There were times that I thought he was incredibly aged. He'd sit on the couch and his eyes would glaze and he'd slip into a nap like a senile cat. He moved so slowly. Sometimes I thought he was just being really careful, other times I thought he was just dimwitted. Either way it left me exasperated.
There was just this way about him, that timeless "you'll see" that every old man says to every young man and every young man subsequently scoffs at, that made me laugh. I knew someday I'd be him, or at least be like him, but I was neither afraid of it nor excited about it. It was just inevitable, so it was a non-issue. Sometimes his wife would tell me (with a roll of her eyes) to "learn" when he'd do something particularly despicable. Like when he'd make misogynistic jokes.
I remember one December day, we were sitting in a duck blind, about 6:45 in the morning. The first hints of sunlight were just appearing, not so much as observable light but as a decreasing concentration of stars in the sky. It was a little below freezing, and we'd had to break through ice to reach our blind. I was wearing a pair of hand-me-down waders that used to belong to the old man. Somewhere, out in the darkness, ducks were babbling to each other and I knew we were about to have a good day. The old man had leaned over, holding his coffee, and said "thanks for coming" as though me being there was his privilege, not mine.
He took me duck hunting, many times. On one occasion, we drove almost 2 hours, in the dead of night, to reach the sweetest honey-hole of duck hunting in the Midwest. We'd put our names in the draw at Bob Brown Wildlife Area and gotten a good spot. As we were breaking ice to create a hole, my waders had split down the middle. To this day, 15 years later, I remember exactly what it feels like to have 32.001 degree water fill both your wader legs up to the crotch. Out of pure love for the old man, I'd kept my mouth shut for nearly a half hour, attempting to hunt despite obvious hypothermia. The old man had been a good sport when, with blue lips, I admitted I was finished. I was 14 years old. It was one of the best days of my life.
When the old man spends time with my daughter he's like Santa Claus - at least in that I've never seen him angry at her. And boy, sometimes she deserves coal. And this is where the aforementioned "you'll see" suddenly becomes poignant. You see, there's this hilarious timelessness that makes me embarrassed: old man tells younger man things, younger man disbelieves, becomes old man, realizes wisdom, and fruitlessly passes it on again.
When I was young, the old man used to laugh and tell me how gleeful he'd be when I was a parent. How he'd look forward to me dealing with my own children, just as he had dealt with his. How he hoped I got "exactly the child I deserved" which I never really knew if it was a compliment or an admonishment at the time.
Here's the thing though: I realize now that when the old man used to say that to me, it wasn't admonishment at all. It wasn't all about the times I was being a miscreant or underachieving in school or lying to my mother or being disappointing in general. What I didn't understand then was there was a flip side. The "child I deserved" was the one that would sit completely silently with me for over nearly two hours, only four years old, during a deer hunt. The "child I deserved" would be the one that was complimented by pretty much everyone for being incredibly smart. The "child I deserved" would love me without hesitation, without qualification, without justification. Just the same way I love the old man.
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