Thinking of my Dad
About 35 years ago my father was mugged coming out of an Irish Pub on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles. Two young men approached, pulled a gun on him, cold cocked him in the eye with a fist, demanded he take off his bracelet and watch, and give him all the money he had, plus his wallet. He did what he was told, but the bracelet was one of those fancy, expensive types from Cartier or Tiffany from the 1980s that my dad liked to buy for himself; one that needed a special screwdriver to remove. The muggers got anxious, nervous, and as they struggled getting his gold bracelet off, my dad got out their grasps and ran down the street away from them. They fired two shots but missed. My dad kept running. The young men didn't follow him. I guess my dad was lucky.
I’m not sure why this incident popped into my head after so many years. I guess it was sparked when I made plans to visit my dad for the first time in a number of years. We live in different parts of the country, about 3,000 miles away from each other. He doesn’t travel—hasn’t for the last 15 years or so. He missed his mother’s funeral in St. Louis 13 years ago. He couldn’t get himself to go. He missed my wife’s funeral four years ago. He couldn’t get himself to go. He missed my wedding when I got remarried two years ago. He couldn’t get himself to go.
My dad is a television and movie writer. At the age of 81 he still writes every day, although he hasn’t sold a script in more than a few years now. But at one time he was one of the top television writers in Hollywood. Maybe top is too boastful a word, but he is my Dad, and it’s one of the things I can say about him that truly make me proud. He even had a couple of feature films produced later in his career, an impressive feat considering Hollywood tends to be a younger man's game. But career success doesn't make a great father, and my Dad isn’t and never was a great father. He isn’t a great grandfather either; he never cared to be. He wasn’t a great husband to my mother or his second wife; that would have taken too much self-control, too much of his time. His hurtful actions and demeaning putdowns meant little to him compared to attending to his own pleasures, something he couldn't seem to satisfy.
Though my parents divorced when I was seven, and my older brother and I didn’t see him very often, my father and I developed a very close and unique relationship over the years. I guess I accepted him for what he was and who he was, something my brother never did. Even as a kid, I recognized his shortcomings, knew he wasn’t going to change no matter how much I wanted him to. I knew he wasn't going to come to my high school baseball games. I never asked him to, and he never did. He remained the same man he probably was born to be, or maybe raised to be, considering his relationship with his alcoholic and violent father. But that was alright with me, I enjoyed his company, loved listening to the master storyteller. The way he would dominate the dinner table with bittersweet and exaggerated tales of his youth. My late wife, after meeting him for the first time at a restaurant, turned to me and said, "Oh my God, can you believe what your father went through?" I looked at her like she was crazy--"You believed all that shit?" He could be fun and entertaining, but also mean and abusive. I was well aware of his moods, I knew him, understood him, maybe even felt a little sorry for him in ways I didn't fully understand, and still don't. All I knew was, he is my Dad.
But as the years went by, my disappointment in him grew too much to ignore. How could he not go to his mother’s funeral? He loved her and she loved him. She gave birth to him when she was just a kid herself--just 16. They were more like sister and brother than mother and son. Maybe he couldn't bear to remember how often he watched his mother hide in terror from from his gun toting, drunken father. OK, maybe I could understand that. But how could he not go to my wife’s funeral when she died? He knew how much it meant to me for him to be there. And then miss my wedding? An event, a turning point in my life that allowed me to be happy again; that gave me a chance to live again after eight years of watching my wife fight cancer and eventually die from it. How could he never give my daughter a birthday present or a Christmas gift, or even a phone call congratulating her for graduating high school or getting straight A's in college? But that was my dad. I had to go back to being seven again and not let him disappoint me.
Which brings me back to the day he got mugged many years ago. When he called me the next day and told me what happened, he got upset with me for not showing the empathy that he thought it deserved. I guess I was too subdued, too muted, not animated enough in response to his despair; that I didn't understand the gravity of this profound and life altering altercation. And, he was probably right. Maybe I could have been more sensitive, more emotionally giving, more understanding. I am my father's son after all; I just didn't realize it at the time. Or maybe I did understand it. When my wife and I had a child, I vowed to be there for my daughter. I promised myself that I would be the best father I could be. So I went to every dance recital and performance she had, and hosted more birthday parties and graduation parties and sleep overs than I care to remember. And then my wife died one month before my daughter's high school graduation--and then I really had to be tested as a father. Am I succeeding? I don't know--it's a work in progress that takes a circuitous route. All I know is that she just graduated from college in four years with honors. I helped, but she was the one who did it. I'm no hero--I was just doing what a father should do.
Now I look back at my relationship with my father and think, maybe, in the same way he expected more from me when he needed me, I realize I needed him more than what he gave me. Wouldn't it be nice to remember him cheering me on at my high school baseball games? Wouldn't I now shed a tear remembering how he put an arm around me when I had to bury my wife? But it doesn't really matter, I survived, and I love him for being my dad, and for what he could give. As I was able to understand for some unknown reason a long time ago, you can't change someone simply because you want to. Even if it is your Dad.