I was small and very young. It was cold outside and the sun had yet to show. The Old Man was already awake and he came into my room to wake me up. I dressed warmly with long johns beneath my clothes, doubled up on my pairs of socks to keep my little toes from freezing, and I stuffed myself in layers of sweatshirts before The Old Man stuffed me in my puffy blue down jacket with mittens to match.
The Old Man warmed up his truck, which to me was the largest truck I had ever seen anyone drive. It was a loud, old Ford Bronco with cold hard seats, light blue exterior, blue on the inside as well, a blue dashboard, black stick shift, with an old radio that hardly had reception unless the needle was dialed exactly on the numbers of the radio station.
I had no concept of direction then. We could have driven to the other side of the world and I wouldn’t have known. I was small and sitting in the front seat—my face fogging up the rolled up window as I looked out to watch the sky change and the first light came in from the east. I was so small then. The Old Man was everything to me. He was my hero. He was the man of the house, my Father, my protector and teacher.
Time with The Old Man was hard to come by. My Father worked a lot to pay the bills. He ran his own company and I swear, The Old Man could fix literally anything. As far as I was concerned, my Father knew more than your Father did. He was stronger too. The Old Man worked hard. He was a hard man and did hard things. He ate all of his food and drank cold beer in the summer and blackberry brandy in the winter (to keep warm, of course) and he was no nonsense, not always patient with me, nor did The Old Man always understand. However, there were times like this and mornings like this one which I hold as dearly as I can.
On an early winter morning, the first day of the New Year, my Old Man took me to the beach for a long walk. This began our yearly tradition. Each New Year’s morning, no matter what the temperature might have been, The Old Man and I woke up early and we walked the beach at a place known as Pt. Lookout.
I remember trailing behind him, my short little legs sputtering quickly to keep up with my Father, my hero, and I would try to walk exactly in The Old Man’s footsteps. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be strong like him too and know how to fix things, how to do things, to be as smart as he was, to be as capable as he was. And each year, no matter what the tensions may have been, regardless of my problems at school, regardless of my behavioral issues, and regardless of the teenage years when the cold war began between my Father and me; regardless of it all, we always made sure to take this walk on the beach.
This was my favorite day of the year. This was my day between The Old Man and me. No one else was around. We didn’t debate anything or argue. No, we were at truce on this day, quietly walking beneath a gray blanket sky while the cold ocean rolled in and screaming seagulls, hungry for food, flew past us.
On some days, I would watch him. I’d watch my Father stare out at sea with his eyebrows folded downward and a look of intensity on his face. I always wondered what he was thinking. I always wondered if the weight on The Old Man’s shoulders was too much and perhaps, this is why The Old Man always seemed so intense to me.
God, if he only knew what he meant to me.
I never understood what a mortgage was. I was too young for that. I never knew what it meant to pay bills or more, to run a company and have to pay others so that they can pay their bills, but meanwhile, the bank account is low and it was hard enough just to make payroll. I was too young to understand financial insecurity. I was too insecure myself to know that anyone else in this world was human, like me, and the last thing I ever wanted was to fall short of The Old Man’s expectations.
I never considered the Old man as someone with vulnerabilities. I never saw my Father as human. He was my Father. He was Pop. And sometimes, I wondered why The Old Man never saw this. I wondered if this fact was ever enough for him, which, of course, was important to my Father. However, when life calls and life on life’s terms decides to play unfairly—it’s easy to overlook the things we have right in front of us. What happens next is the people in front of us tend to feel resentful or disregarded.
I remember asking The Old Man why he was upset once. I looked up at him; I was just this little kid and The Old Man said to me, “You’ll understand when you get older.”
He was right about that.
I understand more of why The Old man yelled at the television when the news came on. I understand why The Old Man cringed when bills came in the mail. I know why he was quiet after a long hard day and why he didn’t always want to play with me. I understand why our moments together were somewhat rare because there was an entire world that went on around him, and me, I was his son. And I just wanted a moment of his attention.
One of the things our children seldom understand about us Dads is when we can’t fix it; we tend to yell at it. We tend to get angry over what we cannot control. We tend to feel like we are falling short on the expectations from our family, but worse; we tend to feel like we are falling short on the expectations we have for ourselves. This is where that look of intensity comes when the eyebrows fold downward, the lines in our forehead crease a little deeper, head and neck bent slightly forward, and sometimes, fists clench, jaws clench, and just like a child —we want to pick up our toys and go home. I never knew that I would want to run away more as an adult than I ever did as a child. I never knew The Old Man was like me, complete with fears and vulnerabilities. I never even thought The Old Man was human because more accurately, The Old Man was my hero.
I was a small sickly boy and hospitalized a few times before the age of 8. I remember one day specifically —nothing I ate would stay down. I was so uncomfortable and so sick. My Mother did all she could, but it was the end of the day and at last The Old Man came home.
I could hear my Mother explain the details of her day. I could hear the sound of her frustration. No matter what she tried, I would not and could not stop crying. The Old Man pulled out a trick from his bag and came in to see me.
I could hear the sound of The Old Man’s work boots on each step as he made his way up the stairs. I could not find rest nor did I believe The Old Man could help me find rest either. He was too strong and too stern.
I was very thin then; in fact, I was painfully thin. My pajama shirt was raised up and exposing my ribs. The Old Man said, “Look at this . . .”
“Your ribs are sticking out,” he said and then delicately, The Old Man poked at them like the keys to a piano. Each poke, he made a sound to sound as if he were tuning it. I was curious of this. I settled down and though tears were still in my eyes, but the sobbing had stopped. Then The Old Man began to poke at my ribs and sang me to sleep while quietly singing, “Tea for two and two for tea Just me for you and you for me.”
Of course, I was too young to know this was a song that was sung by Doris Day. But regardless of who wrote it or sung it first, The Old Man played this tune for me on my ribs and on a night when I could not get rest, at last, I finally fell asleep.
During the night before The Old Man passed in a hospital known as Hempstead General, The Old Man could not gain rest, he was heavily sedated, hallucinating, but still holding on. After his last of several heart attacks, The Old Man was placed on a respirator. This is when we all came in to say our goodbyes. But me, I didn’t say goodbye. No, I returned the love and kindness my Old Man showed me. I returned a memory which I will never forget as I poked gently, tuned the piano, and sang the “Tea for Two” song so that my Old Man could rest.
The Old man’s eyes were closed and a tear came out. I remember that my Aunt Sondra pointed this out to me. Of course, someone in the room had a medical explanation for this. But to me, I knew what this really meant . . .
Sometimes as Dads we never realize that an answer is less important than the love we give our children. Sometimes, it’s enough to give love and not try to solve the problems of the world. Sometimes, our presence is the only answer —even in troubled times when we wan to fix things most, in sick times, in times of low worth, in times of pain —just being there is a truly valuable thing.
The Old Man was right though. I do understand now that I’m older.
On the night of his passing, The Old Man understood my side too.
I truly believe this.
It’s hard to make time for everything, especially, all of our loved ones.
We forget this but as parents, we don’t always have to fix things or have the right answers. In cases of the heart, there really is no right or wrong. I see this as a problem with ego because we think we need to solve the problems of our children. In truth, we are just trying to make the corrections we wished we made when we were kids. But to our kids, they don’t know this nor do they need this. In most cases, we just need to be there and learn how to interact with them.
I do understand now . . .
It’s been a long time since we walked the beach and I was able to place my footstep in your footprints, but no matter how you saw things, the truth is, you will always be my hero.
I miss you and I need you right now.
But I know you’re out there.
Somewhere. . .
Happy Father’s Day!