I became a better father when my dad died.
It was five years ago this past week — a lifetime in many respects. Dad had been ill for some time, thanks to a slightly toxic gene pool that forced him to fight a variety of physical maladies for years. My mom spent most of my childhood and a large chunk of my adult life caring for my dad, with a level of devotion that still amazes me.
Watching mom and dad deal with everything was one reason I never thought I would be a parent, let alone one with four children. I saw their sacrifices — even though in my self-centered youth, they may not have seemed like much at the time — and never believed I could do the same.
Of course, growing up in Texas, I didn’t think I would live in the Washington, D.C., area or that I would have a job that would take me to the corners of the U.S. and parts in between. I wistfully dreamed of going to parts unknown — before the reality of business travel kicked in — and never thought it would happen.
I never would have thought it, but it happened.
That brings me back to my dad and to his lasting effect, both in life, but especially in death.
This column is about being a stage parent, about the schlepping, trailing, and trolling my wife and I do to keep our traveling troupe of performers, artists, and athletes afloat. But, as I mentioned in my first column, “stage dad” is not what this is about, despite the tight verbiage that appeals to my inner editor.
“Parent” comes first.
Not that it always did. I’m a workaholic in a 12-step program, and to this day it is difficult to resist the temptation to put the job — or the task — first. For the longest time, I wanted to be a success at what I did for a living. I wanted to hit the home run and move as far from my hometown as I could.
And I did. But there were costs. I missed a lot of time with my children — all of them — when they were younger because I was working. I saw my parents less and less when I moved from home.
Until the last two to three years of his life, I did not realize how frail my father was. He had been in poor health for so long that I started to take it for granted. Dad felt bad — all the time.
You could see glimpses of his talent. A visual artist, he could draw anything, although his physical ailments made it tough to measure up to his perfectionist standards. So after an 18-month burst of creativity between my third and fourth grade year, he largely stopped, only picking up a pencil or pen to do a project for my mom or when the muse hit so strongly that he couldn’t resist.
To this day, I live in fear that the creative muse will leave and not return. For me, creativity is a way of focusing the chaos that’s inside my head.
So what happens when you need to give writer’s block an angioplasty?
Just in case you’re wondering, it’s been almost three weeks since the last “Stage Dad” column appeared and a month since my son opened in “Billy Elliot” in Louisville, Ky. I’ve had material, but even more, I’ve had convenient excuses.
Thanks to the fine coverage this website gave to the Fringe Festival, for two weeks there really wasn’t much space for a parent’s meanderings about raising a family of performers. And who would read this when they can watch NBC’s tape delays of the Olympics?
I jotted down thoughts, and started writing. And started. And started. I’ve started 10 essays over the past month and finished none. I worried that I had left the muse in Louisville, even after spending a few days with the tour in Madison, Wis., and making plans to visit Ben with our family in Boston.
For several days, I walked around with the lead to this column in my head — pondering what it meant. Is it true that I became a better parent when my dad died?
I think so. If anything, my father’s passing forced me to focus on the time I have with my own children, who are growing up all too quickly and soon will be in positions where calling their parents is not always high on the list (sorry, mom). The time I lost with Nicholas, my oldest son, due to a divorce forced me to realize that missed opportunities result in lifelong regrets.
It’s coincidence, perhaps, that my journey as a stage parent began the fall after my father died, when Ben got his first professional role. During a terribly difficult time, the late night car rides presented an opportunity to spend time with my son while mourning my father. Two years later, when Ben moved to New York for “Ragtime,” Jill or I went with him, essentially becoming single parents for almost a year until a new caregiver arrangement could be established. That forced me to focus on having quality time with all of my kids, because I was no longer in a position to be in the office 12 hours a day.
I realized last week that I could not finish this column until after our Boston trip. My mom, who still lives in Texas, decided to come see her grandson, who would be performing on the fifth anniversary of my dad’s death.
It became evident that Boston represented a chance to honor my dad’s memory, because my parents had a great two week trip up there more than a decade ago. My mom, a trouper, constantly recalled the places they had seen and the things they had done.
Several weeks ago, a friend who also lost his father and I talked about childhood memories and their effects on our parenting today. He had returned from a trip back to a place where he had lived when he was 11 or 12, and seemed perplexed that he did not feel the loss of his father more. I mentioned that it’s the same for me.
I miss my dad at times like this past Sunday, when my family saw Ben perform on stage, completely in his element and in total control. I miss him at gatherings, at holidays, at events where I should be able to turn and to see him.
But then, when I think about it, I see my dad every time I look in the mirror, and every time I look at one of my own children. And I know that he’s smiling from his seat in the balcony.