Rebuilding a relationship with my 90-year-old father

Decades ago, Dad left Mom for another wife and another life. Today, I help him with his beekeeping duties and leave a lot unsaid

We're physically as close as we've ever been, but still worlds apart
We're physically as close as we've ever been, but still worlds apart

Bees buzz our heads as I lead Dad down to the hives. A short but steep hill confronts us and for the first time he does not refuse my steadying arm. This is new territory for us, and we tread carefully.

We are in the pastoral Catskill Mountains of southern New York, near Callicoon Center, where Dad has nine hives and a tiny cabin to hold his beekeeping supplies. A deck looks over the five acres of pasture. A nearby dairy farmer spreads manure on the property, and the country air is suffused by the earthly aroma of smoldering cow pies.

Dad will soon be 90. He has survived a quadruple bypass, heart valve and gall bladder surgery, a hip fracture and an adjustment to a pacemaker. He never complains and, in fact, never admits that he is an old man. Since he turned 65, Dad has torn every mailing from AARP into bite-sized pieces. I want to say that he does this angrily, but Dad never displays anger. Sometimes I wish he would display anger, or any kind of emotion, but it’s much too late for a corrective. Time is running out, and I know that in life there are no tidy endings.

When I was just a few years old, Dad left Mom for another woman, for another life, one that was undeniably more satisfying. Canyon-sized chasms exist between Dad and me, decades of time when we were absent from each other. Decades of time that can never be recovered. But it seems we are not suffering these absences. My late mother raised me with an assist from a second husband. I am forever bonded to her in a cellular way. To dad? Not so much.

Dad and I have come this far with all the important things left unsaid. Where were you? Did you ever think of me? Did you know I might have needed you? Needed you badly.

Questions that could be asked by either of us.

So, what do we owe each other? I respect my father, admire his success and will try to help him in my inadequate, long-distance way to exit this life with dignity. I require nothing in return. I figured out my life without his help and perhaps I am stronger for it.

•••

Dad’s goal this late summer afternoon is to examine the honeycomb frames and weed out the rotten ones. My goal is not to get stung and to make sure Dad doesn’t fall and break another hip. Unlike Dad, I wear the heavy beekeeper jacket with the attached gloves and the mesh headgear. I have not sweated this profusely since my last sauna. I command the smoker that calms the bees. The aroma is soothing.

Dad accents his plastic honey bottles with a picture of his third wife and the accompanying logo “David’s Honey.” He sends the kids and grandkids samples of each year’s harvest and sells the rest to a local restaurant. Because of his various health issues we have not received any honey the last couple of years. Nothing ever stays the same. How I resent that about this short life.

Dad can no longer confidently drive the three hours from his home in New Jersey to the honey house. I live in Illinois and see him once a year. A combination of buses and a nearby rental car served him well leading up to his most recent fall, but it is hardly safe for him to be up here alone. Judging from the condition of the dilapidated frames, the absence of a viable bee colony and the tall weeds encroaching around the cabin, I cannot imagine we will ever return together.

I remember another hot afternoon when we worked the bees a lifetime ago, a time when Dad did not need to hold my arm for support. Afterwards, as I gulped water inside the cabin and checked for stings, Dad settled in a chair on the deck. I offered him water but he did not answer. I thought he had fallen asleep, but instead he was staring across the tall clover with a look on his face that resembled a serene Buddha. All his life he had worked high-level, stressful jobs to obtain this blissful day tending his industrious bees. At that moment, did he even know I was present?

Today, we have accomplished our goal. We removed a dozen rotten frames that will need replacing, put them in black garbage bags and hauled them up the hill to the trunk of the car. Then I walk back down the hill and help Dad slowly climb the path I have just taken, arm in arm, physically as close as we’ve ever been, but still worlds apart.

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of four books of essays and journalism. His most recent book is "Going Driftless: Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling Times"

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