It’s been one hell of a month. Eleven days after George’s dad left us, my own, excellent father, went on his final journey into the Great Beyond.
He was kind of a dreamboat. Check out those lashes! And I just realized I genetically inherited his teeth, which is cool. My niece, looking through old pictures of him, commented both on how handsome he was and how “everybody always looked great in those old pictures”, and that maybe she and her fiancee ought to up their games to try and look as fabulous as he and my mom. Pretty sweet, really. And the man did like to step out in style.
I’ve written about him before, and how he struggled with Parkinson’s disease, how his body became his own worst enemy, but after I wrote that it got worse. In September he suffered a stroke and my mother finally admitted he was beyond the point of her capacity to care for him, so he went into a nursing home and there he stayed. His body was out of control and his mind was deteriorating; we didn’t know from one day to the next if he would recognize us, or if he would know where he was or what year it was. He apparently held conversations with old friends from high school who were nowhere near his room, if they’re still alive. Even my mother, who was devastated when she got the call from the nursing home telling her he’d passed away, recognized that at least his struggling was over. “He wasn’t having much fun,” she said, as though that summed up why we all, through our grief, had a vague sense of relief.
But that’s not how I want to remember him. His final struggles were profound and drawn out, but when he was younger and healthy, his vigor was untouchable.
Want to hear about the guy who learned how to disco-dance and was accused of “showing off” at political events? That’s my dad. Want to hear about the man who took my cousin out for a night of shenanigans before he left for the Air Force, complete with a late-night rousing rendition of The US Air Force Song (you know the one: Off we go, into the wild blue yonder…)? That was my dad. Want to hear about the romantic who, while on a bus with some friends, pointed out my mother walking down the street and said, “That’s the girl I’m gonna marry” and sure enough did? That’s my dad. Want to hear about the guy who would play ukulele and sing swingin’ jazz tunes like Hold That Tiger?
That’s my dad.
My mother just told this story about my father, as he was breaking into the political world. I’m not sure if he’d started to campaign yet, or if he’d won his first election yet, or if he was just thinking about throwing his hat in the political ring, but here’s the story as I know it: He was talking to the owner of a store (now defunct) in Woodbridge, when a man pulled up in his car and stopped to schmooze for a few minutes. The driver got back in the car and left and my father said to the shop owner, “Who was that?” The shop owner grimaced and said, “Oh, that’s [insert a name]. You know who he is; he’s that dirty politician.” My father came home, told my mother that story and said, “I never want my kids to hear that about me.” And we never did. He didn’t take bribes (and would report the offers to the chief of police). He fought against things like land grabs (“Hey, why is this person buying 2500 acres of land in town for an incredibly small amount of money? Seems like someone should look into this.”) and unnecessary pay raises for council members (yes, even though he was one, he didn’t think he should treat the council as his personal bank account) and the overdevelopment of neighborhoods. His stance against the activities of one group of politicians (including the mayor, at the time) cost him the support of the Democratic party in one election, so he ran as an independent and won. That group of politicians were eventually convicted of embezzlement and money laundering and went to jail, while my dad? Had a clear conscience and slept well every night. In his own bed, not in jail.
That’s my dad.
It was daunting, to grow up with someone like him as a role model. He wore his integrity like a suit of armor and there was no getting around it. You’d think that would be good, right? And it is. It’s good and reassuring to see someone actually stand up for what he thinks is right. But it’s also so, so difficult to come up against. We were both headstrong and stubborn…actually, there are five of us kids and we are all pretty stubborn and argumentative and inquisitive…pains in the ass, really, that’s what we are, and we absolutely get that from him. When we were young we weren’t allowed to get away with anything, since he was keenly aware of his position as councilman and didn’t want any sort of internal family “scandal” to mar his time in office. What I didn’t realize was how deeply he recognized how his kids felt. I just watched a video of his retirement from the Woodbridge council after twenty years of service, and he both thanked and apologized to us for putting up with him during his time in office, since he knew he could be tough on us all.
That sort of quiet self-reflectivity? That was my dad.
So now what? Right now I’m left to pore through my sadness and sense of loss, even though he was ill for a long time and part of me half-expected this phone call for the last few years. I think about what advice he would give me and imagine that part of him would tell me to walk it off and start to move on. Another part of him would give me a hug. I never said he wasn’t complicated. I expect the pain will fade, eventually, though the memories (I hope) never will. I already miss talking hockey with him. I already miss calling him on election day so he knew that I was upholding my civic duties as a responsible citizen. I really miss the stories he would tell about his adventures with the Boland brothers, or with his own brothers, or about his fights with the town council. But mostly, I just miss my dad. A friend of mine, who also lost her father recently, asked, “How do you sum up a life?” I don’t know if you can, and the stories I told here are just miniscule snippets of insight into the man who raised me. But there is this…
This? Is how I want to remember him.
This is my dad.