My dad, who died before I got to know him.
I never had the opportunity to know my dad. I remember he was a gentle soft-spoken person, but intense. In the twenty-three years I lived in his home, I can remember only one conversation he had with me. I was eighteen and he called me into the living room to discuss the “birds-and-the-bees.” He leaned forward to share his fatherly wisdom. I can remember his words exactly as he delivered them. “Son! Just don’t do anything stupid,” he said. The room was silent except for the sound of the furnace that had just kicked on. “Is that it?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. He was unable to communicate with me, and I hated him.
Born in 1900, he traveled to America, alone, at the young age of sixteen. He sought to build a life and escape the poverty and entanglement of the gang wars in his hometown of Palermo, Sicily. The Mafia was establishing roots in America too, but he would be able to protect his family in a large and growing new world. He could vanish into any community, village, or city and begin a new life without people questioning his past. He could start over.
At his first job, when he arrived in Michigan, he made five cents an hour. He then got a job working at Chrysler for twelve cents an hour. He paved the way for his mother, father, and siblings to follow him to the land of freedom. He met my mother and got married in Detroit. It was an arranged marriage – he was thirty-three and she was twenty-two. As young adults, they lived through the Great Depression and WWII while starting a family. After the war, America was on the road to prosperity. He not only cared for his young family, but he supported his father, mother, and sister. His parents lived next to us, in a two-family flat. He cared for them his entire life, and that placed additional stress on his young marriage and family.
My dad’s father was an angry and abusive man. I remember walking past him and frequently receiving his backhand, just because I was within reach. My three older sisters knew him as a mean and a spiteful person. I discovered, later in life, that my dad vowed to protect his mother from his father. Each day he came home from work, he first checked on how his mom was doing before he entered our house. That alone says more than my imagination can dream up.
When my mom came into their family, she was emotionally and verbally abused. She was raised in a happy and jovial family, but became angry, reactionary, and swore like a drunken sailor. I remember she frequently slammed cupboard doors, and pounded her rolling pin on the counter.
I learned that I couldn’t trust what mood she might be in; over the years I observed her behavior. She taught me that a reckless outburst of anger will keep others away from you. She could go from calm into a rage in a split second. I used that same strategy successfully to keep people away from me. I was good at keeping my distance. It is easy, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It works well but it is not healthy.
The lesson on trust, however, came from my dad in one swift moment. When I was ten years old, my older sister was bugging me and I called her “a rat.” In a rare moment of fury, my dad chased me into my bedroom. By then, he was fifty-seven years old. It was no contest – my speed as a ten-year-old left him in the dust. I dove under the bed, where he couldn’t get to me. After ten minutes of the standoff, I made him promise not to spank me when I came out. As soon as I came out, he broke the promise and gave me hell with his thick leather belt. That was the last time I cried. I vowed never to trust anyone. I told myself “when you get close to someone you will get hurt and betrayed.” I built a shell of armor around my emotions that the horrors of war would not penetrate. I have learned that vows you make can affect you – and those you care about – for a lifetime.
There were a few occasions when my father attempted to bond with me. When I was eight, he took me bowling a few times and we played checkers on the living room couch. I remember this because we had just moved into our new house in Saint Clair Shores, a suburb of Detroit. When I spent time with him, I felt I was special but I learned not to look forward to it. For the most part, my father was just the man that shared dinner at my table, and then disappeared into the living room to read the paper.
When I was in junior high, I played on the school’s basketball and baseball teams. He attended only two of my basketball games in three years. When I was in eighth grade, I made the final basket in the semifinal Catholic League championship game, with only a few seconds left. I played second-string point guard. Our first-string guard fouled out with only a few minutes left and I went in to cover.
Their guard was taking the ball up the court for one last drive when I slapped the ball out of his hand, burst down the court and made the basket as time ran out.
The crowd exploded and my team lifted me up on their shoulders and carried me off the court cheering. But, I wasn’t the hero of the game. The final basket really didn’t mean anything. We were ahead by eighteen points, so the two points just rounded our lead to twenty. But, playing in the game and being carried off the court was exciting and made me feel special and proud. I wished my dad were there to see it. When I told him about the game he said“That’s nice.” He wasn’t much for showing emotion.
He attended one of my baseball games the year we won the league championship. I was chosen to be the All-Star second baseman, but he wouldn’t let me play in the All Star game. It had something to do with my age and league rules. League rules allowed thirteen-year-olds to play in the regular season, but not in post-season games. I was thirteen, but looked much younger. I tried to convince him that no one would know that I was thirteen. He tried to explain that it was the honest thing to do, but I didn’t want to hear it. I got tired of playing organized sports after that, and besides, I was looking for more interesting things to do. The streets were calling my name.
