Our celebration of Father’s Day provides us with a wonderful opportunity to take a moment from our busy schedules to treasure our dads and what they mean to us. As for my dad, to really understand him, it is necessary to reflect on his entire life.
His beginnings were truly humble. His parents’ migration to this country from Italy did not meet with good fortune. By the time my father was 12, he was orphaned. Taken in by his older sister and her husband, he was startled one afternoon to come home from school to find all his belongings piled up on the outside stoop. Parentless and now homeless, he was forced to work countless hours at any job he could find just to survive while renting a room at the local YMCA.
Things began to look up for dad when he married my mom. After Pearl Harbor, he immediately enlisted and after World War II returned home to raise a family. As a father, he had no real role models and it showed. His struggles as a parent were particularly striking when contrasted with my mom who was a teacher and took to parenting effortlessly.
Mom was totally approachable while dad was not. During conversations, he would raise his voice at the slightest provocation. At an early age, you learned to only address him when he requested it. Mother welcomed dialogue and very seldom raised her voice.
Mom was extremely funny; we would laugh for hours. Dad had no sense of humor. I can recall making him laugh only twice. The first time I made him laugh was at a local Catholic men’s club Man of the Year dinner where he was the honoree. In a “This Is Your Life”-type presentation, they got to the part where I was born and I cheered heartily. The audience (and my dad) roared with amusement. The second time I got him to laugh was when I told him that I had a minor fender bender with his car which he had lent me for a New Year’s Eve date. He thought I was kidding (I wish I was).
My mother had, like the rest of us mortals, normal aches and pains. Dad was like steel; he never had a cavity in his life, and would astonish his doctor at every physical. To us kids, he seemed indestructible. At the end of his life he suffered greatly but never once complained and would have his chemo in the morning and go to work in the afternoon.
While my mom was free with her affection, my dad was uncomfortable in this department. Even so, like all good parents, he demonstrated his love in small ways that often go unnoticed. He showed up at all my little league games, bizarrely staying in the car and beeping his horn if I did something really good. He loved picking me up at the YMCA every Friday night. He would take the entire family on “rides” every Sunday. He took my sister and me ice skating regularly. One time, after watching us for hours, he actually rented a pair of skates and got on the ice for the first time in his life. The result was disastrous and it took all my strength to refrain from laughing hysterically.
My parents also differed in other ways. Where Mom exercised patience, Dad did not. She would spend hours waiting in a doctor’s office; he left after 20 minutes saying, “My time is as valuable as theirs.” Mom liked her steak to resemble a hockey puck; dad’s was close to raw. Mother sang like an angel, father could only whistle.
Despite their exceedingly different temperaments, as parents they presented a unified front. Etched permanently in my mind are two instances when that was not the case. The first time was when I was 19 and told my parents that I didn’t support our country’s involvement in Vietnam nor subscribe wholly to their set of values. My mom didn’t flinch but dad’s response was “Our son is dead!” Even though his words hurt me deeply, I knew in my heart that he didn’t mean it. Two years later, when I walked out of my commencement at Fordham in protest of President Nixon’s policies, it was mother who took it personally, suggesting that my actions demonstrated a lack of love for her. Dad shockingly defended me telling her to “leave him alone.”
Dad never took vacations and worked tirelessly to support his family, which always came first for him. He was the most generous person I have ever known giving selflessly of his time and money to his friends, family, community and those in need.
If I ever needed affirmation of his love, it came while I was taking care of him during the last nine months of his life. Down to 82 pounds from 230, with a brain and body ravaged by cancer, my father faced death courageously. Never once did he ask for morphine to dull what was surely excruciating pain. We grew close during these final months: gone were the old barriers and defenses. He expressed fear of only one thing—the thought that I might abandon him in his final hours. When I assured him that I would never leave him, he cried, showing the love and vulnerability that was always there.
So, on Father’s Day 2017, I salute my dad. Even though he passed away 19 years ago, he’s never left my heart. Looking back, I can honestly say that I always loved him unconditionally—the good and the not so good—because I always knew how deeply he loved me.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
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