“Well,” I said after some thought. “I sure am going to miss him!”
My mother then went on to explain that she and I would also be moving with him to Spartanburg, and the strange reality of an impending uprooting, away from all my friends and everything else I had ever known, slowly set into my six-year-old mind. There would be other moves, all of them between South Carolina and Georgia, in my growing-up years as my father’s career evolved. It was nothing compared with Dad’s own Army childhood, which took his family from Washington, D.C., to Germany to Seattle to San Francisco, as well as some other places in between that escape my memory now. My dad, like me, was an only child.
Today, I’m reminded of my naïve reaction to my mom’s big news of so long ago. “I sure am going to miss him!” I had said in the carefree, confident tone of a kid whose dad was smart and strong and probably going to be around forever. Today, I say the same thing, but in a different tone. Art Roth Jr. passed away early Monday morning, October 14, after more than a year battling bladder cancer in the same tenacious way he took on everything. This foe, however, proved even more persistent and formidable than Dad, who had survived two tours in Vietnam and later three firings in his long career as a brilliant turnaround artist for several different companies. Each time he experienced a setback, my dad came back stronger and more successful than before. Nothing, it seemed, could keep him down. It would be the same way with cancer, we all felt, until the last two months, when tests showed it had expanded to other parts of his body. “Like an unstoppable rebel force,” as Robert De Niro’s character described his late mother’s cancer in Meet the Parents. It was an uncomfortably funny line in the movie, perhaps because the description is so very true.
My dad traveled a lot when I was growing up. I used to entertain my friends and their parents with a Ricky Nelson song I had heard on television (“He’s a traveling man and he’s made a lot of stops all over the world.”) My friends could relate – most of their dads worked for the same company and also traveled frequently. Still, my dad was around for almost every big moment of my childhood. He was at every birthday, every school event. He helped me learn how to swim, helped me craft a Pinewood Derby racer from a block of pine, and taught me how to throw a football with a tight spiral. When I jumped into the corner of the Country Club pool and busted open my chin at age 3, my dad was just arriving from work to have lunch with us. He drove me and Mom to the hospital, all the while insisting to me that the cut wasn’t all that bad, and how tough I was being about it. Years later, when I went to retrieve a ball underneath my aunt and uncle’s deck and was stung by about nine wasps, my dad marveled at how fast I shot out from under the deck and into the swimming pool a few feet away. “Butch, that was probably the most perfect dive you’ve ever made,” he told me, and that made me feel proud.
He was a fun dad, but he could intimidate when necessary. I feared him a little, knowing he’d survived West Point and Vietnam, and now had an important job with one of the largest companies in the South. He did not need to scream or yell, because he possessed a cold, withering stare. I remember being trapped in that gaze for several long minutes after being caught lying about my grades. It was worse than any spanking or grounding I could have ever received, and I retreated as soon as I could to our living room piano, where I was more than happy to do my mandatory 30 minutes of practice. “Very nice playing,” Dad said when I was done, and my fear subsided.
As it is with a lot of fathers and sons, we grew closer as I got older. My dad never pushed me to get into sports, but I know he was pleased when I began taking an interest in football, tennis and golf. Some of my favorite memories involve watching sports with Dad, and I have ticket stubs to football and baseball games from Atlanta to San Francisco because of him. In 2009, he took me to the Augusta National for the Masters, and it was like getting to visit heaven for three days. Not just golf heaven, but actual heaven, with almost every blade of grass pristinely manicured. I opened a box of Dad’s things last night and there, atop all his Masters tickets dating back to 1975, was a spectator guide to the 2009 tournament. I’d like to think he saved it because it was the only tournament he and I attended together.
Perhaps my dad’s greatest gifts to me were always letting me know that I was loved and supporting my dreams, even if they weren’t what he would have envisioned. Every phone conversation we had ended with an “I love you.” He had a great way of building me up and making me feel good about myself even in the worst moments. He was always optimistic and excited about what I was doing, whether it was taking a $16,000 job as a reporter in Mexico, Mo., or getting to work for Hallmark Cards. “Butch,” he told me when I took the low-paying reporter job, “I’ll bet you’re going to be making $36,000 a year within five years.” He was wrong, but it was a nice thing to say.
He wasn’t a hugger. His way of affection was tossing the football, or playing “mercy,” or rubbing my back as we watched a game together, usually with a bowl of popcorn nearby. I miss those times most of all, feeling his hand giving the back of my neck a tight squeeze, and me trying not to let on that it hurt a little. I’m going to miss that. I’m going to miss my dad.