The Harley man and life cycles

June 16, 2000|By DICK FLEMING

My father once rode his Harley-Davidson motorcycle from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to the West Virginia Panhandle to eat breakfast. That was when he was in his 50s, and I thought it was about the coolest thing I'd ever heard of.

When he was in his early 60s, he rode nearly 2,000 miles, one-way, to Sturgis, S.D., for a national Harley gathering. He wanted to make the trip for years. Knowing his opportunities would be limited by the cancer that had invaded his body, he went on the ride of his life.

That was pretty cool, too.

The topper, though, was when he finally sold the family grocery store that had been a source of worry for much too long, took a few months off to ride, and got a part-time job test-driving Harleys at a motorcycle shop. For a little while he was as happy-go-lucky as a boy again.


That's as cool as it gets.

Then cancer started its rampage through him, and it would only get worse.

The day the doctor told Dad he would never ride his Harley again was the first time I saw my father cry. He was mourning the loss of his greatest passion in life as much as he was acknowledging the larger implications that death was near. It came a few days later. That was last September.

I've been thinking a lot about Dad over the past months, more so this week. And about life lessons and legacies and precious memories that are like psychic lifelines, keeping us comfortably moored in the permanence of our grief.

I've also been thinking about cycles.

With my father's death, I inherited the role of man of the family, and the responsibilities that entails. I worry if I'm up to the task of providing whatever help or comfort or advice is asked of me. Somehow I don't feel as self-assured at 46 as my father seemed at 25.

But that's looking through the prism of retrospect.

There is a natural tendency to idolize our fathers when we are very young. That ideal can become a source of inspiration or an impossible standard. Sometimes it's both.

In adolescence, we become smarter than our fathers, and resent their newly discovered fallibility. When we reach middle age and our fathers confront their mortality, we catch a glimpse of our own and begin to take stock and reconsider things.

My father's stature increased in my eyes as more of his humanness was evident. We became friends, and although emotions weren't easily articulated, we talked about things that were important. I treasured the camaraderie.

I also came to understand that he didn't pretend to have all the answers. That, indeed, he had his moments of doubt.

When we went to see "Saving Private Ryan" a few months before his death, Dad and I talked about the special hardship and sacrifice of his father's generation. I sensed that when he measured himself against men of the generation that preceded him, he, too, found himself lacking.

Let it be noted here that when he had his own life-and-death struggle, he fought valiantly.

My father was just a guy like a lot of other guys, trying to make his way along life's bumpy roads without taking too many spills, wanting to have it better but making do. He was hardworking, self-disciplined, duty-bound, yet determined to have some fun on the ride.

I envy my father for having experienced the freedom of the open road, and the liberating realization that the journey through life is too short NOT to ride 200 miles to a diner that has good coffee.

That's a lesson his memory won't allow me to ignore.

Dick Fleming is an editor at The Herald-Mail.

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