My dad died on August 18, 1997- just a few days shy of his 71st birthday. He had retired several years earlier after spending more than 40 years working for the same company, Eastern Airlines. Along the way, he had spent time at most of Eastern’s major hubs (e.g., Miami, Boston, Washington (D.C.) and Houston – to name a few), likely interacted with thousands of fellow Eastern employees and managed and/or directly supervised hundreds more. By all accounts, he was very much a “giver” at work – a demanding perfectionist genetically, but someone who, at least in the workplace, was quick to acknowledge a “job well done” and to “teach” where he perceived that all that was needed to earn one of his “gold stars” was a little guidance and encouragement. In fact, if the dozens of “thank you” notes I found among his personal papers after his death are any indication, my dad was instrumental in helping to advance the careers of (and did countless personal and professional favors for) a number of those who worked with and for him – often at the expense of his own.
My dad’s public relations responsibilities at Eastern also brought him in contact with celebrities, politicians and, in his role as the “1st tee starter” for what then known as the Doral/Eastern Open, professional golfers and other prominent athletes – many of whom knew my dad on a first name basis (“Freddy”). That was the man I saw growing up – someone who was well-liked and respected by his work colleagues. A gifted speaker and writer, who was clever and quick-witted, outgoing enough and handsome. Someone who could and often did “work” and command a room. To the outside world, my dad had all the appearances of being someone who almost certainly had dozens of good friends and several “close” ones. Indeed, I’m quite certain if you had polled the few hundred people who attended “Freddy’s Retirement Party,” including those who unhesitatingly took to the podium and shared personal anecdotes about how my dad had touched their personal and professional lives – often in profound ways – all would have readily voted him “Least Likely To Be Lonely.”
The same almost certainly would have been true had you taken a similar poll among my dad’s Boston area high school classmates, where he was a baseball standout – a gifted pitcher, of sufficient talent to be scouted in high school by the Boston Red Sox – and an outstanding student, just as he was at the University of Miami, where he earned his undergraduate and MBA degrees. Perhaps then, you can understand why I was amazed and more than a little disheartened when less than two dozen people, virtually all of whom were immediate family members, attended my dad’s Memorial Mass. That is until I realized that, despite all the outward appearances, my dad was a very lonely man. In fact, looking back on it, with one noticeable exception, I couldn’t name a single friend of my dad’s who ever came to (or even called) our house or who he ever made a trip to see, let alone identify someone who I would characterize as a “best” friend. I also don’t remember him ever talking about such a person or recounting childhood or adult experiences with a friend or friends. I’ve often wondered why that was.
Was it by choice (does anyone really choose to be alone?) or was my dad simply a “victim” of the same psychological phenomena that we more frequently associate with the beautiful girl standing alone at the dance – the one that everyone assumes, simply by virtue of her outward appearance, is already “accounted” for and, therefore, choose not to approach not realizing, of course, that, in reality, she is very much alone and longing for someone, anyone to ask for her hand? Or is it considerably more complicated than that? Was there a “secret” there that like many other pieces of my dad’s personality he never shared and, consequently, I will never know, let alone understand? I’m not sure, but, at least for present purposes, his life, somewhat tragically (at least from my perspective), illustrates an important point that is worthy of reflection as we approach the “posts” ahead: When it comes to loneliness, looks can be (and often are) deceiving and we would do ourselves and our loved ones a considerable favor to understand and respond to that reality.