I haven't heard from my best friend since and there has never been -- nor will there ever be -- something I can say to ease my friend's pain, even if I were able to make contact. The only thing that bonds fathers... are sons and daughters.
The utter frustration of life is fathers and sons cannot understand each other until it is too late -- or nearly so. My son loves me and I love him and both of us have known it forever, but that didn't stop us from often behaving like, well, fathers and sons.
As he is not yet a father -- thank God -- I thought long and hard about what to give him on the occasion of his 21st birthday. And then his brother, Patrick, called and said he needed to change the light bulbs in his car and didn't know how to do it. "Oh, and all of the lights except for one are burned out, it's night, and I have to drive home," he added. So I gathered some tools, and headed into St. Paul to change his light bulbs. It was there in a dark garage with nowhere near enough tools to do the job that I realized the gift I'd give.
The next night, I went to Sears, bought a toolbox and then -- and you have to understand I want my ashes spread in the hardware department when I die -- raced around to fill it with the right tools to start.
Then I came home and wrote him this letter to put inside:
Many years ago -- probably about 16 -- I was trying to get at some water pipe that was frozen below the kitchen at our house in Sheffield. I didn't have the right tools so I just took a hammer and whacked at the cabinet floor covering the pipe. "Mom, Dad's breaking the house," a young child said. That was you, with an early -- yet precise -- assessment of my handyman skills; this, on top of my historical lack of success with tools (See attached).
I don't know when it was that I started getting interested in tools; perhaps it's a "guy thing" that develops sometime, you just don't know when. I was a late bloomer. And since you are like me, this gift will probably mean nothing to you. But someday it will. And just as your grandfather (Papa) gave me my first toolbox, I give this to you, including a few to get you going. Rest assured: you'll need more.
I think tools are a metaphor for life in general. You start out with barely enough to get by and when you try to use what you've got, well, sometimes you end up breaking the house. But you keep at it and you just keep adding more tools. You add more tools first because you might need them someday, and then just because tools are cool.
I give you this with these few words of advice, metaphorical or not:
1) Don't buy cheap, crappy tools. No matter what kind of deal it seems like, no matter how much -- or how little -- you spend, when you get home and open the package, you've got cheap crap. Buy good tools.
2) Don't throw away tools. Find a good home for them instead.
3) Build something someday. It doesn't have to be anything big. It could be an airplane, it could be a birdhouse. Just build it as well as you can and it'll serve as a reminder to all that you were here.
4) Don't be afraid to break the house.
5) If you have a son -- or daughter -- someday, give 'em a toolbox when they turn 21. And then someday later, give him your tools. One at a time, so that when you're gone, they're still building things that remind people that you were here.
That way, when your kid uses a tool you gave him, he'll be reminded that his Dad loved him like there was no tomorrow.
As I love you.