My Father’s Son
It’s the first day of the New Year and I have survived. No, not because of a wild party or hangover. Those days are long behind me, thank goodness. But New Year’s Eve has mostly meant one thing for me: the anniversary of my father’s birth. This year, h e missed his eighty-ninth birthday by three months and a day. And I’m struggling with it, but not for the reasons you might think. His funeral, as much as his death, haunts me.
I was nine and sick … again. Whatever family outing that had been planned was canceled due to my asthma attack and subsequent bronchitis. My father was angry and I was in my bathrobe with a glass thermometer in my mouth. My father told me to pick up a tissue I had dropped. I never saw the kick coming. I flew through the air, all 45 pounds of me, and smashed face first into the dining room table. The thermometer, filled with mercury, shattered in my mouth.
I stood looking at my father in his casket. His mouth was set in its usual position . . . halfway between a smile and a snarl. I touched his hand and kissed him on his forehead. It was the only time I ever kissed him, and he certainly had never kissed me. Behind me, his favorite sister and her husband sobbed. Nobody had expected his heart to give out. To his family, my father was invincible, a hero. The photo that my cousins had chosen was of him in a WWII veteran’s hat, which was embarrassing to me. My father never served in WWII. He enlisted almost a year after the Japanese surrendered. At best, he was a WWII era vet.
It was hard for me to give the eulogy. I had practiced on the plane, but I couldn’t get through it as I had planned. Tears and grief overwhelmed me. I sat down unable to finish. I waited but no one else stood up to speak. I couldn’t understand why.
“Uncle Bernard, Uncle Bernard” my cousins yelled whenever my father walked into their house. His visits were like Brazilian Carnivale and five, ten, fifteen kids would swarm over my father who began the ritualistic rough housing and tickle fests that his presence always conjured up. I loved being a part of it. My father was one of six kids in a Catholic family. Three boys and three girls. I have so many cousins that I haven’t met most of them. I was meeting many who were at the funeral for the first time.
My father was buried with full military honors . . . something that he did deserve. He spent twenty five years in the Navy and the Air Force. And though he never saw combat, his work on the DEW line and at NORAD was critical in keeping us safe during the Cold War. The flag that draped his coffin was first given to my step mother who is deep in dementia. Then my step sister gave it to me. It was a kindness from another person who was a stranger to me. I was now officially an orphan.
The first time my father spanked me was when I was two weeks old. I was born with a closed stomach, a condition that kept me up at night crying from hunger. After two weeks, I was cured of the problem, but I was used to being up all night being rocked and held. A swat on my diapered bottom stopped my crying.
My mother died thirty years before my father. I was a grown man with a career and a wife at that time. These facts plus my asthmatic need for a dry climate kept me in Colorado instead of moving to Florida. My father remarried sixth months after my mother’s death, which should have bothered me, but it didn’t. My father never liked my mother, At least not in my memory. He didn’t like me either for that matter. I was an embarrassment to him. First because I was sick all of the time. The fact that my asthma was probably caused by his cigarettes didn’t matter. He wanted an athlete for a son. He got me instead. He wanted me to play baseball; I wanted to play chess. He wanted me to play hockey; I wanted to read a book. But the worst embarrassment for him was that I was an only child. My father was the most successful in terms of education and career out of everybody in his family. His brothers were constantly out of work and on food stamps. But they had twenty or so kids between them, and they questioned his manhood at every opportunity.
His wake was where things got really weird. There was a vibe I sensed but couldn’t pin down. Many people introduced themselves, but I really only knew two of my female cousins. I caught up with one but could never seem to get a chance with the other. That bothered me a lot. She and her sons had done so much for my father. Things that I wanted to do but couldn’t. She was also in charge of my father’s bank account. As executor of my father’s will, I needed to talk to her about things including reimbursement for my plane ticket. A trivial matter to some, but with all of my medical bills, it was important to me. Besides, trying to take care of business was helping me get through pain.
I saw her leave and got up to talk to her. Her eldest son blocked my way.
“You stay away from my mother,” he said. “You leave her alone.” He balled his hands into fists. I was stunned. Was this man half my age challenging me to fight at my father’s wake?
I picked myself off of the floor after blacking out momentarily. I was fifteen and had objected to my father calling my mother a “fat cow.” He struck so hard in the chest without warning me that I had fallen backwards and hit my head on the ceramic tile counter top in the kitchen. As I stood up rubbing the back of my skull, he said, ”She may be your mother, but she’s my wife.” Two weeks later, I bought a JC Higgins single shot .22 rifle from a friend. That was the last time my father hit me.
I wasn’t afraid of being beaten up by this young man who was taller, stronger, and in far better shape than me. Every day I go to work in a prison with 700 murderers, thieves, rapists, and members from just about every major gang. My only weapon is my yearly training on how not to get killed by an angry inmate. But I couldn’t dishonor my father by engaging in a brawl at his wake. So I listened as a bunch of people who didn’t know me explain what a terrible person I am and what an ungrateful son I was for not leaving my family in Colorado and endangering my health to take care of my father in Florida. They didn’t want to hear that I had tried to get my father to move back to Colorado so I could help him. They worshipped my father, who had always treated them better than he had me. They wouldn’t have believed me.
To say I was upset is like saying the Titanic got a little moist. These people, whom I didn’t know, were trying to steal my father from me. They were trying to steal my grief. The young man who threatened me even had the gall to say that he “knew my father better than I did.” It was devastating, especially since my father had obviously encouraged them to think poorly of me.
An awkward adolescent, I knocked over my glass of milk at the table. As I frantically tried to wipe up the mess, my father said, “I should have named you Sunshine because you are so bright.”
After my mother’s death, I tried to develop a relationship with my father. Since we never really had one growing up, and since he was the only surviving member of my family of origin, I tried to make up for lost time. But one can’t ever really do that. We had our ups and downs. He liked having grandsons until they got old enough to notice and object to his use of racial slurs (something I never saw growing up but which he acquired after decades of living in the South) and calling my step-mother a “dummy.” I’m sure he thought I poisoned them about him just like he blamed my mother for our issues.
I tried to talk about the problems in our relationship, but he just couldn’t handle it. So I took what I could get. For the last three years, as his wife descended into darkness and his own health declined, I called him once a week. We talked more in those three years than in the first thirty of my life. His living situation became unstable as he moved in and out of assisted living and apartments. All the while, my cousins, including the young man who threatened me, packed him up and cleaned the old place and unpacked him in the new one. I am forever grateful to them for that.
One might wonder, in light of my upbringing, why I loved my father or why I went to his funeral. I wonder that myself. My wife doesn’t understand it either. But the truth is that my father was there when I was growing up. A lot of people can’t say that. And he put food on the table and a roof over my head. He taught me important values that I cherish, like love of knowledge, country, and fishing. He especially taught me the importance of taking care of my own family and putting their needs before mine.
For better or for worse, I am my father’s son.