My three older sisters knew my father differently. To them he was a loving man, younger and happier. He was forty-seven years old when I arrived on the scene. He began having heart problems in his mid-fifties and it wore him down. He retired at age sixty-two, after years of health problems and nervous breakdowns. His vitality for life had ebbed away. He was only a shell of the man he had been when he arrived in America at sixteen. He had nothing to offer a late-in-life boy who tested every boundary and limit he imposed.
When I was a toddler, I recall seeing him fly into a rage throwing chairs and flipping tables. I never saw an emotional reaction from him except when he had nervous breakdowns. He would disappear for months at a time. When I was about eight, I discovered he was in the hospital. When I visited him, I heard my mother and the doctor discuss “shock treatments.” The last time he had a breakdown I was sixteen. He returned a solemn, broken man. I remember him sitting on the sofa watching “The Price is Right.” He had given up, and by then I had gotten accustomed to him not being there for me. Neither my mother nor dad could show love, or any emotion other than anger. I never saw them hug, laugh, or kiss. Our home was sterile, more like an operating room than a carnival.
I was twenty-five when my father passed away. He had a series of strokes and his body was failing. He spent the last month of his life in a nursing home. He couldn’t speak or move his arms or legs. He could barely move his right hand. My sisters tried to encourage him to write. They placed a pen between his fingers, held a paper pad to the pen, and supported his hand. Regardless of how much he concentrated, he wasn’t able to scribe a single legible letter, much less a word. This made him extremely frustrated, and watching his decline was very hard for my mother and sisters.
I was at work when I got a call from my sister. It was 1:15 p.m. “Dad had a massive stroke. They think he only has a few hours left.” When I got to the hospital, my mother and sisters stood at his bedside sobbing. He was barely conscious. I stood in the back of the room as rigid as a cold steel pillar. I learned in Nam that death was just a cold hard life event; you shake it off, and move on to the next objective. I couldn’t understand their emotional outbursts.
I didn’t want to be there, but I came to support my mother and sisters. As I stood in the back of the room, my sisters asked me to go up to the head of the bed and tell my father that I loved him. I looked at them in defiance and stood rigid, unshakeable. They pressed me for several minutes. I reluctantly gave in to their demand.
“Tell him before he dies. If you don’t you will regret it for the rest of your life!”
I moved to the head of the bed and looked at the broken man. I stared into the face of a skeleton. His eyes and cheeks were sunken in. His skin was a pale gray. His lips were dry, crusted and chapped. My sister tried to give him a sip of water but he couldn’t swallow. The water rolled out the side of his mouth onto the bed. My mother took a wet washcloth and softly wiped his brow, cheeks, and lips. He seemed to appreciate it, or at least that’s what my mind led me to believe.
His breathing had slowed to eight shallow breaths per minute. He struggled with each breath, and his body was cold and clammy. He could no longer move his eyes, and it looked as if he was staring up, at the ceiling. There wasn’t much time left. I bent down, close to his ear, and the smell of death burst into my nose. I had smelled it a thousand times in Nam. I forced out the“I love you dad,” and saw his chin quiver as he tried to move his lips, but he was too weak. I then noticed tears well up in his eyes and a single tear slowly flowed down his cheek. It was a moment I didn’t expect and will never forget. In a split second, my worldview of my father changed. I realized that this was not the man I knew growing up.
That single tear sent me on a journey to discover who my father really was, and to get to know my mother while there was still time. I didn’t know how to start and I was inept at everything I tried.
At age forty, I made a decision to conduct an experiment and challenge my mother. My goal was to get her to say, “I love you” without prompting her. I decided to say, “I love you mom” and hug her every time we were together. The first few months she stood stiff, as I hugged her, like a cold steel pillar. She had no emotion. The expression on her face was one of complete surprise and fear, as if she was about to receive bad news like, “mom the doctor told me I have three weeks to live.” Or, she looked around the room expecting to be mugged. Perhaps it was a throwback from her youth, since two of her brothers had ties in the Detroit mob scene. I suspect there were times she got too close to seedy characters and learned to look over her shoulder when she felt uncomfortable.
Sometime during the first year of the experiment, she loosened up a bit. She patted me on the back and said, “That’s nice” when I told her “I love you mom.” In the second year of the experiment, she learned how to say those three words. It was very mechanical. I could have trained a parrot to say, “I love you” with more emotion. By the end of the second year, I heard some sentiment in her tone. We were making progress. Little signs of progress continued through the third year also.
