Although I wrote this piece, I had some help. Thank you to my mother, auntie Lisa, brother Kyle, and sister Monica. I just put their experiences, along with mine, in words.
"The highway's covered with broken heroes on a last chance power drive." -Bruce Springsteen
"Hey, guess who was asking about you the other day?"
"I Don't know, who?"
"Absolutely no one."
That was my dad's favorite dad joke. He would say it to our friends anytime they came over. He would say it to people he was meeting for the first time. Our friends would eventually catch on to the joke, but they still played along.
His sense of humor is just one part of my very complex father. He loved telling stories. He was a big presence all the time, no matter where he was. He could always make people laugh. He was a protector. He was a story-teller and had a story for every occasion. He was charming and witty. He was a good-looking man too. But there were different sides to my father.
Sometimes, he was a monster. Sometimes he was incredibly selfish. And sometimes, we would get hit. The only thing that hurt worse was his words. He knew what words to use to hurt people deeply. In my father's mind, this seemed like a successful form of discipline. All it did was make us afraid of him.
As I said, he was a very complex man, and everyone who loved him understands that now. I know that becoming a father and grandfather allowed me to understand my father more than I did when he was alive.
My Father's Childhood
My father was born in 1960 to a young mother and father. His biological father died when he was only five. One of his earliest memories was his father's funeral.
My grandmother was an alcoholic, and she loved to party. She separated from my father's father and began a relationship with Ted, a man who was also still married and had several children of his own. At this time, my grandmother had my father and an aunt from her marriage to my grandfather and then had four children with Ted. Ted was equally alcoholic, and they constantly fought, including physically. Ted was also physically and verbally abusive to all of the children. My father didn't talk much about his childhood, but I know he was the target of most of the beatings.
Love at First Sight
My parents were young the first time they met in 1976, my father being fifteen and my mother being sixteen. My father's mother was good friends with a woman who lived next door to the house where my mother grew up. As the story goes, my mom saw him in the neighbor's yard, struggling to fix his zipper. My mom volunteered to help him fix it. I believe it was love at first sight, and they didn't spend a day apart after that. They saved each other from the hell each one endured in their childhoods. Oh, and she did, in fact, fix his zipper that day.
They were living at my grandmother's house when they were first together and became caregivers for my father's siblings. As young as they were, there was no other option. My grandmother was absent, and someone needed to step in, and my teenage parents did.
I was born in 1977 when my parents were seventeen years old, and my parents were married shortly after.
A Family of his own
"Dads are most ordinary men turned by love into heroes, adventurers, story-tellers, and singers of song." – Pam Brown
By the time my parents were twenty-two years old, they had three children. My father had finished trade school for HVAC and landed a good job. A daughter followed me, and then another son. We first lived upstairs in a two-family house, but after we were all born, we moved to the downstairs apartment. It wasn't an easy time for them. They had their struggles and two kids with health issues in the early days.
My father had two sides when we were growing up, and it got worse as we got older. There were times when he was the best dad. A protector who we always felt safe with. A provider.
I remember the times he would take us fishing. Sometimes we would go night fishing, and he would spread out a couple of moving pads on the ground with sleeping bags on top and start a nice fire. And we would fish. If we got tired, we would snuggle up in our sleeping bags. Then when it was time to go, we left.
I remember being scared to cross a railroad bridge when I was young, and he scooped me up onto his shoulders and crossed the bridge. To me, he seemed so unafraid of everything.
He saved my brother's life twice. Once when he was a toddler and choked on a hot dog. It was one of the scariest things I have ever witnessed. My brother was turning blue, and my father wouldn't give up. He finally got the hot dog piece out, and my brother was okay. My father saved him another time when my brother was even younger. There was a back staircase leading up to our kitchen. It was just a wooden staircase with rails but no spindles. The door was open, and my brother made it to the top of the steps and fell through the rail. My father was sitting on a motorcycle in the right spot to move a foot or two and caught my brother before hitting the ground. He hurt his ankle when the bike fell onto it.
I remember one Christmas I got a Voltron, with all the lions coming together to make a robot. My red lion broke, and I was so upset. My parents said we didn't have enough money to replace it. A couple of days later, my father asked me to grab a box off of the big console tv in our living room. When I went to grab it, there was a brand new red lion behind the box. My face lit up, and so did his.
I remember pizza on Friday nights with the latest scary movie from blockbuster. He always had a joke for the pizza delivery guy too.
I remember the three of us kids horsing around, climbing on my dad's back to go for a "Horse Ride", tackling him to the ground, and having pillow fights.
I remember the music being cranked up loud and hearing him singing at the top of his lungs.
I remember catching him and my mom slow dancing in the living room. I even remember the song-"Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton.
I remember the abuse too. I remember bloody noses and welts and bruises. I remember spankings with the belt. I remember how his face changed when he was in a rage. My brother endured it the most in his teenage years. By that time, I had moved out, and my sister would be soon to follow. We both ended up back home for a time.
I remember his ridiculous rules and the arguments that would ensue if his rules were broken.
I remember the times we went without over the years, yet he had all the latest and greatest fishing gear.
