A Son’s Best Man
One of my favorite televisions shows when I was a kid was Leave It to Beaver. There was something about that show that I enjoyed watching week after week. My favorite character of all was Mr. Cleaver. He was a good husband, Father, and neighbor, always cheerful and most of all dependable. He would never stop off at a local gin mill to have a few beers before he came home to kiss June on the cheek and ask where are the boys? He didn’t stay out until all hours of the night gambling, worrying his family half to death, wondering if and when he would ever return. I liked Mr. Cleaver because he was the Dad I always wanted. That’s not to say my Dad was not a good man; he was just different. For one thing, he would go off to the local gin mill after work to have a few beers, and he did like to gamble and stay out until all hours of the night worrying his family half to death.
When I was 11 years old, my sister would get me out of bed on a Sunday Night and tell me I had to go get daddy and bring him home from the poolroom. Half asleep in pajamas and slippers, I would shuffle across the street to get my father and tell him he had to come home. The Poolroom was a place where men would gather to socialize and gamble. They would watch television, play cards, or shoot pool. Of course, nine times out of ten, no one was around the building to let me in because the place closed at 9:00 on Sunday nights. The lights would be out, and everyone was gone except for the guys in the back rooms, playing 5-Card-Draw or 7-Card Stud. My father was one of them.
The Back Room was where the late night card games took place. I could always tell by the look on my Dad’s face whether or not he would be coming home with me. I figured this out after my first few trips to get him. If there was a pile of money in front of him that meant he was winning and more then likely coming home with me. If he was loosing, he would tell me to come back in fifteen minutes. Ever since the first time he told me to go home and come back 15 minutes I would just go out to the front room and sit in the dark by the pool tables. There I would watch the big clock on the wall by the front waiting for 15 minutes to pass.
Sometimes life writes a plot that even art cannot imitate and when that happens, even Mr. Cleaver can’t help you.
One evening in January 1966 while sitting at a card table playing black jack my Father had a heart attack and died. I was 14 years old at the time and I witnessed it all. I was with him when they carried him into the ambulance and I was with him when the doctor came to me in the hospital to tell me he was sorry there was nothing he could do.
In the first year after my dad passed away I used to have this recurring dream about him. It would start off with us walking toward each other. He would smile and then give me a big hug. I remember feeling warm and safe in his arms. It was so real, but it was only a dream. In time, the dream would fade, and in time I grew angry at him. I was mad for being in that ambulance with him, watching helplessly as the life in his body drifted further and further away. I was mad at him for dying the way he did. In one night, he was gone forever. I wanted so badly to talk to him one last time and ask him: “what were you thinking about?” What would happen to us if something happened to you? We had no mother, no grandparents, and no close relatives who could really take care of us. I was angry at my father because he was my anchor and without him I would float aimlessly through my young life without direction, support, or love. For the next 8 years I tried not to think about him at all. Even though everyday I passed by the cemetery where he was buried I never visited his grave since the day of his funeral. I would intentionally ignore conversation about parents especially when my friends would tell me how their Mother, or how their Father was driving them crazy.
Ironically, it was not until I got married and had a family of my own that changed how I would think of my dad. I had a daughter and son just like he did. I wondered what I would have done if my wife passed away leaving me with a one year old boy and a three year old girl? Would I have put them up for adoption and walked away from them forever as he could have? Would I have moved into a five room cold water flat with my mother-in-law as he did in an effort to keep the family together? Would I have visited the local gin mill every now and than after work to try and free myself, even for a few minutes, from the painful thoughts of loosing the woman I loved? I wonder if I too would have spent more time in the Poolroom, because it was less painful than being home. Mom died shortly after I was born, and although no one ever said it, I often wondered if I was the reason for changing my father’s life forever.
I saw how selfish I was about his death in that I only considered myself. I never once thought how unfair it was to him to die at a young age of 42. I never considered the challenges he had, and the times in his life when he too had no options. You really can’t judge anyone, especially your own parents, until you walk a mile in their shoes. I realized that he did the best he could with the cards that life dealt him, and his untimely death taught me a great deal about life. His passing away was a crushing blow to me and one that I could have let affect me in a destructive manner for the rest of my life. I could not let that happen because it would have not only ruined my life, but it would have validated the insignificance of my Father’s life as well.
His death taught me that life comes with no guarantees and you have to enjoy the gifts that God gives you each and everyday. It also taught me that no matter how busy I was I would always find time for my children. As a kid, death played a major role in my life and I realized early on how precious time was. I tried to be a part of my daughter and son’s lives and share not just the Kodak moments but the everyday bonding moments that would make for life long memories. I would stay close to them everyday as they went through grammar school, and high school, and college and now marriage. Even today family gatherings start with a hug and a kiss, and telephone conversations always end with a simple goodbye and a heartfelt “I love you.” I wanted my children to have the Father that I never had and feel the love that I never felt, and hear the words that I never heard.
Last summer my son asked me to be the best man in his wedding. Somewhat surprised I replied; “are you sure you want me Mike, you have so many friends to choose from why pick your old man?” Than he looked me in the eyes and said: “dad, throughout my entire life you were always my best friend and there’s no one else that I would ever want but you. As my eyes started to tear I gave him a big hug and told him I loved him, and that I would be honored to be his best man.
I read somewhere that it’s not the amount of time you have on earth that matters, but the depth of that time. I think the love between a parent and child transcends time.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.