Our Last ‘Real’ Conversation

To his friends, co-workers, and extended family, my father was friendly, even gregarious, charming, polite, and an intelligent conversationalist. To his children, though, all six of us, my father was, well, kind of a dick. Sometimes he could be a mean dick, sometimes a sarcastic dick, always an impossible-to-please, self-important dick.

You didn’t have so much conversations with him as debates, with his point of view always correct and ours always naive and undeveloped. Growing up I thought that’s how all dads were. They knew so much and had so much experience and wisdom, of course they were right.

I remember watching and listening to my father entertain business associates at home. He was the genial host, making effortless conversation with a diverse group of intelligent men and women. Everyone loved his jokes, and they all listened intently whenever he offered his opinions. But we children saw someone quite different, which is why I found our last “real” conversation so fascinating and, ultimately, disheartening.

He was dying at that point, his 90-year-old body giving out following a stroke and a bout of the flu. Lying in a hospital bed in the living room of his home — he wanted to die at home, which he did — he asked me one night for some beer. Try as he might he couldn’t remember the kind he wanted. He drank only one kind, though, a non-alcoholic brew I found in the refrigerator, so I brought him some in a glass. He sipped it a few times, and then reminisced about how he and my mother used to love to drink different beers. Occasionally delusional during those final days, he told me to look over there, over in the corner of the room, and count how many different beers there were on the shelf. There were no beers, not even a shelf, but he looked them over nonetheless as he reminisced.

His voice trailed off as he went to sleep. A few minutes later he awoke and asked, “How are the businesses going? Are we still profitable?”

My father (right) receiving a presidential
commendation for his work with
the Small Business Association

It took a moment to realize that he wasn’t in his living room at all, but in a board room at the company he ran for many years. I wasn’t his son, but one of his division managers reporting to the president.

“Yes, they’re doing quite well,” I answered.

“Are any of the departments having trouble?”

I answered from my own perspective as a publisher. “Well, we always have problems with the production department, but that’s not unusual.”

“What would you need to make the department successful?”

I responded using as much business jargon as I could think of, the kind he might have been familiar with, and what came out didn’t make a lot of sense. “We really need to add head count and leverage our most valuable assets on promising new markets.”

He absorbed it all fully, and I realized that I was seeing a unique side of my father, his business side, one I had never seen before. He asked open-ended questions and trusted the answers. He wanted facts first, and then your opinion on what should be done. He didn’t hint at the decisions he would make, but rather solicited a rational assessment of an issue, a clear goal, and a description of materials needed to meet that goal.

“What are the bottom-line figures?”

Hoo, boy. “Well, the margins on the vertical assimilator (a term I invented, because somehow we had moved into a conversation about the aerospace industry, of which he knew a great deal and I knew not a thing) are low, so we don’t have a lot of wiggle room in the overhead. We need to find ways to legitimize our actionable end-goals.” And so it went for a solid 10 minutes before he took his final sip of beer and fell asleep.

I have been fortunate in my life to have had a few really good bosses. (Thank you, Pat and both Nancys!) I suspect that if I had worked at my father’s company, he would have proved an excellent supervisor. Then again, I was just one of  his children, so it’s hard to say. What I felt after that conversation, though, has stayed with me.

At first I felt special. I had been the one to have engaged in that type of conversation, one that none of my brothers and sisters had ever experienced. Later, though, I felt bitter and resentful that I, that we all, had been left out of a key part of our father’s life. He had deprived us of experiences that as developing adults we would have found immensely helpful. He had taken whatever unhappiness and displeasure he struggled with during the day and turned it on us. He rarely, if ever, used his supervisory techniques in his parenting, preferring to just lash out at whoever was closest.

It is only now, nearly three years after his death, that I have felt sadness, and the sadness is for him, not me. Sad that he lost out on the pride he would have felt had he been a better boss to us. Sad that he expended so much energy on anger and nowhere near enough on what we needed to become successful adults. Sad that his final bottom line dealt with memories of his businesses and not of the family surrounding him at the last.

I often wonder how he ever became the person he was. What made him so angry? What made him treat his family so much worse than his colleagues? Did he ever have real compassion for his children?

We’ll never know now, and, to be honest, I’m okay with that.

Eulogy for a Father

So I’m standing in the middle of right field with two outs in the last inning of a Little League game that we were actually — miraculously — winning, and I’m praying, praying, the ball doesn’t come my way. It’s my first year, and my coach — Dad — has wisely placed me in the area on the ball field where most balls don’t go.

I hear the crack of a bat and see a ball heading my way. Uh-oh. I start to run in, but then realize it’s going over my head. I back up, close my eyes as tightly as I can, and throw my hand up. I feel a kind of pull on my arm, look into my glove, and find, there in the webbing, an actual baseball.
I look to the dugout, stunned, and see my father smiling, clapping, and looking equally stunned, but also proud. His son has won the game.
That’s what fathers do, really. They plunk their kids into the world, teach them as best they can, and then applaud their efforts, for better or worse. Our father wasn’t perfect, no father is, but he and my mother raised a half-dozen good, decent people, and that’s a darned good legacy.
He left a legacy in the business world as well. Commended by Richard Nixon for his achievements as President of the Smaller Business Association of New England, Dad was a businessman and an achiever from the word go. He loved bowling and playing cribbage, games that require grace and mathematical skills, neither of which he gave to me, apparently.
He was loyal. Just ask our dear friend, Herb J, who knew Dad for, well, a long time, right Herb? Or Bob D, who couldn’t be here today but who wrote this to me:
He’ll be remembered for his demeanor. 
But most of all, for his smile. 
He is with God now.
Remember the good times. 
Dad loved his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren, and they loved him. They called him “Pop,” “Pop-Pop,” and “Popstar.”
Our family gathered every summer at his house and again at Christmastime, visits he enjoyed enormously. “Christmas to me isn’t Christmas,” he often said, “until you kids get here.”
And when we would say our goodbyes and start to head back to our own homes, he always walked us out to our cars and waved lovingly as we drove away.
Unfortunately my last goodbye to him didn’t go quite as well. He was sitting in a recliner, smothered in blankets. I told him I had to leave and that I would see him again, at some point down the road. Then I said, “I love you, Dad.”
He said, “I love you, too.”
I kissed his forehead and gently patted the top of his head.
Trouble is, my ring accidently clunked his skull.
Suddenly I was transported back to my childhood. Uh-oh, I just hit Dad in the head. I’m in trouble! I started to slink away, hoping, praying, that in his current state, a kind of foggy confusion, he hadn’t really noticed. But he had.
I heard a weak voice behind me. “You’re getting a little too old to be smacking me in the head.”
Fatherhood. I guess it never ends.
Goodbye, Dad, and godspeed.
Oh, and give Ma a big kiss and hug from all of us.
In memory of Joseph F. McPhee, who died March 4, 2015.