I Miss My Father

He was born February 20, 1914 and died August 16, 1969 when he was 55 and I was 15. He was my closest friend and remains the greatest gift life has ever given me.

While I know there will be more missives like this one about him, I also know that any words of mine will fail in their attempt to tell you what a truly special human being he was. There are things I can tell you that may, I hope, give you a glimpse. For example, there was not an iota of bigotry in him. He comfortably accepted people for who they were. It didn’t matter to him, and I mean, it didn’t matter to him if someone was gay or straight, if someone was black, Latino, Asian, Jewish, Muslim and so forth.

My father experienced people as individuals, and was not adverse to stinging back when confronted by bigotry. When we moved from Pearl River, New York to Nyack, New York somewhere around 1967, the house in Pearl River had not yet sold. While Nyack was a truly integrated community Pearl River was, for all intents and purposes, snowflake white. We were known as a civil rights family. Our minister marched with Dr. King and all of us were very open about our commitment to civil rights – for all people.

One day my father returned to check on the Pearl River house to discover someone had written the words Nigger Lovers on the front window. My father either lost sight of the fact selling the house might be a tad easier if he removed the words or he simply didn’t care because, rather than remove the words, he added some of his own. When he drove away, the words Nigger Lovers were still on the front window, however, they were now followed by the words, And Proud of It.

Staying with this theme, my father let me fight my own fights but would, at times, be nearby in case things got out of hand. Soon after we moved to Nyack I became enamored with a beautiful girl who happened to be black. Anyway, some kids found out. One day me and about three or four boys my own age were hanging out in our garage when one of them told me they weren’t going to let me out of the garage unless I said the word nigger. Now, while I supported Dr. King’s non-violent movement I must admit I wasn’t very good at it. I punched the kid right in the face and next thing I knew I was in a fight with all of them. Suddenly one of the boys saw my father approaching the garage. Everybody froze. I went out to see father. I was disheveled and may have had a bloody nose.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. I told him what they wanted me to say in order to get out of the garage.

“You want some help?”

“No, I’m okay.”

“Okay. I’ll be nearby if you need me.”

And so I went back into the garage and ended things when, after more punches were thrown, I picked up a long-handled shovel and begin swinging for the fences which caused my opponents to flee.

When I went back into the house my father ran a bath for his bruised-up son. I sat in the bath and my father sat in the bathroom with me and we talked.  In a tone that told me he knew the answer he asked, “Did you say it?”

“Nope.”

“Good for you. I’m proud of you.” He stood up, leaned over,  kissed me on top of my head, and said, “I’ll get you some aspirin.”

I miss my father.

Days For My Father

No words of any kind, past, present or future, can do my father justice. No matter how I tell you about the ineffably loving and accepting man that was and in my heart and soul is my father I will not come close. I’d have more of a chance of giving you the actual physical experience of summiting Everest via email. My father was, in a word, a miracle.

I can tell you that to this day my father is the greatest gift life has ever given me. And while he died at age 55 when I was 15, his presence in me has never diminished. He died  Saturday, August 16, 1969. We were living in Nyack, New York, a lovely community about 30 miles north of New York City. My father has been struck down with a case of peritonitis three days earlier and was in a coma in an iron lung in St. Luke’s Hospital in upper Manhattan. My mother didn’t go see him, she explained, because he was in a coma and wouldn’t know she was there anyway. While I understand, now, that my mother’s very real emotional frailty (she would commit suicide in 1992) prevented her from handling the emotion that comes with visiting your dying husband in a coma, it still tears me apart knowing my father died alone.

My father was born February 20, 1914 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He had one sibling, my Uncle Harry. Uncle Harry was one year younger than my father and I adored him. Both joined the Army and fought in World War II. Many years after my father’s death I  learned that his division, the 20th Armored Division, was one of three American divisions that liberated the Dachau concentration camp on April 29, 1945.  My father never said a word about this.

Ultimately my father taught English at Columbia University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He was brilliant and humble. Remarkably, he was utterly free of bigotry. He didn’t care if someone was black or white, Hispanic or Asian, gay, straight or bisexual. He accept people for who they were and had little problem pushing back against bigotry. For example, when we moved to our house in Nyack we were still selling our house in Pearl River, a nearby community. We were well known for being a civil rights family, our minister, for example, marched with Dr. King many times. Anyway, one day my father went back to check on the house and someone had painted the words Nigger Lover on the picture window. Rather than remove the words, my father painted the words And Proud of It underneath and left.

My father fully accepted me for being me and when he died, my ability to feel safe being me in the world died with him. That sense of self-safety would not begin to return until I began my sobriety nearly eight years ago now.

I can tell you that I felt it, physically felt it, the moment he died.

On the morning of August 16th we received a call from the hospital telling us my father wouldn’t live out the day. The house was like a morgue, all of us home, waiting. A couple of my friends had come over to be with me. I was upset the hospital was in the city and I couldn’t get to my father’s side. A little after 1:30 in the afternoon I told my mother my friend and I were going to walk into town to pick up  some soda.  It’s about a 20 minute walk. We were more than half way there when suddenly the bottom of my stomach dropped out and I doubled over, hands on my knees. I looked up at my friends and said, “He just died.”

When I got home after two I walked into the kitchen. My mother was at the counter, she turned to me and said, “Peter, it happened.” My father had died at 1:53 p.m.

My father was born on February 20 and I was born on October 2. If you start out on October 2 and count out the same number of days that run from February 20 to August 16, you reach today, March 28.  I am 56. When the clock strikes 1:54 this afternoon, I will have outlived my father by exactly one year. When the clock struck 1:54 p.m. on March 28 last year, the exact moment I passed him in time, my hand was on his gravestone. There was no way he was going to be alone then. I knew that until that moment he had cleared the trail for me in life. I also knew that from that moment  on, I would be clearing the trail for the both of us.

All my days are for my father.

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