I’ve always been told my father was a man for whom issues of integrity mattered. But people are human—neither good nor bad—each person rather a curious blending of both. We’re as much a product of our mistakes and shortcomings as we are of our triumphant shining moments. To me, my Dad often seemed distant and beyond reach. But everyone loved him.
He was from a different era, and born to parents who were themselves a product of the 19th century. He was born in 1912, the year the Titanic sank and his life spanned the dizzying transformations of war, depression, science, technology and social-upheaval that marked the past century. In spite of whatever external distractions life brought to bear, for him there was only one path; that of being an honest and generous gentleman—but that was not always fully extended to me. I know very little about his early journey through life, and what stops along the way might have guided him toward his demeanor. I do know that both he and my mother always saw to it that my brother and I had what we needed to prepare us for life, even if that meant putting aside many of their own dreams. My mother was always quick to remind me of this, lest I ever forget it.
Characteristic of his generation, Dad kept a great deal tucked away as part of his private thoughts, and he was sometimes difficult to ‘read’—so that which he shared of himself has become all the more precious. When I think now about my father, I’m touched by the things he tried to impart, and by the example he provided. I recall when he was very, very old, and his mind unsound, how he pressed a Kennedy half-dollar in my hand, and told me the man on the coin was a president who’d been shot. I was thirteen when Kennedy was assassinated, and I remember it like it was yesterday—but I played along. He was trying to do the things you’d do with a boy—a son you knew you wanted. The very things he’d done with my older brother, but forgotten to do with me. A second child lacks the novelty of the first. But he tried.
I remember our unsuccessful attempts at his ‘teaching’ and my ‘learning’ how to swing a bat, or a golf club or any number of sporting activities that eluded me. When I was very young, I was a slight child, and preoccupied with gentle things that were different from what interested Dad. He was concerned that I would be ridiculed and unable to defend myself. So he taught me how to throw a ‘sucker-punch’, and then told me: “run like hell son, it’ll be your best defense.” I’ve never had to use that sucker-punch’ but MAN, have I been tempted.
When his efforts to interest me in sports didn’t pan-out, its not that he lost interest in me, but I felt like he was secretly disappointed in me. I was an effeminate little boy—and no father, certainly in the 1950s nor before or since has wished for a girlish son. Once as a young child my mother caught me engaged in naked experimentation with a neighborhood boy. Per usual, I was sent to bed without dinner. With the memory span of a child, and secretly seeking forgiveness, the following day I went up to my father and put my arms around him and tried to kiss him on the cheek. He pushed me away saying: “Men don’t kiss men.” And that was the end of the subject—and the end of my being touched in a loving way by my dad. I have no doubt he tried to love me in spite of my predisposition to disappoint, but like typical Protestants we eventually arrived at an unspoken agreement not to discuss anything that was too painful or revealing.
I have a special memory of my father sitting down with me at our old round oak dining table when we lived on Second Street. He had bought some balsa wood and glue from a hobby shop, and taught me how to build an architectural model. He explained in far greater detail than necessary (given my age at the time) the principles of balloon frame construction. Dad was trained as a mathematician and engineer. That flicker of time he spent with me introduced me to a skill that was perhaps more valuable and satisfying than any of my formal education. As a result of this germ of inspiration, I’ve occasionally earned my living as a model-builder.
A parent teaches as much by example as by instruction. There was a brief time when the tranquility of our home was threatened by strange ‘hang-up’ phone calls. Sometimes something hateful would be said, followed with a ‘click’ and the line would go dead. Both of my parents were visibly shaken by this series of incidents. I wasn’t old enough to be confided-in as to what all this meant. But one day I answered the phone, and a voice on the other end said, “Your daddy’s a nigger lover.” Again the line went dead.
It was important to my father that he be liked, but not more important than doing what was right. It was the early 1960s, and I later learned that in the face of criticism he sponsored a black man’s application for membership in our local country club and was met with harassment, resistance and defeat—but not with failure. He had done what was right, and he was able to come away from the experience with his integrity intact. He taught my brother and me by example, that tolerance and understanding don’t represent the easier path, but the only path worth pursuing. And in the same breath, he taught us when challenged, never to back down from a fight—even if its not destined to be won. Ideals are to be defended.
