The two marines stood at attention in their dress uniforms. Their perfectly shined shoes that glimmered on this sunny California day highlighted their crisp black jackets and blue pants. As people filed past, the marines did not so much as flinch or blink; a nod to the honor and code they upheld when presiding at a ceremony like this one. The casket that separated the two marines was draped with the American Flag, and as I walked over to it, I found the scene so powerful that tears welled up in my eyes and I was unable to speak. The Marines were not just honoring any veteran on this day; they were helping to bury my Father. My Dad’s 87 year life had come to an end days before, and at his funeral, my journey to figure out who he was, and how I would remember him, would be complete.
Eight years earlier, my mother died from ALS (aka “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”). Her life had been a struggle from beginning to end; much of it battling bipolar disease while married to my father and trying to raise my older brother and myself. And while she struggled, so did my Dad. His alcoholism had been an evil presence in my house as far back as I could remember. In true “chicken or egg” debate fashion, I could never figure out if my mother’s problems with bipolar disease led to my father’s alcoholism, or vice versa. Ultimately, I concluded that they were like gasoline and matches; putting them together was combustible. In 2004, my mother’s onset of ALS symptoms to her death took only ten months, and I never had the opportunity to have a conversation with her about my childhood, our household and her struggles. Perhaps I would’ve started that conversation with the texting abbreviation “WTF”? The lack of closure with my mom always bothered me after she died, and I vowed somehow, some way to not let that happen with my Dad.
The problem was that I didn’t know where to begin that conversation with him. Besides spending much of his life and my childhood drunk, he was a painfully uninvolved father. He communicated his thoughts sparingly, he confided to no one, he maintained few friendships, and preferred solitude to enjoying his time with other people. He rarely seemed interested in being a father; he attended none of my sports events growing up, he didn’t like planning activities on the weekend, wasn’t the type to help with homework, didn’t go to visit colleges with me. You get the picture – he was a World War II veteran who seemed to have lost himself later in life as a husband and father. With that as context, how would I possibly be able to reach him to have this conversation in the last years of his life as his heart and health were beginning to fail him?
I posed this question to a social worker that I sought out for invaluable counseling to help me sort through my thoughts on this. Her advice to me was as powerful as any that I’ve ever received. She suggested that as children, we often spend much of our lives viewing our parents in “black and white terms”. We see them as either good or bad with little middle ground, and as I thought about this, only speaking for myself of course, she was correct. It was as though I viewed my parents, particularly my father, as Star Wars characters – unfortunately more Darth Vader than Luke Skywalker. My counselor’s suggestion was to find out as much as I could about my father’s life. What was his childhood like? What were my grandparents really like as parents to him? How did he look back at being a World War II veteran? None of the answers to these questions would erase the pain of his alcoholism and being an absentee father, but it might serve to at least humanize him – perhaps to lift the Darth Vader mask and see who was underneath it.
I’m not sure how I picked the particular day to pick up the phone and have this conversation with my Dad, but I was very nervous about the call as I considered whether or not to do it. For me, it carried a tremendous amount of personal risk. I mean – this was it; after 45 years of hearing nothing meaningful from my Dad, I was going to attempt what had previously been the unthinkable. Get him to talk, get him to tell me something significant about himself and his life, particularly where, when and why his life seemed to deteriorate into solitude and alcoholism. What if he didn’t respond? What if he told me something other than what I wanted to hear, or if he was indifferent at best to the entire conversation? These were entirely possible outcomes when it came to my Dad, and since he was 84 years old and in declining health, this was my last chance. If he couldn’t open up now, it wasn’t going to happen period, and I’d have to live with that for the rest of my life.
But through the nervousness and back and forth in my mind as to how, or even whether or not to have this conversation, it dawned on me – this is life. We have no guarantees as to outcomes, we may end up with something less or different than what we set out to achieve, but the only guarantee is that we certainly gain nothing if we don’t try.
So out came the phone and with nervous fingers, I dialed his number. I put aside figuring out exactly how I’d broach the subject with him. I’d simply ask him to tell me about his parents (my grandparents) and how he grew up, and take it from there. After we exchanged typical pleasantries and compared notes on the weather in Boston (me) and Southern California (him), I took my shot and my Dad had no problems discussing his parents. Although my grandfather passed away when I was nine years old, I seemed to already know a bit more about him that my Dad repeated. My grandfather was an Orthodox Jew who always managed to keep a sales job during the depression when my Dad grew up – this I previously knew. At various times it was believed that my grandfather battled depression, although that particular diagnosis was hard to come by back in the day. Then my father described his mother, and this was the part that was news to me. My grandmother lived a good long life into her late 80s, and I always viewed her as a grandson would view a grandmother; sweet, doting and maternal. My father however had a different description of life with her as his mother. She was indeed very sweet at times, but she also could be very tough, both on my father as her first child (my Dad had two younger brothers) and towards my grandfather. My father asked me if I had ever seen pictures of him as a child, and I said I had and recalled that he was heavy. That was exactly the point my father was looking for, and he shared with me for the first time that his mother used to make fun of him for being fat. It was over 70 years later for my Dad, but it still sounded painful for him to recall. She dressed him in knickers as a teenager, he was not athletic but very smart and introverted, and the combination of being heavy, smart and quiet, along with wearing short pants while growing up in Brooklyn, New York made for a lot of humor at my father’s expense at school. No offense to all the “Marvins” out there, but his first name didn’t help either. All told, he described a childhood that sounded less than happy, and seemed to be the ingredients for low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence for my Dad.
