Michael has always had a chest-swelling pride for his children though he was quiet about it, never boastful. There at the birth of each, tightly gripping my hand and shedding tears, he has been a committed and deeply involved father, a comfortable dad. We met when Michael was 31 and I was 23, had a short courtship before marriage, then launched into producing a family immediately, not able to take the time for the travel we'd both agreed upon. Apparently we were destined for another kind of adventure together.
Michael stepped easily into his role of father, surprising his doubtful mother who had predicted otherwise. Over the years Michael has paced the floor with cranky babies while Mom had much needed naps. He has played games, watched movies and sung lullabies, albeit questionable ones involving pirates and other illegal activities. He has stood by me with a houseful of sick kids and stroked feverish foreheads at four in the morning, even on a work night, sometimes cleaning up copious amounts of vomit. One night, with a three-year-old croupy child and an unusually panicked mother, it was he who calmly whisked this child off to the hospital while I stayed behind with the others.
He has lovingly painted and restored second-hand two-wheelers then run miles behind a wobbly learner, scooping them up and dusting them off when they crashed to the ground. He has built skating rinks, assembled backyard play structures, and chased escaping toddlers. He coached soccer both officially on the field and casually in the backyard. All our kids learned to throw a mean football and slug a bat. Never one to sit still, on trips to visit now grown-up offspring in the big city, he'd be the first out the door to find a playground or any patch of green to kick a soccer ball, throw a frisbee, a football or a baseball to calm the restless young ones.
On visits with other families to our home, he and the other dad would play a demented form of hide and seek in the dark outside. The squealing children had to hide while Milan and Dad would seek them out, scaring them into a screaming frenzy. More fun was when the kids didn't know where on our acre property the stealthy dads had hidden, only to jump out at them unexpectedly. Sheer terrifying joy.
The kids always loved it if I went away for the day or a weekend, a rare occurrence unfortunately for them. Dad could always be relied upon to supply them with all the junk food I usually denied them. He too was starved for fat, salt and sugar apparently. When he wasn't traveling for work, he was always home for our rowdy family dinners, providing the intelligent discourse I craved. But we were outnumbered by our garrulous children and conversation often disintegrated.
He spent hours sitting through gymnastic lessons, driving to hockey games through nasty snowstorms, and in the summer, soccer games near and far with a carload of boisterous girls. He loved to watch sports of any kind but especially children's games. He read stories and sang songs in a deep sonorous voice that has long since disappeared. He attended concerts and plays, both professional (our singer moved beyond back-seat-of-the-car concerts) and amateur, equally nervous and thrilled for the performing child. He glowed with pride over the one child who more fully than the others attended school and achieved so highly, grabbing all the awards.
Though a gentle and loving father, he had his slightly menacing side. All four knew that if Dad peered at them silently over the top of his glasses, trouble was brewing. If their bad behaviour persisted, he would kick off his Birkenstock sandals to more easily chase a naughty child up the stairs; they knew then it was time to run - fast - and slam the bedroom door or be subjected to Dad's withering admonishment, though I think I was the only one who dished out the occasional corporal punishment. When bedroom doors got slammed too loudly or too often, he never hesitated to remove the offending door, effectively silencing the noisy problem. It was he who had the brilliant suggestion one day to disallow any conversation between two squabbling siblings after a nasty argument. Within hours they were begging to be allowed to talk to each other again.
Lately, with a nearly total shutdown of emotional expression, it is difficult to know how much he takes in about our adult children's busy lives. I tell him everything, of course, but he receives it all mutely and blankly. I have to remind myself to share the news with him since the response is usually minimal or completely absent.
But there was one episode recently that elicited a slight glimmer of emotion. Emily, a fine athlete and keen competitor, arguably the most like him in that department, called one morning weeks ago to report on a tournament she had played in the day before. It was very early and Michael was still in bed. She and I arranged a skype visit so I hoisted him up in the hospital bed and propped the computer on his lap, his medication not yet up to full speed to allow anything more. We were told by this excited young woman that her nearly all-female dodgeball team had wiped the floor with most of the other predominantly male teams, men who had, according to her, arrogantly paraded around the gym in their matching track suits, then angrily stormed out as this team of "girls" in hand-decorated T-shirts knocked them out. I must add that Emily is built the way her father was as a young man; she is thin, wiry and quick, and loves to win, even crows about it loudly, especially when the win is such a sweet one. They had nearly won the entire tournament, coming in second by a close margin, and she was ecstatic. The odds of any kind of victory had been heavily stacked against them. Her joy jumped infectiously off the screen. I was happy for her but Michael barely responded as usual. It was only after I had said goodbye and turned off the computer that I noticed the smallest hint of a smile on my husband's face. He was loving it.
He cannot tell his children he loves them in the same ways he used to with frequent verbalizations and affectionate hugs, but that parental joy is still there, deeply hidden.
The old Michael would have made one heck of a grandad. The new Michael will no doubt silently adore his grandchildren, whenever we are graced with them. Alas, with our vast store of memories of Daddy, we will simply have to imagine what the expression of that love might have been.