However, as I grew old enough to make my own decisions, he and I found ourselves at odds over my choices in life, and lifestyle. I became an openly gay man, and this was beyond his understanding. His concerns for me were genuinely heartfelt in his worry that my life would not be easy. Over time he was a big enough man to come to accept our differences, and make remarkable strides of understanding beyond anything I could have anticipated or hoped. But that didn’t happen right away, it took many years of distance and silence.
Toward the end of his life Dad was in rehabilitation following a stroke. My (then) partner, Billy and I went frequently to the nursing home to visit him, sometimes bringing my mother, who would wrench her hands, and continually ask, “Why is this happening?” As if asking the same question over and over might eventually solicit a more agreeable answer.
During one of Billy’s and my visits, it came up in conversation that Billy’s father had not stayed by his family, and that Billy had been denied the presence of a father all through his growing-up years. When Billy’s father re-married, he named his new son Billy, as if the first son had never existed. My dad, while too weak to care for himself, called Billy over to him and said, “You can think of me as your dad too.” For my father generosity and gallantry were one and the same. That gesture was something I could have never predicted, but it felt as much like an act of acceptance directed to me, as it was a compassion meant to heal the long suffering pain of a comparative stranger.
It was of tremendous importance to me to be of use to my father in his declining years. Maybe it was a need on my part to prove myself to him. But illness and old age are indelicate adversaries, and a person can require assistance that infringes on one’s dignity. Dad had brain tumors and after his stroke he would pop-in-and-out of full-lucidity. He was jockeyed back and forth between hospitals and nursing homes, and eventually a practical and financial decision was made that he finish his days at home with my mother.
My mother always seemed to be of two opinions about dad. To her, he seemed one part handsome movie hero, and one part distant daydreamer who could lose himself in menial tasks that separated him from her—but the thought of him failing or losing strength was unthinkable. No sooner had we brought him home, than mom sat herself down in front of the TV set and watched videotapes of soap operas she’d missed. I was asked to get dad settled-in. She thought it would be better if another ’male’ helped him (for his dignity’s sake). In truth, I don’t believe Mom could face the reality of what was happening to her once strong and handsome husband.
One evening while I was looking after him, and his mind was in an absent, nearly vacant place, I became aware that he’d soiled himself. His clothes and body were a mess. I stood him up on old towels, not wanting him to track the mess any further, and sponge-bathed him. I was in the process of changing him into a clean diaper, when he chose that exact moment to regain full awareness. It was embarrassing for us both, and for a second it nearly seemed as if anger flashed through his eyes.
“Why are you doing this?” he said—and I replied, “Because it needs to be done,” continuing to clean him off. Loose stool was everywhere.
He said, “I’ve never been very nice to you, and I’ve never really known whether or not I liked you very much.”
I felt stricken—so much so that I was unable to react. “When I was a young man” he continued, “I used to go into town on the South Side of Chicago, and me and my buddies would get drunk and beat-up queer guys on Saturday nights”.
I know I was trembling, but I did my best to calmly look-away from him while putting the filthy towels into a plastic bag—but my heart was racing. There was a moment of silence, which he broke by saying, “I never felt very good about it, but that’s how it was back then.” I couldn’t look at him so I busied myself with the task at hand. I remained silent, and allowed my father to speak.
“I never thought that you’d have been the one to be there for me,” he said. And then he rose to full height, naked but unashamed, and the once stoic and enigmatic old gentleman very simply said, “thank you”—and wept. It melted years of distance between us, and I never loved him more.
My Dad had a secret regret. He wished that he could have been able to leave his sons with a great inheritance. It’s my belief that he did leave us with wealth of incomparable value. He always stood by us, whether he liked us or approved of us. In doing so he imparted a sense of integrity, honor, fairness, tolerance, and understanding—at which he himself hadn’t easily arrived. There’s no price that can be placed on that sort of gift. In the end my father, like myself turned out to be just another flawed human being who made mistakes and tried to learn from them. He had regrets, and owned-up to his shortcomings as a man and as a father, toward the end of his life as a gift of generosity to me.
Robert Napier Whiting, Sr.,1912—1999 & Elizabeth Millman Whiting, 1920—2011