My father continued by sharing with me something that I had never known. I already knew that when he turned 18 in 1944, he didn’t wait for his World War II draft number to come up, but rather took himself down to the Army recruiting center to sign up. I always chalked that up to his patriotism and desire to join his friends who had already been drafted, but he shared with me the real reason he signed himself up to go off to war – he wanted to prove to his parents that this overweight, nerdy kid from Brooklyn, New York could do something his mother thought he would never be able to do – get himself in great shape and go off to fight for his country. He told his mother that he was drafted, but the reality was that he signed himself up for the war to prove her wrong.
I was honestly shocked and stunned at this revelation that he shared with me, but continued to ask him about the war. He moved quickly past the combat, and talked about his life just after the war ended. Being 19 years old, paid by the Army and with no responsibilities back home, he stayed in and traveled throughout much of Europe, took a semester of college classes in England, and even skied in Switzerland. My father – skiing? In Switzerland? Apparently true. I recall seeing pictures of him during this time; a young, fit man with a huge smile on his face – a smile that I would only see in these pictures but not during my lifetime.
And then I asked the question that gave him pause. I said “Dad, what happened?”. He sounded confused and asked what I meant, so I laid it out in plain terms as the words rolled off my tongue: “Dad, you did this great thing fighting for your country. You lived the life of Reilly in Europe after the war, you came home, finished college and dental school, became an orthodontist, met and married Mom in 1961….and then I’m not sure what happened to you.” I realized this was a tough spot to put my father in – a heavy question for him to respond to, and I’m guessing that to buy himself some time, he asked what I meant, so I told him, “Dad, all the drinking, and you never seemed particularly interested in being a father.” His initial admission was that the drinking had been tough on my mother, and his owning up to this was certainly a good step, but I reminded him, “Dad, the drinking was tough on all of us.” What came next however were the words I believe I had been looking for my entire life from my father, and he said these words in a kind tone that was not angry or defensive, “You’re right, and I’m sorry. I love you very much pal, and I did the best that I could.” And with that, I realized that my Dad had made the most honest and heartfelt admission of his life. It was short and sweet, but in his life and terms, it was a lengthy speech, and I believed him.
It was more than I could have ever hoped for out of a conversation with my father, and I realized that this had been a deep discussion that was probably very hard for him. With his 84 year-old heart propped up by a pacemaker/defibrillator, it was time to give him and the conversation a rest. It was my “Field of Dreams” moment. We didn’t have a catch on my self-made baseball field, but we had come clean. And true to my counselor’s advice, while nothing could make my father’s drinking and distance from me as a child go away, I saw a more complete picture of him.
Two years later, it was time to honor him at his funeral. I never wanted to be one of those children who brought anger and bitterness to their parent’s funeral, and I was pleased to find that I had none of that in me. Rather, my overwhelming feeling was to honor that part of his life that I know he was very proud of (and well he should have been) – his Army service in World War II. A Veteran’s Administration officer (a former Marine himself) in California was extremely helpful in arranging the honor guard, telling me how to get the American flag for his casket, and was kind enough to join us at the funeral. The Marines flanking each side of my Dad’s casket never moved their gaze. I touched the flag on my father’s casket and thought he would’ve been pleased to know that an honor guard was present at his funeral (we never discussed this with my father prior to his passing). I wrote a eulogy before we flew out to California for the funeral, but as I moved to the podium to say these words to the small group that had gathered, not a word would come out of my mouth. Not one word, despite having given plenty of speeches and presentations in front of hundreds of people in my work life. My brother was kind enough to read my eulogy, and I sat down next to my two wonderful children and fiancée and sobbed. I mean sobbed, but for reasons that might be slightly different than what you might think. I cried for what never was with my Dad; I cried for the honor and dignity that the Marines brought to his funeral this day; I cried for the flag that they presented me “on behalf of a grateful nation,” but I also cried for having come so far in my thinking of my Dad. From times in the past in which I outright hated him for the drinking and absentee parenting, I now saw him as an imperfect man in an imperfect world, in which perfection for any of us is impossible. I realized that he was now at peace…and so was I.