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A father's influence can be surprisingly profound

I am driving down the highway toward Greenville, S.C., to visit my father's grave for only the second time in more than 50 years. I never knew him. Cancer took him at age 29, three months before I was born. Only in an odd, disturbing sense can I say that along with his young widow, three brothers and scores of his friends, I attended the funeral. Yet now, for reasons beyond my grasp, I am returning to the graveyard as if to haunt the funeral again, alone, decades later, when most of the original mourners, including my mother, are dead.

On its face, this trip makes no sense. My father's world -- his lilting South of dirt roads and pines, easy murmurings on the porch at dusk, blood ties as thick as time -- is long gone. And I never really knew the place anyway. When I was 5, my mother remarried, and we moved to Ohio never to return, letting the bad memories and the little house he built sink into the distance, eventually losing touch with his family altogether. The melting-pot towns of the North have been my home ever since.

What I know about my father I could write on an index card. At age 13, he came home from school one day and found his father and stepmother dead on the floor. A murder-suicide with shotgun, by his father's hand. He marched off to war in Europe and trudged home years later with a bullet hole where a knuckle had been, his fondness for guitar-playing rendered moot.

By all accounts he was devoted to his wife and attentive to her family and his own. He was decent -- an achievement for anyone, but a victory for those who have endured the unspeakable. Inexplicably, he laughed often, joked and teased. As he lay dying at home, my mother and her sister took turns day and night injecting him with morphine for the pain. Once in the wee hours my aunt, exhausted and half asleep, forgot to fill the syringe and injected him with a dangerous bubble of air. She saw the blister rise on his skin and recoiled in horror. He looked at the bump and laughed, seizing one more opportunity to tease her.

But he and I have never even walked the planet at the same time. We are like fossils in different strata, he in his layer of rock and I in mine. DNA links us; epochs divide us. I have his forehead, his lanky frame, but any trace of him more substantial than flesh has been hard to see. A traceless father.

The thought must have stung me. For years I fretted about what, beyond mere biochemistry, I was passing to my own children, especially to my son. Unlike his more responsive older sister, as a teenager he seemed vacuum-sealed, safe from the alien vapor of my character and counsel. At times I thought he might as well have been an orphan. By his early 20s, I seemed to glimpse a fleck of me in him, and he swore it was there. But I still worried that I had bequeathed little more than my hair and nose.

Eventually I find the church cemetery, two forgotten acres guarded by sullen hulks of crumbling marble. I start out in search of his plot and stride right to it as if this were my hundredth visit. The white stone blurts out his name, my name. My earliest memory is of this very scene: I am a toddler standing by the low marble border enclosing the plot, the tombstone frowning down at me, my mother stepping inside the border to place flowers, and I saying (or thinking) it's bad to step on a grave. I remember this is the snapshot I have carried in my mind always, taking it out occasionally to help document my identity. I stand on the same spot. I try to say something. My voice cracks as I hear myself whisper an impossible truth: "I missed you."

I have met him only in my dreams, but I suddenly see how a part of him has seeped to me through wayward subterranean channels I barely sensed. I recall a letter he wrote to his brothers a few days before he died. It was the bravest, most graceful farewell I've ever read. He dwelled not on his death, but on his wife and unborn child. Take care of them, he said. The child is special. And so, I was. From the day I was born, my mother, my uncles and my extended family treated me like the anointed, the new incarnation of a beloved spirit. Wearing my father's name like a blessing, I started life pointed toward the horizon where my destination seemed to wait for me like the fulfillment of a prophesy. I realize that from all this has flowed most of my passion to succeed, my reckless faith that I cannot fail, my fumbling after meaning, and my anguish (and surprise) when reality balks.

I wander for awhile among the stones, but I've seen all I need to see. After a few minutes I drive away. Soon I am back on the highway headed north, and I am at ease. I believe that enough of me, the good and the bad of me, will somehow leach into my son, and he will know it in his bones.

Lewis Vaughn is a freelance writer living in Amherst.