When I stopped in to see Dad my first question was how he felt. For the past few months he invariably would say, “Lousy.” I would press him but he never had any aches or pains … he just felt “lousy.”
Well, I suspect today he would tell me, “I told you I felt lousy.”
That was how I prefaced his eulogy almost a year ago. I wasn’t going to post for Father’s Day, but felt impelled to share with a wider audience. So here goes.
When I was about 14 or 15 years old, I had no idea what to get dad for Father’s Day. He didn’t have any passionate hobbies, wore ties only on Sundays and for funerals and I don’t ever think I saw him in a sweater or scarf . I could make him something in shop, but everything I made either didn’t work or ended up as an ashtray … and dad never smoked.
Then it hit me. As I was watching the Donna Reed Show — remember that show? — a young Paul Peterson sang the song My Dad. It encapsulated my feelings for my dad.
So, I bought him the record, a vinyl 45. That was my gift to him.
I was never quite sure how he received it. Dad was never very emotional. There was no real reaction, no surprise at the silliness of the gift, no tugging at the heart strings, no mist in the eyes … just the obligatory thank you. And I don’t know what happened to the record over the years. I don’t know if he considered it a treasure or trash.
I do know he listened to it at least once on that faraway Father’s Day. But this is an appropriate time to share it again.
He isn’t much in the eyes of the world
He’ll never make history
No, he isn’t much in the eyes of the world
But he is the world to me
I don’t ever remember a time when I was growing up when I couldn’t count on dad being there. No, we didn’t throw the ball around a lot and we rarely, if ever, had one on one time. But he was there in the background shaping my life not by what he said but by what he did. I don’t ever remember him getting angry and there was never any profanity spewed. Okay, maybe there was the occasional damn it or Jesus Christ, although I think the latter may have been more of a prayer for help than taking the Lord’s name in vain. At any rate, the outbursts were the exception rather than the rule. In fact, my first “damn” story was him telling me when he was in France during a rainstorm during World War II and he got annoyed at the water filling the trench. He yelled out “Damn it!” And it struck him. Dam the source and stop the water.
I don’t know why that story stuck with me over the years, but it somehow served as a lesson to do what has to be done, regardless of the circumstances.
Another lesson I remember came earlier when I broke my finger during what had been up to that time a successful final Little League season. The injury ended my “career” behind the plate. As we left the doctor’s office with my finger heavily bandaged and in a splint, my eyes welled, not because it hurt, but because my 12 year old world had just crashed and burned. He put his arm around me — an oddity in itself — and told me to be strong. This wasn’t the end, just another opportunity. In his own way, he taught me to face adversity not with self-pity but head on and look for ways to grow, perhaps in a different direction.
In retrospect, it wasn’t much of a pep talk and definitely not one of those proverbial father-son moments … but at the time, it brought some sense to a 12 year old.
One other incident stands out in my mind. I was clowning around on the stairs to the attic. Okay, I was practicing my fielding skills. I would throw a ball up the stairs and try to catch the carom as it bounded back down. And I got braver and braver, moving from the landing up a step at a time. Of course, the steps won and down I went … right into the wall. There it was … a big butt hole in the wall, as visible as all get out from our living room.
I figured for sure dad’s volcano would erupt and I tried to figure out how I was going to explain THIS. When he came home, I just told him.
Nothing. No yelling. He just shook his head. The hole was fixed, but always remained a visible reminder until I was just about ready to move out and mom and dad had the wall re-papered.
Dad’s role was to be a protector and provider. He had his share of trials and disappointments, but never complained. I don’t know most of them. I know mom had a number of miscarriages, but they tried to protect me from the ugliness of the world and kept me out of the loop … and I remained their only son. So, I probably contributed to those disappointments more than I even realized.
My dad, now here is a man
To me he is everything strong
No, he can’t do wrong, my dad
Throughout the years, the one constant in my life was dad. We didn’t always agree as I was growing up and, actually, after I grew up. But I knew I could always go to dad and together we could solve anything.
He encouraged my attendance at Don Bosco Tech so I “could learn a skill.” I think financially he was glad I chose to commute to Manhattan College rather than board at Notre Dame or Boston College, but he was disappointed when I floundered and bounced around from the engineering to liberal arts program with a less than stellar academic record. He encouraged my transfer to Dominican College and I think he was proud when I finally got that diploma. He thought I was too young to get “involved” with Karen and I’m sure perplexed why I would want to get married at 21. He couldn’t quite understand why I worked at the Paterson News instead of finding a “real job.”
But he was supportive of every decision I made. I can still see his head shaking when I bought my sporty red and white Studebaker Silver Hawk (“You better be careful with that,“ he said, “The police will be out for you.” I’m sure he was thinking about my heavy foot). When I bought a new car the day before my wedding or when I told him I was moving to Illinois, he may not have understood and may not have made the same choices, but he recognized this was my life and he respected it. That was another lesson I learned as my children grew and embarked on their lives.
And, of course, he had a heart of gold. Many, many, many times he bailed me out when I overextended, not only financially but by talking things through, offering options and encouraging me to keep on going.
And, it wasn’t just me. He helped many in the family as well as friends. He made the world just a little bit better.
