Saturday, April 01, 2006


Today, April 1, is the anniversary of my father's death. I've put together some thoughts about him and me below the fold ... it's pretty raw and heavy, so don't click on the button unless you're ready for that. The short version is that I miss him more now than I did while he was alive, and appreciate the fact that he raised seven great kids and greatly contributed to his community. I also mourned and came to peace with the fact that my idea of what I needed as a father died long before his body did.

James Hebert (Dad) in the Navy

Dad in his later years.
My relationship with James L. C. Hebert was complicated while he was alive, and has only gotten moreso since his passing. Now that I am the same age he was when I was born, I realize how difficult life must have been for him and Mom. Seven children by the age of 36, and him without a college degree or a steady job. Yearning for the freedom of the open road and no obligations, even while overloaded with them. Driven by the loss of his own father while forced to be a dad for seven little ones. Destroying his body with alcohol and cigarettes while unknowingly being eaten from the inside out by asbestosis.

Of course I knew nothing of that as a child. Children, like animals, aren't terribly interested in your burdens or your demons, in what happened to you when you were younger or in how hard your life has been. Children need love and security, and I got little of either from Dad growing up.

Dad was less a person while I was growing up than a kind of elemental force of angry nature. Life as a child for me was spent figuring out how to avoid his rage. My most vivid early memories of him are of yelling -- at me, at my siblings, at my mother, at people on the phone. I remember a birthday party of mine (maybe I was seven?) when I was apparently acting like a brat, whining and sullen. I don't remember why I was being rotten, but I am pretty sure I was.

I do remember Dad hauling me inside the little entry to our house while the other kids were outside playing Red Rover. He started spanking me, yelling at me to shape up. I remember it hurting, but it was probably more from the emotional trauma than that the blows were terribly hard. He spanked me into a corner and I was crying so hard I peed in my pants. At my own birthday party. I had to go change and then wipe my eyes and pretend that I was happy to be there.

That was probably the lowest moment.

There were good memories too, of course, but honestly, not very many. Most center around him bringing stacks of comic books home ... maybe that's why I love super-heroes so much. The idea of a person with amazing powers, able to escape whatever mundane troubles plagued their secret identities to become a crusader for justice and righting wrongs. Plus it was about the only thing Dad and I could share, so that made it even more special.

He and Mom took my sister Donna and I to Dogpatch, USA, which was fun mostly for the scene of him in a centrifugal force ride. It spun so fast his toupee flew off his head and stuck to the wall. That was pretty priceless.

I still think of his lessons about road manners. He spent a lot of time travelling as a salesman for one thing or another, and had good insights about how you should act on the road. I still thank him whenever I flash my lights at a semi to let him know that he can move over safely.

It's tempting, when talking about someone who's died, to suppress the bad and emphasize the good, to end on a positive note and wrap things up in a nice neat bundle with ribbons and good cheer. But life's more complicated than that. When he died I didn't really mourn. I didn't have crying jags, or get terribly depressed, and I couldn't understand why.

I finally came to realize that the father I had needed and longed for as a child had died long before in my mind. In fact, in some ways he'd never been allowed to exist. The hugs and the love weren't there when I needed them, as a scared and lonely little boy, convinced his father despised him and yearning for approval that was never to come. When I was no longer a child, I had already buried that idea of a Dad.

What replaced it was respect for a man who did the best he could, and who (all things considered) did pretty damn well. Along with Mom he helped raise seven great kids, who have all gone on to success and happiness. He helped hundreds of drug and alcohol addicts recover and move on with their lives. He brought happiness and love to his siblings and his mother and his grandchildren.

It gets easier, with each anniversary of his death, to concentrate on those things and not on the father I needed, but never had, as a child. I feel sorrow for the people I love who miss him, and I hope against hope that he is in a better place now, free from the burdens and pain that dogged him throughout his life, able at last to hit the open road with a clear conscience and a happy heart.


Denise said...

Jeff, I read this and my heart aches for that little boy and the still hurting young boy inside of you. I'll be sending you a separate, private letter, but I feel you will find peace and healing when you can reconcile Dad to your life now. It's not easy, but it will help you tremendously. You are a wonderful man, giving, talented and kind, and your heart is too good to hold these memories. Let go of them, dear brother, and see the wonderful man you are and how much you are loved by others.

Jeff Hebert said...

But that's kind of the point, I came to a peace with Dad years before he died. There were good things about him and bad things about him, but they were all him. Just forgetting about or pretending half of his personality never existed would be like killing him all over again.

I don't think I need to "reconcile" anything, that happened years ago. I'm not still that little kid, I just haven't forgotten about him. Our experiences growing up shape us, but they don't define us. To me there's a difference between being at peace with something and pretending like it didn't happen, you know? To me, being at peace means accepting reality for everything it is, good and bad, pleasant and ugly, but not just picking and choosing the parts that you like.