My father celebrated his last birthday, his 55th, on February 16, 1969. He died 177 days later from peritonitis on August 16. When I celebrated my 55th birthday on October 2, 2008, it was not lost on me that in 177 days, March 28, to be exact, I would have outlived my beautiful father by one year. I knew the very moment I would pass him; he died at 1:43 in the afternoon. At 1:43 p.m. today I will have outlived him by four years.
Now there may be some folks who think my memorializing moments like this is maudlin, macabre even. I frankly don’t give a damn what those folks think. To each their own, as they say. My father was and is the greatest gift my life has ever given me. I am positive I would not be alive today were it not for the fact his presence is alive and well in my heart and soul.
He was a remarkable man, and, a remarkable parent. Born to working class parents in Elizabeth, New Jersey, he served in the Army during World War II (his was in one of the three divisions that liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp in 1945, something I would not learn about him until after he died), went to Columbia University where he majored in English Literature and later taught same in Columbian University and, in the last years of his life, a second college, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
As a parent, he was skilled at knowing when it is better to let life rather than parent be the teacher. When I was about eight or nine I went into his room and told him I needed to talk to him because I was very, very nervous about something. At the time we lived in the hamlet of Pearl River, New York. Our home was a few miles from the hamlet’s business center, comfortable walking distance for us young folks. He leaned back in his desk chair and asked me what I was nervous about. “I want to buy a pack of rubbers!” I announced. To this day I have no idea why this was. I was certainly not sexually active. My father paused, then asked, “Are you short on money?” “No, no,” I reassured him, “I’ve got my allowance.” “Okay then, what are you nervous about?” I told confessed: “I’m afraid the man’s gonna ask me what I want’m for!”
My father smiled. What he said next calmed all my fears and nervousness because what he said next made all the sense in the world. After all, I had purchased model airplanes and boats and such and did not think myself a novice when it came to shopping. “Well, Peter, I’ll tell you what you do. If the man at the drugstore asks you what you want them for, you just tell him you’ll read the directions.” Perfect! Why hadn’t I thought of that!
And so it was that I marched out of the house brimming with confidence. I suspect my father called the man at the drugstore and told him he was in for a wee bit of entertainment and could he please be kind as he went about saying no to my request for a pack of rubbers. I’m sure my father told him to ask me what I wanted them for because he knew the man would get quite a kick out my response. Which is exactly what happened. The man did ask me what I wanted them for, I said I’d read the directions, and the man said I should come back in a few years when I probably wouldn’t need directions.
Humor and entertainment aside, my father also knew when – and how – to protect his son from fear, from feeling in danger. One winter day we were driving towards Pearl River proper on Washington Avenue. It was a snowy day, the plows were out. Almost immediately after Washington Avenue passes Lincoln Avenue it takes a rather steep downward dip, perhaps a quarter mile or so in length. As we came over the rise and began our decent, we saw about six or seven cars stuck at all different angles at the bottom of the hill. It was still snowing and the hill was very slippery. We began to slide slowly down the hill right towards the stuck cars. “Well,” my father said, in a totally calm and matter of fact voice, “looks like we’re gonna hit.” “It’s like bumper cars,” I replied. “Seems so,” said my father. And so it was that we bumped into a couple of the cars and came to a stop. No one was hurt. Years later I realized that not once was I scared. My father was so calm and serene it didn’t cross my mind to be scared. How different my experience would’ve been if he’d gotten all wound up over the fact we were sliding down a snowy hill.
I share all this with you because I hope you have or have had someone in your life like my father. Someone who loves you completely simply because you are you and need not be anything but you. Life has taught me this is not a common experience. And while I was only 15 when he died, you can be sure I wouldn’t give up those 15 years with him for a thousand years with anyone else. So when the clock reaches 1:43 this afternoon, I will be thinking about my father. I will be grateful for the four years I’ve reached that he didn’t and I will, as I always do, tell him that I am doing the best I can, which is all any of us can do, and is exactly what my father would want me to do.
I love you, Daddy, my whole wide world.