Burgers with Fred

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News My Dad - Jack Doyle

Published on January 12th, 2018 | by John


It was late Autumn when I met Fred for lunch. Our original meeting place wasn’t open on Tuesday which was odd. It was even more odd I was meeting Fred for burgers.

I originally met Fred over 15 years ago when we were both working for a hot digital firm in the throes of the early dot com boom. Fred was a rising bright young star in the practice of user experience. He was also a die-hard vegan.

While we searched for another restaurant Fred informed me that he was no longer vegan. He told me a few years back he was having issues with his calves. He visited his wife’s acupuncturist who emphatically declared that he needed to eat meat upon examining his legs. And so he did.

It was a tough year for Fred and me. Fred had recently lost his job and a few months back and his father too. I had also just lost my father and an ex-wife – the mother to my two boys. It’s really hard to watch your sons mourn the loss of their mother. They’re grown up young men but watching them say goodbye to her at the funeral home was like watching ten-year-old boys. Their awkwardness and innocence belied their age. It broke my heart.

Afterwards, I took them to where I met their mother. A restaurant and pub near the University of Minnesota. While we enjoyed a burger and glass of beer, I shared the story of how I met their mother. We laughed and cried our way through that meal.

So here I am sitting across from Fred watching him sink his teeth into a patty melt. Patty melts are an exotic form of burger. Not everyone can handle a patty melt. It’s a cross between a burger and a sandwich – typically with plenty of cheese to spare. But it shouldn’t have surprised me, as Fred is pretty unique. And I mean that in a good way.

When I first met him he was part militant, part Bauhaus, part scientist, and part Goth electronic rocker. He could easily have been mistaken as a member of Kraftwerk. He ventured to places like Burning Man and read almost every sci-fi novel written. We couldn’t have been more different.

When I saw his Facebook post about his dad’s death it struck a deep chord. Posted was a photograph of him and his dad. Fred, wearing a Sisters of Mercy t-shirt, his hair shaved on the sides with a pile on top and a few long braids hanging down. Next to him, his dad, dressed conservatively in sweater and tie, grinning from ear-to-ear.

It was clear his dad was a special man who genuinely loved his son – a love and confidence that allowed him to let his son express himself in his own way. A wisdom that provided his son a path to to pave his own life. I think he did a pretty good job. Fred is now a husband, father, and a leader in his church. But he’s still the same in many ways – deep, thoughtful, a bit taciturn but when he speaks there’s a weight and intelligence to his words.

With moist eyes Fred and I slowly chewed our burgers; doing our best to maintain some semblance of composure. Sharing our surprise and struggle with loss and doing our best to encourage each other.

It made sense we were eating burgers. They are the consummate comfort food. Cooked beef on bread or bun – piled high with toppings of grilled onions, bacon, melted cheese and anything else you can imagine. You have to search the deepest recesses of your memory to remember your first burger. I doubt most of us can but we all have recollections of a favorite greasy spoon, burger stand or food truck that delighted our young palates.

Mine was summers growing up on Long Island. Days spent swimming in the Sound, running up and down the beach and building sand castles with intricate moats. The neighborhood get togethers where Mr. Kilkenny fired up his charcoal grill and flipped hand made patties – a Marlboro dangling from his lips and an old fashioned in hand. He was our middle-class version of Dean Martin, tall and lean, slick hair combed with a severe part.

Why is it that burgers taste so good when you’re outside seated at a picnic table? I loved those burgers. Meat coal-charred on the outside but somehow still moist inside. A large dollop of ketchup with onion, pickle and lettuce stacked on a warm potato bun. My friends and I chaotically jostling at the table, our hair damp from the ocean, our lips and eyelashes encrusted with salt, carelessly digging into our burgers unbeknownst to us that one day we’d be laden with mortgages, work deadlines, and mouths to feed.

My Dad - Jack DoyleI know it sounds trite but life was simpler then. Being a dad was simpler too. But that didn’t mean it was easier. My dad was my disciplinarian and cheerleader. A stern reprimand when needed and a slap on the back when I’d least expect it.

He would tell me that I was a better father than him. I suppose he said that because I changed diapers, was more engaged in the day-to-day, communicated with my children more intimately, knew their friends names, and played practical jokes on them. But did that really make me a better dad? What’s a dad’s true role? Did I make my children good citizens of the world? Are they as strong and resilient as they need to be? Will they make good decisions?

If my dad gave me anything, it was a strong work ethic, a penchant to discover new perspective and ideas, an open mind, a fighter’s attitude and a commitment to physical fitness. With these in hand I’ve managed to carve out a life for myself, had some pretty fun adventures, and created four pretty unique children of my own. I hope I can do half as much for my sons and daughters as he did for me. Only time will tell.

Losing your father is like losing a gyroscope. Our lives lead us in many directions and paths. Some we choose, some we don’t. When we get upside down we can rely on our dads to turn us upright. When they’re gone it’s up to us to become that steady force – not just for ourselves but for all our loved ones.

Grief sucks. It comes at you in peculiar ways. Sometimes it’s a smell, sometimes it’s an old habit, or sometimes it’s an object returning you to a memory that only serves to fuel your loss. A reminder of what was or what could have been. It seems to hit us when we least expect it.

Now that my dad is gone I see and call my mother more often. My relationship with my children feels different too. I’m becoming more of a cheerleader and less of a drill sergeant.

And what about Fred? He’s doing just fine. He found an even better job, which isn’t much of a surprise. He has a family that loves him and the realization there’s a boatload of friends to support him. I’m looking forward to my next conversation with him.

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