Today is Father's Day. Each year since 1967, it has meant less and less to me - and more and more.
Less, because I draw further away from my father, who died on April 3, 1967; and more, because I cling to the memories of the days we had together and they mean more to me with each passing year.
I have vague memories of the first time he threw me a baseball. I remember being on the side of our home - where my mother still resides - and for whatever reason, standing at the plate as a left-handed hitter and having him throw me a baseball. I think I did it because my favorite player, Johnny Callison, hit left-handed and threw right-handed. It didn't seem like that big a deal. He didn't try to change me or encourage me to "hit righty" like the other kids, and that would be the hallmark of our time together. Be yourself, kid.
At some point in the early 1960s he bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder. A Webcor, if I remember. It was a 4-track. To a kid, it didn't mean much, other than that he and I could sit in front of it with microphones and read jokes to each other from books. He laughed - but I suspect that it was just to make me feel better.
As were his stories about World War 2. He served, albeit in San Francisco - something I wouldn't find out until much later. As a child, he told me stories about "sitting around, drinking with the Germans," and how "they were great guys." Either it was his strange sense of humor, a blocking device, or his way of encouraging me not to hate people; it was part of his humility that I inherited. Whatever it was, I remember telling kids in grammar school how my dad said that the Germans were great guys. It seemed to equal-out the lies they told me about Santa Claus.
Sunday morning. "Who's pitching today?" he would ask, and we would scan the newspaper for the lineups. "Koufax," I said. "OK, let's go!" and we would get into the car, stop at a sporting goods store in Oaklyn, buy a couple of tickets, and me and dad were going to a Phillies game.
When we parked the car, one of the local kids would say, "Watch you car for a quarter, mister." and dad would hand the kid twenty-five cents to make sure our car had 4 tires when we came back.
I remember watching "McHale's Navy" with him. He said, "If our Navy was like that, we'd have lost the war."
Christmas. Dad's 8mm movie camera had a bank of lights that would make Stevie Wonder squint. They would come on, and immediately I would hear, "Stop squinting!" as my eyes bled from the 2,000 watts of llight it would take to expose the 1963 film.
"Treat everybody the same, no matter what they do," was one of his mantras. It didn't matter if it was the head of the company or the guy who changed the toilet paper - you respect people, regardless, unless they don't respect you. That was a valuable life lesson that I have carried with me. I went to my corporate grave with it, after I was sent home for 5 days for speaking my mind to our corporate CEO and I related my father's lesson to our former head of our Human Resources Department who told me, "Your father was wrong."
My father was never wrong.
My mother had to sneak me up to his hospital room at Cooper after his heart attack. She shielded me in her overcoat as we got into the elevator. There was no reason a boy couldn't visit his father in his hospital room, she thought. I went in, and in his weakened state, I hardly recognized him. He was frail and gaunt - a shell of the strength I had seen. Still, he was my dad, and he put on a brave face in front of his son.
He died at home. The doctors couldn't do any more for him. The hardening of his arteries had progressed to a fatal state. Today, they would do a bypass and he'd still be alive. In 1967, they sent him home with nitroglycerine tablets and told him to eat fish.
The death was slow. Gradually, he succommed to the illness. He couldn't climb stairs, so he was forced to sleep downstairs on a cot that was set-up in our living room - at the place where a chair now sits that I feel compelled to sit whenever I visit my mom.
It's the same place where he would kiss me good-night.
Dr. Assante came and did what he could - which was nothing. I stood in an adjacent room and watched, as my mother held her hand under his nose, proclaiming, "I can still feel him breathing!," and the doctor telling her that it was merely the spare air expelling from his lungs.
That's an awful lot for a 9-year-old to understand, and I didn't understand any of it.
His viewing and funeral took place in a flash of three days. In the meantime, I was scuttled to neighbor's homes and given to relatives to "keep busy" while the arrangements were made and my Sainted mother went through the slightly medicated procedures associated with burying the love of her life.
It is impossible for all of that to occur and not have an effect on a child - sheltered or not. In the end, I don't think that the sheltering did anything to shield me from the impact of the event. My father - the light of my life - my hero - my everything; was gone. I didn't understand what death was. I didn't grasp, until much later, that there would be no more baseball games, no more jokes, no more squinting at horrid movies. My childhood was over. At 9.
I miss you, dad. I miss you every day. I know you would be dead by now, but I miss you seeing me develop into the adult that you trained me to be. I have made mistakes, but I know that you would have been there to comfort me through them. Mom did a wonderful job of rearing me, but there is a special bond that a father and son have that she could never replace.
And that's all I have to say about that.