Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been 88. He died on Independence Day a few years back. I don’t know how many years back, exactly, because my dad wasn’t the kind of guy you always wanted to remember. He was often the man I’ve tried to forget.
Dad was born in 1930, the youngest of 11 children. His family was poor. He would tell me stories about having to endure harsh New England winters as a child that would make my Floridian brain spin. How he’d have to line the inside of his shoes with cardboard to keep the snow from coming in through the holes. How, with no proper coat, he’d have to know which building to hide behind when the icy winds would cut through the town square on his walk to school. How, as soon as he was able to, he got a job stocking cans at the local grocery store. How his pay went directly to his parents to help keep the household running.
Being from the greatest generation, his brothers went to war, all but one returned. He would tell me stories of their times away in foreign lands. Of their grit, their strength. He talked of the gold star in their window, the one for Paul. His eyes always going away, which made me wonder what he saw in his head, what memories he’d like to forget.
Dad served during Korea, the young fella who was blinded in one eye after a childhood mishap with a wayward baseball during a game of catch. He fudged his way through the eye exam to get in, but his time was cut short after he broke his foot. He was sent to Japan to heal and then sent back home. For the remainder of his days that foot was a full size bigger than the other one, which made for a funny story, but tricky times at the shoe store.
Like my dad, I’m the youngest, the baby of the family. Which is how I was spared seeing him at his worst, the drunken years. Gone for benders, sometimes days at a time. Return home a monster, like Godzilla, sparing no one and nothing in his path of destruction. Leave again to drink away the shame. That pattern repeated until my sister almost died from illness. From then on he didn’t drink. But he never healed, never fixed what was so terribly broken inside. It was better after that, but only by a few degrees.
I had it the easiest, so I’m told. And when I hear stories from the bad times I know that is true. But even the easiest time with him was like walking through a field of landmines every single day. What word? What simple childish mistake? Which step will I take that will be the one that will make him blow? I never knew. I was never told.
I cared for him when my mom was ill and after she died, but when I married, I left. I ran away from home, my pillow case full of belongings tied to a broken broom stick. Bye. See ya. Have a nice life. I left to make something better for my children and I’d like to think I have. I hope I have. I pray I have.
I didn’t see him much when I was raising kids. He wasn’t that kind of grandpa, that kind of dad. There were no warm and fuzzy feelings. No soft place to land. I never felt good in his space, rarely felt welcome. So the years went. We had a Thanksgiving here, a weekend there, but mostly he lived his life and I lived mine. Occasionally we would call each other to say hi.
Dad had Alzheimer’s in his final years. In those years I was first dealing with a sick child, then my diagnosis of serious illness came. Those years were further complicated by a second wife that made our connection even more difficult. In those days I saw him only once, at the nursing home where he needed to be for his own safety and care. He didn’t know who I was, yet he continually begged me to take him home. He suffered in the end. He didn’t know where he was, but he knew he wasn’t home, and that is the kind of torture no one deserves.
When I received the call, that Independence Day however many years ago, I smiled. I was relieved for him, as I was relieved for me. His suffering was gone, so was his pain, both mental and physical. And he was gone. His presence. His anger. The love and and acceptance that was always so tantalizingly close, but never within reach. It was gone. It was over. I didn’t cry that day. I rejoiced, for him and for me.
On Independence Day he was finally granted freedom. Freedom from his pain and the pain that he perpetuated. He was cut loose from the shame and regret that I know weighed him down. He was free from the heartache of grueling childhood, of losing his wife and daughter within just a few months of each other. He was free. Finally truly free.
I didn’t cry that day, I haven’t still. I’ve never cried from missing him. I’ve cried from remembering him, the bad things. I’ve cried from the joy of knowing he’s shed the weight of his hardened life. I’ve cried for him. I’ve cried for me.
Today is my father’s birthday and today we are both finally free.