Is There a Hallmark Card for This?
A man came to our door on a hot summer evening in 1971. My mother looked through the drapes before answering, then turned to me and said, “It’s your father.” I met my father once before when he showed up six years earlier for my third birthday. I knew he was there because there was a dark, blurry image of him in a photograph someone had taken. If I asked about my father, my mother retrieved the photo, pointed him out, and said, “that’s him.”
I asked about my father a lot. All of my friends and cousins had fathers. Their fathers taught them how to play ball, toughen up and do the things boys do. By the time I was nine years old, I knew something was wrong with me. Teachers, neighbors, and family members voiced their concerns because I was not interested in sports. I was too sensitive. I cried too quickly, and I was a coward. I heard things like, “a father would straighten him out.”
My father was a large muscular man, handsome, with thick black hair he greased back with a pomade that smelled like V-05. He wore cowboy boots, spoke loudly, and smoked Winstons. He entered the house, a small rented clapboard that acquired a slight lean from an earthquake several months prior, and sat down on the best piece of furniture we had, an avocado green off-brand recliner.
“So let me take a look at you,” he said, looking at me. “My god, you’re fat!” He laughed and proceeded to spit out a barrage of insults. My voice was too high and weak, I mumbled and slouched too much, my Scooby-Doo pajamas were ridiculous for a boy my age, and boy, was I fat. It seemed to go on forever. I began to cry, giving him more ammunition to shoot at me. I finally ran to my room and shut myself in.
Several years ago, I was thinking about this incident, and another memory connected to it rose to the surface. As a kid, I wasn’t really sure what the implications were; I believe I was so overwhelmed with his treatment of me I didn’t have the compacity to think of anyone else. The memory is of the following day. My mother is whispering to my grandmother, showing her bruised arms and a couple of bite marks on her neck, “I tried to fight him off,” and “I threatened to call the police.”
I was sixteen when I saw him again. We lived in a small apartment with the same phone number; he called and said he wanted to come by to see his son. The baby fat had burnt off by this time; I worked out every day. Although I inherited his handsome features, I thought I was ugly and carried enough emotional baggage to fill a set of Samsonite luggage. My mother asked if I wanted to see him, and I said yes. She told me she would leave before he got there, and she did.
We had breakfast at the Hollywood Park Racetrack, and he introduced me to his friends, all women, waitresses in their twenties sporting Farrah Fawcet hairstyles. “This is my son! This is my kid! Look at this good-looking son of a bitch!” We went into the cocktail lounge on the site, and he introduced me to the woman bartender and the cocktail waitresses with the same degree of bravado. His bragging ended abruptly when one of the girls tried to converse with me. He escorted me to one of the betting windows, bought me a seat, handed me a hundred-dollar bill, and told me to have a good time; he’d be in the bar if I needed anything.
Maybe if I’d had a father growing up, my taste for things like “playing the ponies” would’ve been different. But, I had no interest. I sat in the stands and watched a race. I returned to the bar to tell him to take me home.
“Did you blow that money already?” he laughed and handed me another hundred dollars. I pocketed the money, returned to my seat, and watched the next race. Now I had two hundred dollars in my pocket. I continued this scam and had seven hundred by the end of the day. It was the most money I’d ever had in my life. He never paid a dime in child support, so he got off cheap.
That was the last time I saw him. With the invention of the internet and DNA sites, a new revelation about my father surfaced. I discovered siblings I never knew I had. First my brother, who I met for the first time a decade ago. His mother divorced our father before he was born, just like my mother had done. My brother is three months older than I am.
I married my wife when I was 25, and we had three kids. I was ill-prepared to be a father. But I figured it’d be a good start if I did the opposite of what my father did. But, there’s more to being a dad than not being a monster. Sometimes I made terrible choices that I wish I could blame on the old man, but I can’t. My indiscretions were the work of a frightened, self-absorbed jerk.
Last week my brother sent me a picture he found on the internet of our father’s gravesite. Several years ago, my father locked himself in his bedroom, got drunk, and blew his brains out. The tombstone reads, “Loving Husband, Father, Grandfather and Great Grandfather.”
Those words were more shocking and unnerving than his suicide. The man was actually capable of being part of a family who loved him and who he loved in return. That sick feeling rose within me that I used to experience when I was a kid. It wasn’t that he couldn’t love; he just didn’t love me.