Requiem for a Heavy
A Father’s Day tribute to a man who really wanted one
This essay originally appeared in the June 1996 issue of Men’s Fitness magazine.
I got the call late one Friday afternoon in January 1994, a few days after the Northridge earthquake. The quake had turned my office upside down, bringing the magazine to a halt, and now we were scrambling to make up for lost time.
“I’ve got some bad news,” my brother John, calling from the Midwest, told me.
I looked up from my desk and saw a coworker waiting to speak with me.
“Dad was found dead in his condo today,” John said. “Nobody knows how long he’d been there.”
My coworker gave me a significant look, like what he had to say couldn’t wait. “Sorry,” I explained to him. “My dad died.”
He started to back away, muttering shocked apologies.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I didn’t like him much.”
Sins of the fathers
From time to time, I have to remind myself that I’ve had a soft life. I grew up on the green lawns of suburbia. I always had lots of kids my own age to play with, attended good Catholic schools, got a college education, never really went without anything. I had no wars, no depressions (not the economic kind, anyway), no addictions that I couldn’t afford.
But if my life, at least superficially, seemed like a Norman Rockwell painting, Dad’s own upbringing was German Expressionist. In today’s babbling brook of psychological jargon, we would say my father lacked positive male role models. His paternal grandfather, according to an elderly relative, was a mean son of a bitch, and when Dad was five, his father was institutionalized. He and his mother went to live with her parents, but her father was a mean son of a bitch, too, and they moved away as soon as they could, scraping by throughout the Great Depression. At 16, Dad left home to join the Marines.
To hear others tell it, the Marines were the self-esteem movement of World War II. Young men who’d had nothing were made to feel as if they’d drawn one big straight flush in the poker game of life. Dad, too, sang this song, but in reality I think the Marines were the worst thing that ever happened to him. He used to brag, with no sense of irony, that the Marines had taught him how to eat, and most people who knew him were shocked that he managed to live to the age of 69, considering he looked like an airbag five seconds after impact.
The Marines taught him how to gamble, too, and his inability to resist laying a bet eventually cost him his marriage and family. Mostly, though, they taught him discipline, but not the self-discipline we tend to associate with successful people. To Dad, who spent a few years as a drill sergeant, discipline meant getting others to do exactly what you wanted them to do, exactly when you wanted them to do it. Unfortunately, the Marines didn’t offer outplacement counseling; no one ever told him that’s not the way families work.
He had to find out the hard way. He had to have a son like me.
In retrospect, I don’t think I was a bad kid so much as a high-maintenance one. Lots of energy, lots of opinions, an all-consuming need to draw attention to myself. The military taught him how to deal with people like me, and as a parent, he made a good Marine. By the time I reached high school, I had become fairly adept at avoiding his wrath — well, I avoided him, which pretty much took his wrath out of the equation. He got in an occasional kick or punch, after which I would feel obliged to explain away my black eye or bruised lip with some fantastical story of a back-alley brawl. Never mind that my classmates knew I was lying about the fights; making up stories was so much fun that I almost didn’t mind the bruises.
Then came the night when I did mind. I was 17 and had come home from school in an unusually good mood. I made the mistake of joking while my father was eating, and soon Dad and I were standing in the middle of the room trading punches. Not that it was a fair trade; I landed one — I can’t remember where — and blocked one of his. Then he put me in a headlock, and it was all over, except for the bloodstains and the apology he forced me to give him before he would let me remain in his house. Still, the incident marked a turning point. Dad, I realized, didn’t like getting hit and never took a swing at me again.
Luck of the draw
If I have any say in the matter, my son, who was born in February, will have a better ticket through life than I had. He’ll probably end up with a sibling or two, but if he needs extra attention, he’ll get it. (His future teachers, not to mention his girlfriends, should be thankful for that.) He may have to listen to his father’s idiotic rantings and ravings — I got my father’s anger gene; fortunately, it came without the violence option — but compared to the way I grew up, his home will seem like a monastery. Still, while I know my son won’t have to make up stories to explain away contusions, I have to wonder if we’ll end up the way my father and I did.
See, after my parents separated for good my last year in college (my mom gave up the ghost of their marriage after Dad took a sizable inheritance from his mother’s second husband and gambled it away in Las Vegas), I actually tried to have a somewhat functional relationship with my father. We went out on dates, we hugged, we exchanged endearments. But underneath it all was a nearly unbearable tension.
Finally, I laid my cards on the table: Although it had been 10 years since that night we exchanged blows in the kitchen, if he and I were going to have any kind of worthwhile relationship, we’d have to deal with our violent history. It seems corny now, but back then all the magazines and advice columns said it was the path to healing.
Dad, however, wasn’t up for healing. He said he’d handled family discipline the way the Marines had trained him to, and his gambling wasn’t our problem to solve. It was his inheritance, his money, his business. I knew he was lying — the inheritance was actually in both my parents’ names, and he’d crudely forged Mom’s signature on a number of documents — but I didn’t discover until after he died that my name had been on something, too: My step-grandfather had bought cemetery plots for my parents, my siblings, and me so we could all spend eternity together. And my guess is that my father didn’t waste a minute cashing them in so we could all spend eternity apart.
After my big moment with Dad failed so miserably, I concluded that although spending time with him wasn’t as unpleasant as having an electric current shot through my testicles, it was on the same page. I lost contact with him soon after. Most of my siblings followed suit over the years. Only two of his seven children were speaking to him by the time he died. He knew only four of his eight grandchildren, and two of those he wouldn’t allow in his condo because as toddlers they’d broken one of his lamps. But what takes this story from merely sad into the realm of the bizarre is this: I believe Dad went to his grave convinced he’d never been given a fair shake by his ungrateful family.
Right about the time of my parents’ divorce, in 1980, Dad took me to see a movie called Tribute, in which a life-of-the-party guy played by Jack Lemmon tries to fix his broken relationship with his son before he dies of cancer. At the end of the movie, Lemmon’s friends throw him the titular tribute party, during which his son, played by Robbie Benson, realizes he’s misjudged his father, that someone so beloved by his friends must be a great guy. As we left the theater, I realized Dad thought this movie was his life story, give or take a malignant tumor or two.
So desperate was he for a tribute of his own that he once had a plaque made, congratulating himself on the great job he’d done coaching my brother’s youth-league baseball team. He even had the trophy shop engrave the signatures of the league’s officials, who, of course, had no idea they were lending their names to Dad’s testimonial. Several of my siblings told me Dad proudly displayed the plaque in his office, where he sold insurance.
When Dad died, he left a provision in his will that his friends were to throw a “grand and glorious” party in his honor (his actual words), and he directed his estate to give them $1,500 to do so. My brother and sister, who were named executors, tried to ignore the provision for the party, since Dad’s estate was in such a shambles that they feared they’d end up having to settle his affairs with money from their own pockets.
But Dad’s friends knew the exact dollar amount of the provision and demanded every penny of it. They also insisted that my brother pay for the locksmith one of them had hired to break into Dad’s condo the day he was found dead in front of his TV.
That last bit of business completed the circle: The only two of his seven children who’d stayed in touch with him wished they hadn’t. There are now, counting my son, a total of 18 people who are on earth because of my father, and to my knowledge not a single one of them misses him in any way. The only legacy he leaves is that each of us has made it his or her life’s goal to be as unlike him as possible.
Which, in its own way, is sort of a tribute.