My Turn: Open Letter to My Father

(Photo by Derek Thomson)

As the years go by, your stature only grows

Happy Father’s Day. It’s been a long, long time since I last visited with you and Mom. Remember, I had a business trip from New York to Kansas City in October 1979, and I booked a return stop in Cincinnati to drop in and say hello. Although we talked every week since I left home in 1966, we had only seen one another a handful of times in 13 years. The last time was your 75th birthday.

Our last visit, if only for a day, was spent rehashing the good old days: your golfing buddies (I was your caddy every weekend, and I learned the game from you) and the time you invited me to your annual Christmas party with them and offered me a drink. I was 19 and I sipped it, but I hated the taste of Scotch and soda, and you knew it by the look on my face. Nevertheless, I felt like a real man—just one of the guys being invited to sit with Uncle Bud, Mr. Ahern, Mr. Shea and the rest of your friends.

The author’s father

To tell the truth, I’ve never had the number of friends you amassed in your lifetime. Not even close. Margaret Mary has been shocked, as she always felt I was so outgoing. But M.S. changed me, and being in a wheelchair for 40 years has limited me both physically and socially; that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

Dad, you were always there for us. I can’t remember your missing one of my basketball games or my brothers’ swim meets. You never criticized or second-guessed my games. Your compliments were few, if any. However, your three sons recognized your pride in our efforts. That was enough.

You were strict and laid out a work schedule every week: cutting grass, shoveling snow, taking clinkers out of the furnace and helping Mom while you traveled the Midwest. Your rules were reasonable but the discipline painful when they were not adhered to. I remember losing the use of the car when I drank and drove—a no-no in our house.

My children, David and Molly, never got to know you. When I told them about your discipline, they, in unison, said, “I’m glad he wasn’t our dad.”

You taught me that we all need standards to live up to and guide us. You insisted we learn how to shake hands while looking the person right in the eye, to shine our shoes, to treat everyone, no matter what color or age or sex, with dignity—and to insist on the truth no matter the consequences.

I remember talking with you every Saturday morning. The last time we talked was from a phone booth in Sedona, Arizona on a brilliant morning in the Oak Creek Canyon. When Mom answered and told me you were in the hospital. I was concerned, confused. As usual she underplayed your condition, as did you. You sounded good, but in those old phone booths it was hard to really tell. I told you I missed you and would try to come back from Phoenix to New York through Cincinnati. That night, Paul called me at 3 a.m. in my hotel room in Phoenix to tell me you had died in your sleep.

You were five-foot-eight, and I’m six-foot-four, but I’ve always looked up to you—not the reverse. And I’m now your age when you died—79. It’s hard to believe that was 39 years ago. I remember asking you on your 75th birthday if you were afraid of dying. You said, “Hell, no! I’ve been blessed with your mom and three wonderful sons. What else could a man ask for?”

To say, “I love you, Dad” feels trite. Because it’s so much more than that. It’s love, and it’s respect and admiration. You were a tower of strength, as was our mom. You instilled sound values in us, Dad, and you were—and still are—a tough act to follow. I’ve looked inside of myself many times and asked, “Have I been your equal as a parent?”

The answer isn’t clear, and never will be.

This story comes from our May/June 2019 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.