Peter's father, Tom, died on Saturday morning. He'd been varying degrees of sick for the better part of three years, the unlucky recipient of a long-term chronic illness with a big name I can barely remember, let alone spell. Since Christmas, it became apparent that he was nearing the end stage and the last six months have been puncuated with stays in the hospital and doctors gravely giving him "a few weeks to live." Eventually, the doctors were going to be right, but Tom hung in there way longer than someone unfamiliar with his character would have expected.
Tom died at home, in the company of his family. Even when death isn't a surprise and when you know your loved one is no longer suffering, the weight of your grief is not lightened. The hole in your life is not any smaller. The shock and disbelief that you will never see the person again is not diminished.
Every annoying job search web site admonishes you that you never get another chance to make a first impression. I suppose there's some truth to that, but if there's anything I learned from my relationship with Tom, it's that if you're willing to look past the first impression, you might be pleasantly surprised and even enriched by what you find.
Tom and I did not get off to a good start. It was the spring of 1995 and I'd just dropped out of law school and moved to Ireland to be with Peter. He was supposed to be re-taking his first year in college, but instead he was fooling around on computers. (And, ironically, learning the skills that would eventually have him making twice my salary, college degree bedamned.) Peter's parents were concerned about his studies. Once, when I rang, they begged me to talk to him about buckling down and making good on all of his potential. They said that I had a responsibility to make sure he did the right thing.
Undoubtedly, turning up unannounced to them in Dublin and luring their son into living in sin in a bedsit was not what they had in mind as the right thing. Peter's official abandonment of college had been deteremined in his mind long before my plane landed in Dublin airport, but you can see how his parents saw causation in the correlation. Which brings me to first impressions. Peter's dad and I had what Dick Cheney would call a "frank exchange of views" on the matter of my relationship with Peter. It wasn't the prettiest or proudest moment for either of us.
At the time, I was outraged and angry. My feelings were hurt and I felt unfairly maligned. Looking back, I can see that Tom was just a concerned father, hoping to protect his nineteen-year-old son from making a horrible mistake. I was an unknown quantity and I could easily have ruined his son's life. I imagine that Tom's worst case scenario involved Peter and I living on the dole in someplace like Ballymun with several squalling, dirty children, dead-end jobs, and deader-end drug habits. I now have an admiration for Tom for telling things as he saw it, for saying to my face what most people would only ever have whispered behind my back.
The only common denominator between me and Peter's parents was Peter himself. Because our love for him was greater than the animosity and distrust for each other, we found a way to move forward. I'm not saying that we magically forgave each other, forgot everything, and became a happy family. I am saying that we papered over the cracks and moved on because it was important for Peter. By the summer, Peter and I were going to his parents' once a week for a family dinner. It was a small gesture, but each time they welcomed me into their home, the foundation of our relationship became a little stronger. By the end of the summer, I had to move back to the States and a year later, Peter followed me over.
Peter's parents visited us our first year in Chicago. It was a good visit, fairly easy and enjoyable. On their last night, we all went out to dinner. At one point, Peter went to the bathroom and his mom went outside for a smoke, leaving Tom and I alone. In the dim neighbourhood restaurant, Tom apologised to me for our rocky start and I counter-apologised for it. He didn't have to bring it up - we could have quite easily carried on ignoring the past, but his forthright determination to clear the air and have a good clean start was very appreciated.
From a disasterous beginning, my relationship with Peter's father moved on to cautious acquaintance, through amiable friend, and finally settled into comfortable family. Tom was a gracious person, willing to learn from his mistakes and open to changing his mind. When we moved over here two years ago, he welcomed me into his home as his daughter.
I value the time we were able to spend over here. Of course, we had to manage the daily annoyances and difficulties that come from living in each others' pockets, but I wouldn't trade the time for anything. Making the decision to move to the Middle of Nowhere, West Cork was difficult and bittersweet. I was getting open spaces, green hills, cows and horses, but I was giving up living with my second family knowing that it wasn't going to exist in its whole state for much longer. Saying goodbye to Tom and climbing into the moving van was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I didn't cry when I left my own family when I went to college, or when I moved to Chicago, or when I moved to the other side of the world. But I cried most of the way to the M-50 after leaving Tom.
So maybe, first impressions aren't really all they're cracked up to be. Maybe what you should worry about are last impressions. On that count, you couldn't really do much better than Tom.