Today would be my father’s 68th birthday. He passed away from cancer 3 years ago. It is always a weird day for me. A reminder of his passing and a reminder of a relationship that was complicated at best.
Growing up, he toured the country in a production of Music Man. He was on Broadway in Lionel Bart’s Oliver! that featured Davy Jones of later Monkees fame. Through that he appeared with fellow cast members on a historic episode of The Ed Sullivan Show. Also appearing that night for the first time? The Beatles. Since his passing, I have found old letters from all genders and age ranges writing him about being on Broadway. I found contracts from appearing in commercials. He was a showman from a young age.
His love of show tunes. His love of dance. Until his health failed him, he taught adult education tap dance at a school. I spent many nights during my Thanksgiving breaks locked in a school cafeteria, attempting to do homework, while he taught a ragtag group of mostly senior citizens how to tap dance. All of them constantly telling me how much I looked like him, and asking if I had his moves. I did and still to this day do not.
He wasn’t physically a large man, but his personality was larger than life. I took him to visit his coworkers in the last months of his life. We had just a day earlier learned treatments stopped working, and the end was fast approaching. I stood 4 inches taller, 35 years younger and healthy. He filled the hallways of the Senior Center. Half his face was numb, an eye no longer opened due to tumors pressing on nerves. He openly told people his condition, but quickly followed it up with “I guess you could truly say I am a numbskull.”.
He was a showman until the end.
My father was prone to depression. I didn’t know it at the time, and he never admitted it, but one of my mother’s biggest issues with him was his tendency to lock himself in his room and lay in bed. Growing up she always told me not to adopt his habit of laziness. Now that I’m in my thirties, and have a knack for laying in bed for hours after work, and speaking to a therapist, I’m aware its more than being lazy.
The other issue my mother (and the rest of us) had about him was his temper. You never knew what would set him off. Invectives and objects would be thrown around a room with reckless abandon. Once, his computer didn’t respond the way he desired, and he was on the ground throwing a tantrum like a toddler. There were unaddressed issues.
The divorce from my mother exacerbated these issues. Our first weekends with him were spent laying on his bed while he cried and repeatedly told us it was our mother’s fault. He would continually tell my sister and I that he loved us. On the way to be dropped back off at our mother’s he’d ask if we had a good time every 6 minutes or so.
He was a complicated man. He had a tempest of emotions I assume he never really learned how to express. Growing up, he coached my soccer teams despite never knowing the sport. He never missed a child support payment, nor a weekend with us. He took me on trips to Gettysburg, Toronto, Washington DC, and others. He bought me books and cds. He, on the surface, was a decent father. We just never connected.
When I moved to Florida, we would alternate Sundays to call the other. The conversations were always the same. He’d ask about the weather, maybe a little about school, a few I love and miss you’s and we’d hang up.
My late teens and early twenties were a complicated time emotionally for me. I reached out to him in my way, and I don’t think he was able to understand and responded in a way he usually would. It hurt me deeper than I admitted at the time. We started to drift apart and before I knew it, the distance was greater than just New York and Florida. It wasn’t until I received a message saying the cancer was getting worse and he was emotionally beaten. Maybe a phone call from me would help lift him back up. I chewed on that for a couple of days. Was it possible to bridge this gap? Could I let go of a pit of hurt? Yes and no. I called him. Weekly. The hurt of the past was never addressed, in fact, it only increased as events unfolded, but relationships, especially familial ones, are never quite black and white. I know my father loved me. I also know there were things in his head that would not let him reach beyond himself and give me the emotional connections I needed from him.
With his passing, I won’t ever get the answers to some of my questions, and I wrestle with them in my head often, but I’ve come to accept him for who he was. I can sit here and thank him for my sense of humor and for that small creative spark inside my head. I can thank him for doing his best, and I can thank him for giving me a mirror of my shortcomings that I need to address so I don’t repeat his mistakes.
Happy Birthday, Old man.