When he was six, Sean held on to his dad's pants while the men talked and smoked in the dark on the front porch before they would all get into one car and drive away. Sometimes, his dad would turn aside toward the light of a window and check the roll of cash in his front pocket, squinting through cigar smoke while he counted. When his mother put Sean to bed on those nights, she would pray for her husband with a special earnestness that Sean didn't know what to do with besides notice.
When he was ten, Sean held a basketball in the driveway waiting for his dad to come home. He had promised to be home in time to practice before Sean's game. The ball felt heavy and useless in his hands. He realized he was afraid to bounce it, as if it would break into thousands of tiny orange pieces. He stared at it for a long time, wondering if it really was a basketball, realizing that the ball was growing larger and heavier and uglier, until his mother shouted that it was time to go. His father wasn't there. He wasn't at the game either.
When he was twelve, Sean held the door to his room closed while his father raged against the other side. He was asking about money, about where Sean's mother had hidden the cash. He wasn't drunk — Sean had seen drunk before — but he was panicked. More than once his voice broke. Was he crying? Who cries and begs for money at his son's bedroom door? Who was his father becoming, Sean wondered. Who was Sean becoming?
When he was sixteen, Sean held out his brand new drivers license for his parents to see. His dad seemed both proud and preoccupied at the same time. Sean wondered how a human could combine those two affectations at once. At worst, his father hated him; at best he was ambivalent.
His father asked him to go for a drive and Sean was more than happy to oblige. Maybe this was a turning point? Maybe the truth would come out? While Sean backed out of the driveway, triple-checking his blind-spots, his dad seemed overwrought. Sean expected him to make some kind of announcement.
"Sean, you're mother and I are splitting up..."
"Sean, I have to go away for a while…"
"Sean, you're a disappointment to the family and I never want to see you again…"
These are the fears of a boy on a drive with his unknown father. But all his dad said was, "I'm glad you got your license son. A car is a lot of freedom. I hope you don't misuse your freedom."
After that, they drove in silence.
What did that mean? Was that some kind of code? Was he supposed to know how to interprets dad-speak like this? Was it something every other teenage boy came by naturally, but he was missing somehow? Were other teenaged boys driving around with their dads, getting the same cryptic messages and knowing in silent understanding?
He started to ask, but his father said, "Let's go home. I don't want your mother to get worried."
When he was eighteen, Sean held his diploma in his right hand and swung the tassel across his cap with his left. He scanned the audience for his father, but didn't see him. Maybe he was in the back. Maybe he was proud of him even if he wasn't there.
When he was twenty-three, Sean held his bride's hand and smiled for the cameras. He felt sick. He almost wretched when he heard the photographer say, "Ok, now let's have the happy couple with the groom's parents." His mother stepped dutifully forward, and they smiled for the camera.
When he was twenty-six, Sean held Benjamin who weighed seven pounds, one ounce and measured nineteen inches long. Everyone said he had Sean's eyes. His mother said they had said the same thing about Sean having his father's eyes. He posted photos on Facebook. Three days later, his father liked them.
When he was forty-six, Sean held eight tickets to Paris. They were a family of six now; Ben had three sisters. He handed two tickets to his mother who said she would do her best, but he really shouldn't have spent the money already.
"Mom, you know as well as I do that I wouldn't have gotten a commitment from him. Besides, I'm a partner now. We're doing fine. I'm willing to take the risk."
It seemed a foolish risk though, another in a lifetime of risks taken, of putting his neck out or his hand out or his heart out only to have it ignored. His father had always wanted to see the Mona Lisa, his mother said. Maybe it would work out.
When he was sixty-seven, Sean held his father's head off the pillow so he could sip through a straw. The pale pink sippy-cup seemed an ignoble detail, but hospitals aren't places to worry about things like dignity. He lowered his father's head and sighed. There was little hope — for the cancer or for their relationship. Sean rocked on his heels a little, waited a beat in case there was anything else, then started to gather his things. The nurses had been adamant about a ten o'clock bed time.
"See you tomorrow," Sean wished. He wasn't sure his father would see tomorrow, and he wasn't sure he could bear to sit with him in meaningless silence again if he did.
