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Men at Forty

July 15, 2014

This weekend my father-in-law died. All three of his children were there but no spouses; I get to remember him as he was when I saw him last, at Christmastime, still 6’6”, sitting in a recliner built up on a wooden platform to accommodate his creaky knees and never losing any arguments.

He was a history professor, and I admired and was entertained by him because we met as adults. I think we liked each other from the first time I walked up to his house to find him putting an inch-thick layer of concrete on top of a big picnic table he had built, the only picnic table I ever sat at and could swing my legs.

He was my remaining father after my own father died, and I keep thinking of Donald Justice’s “Men at Forty” now that Ron and I are both left.

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it
Moving beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices trying
His father’s tie there in secret

And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

If fathers can die, then whose broad shoulders can we see from the backseat? Who’s driving this thing?

31 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2014 9:28 am

    I’m so sorry, Jeanne.

    • July 15, 2014 9:41 am

      Thanks, Susan.
      My answer to one of the questions Rabih Alameddine asks in An Unnecessary Woman is yes, I think that in developed countries “the treacherous, illusion-crushing process of aging is more difficult to bear” because we like our illusions and we don’t confront illness in our own homes on a daily basis. When someone is suffering the countless infirmities of age, there comes a point where we start checking out retirement homes because one person usually can’t do all the heavy lifting involved in taking care of another and that’s how we’ve set up our households.

      • July 20, 2014 5:28 pm

        My in-laws are in this position this summer. My father-in-law has been bouncing back and forth between the hospital and rehab, with just a couple of weeks at his home since early/mid May, and my mother-in-law wants him brought back home August 1. I don’t think she’s going to be able to manage him there, even if the house is remodeled to accommodate him; he has dementia. None of the siblings are on the same page as to what should be done–heck, no one could even agree as to what the doctor said was wrong with him the first week he was in the hospital!

  2. July 15, 2014 12:03 pm

    So sorry about your father-in-law. Thanks for sharing the Donald Justice poem.

  3. July 15, 2014 12:27 pm

    Sorry to hear about your father-in-law.

    I think I first felt like the man in the poem at age 50. 40’s didn’t really bother me much or make me think about years past. At some point, we have to drive the car ourselves, as much as we can, don’t we. I think that’s a good thing.

    • July 17, 2014 11:40 am

      Yes, I was thinking we’re lucky to have also been in our fifties before facing this.

  4. July 15, 2014 2:58 pm

    I’m sorry for your loss. Losing a parent or parent-in-law is rough – I think it reminds us of our own mortality too much.

  5. July 15, 2014 3:15 pm

    I’m terribly sorry for your and Ron’s loss. Your family is in my thoughts.

  6. July 15, 2014 6:52 pm

    We are at that stage where the front line is dropping, so to speak. I see you and other friends going through this, and while thankful isn’t the right word, you are showing me how things will be. I guess in a sense you are driving that car for me, at least in this situation. Muddled words, hope you know what I’m trying to say.

    • July 17, 2014 11:41 am

      Oh yes, the way friends with older children (like ReadersGuide) show me a bit of what it’s going to be like, farther down the road.

  7. July 16, 2014 7:13 am

    Thinking of you and your husband and sending you a hug. I like the poem, but I particularly like “If fathers can die, then whose broad shoulders can we see from the backseat? Who’s driving this thing?”

  8. Jared permalink
    July 16, 2014 8:01 am

    My condolences on your family’s loss, Jeanne.

  9. July 16, 2014 10:24 am

    Oh Jeanne! I am so sorry. I remember losing my own father-in-law well. It felt like a privilege to prop my husband up, because I had this option of mourning in a different way – I felt I’d lost a friend as much as a father. That’s a wonderful poem.

    • July 17, 2014 11:43 am

      That’s an interesting word, “privilege.” I think I get what you mean, that there’s a chance of standing outside the mourning while seeing most of the qualities being mourned.

  10. lemming permalink
    July 16, 2014 10:35 am

    Ditto all of the above – and may I say how much I love the image of the picnic table?

    • July 17, 2014 11:47 am

      It was an epic picnic table. I always imagined that Guy and I were the most delighted with it–the one piece of furniture I’ve ever encountered expressly made–and then added on to (the concrete was because he had extra and the top of the table was starting to splinter, but it had the added delightful effect of making the table even taller)–for the purpose of making tall people comfortable.

  11. July 16, 2014 6:38 pm

    Who, indeed, is driving this thing. I miss my own father so much, and not least for that sense that he was a wall between me and all the bad stuff. I am so sorry for your and Ron’s loss, Jeanne. Your father-in-law sounds like a larger-than-life figure in so many ways – the space he occupied must feel very empty.

    • July 17, 2014 11:48 am

      It’s been a bit empty for a while, as he has been sick, but when a person is entirely gone then, as you say, there’s no more wall between us and the bad stuff.

  12. July 19, 2014 9:10 pm

    I’m so sorry for your loss Jeanne. Our in-laws become our family and that hurt can’t be explained with words.

    • July 20, 2014 8:33 am

      I like the way the poem mentions the sound of the crickets, which speaks of the end of summer and just started up here.

  13. July 21, 2014 10:01 pm

    I’m sorry for your loss, Jeanne. This is a lovely poem to share. Those last two questions, in particular, so perfectly sum up what I feel every time I think about the possibility of my dad dying.

  14. August 9, 2014 5:46 pm

    I’m so sorry, Jeanne. Sending you love and hugs.

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