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Joseph Cramer, M.D.: Memories linger when a father dies too young

It is natural for the father to die before his children, but some die sooner than others. Dads are killed in plane or car crashes, others from industrial mistakes, still others from cancer or tragically by their own doing. Mine succumbed to heart disease when I was 20, older than he was when his own father died of the same cause, but still too soon.

When a father dies young it is the loss not only of the principal breadwinner in most families, but there is also an arrest of father-child relationships. Sometimes the dying process is quick, as in a sudden accident. For those with chronic diseases, the dying can start prematurely due to the disability of cancers or blocked arteries. This slow death of no energy and no fun affects the active young children and how they remember their father.

It is hard or perhaps even impossible to create a relationship after the fact. One could fantasize, but true relationships demand interaction or a sharing of living and feelings, not just wished-for dreams. However, memories can help reveal the relationship that was there way before a child recognized his or her tangible existence. By drawing upon memories, perhaps not even his or her own, a child, now grown, can begin to see and even feel the emotions behind the fatherly acts that are the foundations of relationships.

A child caught up in a longed-for vision of major league stardom may not appreciate the significance of the father at every little-league game until it is too late. I was never foolish enough to think I was a candidate for the big leagues, but I do remember my father on the opposite side of the basketball court, seated about halfway up the bleachers on the end across from our team bench. He didn't cheer; he didn't shout; his heart could not tolerate it, but he was there quietly writing down rebound and shooting stats on a 3-by-5 card.

It is common for children, sorrowed and even angry about a father who has died too young and who miss the living relationship, to forget that it is the nature of relationships that one will pull the load more than another at different times. A parent-child relationship is never symmetrical. The child receives way more than he gives. Balancing of relationships occurs with maturing and payback by the child to the now aging and increasingly dependent parent. With early death the asymmetry is frozen by the grave. But relationship reconstruction starts with memories.

Reflecting on the prematurely silenced acts of fatherly support tilts the balance of the asymmetry. One Christmas long ago I wanted a Lionel weather station. It had a maximum and minimum temperature thermometer, a barometric pressure gauge, and wind- speed direction indicators. Come Christmas morning there was no box resembling the long-and-hard wished-for junior meteorology set. Instead, I found one of my dad's 3-by-5 cards placed on one of the branches of the tree. On it he had written the five or six stores he had searched in vain. Finally, he wrote there was one in a store far across the Phoenix metropolitan area that he would go if I still wanted one. Right then the Lionel weather station wasn't important. In fact, I never asked him to go buy it. My present was the 3-by-5 index card with all the penciled names of the empty stores.

Melancholy can rear its ugly head to mourn the relationship that could have been or that seemed not to be at all. Instead of being asleep, such as when he would work early or correct our homework, we need to awake to the millions of acts and feelings of a fatherly relationship that are there. When a father dies young the memories and the relationship do not have to die with him.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at