His father grunted and shifted his weight.
Sean walked through the door and away from his father finally. The elevators were at the end of a long passageway lined with half-opened doors through which Sean heard wheezing old people and clicking machines. He punched the button and waited for the ding.
"Mr. Calvert? Excuse me, Mr. Calvert?" It was a nurse coming behind him down the hallway.
"Mr. Calvert, your father wants to see you."
"I just came from there."
"I know. I think he pushed his button right after you left. He's calling you back."
Sean wondered if that had ever happened before, his father calling him to his bedside. He looked the same when he got back to the room.
"What's up?" Sean said. He stood near the door.
"I want to tell you something."
"You told me before, dad. You don't want a ventilator. They aren't going to put you on one."
"Close the door and come here."
Suddenly, Sean was eight again, taking orders form his old man, hoping he wasn't in trouble. Hoping he would hear something that would give him footing, that would steady his little-boy world full of school yard bullies and enigmatic girls and unnoticed successes.
"Joseph is a fruitful vine,
a fruitful vine near a spring,
whose branches climb over a wall."
Sean looked at the monitor above the bed and checked his father's vital signs. He must be delirious. Didn't they say his mind might go in the final moments? He reached into his pocket for his phone. He needed to let his mom know.
"Those were some of Jacob's last words to Joseph."
"Jacob and Joseph. In the Bible. I read it this morning."
Sean chuckled and put his phone back in his pocket. "Since when do you read the Bible?"
"Since I've started dying, or at least started dying faster."
"Dad, you're going to be fine. Now go to sleep. I'm going to get in trouble for—"
"Jacob loved all his sons," his father said. Then he coughed and caught his breath. "But he loved Joseph most."
Sean couldn't respond. He wasn't sure what his father was trying to say. He wasn't sure he wanted to know. He just didn't want the end to be any more painful than the middle had been.
"But Jacob failed his sons. He was a terrible father. Absent. Angry. Scheming." He coughed again.
"Look Dad. I appreciate your trying to get right with God and stuff, but I don't really want a Bible lesson right now—"
"Shut up, Sean. Give me a minute. I'm trying to do something here."
"What, Dad? And don't tell me to shut up. I'm a grown man. What the hell are you trying to do?"
"Bless you. I'm trying to bless you, Sean."
There was silence and for the first time in his life Sean saw tears in his father's eyes.
"I realize a lot of things now. This bed has made me see a lot of things. I've realized my regret can't change anything; it never has. I've realized you're a good son. I've realized you're a successful man, a terrific husband and a helluva good father.
When I was a boy, people used to talk about a beautiful death. If someone died peacefully at home with their family around, that was a good thing. If they fought death and cursed, that was undignified. I've realized I'm not going to have a beautiful death. Hell, look at all these damn tubes. And I've realized an old man's dying words aren't worth a lot but they are the only thing of any value I have left."
The old man lifted himself to sit up with a grimace so that he could meet his son's eyes level.
I was never sorry for failing you, Sean. I thought it was your mother's job to raise you. I was too busy trying to earn a name for myself than to think about giving you one. But now I'm sorry. I'm sorry I didn't give you a better start and that makes me more grateful for the way you turned out.
I'm proud of you, Sean.
And I love you."
When he was sixty-seven, Sean held a hymnal and looked up a stained glass window he had never seen before but seemed oddly familiar. The preacher had never met his father, but he told some recycled stories he had heard from the family the evening before, and did a well-enough job of paying such respects as were due, as due to all men, as due to an enemy killed in battle or an outlaw gunned town in the wild west or an inner-city crime statistic who never knew his father.
There were thirty people in the chapel, most of them hardly knew his father. Those who did were probably mourning a lost debt as much as a lost friend, Sean mused. There seemed a lot of regret in the room. But Sean held the hymnal and sang, "Twas blind, but now I see." And he smiled at all that regret, hanging about the room, draped across his father's memory like the flag of a belligerent army. He smiled. And when someone asked him how he was doing after the service, he said, "I'm blessed."