My dad, now he understands
When I bring him troubles to share
Oh, he’s always there, my dad
I often thought dad and I were nothing alike. In many ways, we aren’t. He was super organized. I’m not. He planned everything and didn’t like surprises. I tend to wing it and treat each new day as a new adventure. He was always neat with everything in its place. Me? Well, not so much. I don’t mind a little dust; at least it gives me a place to write notes to myself. He was never emotional, to the point I can count the number of times he said “I love you” on less than half the fingers on one hand. I remember him telling me and my family he didn’t expect tears at mom’s funeral. I tend to be emotional, to say “I love you“ and have been known to shed a tear or two, albeit mostly when I‘m alone. He lived in one area all his life until his fall. I’ve lived in five states. He would put a couple thousand miles on his car a year. It was just for transportation. Last year I put on 46,000 miles … a trend started from my first days behind the wheel. Driving is my therapy, my sanctuary.
But over the years — and especially over the past few years — I realized we are so very much the same. My traits can be traced back to dad. I discovered our mannerisms are almost identical. Our temperament. Our sense of family. Our outlook on life. Our values.
We share the same dry, unexpected sense of humor. Over the years, he would blurt something out of the blue that lit up the room or start a muffled laugh during a serious moment.
Dad was the epitome of commitment. He wouldn’t quit and he wouldn’t let me quit. He was hard working and the embodiment of blue collar America. He wasn’t a “religious” man but had a deep faith. And he did things quietly. He relished being in the background with the spotlight on others. He passed those values on to me.
When I was small I felt ten feet tall
When I walked by his side
And everyone would say “That’s his son”
And my heart would burst with pride
The past few years have been tough on dad. Yet, through the debilitating illnesses, he managed to keep his sense of humor. On good days, he would organize his nightstand drawer — endlessly. His mind would tell him he could do things his body couldn’t, but he would try. He was never imposing on the nurses or aides and felt they had better things to do than tend to him.
The past few years have been tough on me as well. I tried to visit him every day, but it was difficult seeing this independent, strong man reduced to dependence and a wheelchair.
But even in this situation, dad continued to teach me life lessons. When Karen was diagnosed with cancer, he was there. When she died, he was there. A well placed word or sentence, like 50 years prior, brought some sense to a senseless world.
Even facing his own death, he maintained that same sense of peace … and organization … and humor.
It almost became a ritual going over his funeral plans. For days on end he would ask me to go over the plans … plans he made.
One day, he said to me, “I just don’t understand it.” Dutifully I responded, “Don’t understand what?”
“What happens,” he said.
“What happens about what?” I asked completely lost and not knowing where this conversation was going.
“You know, when I die.”
It caught me off guard. I told him I didn’t know, but figured this could be a “faith” moment to discuss ethereal things like heaven and relationships with Jesus. So I started, “Well, you have a deep relationship with God so …”
He cut me off mid-sentence. “I’m okay with God,” he said. “I mean, how am I going to get back to New Jersey?”
Again, we had been over this about 100 times already, and it was just one of about 100 more. But I pressed on. “The nursing home will let me know. I’ll let the funeral director know. He’ll pick you up, get you ready and drive you to New Jersey. We’ll have the funeral there and you’ll be buried by mom.”
He thought for a minute. “The undertaker will drive me there?” he asked.
“Yes,” I responded.
He had a glazed look on his face, so I asked him what was wrong.
“Nothing,” he said. “I just thought you were taking me down in your truck.”
All I could do was laugh as visions of the film Weekend at Bernie’s flashed through my mind.
Another time, he told me he dreamt he had died. He said it was so real, so I naively asked him, “What was it like,” to which he responded, “I don’t know. I woke up.”
Then there was the time he asked me if I saw his name in the newspaper. I said no and asked him why his name would have been in the newspaper. He said, “Because I died and my obituary was supposed to be in the newspaper.”
I assured him he did not die because we were talking and he seemed to agree it must have been a dream. But he told me to check tomorrow’s paper. “Okay,” I said, “Why?” He answered, “Just to make sure. It’s after lunch so maybe it was too late for today’s paper.”
This past spring, I was complaining about gas prices. A couple of days later, he asked if prices were still rising. I said yes and he shot back, “Is that going to make a difference for my funeral.” I didn’t understand where he was going so I asked him what he meant. He said, “You said everything was paid for. Do you have enough to get me back to Paterson?” In one of my flippant moments, all I could say was, “No, we just have enough to get you to the Delaware Water Gap.”
Dad, we had enough.
And he wondered what his funeral would be like. He told me not to make a big deal about it because there aren’t too many people left who know him. He was right. The numbers are dwindling. But he was also wrong. He left a positive mark on the world that can’t be erased or forgotten.
To be fair, he was ready to die a few years ago and it bothered him when he woke up day after day. Only God knows why and how he hung on as long as he did. But I’m so thankful he did. It gave me a chance to really get to know my dad, not only as dad, but as a man.
My dad, oh I love him so
And I only hope that some day
My own son will say
“My dad now here is a man”
Paul Petersen – My Dad Lyrics
Awhile ago, I awoke to an “incident.” Out of the closet in my room came this dashing young man with wavy hair wearing tan slacks with cuffs on them and a ribbed t-shirt. There was a young blond with a pastel blue dress and bright white apron tending to some flowers. The man smiled and said, “Excuse me, Miss.” At that moment I immediately recognized it was dad, simply from the inflection of his voice. “Where am I?” The girl turned around and stood up. It was my mom. “I’m here to take you home,” she said. She took his hand and they turned toward the closet, which now radiated with brightness. They walked in together as a crowd of people gathered around them.
My head tells me it was a dream. But I know I was conscious of everything around me … the clock, the traffic outside. My heart tells me it was a vision.
I don’t know what it was. But I believe that’s how dad walked into the Promised Land.
I love you, dad.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: Inflation is the reason the best time to buy anything is last year.