I remember the time he came into my first place of employment, my first ever job, and yelled at me while I was working because I forgot to take the recyclables out to the road. He actually came into my work just to yell at me.
I lost respect for my father, and that put a huge wedge in our relationship quite a few times.
I had my first child when I was nineteen, so that made my parents very young grandparents. My sister had her first shortly after, and we gave my parents seven grandkids between the two of us.
My father rose to the new title of Papa. And he was the best. He found a way to have special bonds with all of his grandkids. He and my mom had sleepovers with the kids. He would take them fishing and teach them everything he taught us. He spoiled them, but that was okay because he knew when to say "no". He loved every one of his grandkids deeply.
My dad was fishing a semi-pro walleye circuit, and we used to camp wherever he was fishing. One time, I couldn't get out of work on time this particular Friday, and it would be dark by the time we got to the campground. My father had our tent set up and ready to go by the time we arrived.
Another time, the whole family went camping again, and a pop-up thunderstorm rolled through late at night. He was outside putting up extra tarps in the rain, lightning, and wind, so we stayed dry. That was who my dad was. He needed to protect his whole family.
This was also the time when my father's health began to fail. He still didn't let that stop him from being the best grandfather I could have asked for my children. When my middle son swallowed a quarter, which had to be surgically removed, he showed up at the hospital in his wheelchair just to be with my son and us when he woke up from surgery. It was not an easy trip for him, but that is how dedicated he was to his grandchildren.
Though he and I went through times of not speaking, he was still the best Papa ever.
A Cure Was Not Meant To Be
My father's health would continue to decline over the course of a few years. It started with a Chiari Malformation diagnosis and brain surgery to correct it. He had diabetes, and eventually, his kidneys began to fail. He needed dialysis and eventually learned how to do it at home. He did well for a bit while on dialysis until he had a heart attack. He was brought to the emergency room by ambulance, and they performed a heart catheterization to determine the damage from the heart attack. It was then they discovered that he needed a bypass and a quadruple valve replacement. I do not think any of us, including the doctors, understood how sick he was. His recovery was long, and he was in the hospital recovering for a month. During that time, he developed bed sores on his heels. Because of lack of circulation in his legs, the bed sores never healed. One of them got so bad that it led to a right leg amputation below the knee. He adjusted well to the amputation and had a few good months. During this time, my father was reflective, and many conversations that needed to happen did happen. Amends were made on all sides. He calmed down and mellowed during this time as well.
My father fell ill again in the fall of 2010. He missed his dialysis one day because he wasn't feeling well. The next day, blood was in his dialysis fluid when he did dialysis. He went to the hospital and didn't return. He had a massive infection in his peritoneum. He had an infection in his spleen and would need another valve replacement. He decided he no longer wanted treatment-he wanted to go his way.
We were with him every day, sometimes in shifts at night, to get some rest. I returned one night so everyone else could get some rest, as I did earlier in the day. We didn't do much talking. He was in and out of being coherent and, at one point, began calling me sir. I don't think he recognized who I was. I am not sure how I knew, but I knew that his time was coming to an end. I was with him when he passed, holding his hand. I kissed him on the forehead and said, "I love you, dad". I watched the vein in his neck stopped pulsing. I heard his last breath. My father was gone. He was fifty years old. And I would be forever changed.
Broken Heroes Are Still Heroes
"If what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others, and makes them believe in something larger than life, then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized by the story-tellers, by the loyalty, by the memory of those who honor him and make whatever that mad did live forever." -James Brian Hellwig, a.k.a. the Ultimate Warrior
This was a hard piece to write. There were tears and laughs along the way, which was largely cathartic. My dad was my hero. My brother feels the same way. He was so self-assured, an incredible outdoorsman. It seemed like there was nothing he couldn't do or didn't know how to do. He worked hard and played harder. He was brash, inappropriate, loud, and unapologetic about it. He was, quite frankly, an asshole. He had a good heart and loved his family deeply.
So what about the bad?
Our heroes, the people we idolize, are humans. Humans are imperfect. They will fail. They will have struggles. When I think about my father's childhood and being so young when he became ill, I think he was dealt a shit hand in this life. There is peace knowing he tried his best with what he had. I never went to bed at night, wondering if my father loved me. I knew he did.
I remember every time my family was together, I would catch my dad just observing, watching, and listening. I didn't understand why until I started doing the same thing when my whole family is gathered together. He was soaking it all in because having all of us together meant the world to him. Family first, he would always say. It is a moment of reflection and appreciation for the family I was given. I'd imagine in those times when he was quiet and observing, he would be feeling the same.
So why now, eleven years after his death, did I write my father's story?
I want people to know he was here. He lived. He existed. I want people to know that his death left a void in my family that we still all feel today. I want people to understand how difficult his life was, and even though he had his faults, he was still my hero. I want people to remember him. His last wish was that we wouldn't forget him and wouldn't let the grandkids forget him.
Well, Pops, we don't forget you. We talk about you all the time, and the grandkids do as well. And now, anyone who reads this will know you.
Give the video below a watch if you want to see the man this piece is about. I made it shortly after my father died.
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