T Minus 40: Daddy

I don’t have many stories of my dad and me. I’ve spent the last 37 days trying to come up with one that doesn’t make either one of us the villain. I want to change the narrative. I don’t want the “dad” story to be one of anger or sadness or loss, but those are the themes that enter into my consciousness when I brainstorm on Daddy.

A month ago I thought I would air all of my grievances. I thought I would finally confront my anger at him. I thought I would write about the times he let me down or left me feeling forgotten and unimportant, unloved. When I picked up my pen though, paralysis overtook my hand. The emotions are still present, but I’m losing interest in the theme.

I didn’t know my father very well as an adult. After a certain point, our lives took very different paths. I spent a lot of years being angry about that. I don’t know that I handled the anger all that well, but I did my best. I think maybe he was afraid of that, of me and my anger.

I was born three weeks after my dad’s 25th birthday and merely 10 months after he married my mother. He could not have foreseen the impending dissolution of that marriage, in fact his Catholic upbringing wouldn’t allow him to conceive of such a thing. I have to believe he did the best he could.

I have a picture on my desk that fascinates me. I found it while I was gathering material for this project. It’s from before I was born. My father’s face is just barely visible through the driver’s side window of a bright red 1974 (or 5) AMC Javelin. It’s a hot car. My mother told me it was his.

My dad looks like a kid behind the wheel, a proud kid. I keep staring at the picture imagining the life he had before I was born. I bet he was fun to hang out with. I bet he worked his ass off to buy that car and I bet he washed and polished it every weekend. I imagine what the birth of his baby daughter in late 1976 meant to that life. I’m sure he was doing what he thought he was supposed to do: work, get married, have kids, get old – in that order.

I was in my mid-teens when my dad returned from his first move to Florida which he undertook a few weeks before my 14th birthday. I remember being incredibly sad and disappointed that he would miss my big day, but not as devastated as I had been when, at age 19, I received his phone call from Florida telling me that he had relocated for good. This time without so much as a goodbye.

My dad’s cousin used to throw a July 4th block party with his neighbors on Long Island. I got to go to it a couple of times. One of them stands out as a great day I spent with Daddy. I was 15, old enough for the cousins to sneak me beer, but too old to play with the kids. I was stuck in between. I had been born too early. My stepmother, Cary was busy talking with the other moms who were sitting at a nearby table keeping an eye on their young children as they ran and played in the closed street. My half brothers Bobby and Jason were young, about 5 and 3 respectively and were busy with pre-schooler activities. I had my dad to myself for a while, which was rare.

I don’t remember what we talked about or even if we talked. If we did it was likely about surfacey stuff like weather or cars. We stood by a giant pot of boiling water as he drank a Bud Light and pretended not to notice that the plastic cup I was sipping on had contraband keg beer in it. Someone had gone crabbing that morning, and they were boiling the blue crabs in batches. I think it was my dad’s turn to stir the pot.

He taught me how to pick and eat crabs that day, although mostly he pulled the meat out for me as we stood and talked to the cousins and drank our warm domestic macrobrews. One of the cousins offered to teach me how to surf. I said I’d love to learn and was excited to return for a lesson later that summer. I never saw him again.

As night fell the cousins and the neighbors set up for their massive Grucci style fireworks display at the end of the block. They had stockpiled massive amounts of illegal fireworks gathered from several road trips to Florida. They must’ve known the local cops, because no one ever busted them and the last show I’d seen put Macy’s to shame. I remembered how thrilling it had been and couldn’t wait for the excitement to begin.

When the first of the loud “blockbusters” went off, Bobby burst into tears and had to be taken inside. He was terrified of the nearby explosions. I just stood next to my dad and watched the display, a bit incredulous at the amount of fire power these people were packing, but reveling in the simple ease of my near wordless father-daughter bonding day.

The only time I ever truly talked to my dad was several years after his second move to Florida. Cary had just lost her long battle with cancer and I flew down to visit Dad for a few days. I thought I could be of some help or comfort. I wanted him to need me. It was 2000 or 2001. Bobby and Jason were still young, too young to lose their mom. Amber, my newest half-sibling, was only 6 or 7.

It was already dark when my plane landed and the kids went to bed shorty after we got back from the airport, but my father and I stayed up and talked. It was the first time ever as two adults. We talked about memories of the past and times we had shared when I was little before the other kids were born. He shared stories of his side of the family that I had never heard. We drank beer. We smoked cigarettes. I told him stories of my life, my music and my college experience. We went through hundreds of pictures. Pictures I had never seen. He went to his bedroom and came back with a men’s gold necklace that held a gold cross charm. He told me Cary had given it to him and he wanted me to have it.

I accepted the cross knowing that my status as a full-fledged agnostic would keep me from ever wearing it, but I knew it meant something to him and so I was honored to receive it.

We talked into the early hours of the morning and at some point my father got quiet for a few seconds before saying, I guess I’ve been a shitty dad, huh? 

Yeah, but it’s OK. I don’t know if I meant it or not. In that moment, I probably did.

The last time I talked to my father he told me he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. I later found out that he had been diagnosed about 14 months prior to that conversation. My anger returned. Why didn’t he tell me sooner?

He promised that he would come see my house just as soon as he beat the cancer.

He asked me if I still smoked, and I told him I had quit. Good, he said. Don’t ever start again.

He asked me if I remembered the necklace and if I still had it.

Yes, I have it.

Could you send that to me?

…sure Dad, anything you want. I’ll do it today. I was angry though and I was hurt. It felt as though that was the only reason he called me, like he would’ve just died without me ever knowing. The same way he moved to Florida. The ultimate abandonment. Like the next year, one of my aunts or uncles would’ve jotted it down in a Christmas card. Merry Christmas Amy, your dad is dead.

Maybe death frightened him and he needed the necklace that his wife had given him for comfort. Maybe I was being selfish, but all I could see was that my dad had given me so little in life and then he asked for it back.

I went to my bedroom, dug out the necklace and handed it to Yves. Can you please send this to my dad? I never want to see it again.

Daddy died three months later.


2 thoughts on “T Minus 40: Daddy

  1. Ronnie says:

    I try to imagine that my mother wanted to do better but she just didn’t know how. It’s helped me with a lot of my anger. It’s hardest though when I see someone that has such a wonderful adult relationship with their parents. It’s harder still when I look at my kids and think I could never behave that way. The truth remains though, that some people are flawed. Sounds like your Dad was one of them.


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