It’s “funny” what you think about at 4:45 in the morning, when you’re all alone, on a deserted stretch of highway, after working a 23.5 hour day – and you’re feeling every bit of your 55 years, if not a little lost and confused. I found myself thinking about my dad, who passed away more than 15 years ago – about the many things I admired in him . . . traits I’m sure I consciously or subconsciously tried to emulate in my own life . . . and about the “broken” pieces, the ones I had hoped and, in some instances, struggled mightily, often to the point of obsession, to avoid like the plague.
I thought first about his faith. Faith wasn’t something my dad talked a lot about, but I’m pretty certain given the choice between missing Sunday Mass and losing his right arm, he unhesitatingly would have chosen the latter. No matter where he was in the world (and he was fortunate to travel all over it) or what else he may have had to do, my dad always made it a point to attend Sunday Mass. But it was his devotion to prayer that struck me most – the moments I would happen by his room in the morning or late evening and find him kneeling at the foot of his bed, rosary in hand. I was never made privy to what he prayed about, though I suspect, more often than not, it was that the three of us (his children) would somehow find a healthy way to navigate through the complex maze of dysfunctionality that had become our family home, an alcohol-fueled minefield that he had long since lost the desire and/or ability to control. To me, the substance of the prayers didn’t matter nearly as much as the symbol – the kneeling, the turning over of daily struggles, the search for guidance and, ultimately, peace, the relegation of self – the recognition that there had to be something more to this thing called Life, that he/we had to be part of greater plan.
I thought about his gift of language – written and spoken – his wit and dry sense of humor. I thought not only about all the letters he wrote, mostly for work (for Eastern Airlines), but the short stories and articles he regularly submitted for publication and contests. I thought about the speeches he was asked to write and deliver at corporate meetings, conventions and social events all across the country. I remember him toiling over those writings at the dining room table or in the privacy of his room for hours at a time, searching for just the right words, piecing together clever (and often humorous) phrases. Regrettably, like his faith, my dad kept his creative processes and the fruits they bore mostly to himself, wrongfully assuming that it wasn’t something we’d be very interested in. But, there were rare occasions when he’d share his remarkable gift for writing with us, either in the form of notes or letters addressed to us or left in conspicuous places, where we were certain to find them long after he’d left the house for work. Regardless of their message, each such missive ended with “Love, Dad” in his unmistakable, over-sized hand-writing. I’m staring at one as I type these words http://tinyurl.com/k8cbe3x.
I thought about his compassion for others, his sensitivity and his always giving heart. In a world that was growing increasingly self-centered, where “tearing down” and stepping on or over others was quickly becoming the “sport of choice” in press rooms, business and school lunch rooms and executive boardrooms, my dad was always looking for ways and opportunities to build others up. Whether it was in a formal letter of recommendation, a word of encouragement or a well-placed vote of confidence, my dad seldom missed a chance, solicited or unsolicited, to help an existing or former colleague advance their career. He also was quick to acknowledge achievements, milestones and special events in others’ personal and professional lives, as well as the acts of favor or kindness that others bestowed on him, often taking considerable time to write elaborate notes of thanks for relatively simple gestures. I know because I found carbon copies of many such letters among my dad’s personal belongings after he died. Not unlike Silverstein’s Giving Tree, I suspect my dad’s only lament where giving was concerned was not the prospect of having to give again or being asked to give too much, but rather the fear that he wouldn’t be able to give enough.
And then there was the brokenness. I thought about his perfectionism – and I wondered. I wondered where it originated. I wondered whether it was simply the way he was “pre-wired,” the by-product of a strict, likely Catholic guilt-infested childhood home or whether it had its roots in a teenage “mis-step,” where, likely knowing better, but eager to be part of the crowd, he threw caution to the wind, perhaps for the first time, and, in the process, unwittingly “threw away” what many believed would have been a promising career as a major league pitcher, maybe even for his beloved Red Sox. I wondered if he knew that it had become so ingrained in who he was as to be almost reflexive in its manifestation. Most of all, I wondered if he knew how hurtful his insistence on perfection could be when directed at those around him, especially those of us who were so intent on making him proud of our accomplishments, of measuring up – of not disappointing him. And then I wondered, more knowingly, what toll it took on him to always be subjecting himself to that level of excellence, to never cutting himself the smallest of breaks that being human requires – for always feeling that he could’ve/should’ve gone a little further, even when he’d plainly gone the extra mile.
I thought about the fact that my dad never really received the personal or professional recognition he deserved – and had earned. I thought about how hard he worked through the years, how he had literally grown up with the company, the goodwill he generated for it everywhere he went, and the mostly positive attitude he brought with him to each new challenge, despite the fact that it often meant having to relocate a family of 4 for which he was the sole breadwinner to a new city and enduring all of the uncertainty and stress that such fundamental personal and professional changes carry with them. And yet, I distinctly remember his being “passed over” time and time again for positions that he was infinitely more qualified for and capable of handling than those who ultimately were awarded them. Despite his efforts to shield us from it, I could always sense his frustration and disappointment, just as I could his level of enthusiasm and anticipation during the selection and vetting process. He was always gracious to the “winner” – they far less so – often looking for ways to move him out or on to a new position out of fear, I suspect, that he posed a threat to their march to the top. Whether he wanted it or not (and he mostly didn’t), my dad always deserved better (and more) than he got.
Lastly, I thought about the loneliness – the fact that, best I could tell, he never figured out the love piece. I thought about my sense that he missed out on vulnerability and intimacy. I thought about how few close friends he seemed to have, particularly given how much he contributed to others’ lives – a thought brought home to me again, starkly, at his sparsely attended funeral. I thought about the night, as teenagers, when he took my brother and I out to dinner and, out of the clear blue, shared that he had wanted to leave our mom, but had chosen to stay in what obviously was a wholly unsatisfying relationship for the good of us – for his children. I remember feeling both awkward and terribly uncomfortable during and after that conversation, like I didn’t want (and shouldn’t be “asked”) to shoulder that level of “responsibility” for the lifetime of unhappiness that ultimately would flow from that decision. Looking back, part of me wished he had made a different one, especially if it would have allowed me to know a dad who was happier, more alive – maybe even, on occasion, affectionate. Instead, I remember the light in his eyes slowly dimming from that point forward, a sense of resignation, of dreams forgone – long before it was time to throw in the towel on life.
And then I thought about apples and trees – and the tears began silently streaming down my face.
(my dad’s favorite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXr59ZKaVTI)