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Tony Bender, Published June 15 2013

Bender: At 55, time is icy-swift, relentless

My father died 20 years ago, a month after his 55th birthday, and two weeks before Father’s Day. I looked in the mirror this morning, and I was almost 55. At the cusp of a personal milestone, it is time for reflection.

A good friend said once, “We’re not in charge of the clock,” and though I had not quantified it that way 20 years ago, my father’s death motivated me to start living in ways I hadn’t before. Before that, time was limitless, languid and forever. Now, it is icy-swift, on a downhill run, relentless.

Life is intended to play out in three acts and then fade to black. Even then, it is cause for heartache. When the projector breaks down before the rightful end, it affects us – or worse – afflicts us. After my father was gone, I stopped “Aimlessly Drifting,” like the Chuck Berry song, and began to navigate more thoughtfully, moving on with my life’s work, that inner agenda we all have.

It is inevitable we will leave things unfinished. Few endings are tidy. A tidy ending indicates a life lacking ambition. The trick is to exit with as few regrets as possible and with an epitaph that does not include the words, “I wish I had ...”

The years demand humility. We must become better or risk becoming bitter.

As I contemplate the two decades since he died, I realize there are things my father understood at the end that I am beginning to see now. But, like so many of his generation and heritage, the core lesson of my father’s life was incomplete. He never really learned to express his love. Few of us ever master that generosity of spirit and that, I think, is what kills us in the end.

I see the world turning long after I am gone and consider the best things I have put into motion. My children will learn from my mistakes, as I learned from my father’s. I know they will feel my love long after I am gone and build upon the truths I have shared with them.

There is a certainty that comes with the years, the confidence of old men and women who have been tested like Job. Wisdom is earned, paid in blood, broken bones and scars. After enough of these injuries have accumulated, fear loses its hold and only in the absence of fear is enlightenment possible.

We desperately seek to share this wisdom with our children. But the best we can do is to plant the seeds in their souls. When it is time, it will all make sense to them.

In my hometown, a spunky old widow planted an apple tree in her yard when she was 90 or so. “Won’t it be wonderful to have apples!” she said. Everyone snickered behind her back at the folly of it all. But she lived to see those apples and to pick them. I’ll bet she made apple pies, too. May I die optimistic about tomorrow.

When it comes to our children, we cannot teach the lesson without living it. As parents, that is cause for anguish. Our flaws seem insurmountable. We are all unworthy of our children and, yet, somehow they sort through it all and forgive us our humanness.

It’s a beautiful thing, though, fatherhood. My favorite job. There is a selflessness that evolves within us. We begin to live for our children, instead of ourselves. Parents become better people. Those who don’t really never deserve the title.

Sometimes my kids ask me about their Grandpa Norman. “Oh, he would have loved you,” I often say. They have the pugnacious spirit he would have loved. And they would have loved him. He was an easy mark for teasing, with a generous smile. Now that I have almost equaled his time on this planet, I understand the despair he must have felt at leaving so soon.

We trust in evolution, generations and the things we have put in motion. I am, as he would have wanted me to be, a better father than my father was. I say this with no pride, for I know my son will be a better father than me. This is as it should be.

We clear the brush and brambles ahead as well as we can. We are hard on our children sometimes because we know it will make things easier for them later on. Sometimes we plant trees, but we must not presume we will enjoy the shade or the apples.

Sometimes it works out that way, though.

I guess it is never really too late to plant apple trees.

Bender is an award-winning author, columnist and publisher based in Ashley, N.D. He is father of two children, Dylan, 16, and India, 12. Email toploon@yahoo.com