The breakthrough came in the fourth year of the exercise. I don’t remember the details of the exchange or how the conversion progressed, but she spontaneously gave me a hug, without my prompting, and said the words I waited for. I was now forty-four, and it was the first time I heard those words from her lips. Perhaps she told me that she loved me many times while I was young, but I have no recollection of it. As far as I was concerned, it was the first time I had heard it from her. She died shortly after that and I wondered how things might have been different if I had started the experiment ten years earlier.
Because of my family’s inability to relate, I was determined to do something different with my son. I started telling Brian stories when he was a young child. I also wrote him letters and shared the good and difficult times life brings, with the hope he wouldn’t make the same mistakes I had. I hoped he would make different choices and be spared some disappointment. Perhaps he wouldn’t learn the anger and hate that lived within me, which darkened my existence for years.
When Brian was in his twenties, he moved out of state for several years. He missed the bond we had known, and asked me to write him some letters. I was thrilled that he wanted to reestablish the connection we had. Thus, these letters are the result of Brian’s request. It is my hope that these letters will provide Brian with a view of something every boy and man needs – a connection with their dad.
“Who is or was my dad?”
“What drove him?”
“What shaped his life?”
“Why did he do what he did?”
“Did he care about mom and me?”
“Will I have his strengths, or his weaknesses?”
A few years after Brian was born, I was eager to know how I would measure up as a father.
“Would Brian see me as I saw my father, weak and out of touch?”
“Would he judge me as I judged my father?” I had judged my father based on a child’s limited understanding of the difficulties of life.
“Would I press too hard, to be what my father wasn’t, and push him away?”
“Would I give up on him because I had no idea of how to reach him and meet his needs?”
I had sought answers to these questions for years, since Brian was born. I spoke to a dozen men who had managed to establish healthy father/son relationships. I had read books and had taken classes. While the information was good, I came away with facts and the life experiences of others. I had nothing more than a mosaic of ideas; bits, and pieces of a puzzle I couldn’t solve. I needed help. I had tried everything I could and had nowhere else to turn. I didn’t really have much faith in God, but I was desperate. I had nothing to lose. If God wasn’t real, or He didn’t give a darn about my concerns, my prayer would just drop to the floor like a brick. But, if there was a chance He could do something, I had to give it a shot. So, I prayed and asked God for help. I threw in a Hail Mary and Our Father, just for good measure.
Brian’s fourth birthday was coming up and I still didn’t have any answers. Then, one day I happened to be going through some old papers that had been stored in a box, untouched, for more than ten years. I found my dad’s wallet. His driver’s license, union card, Blue Cross, and social security card were tucked into the side pocket. I found a certificate of achievement from Chrysler, for his thirty years of service. He had kept a log of the jobs he held. He saved an old pocket watch that had a broken spring and stopped working. I remembered seeing him pull it from his vest pocket, to wind it, often. I found his birth certificate, citizenship papers, marriage certificate, and several poems he wrote to my mom. I then came across his death certificate. I froze as I read it. I felt my stomach sink. I could feel the blood rush to my head. My heart raced and my head began to throb. I could feel blood pulsate in my neck veins and across my temples. I got lightheaded, and sweat beaded up on my forehead. I was numb.
The date of his death caught my attention. I couldn’t come to grips with what I read. My father died on April 16, 1973. It seemed like an hour before the impact of what I read sunk in. April 16 was not just the day my father died, it was also the day Brian, my son, was born. I had never made the connection before. April 16 not only symbolized the day the history of anger, between father and son, ended. It now represented the day a new father-son legacy began. It was the piece of the puzzle I was looking for. The realization that fate was in my corner gave me the conviction it would all work out.
When Brian asked me to write him letters, I was thrilled he wanted to reestablish the connection we had known. I knew we had established a special father-son bond, but the ultimate confirmation that we had broken the anger barrier – the hallmark of my family’s dark past – was cemented the day I stood next to him at his wedding, as his Best Man. Of all of my life’s accomplishments, this honor will always be the premier moment of my life. With the old legacy dead, we have launched a new birthright into orbit, a destiny to be passed on for generations.
This book started simply as letters to my son, Brian. But, it has forced me to reevaluate the life I had with my father, and get to know him as the valiant man he was. Brian touched my life the moment he was born. However, living life with him has molded me to be the father he needed.<!—EndFragment—>