad and cold. Thank God I like to read and write.
I think the worst part is, I’ve raised him to be tough because, like me, he is very emotional, and the world is not a kind place for emotional males. So because of my teaching and urging and badgering, he keeps his feelings well hidden. I’ll never know how he feels about spending time with me. And conversely, because we’re men now, I’ll never be able to tell him how I feel about spending time with him. First, because it’s not in my nature to explain my feelings orally. Second, because I want him to follow a path for his own happiness, not for mine. I would hate to make him feel guilty for not spending time with me so I will go on, wishing I could go back a few years to when we were playing video games together, working on cars, and driving on the track, just the two of us against each other.
I’m sure my dad felt the same way with me. He had this emotional gene as well and taught me how to hide it from the world, to keep it inside, to fight the welling up of emotion. When I was young and still living in my parents’ house, and far too old for this behavior, I would find myself trying to hold my father’s hand. But again, as I was young and still immature, I didn’t enjoy the things my father enjoyed. It wasn’t until decades later that I stumbled across the shows my mom and dad watched on “Masterpiece Theater” and realized how good they were, and started watching them myself.
The hardest part about losing someone close to you unexpectedly is that you don’t get resolution. You don’t get to say goodbye and thanks and everything else you want them to know about you. If my dad had lived until the afternoon, I would have been able to tell him all those things. I was so close. Now, I just remember him and the time we did get together and see him all around me through the reminders that are put in my way each day. Whether it’s the scent of airplane glue, solder, or the leather seats of an old car, I have tons of memories that will have to take his place.
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