This little guy, in glasses and the crutches, my dad, would be turning 93 today. I do miss him.
When I was in my 20s, he said, “Son, you’re a lover, not a fighter.”
I think he was seeing himself in the mirror of me, and I think he knew that he, and I, were not one nor the other, but both.
My father projected confidence, humor, generosity, and sensuality. He was gregarious and loud and sometimes spoke to people in a British accent. He smoked Marlboros, drank Johnny Walker Black. He sailed boats, sometimes in the nude. He wore an ankle-length fur coat in winter, and enjoyed driving his red convertible (with the top down and the heat blasting) on New York’s Central Park curving drives, at night. He once marketed a clothing item called “The Loincloth” and breathtakingly wore one himself, even moored in the waters of the Shelter Island Yacht Club. (This was a moment, when, I must admit, I wished I was not related to him).
He was also vulnerable, injured, debilitated. He did not complain, nor voice the rueful woe-is-me things that can turn people away, but he did make his conditions known, and he was able to ask for help.* From age three or five, as a result of falling from a tree and breaking his leg and having to wear a cast for far too long, he lived with one leg six inches shorter than the other.
He contracted tuberculosis, melanoma, heart disease; he stepped on a lionfish and nearly died.
Words in my vocabulary since an early age: PAS, isoniazid, quadruple bypass, carotid bypass, cholesterol, lumbar laminectomy.
They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and lately the parallels between him and me strike me: living with chronic pain, injuries to the feet, disability, financial challenges, creativity, love of salt water, and owning one own’s shit.
For instance, at the time of his second divorce (um, I have two, too), he immediately told us how he had screwed up. Once, when I pointed out that his third Scotch before dinner was making it difficult to understand him, he stopped drinking.
In his biggest moment of truth, in my late 20s, he apologized to me for not acting after learning that a friend of his had sexually abused me. “We just didn’t ... know what to do,” he said, relieving me of a huge burden of confusion and pain.
Interestingly enough, this is the same man who once marched/hobbled out onto an airfield, waving his cane at the Boeing 707 that was about to take off without him. This is the same man who walked into Saint David’s School the day after a coach had told us (second graders) that Santa Claus did not exist, and confronted the headmaster to make the coach recant.
And I believe that had he known of the rape of my classmates there, in the 1970s, and was alive today to see how Saint David’s School handled their reports of this abuse and requests for truth and reconciliation, well – had he known of either, he would have raised Cain. Perhaps literally, “raised his cane.”
He would have walked into that school, and demanded that the law intervene, and that teachers be fired, that monsters be replaced with humans, and that appropriate redress be made. Can you hear him walking down that marble-paved entrance hall, the triple-click of his left shoe, his right built-up shoe, his cane? Can you smell the cologne he wore and see the massive Windsor knot of his flowery tie?
My dad was relational. That is why he listened. That is why he spoke the truth. That is what makes him lovable, as I see him more and more clearly years later. People do not like the truth. For speaking the truth about Saint David’s last year for example, and nothing more, I have been told, “They hate you there.” (I just Googled Rey Buono, so I can see why. Look what comes up third in the search).
I have had fleeting moments lately, in the strangest places, when I hear in my head and believe the phrase “All you need is love.” To me that is the healing power of “just” being with someone else. With others. Connected.
My dad knew the essence of Buddhism without ever studying it (but it’s the essence of all religion and spiritual practice): that we exist because of and for others. That we thrive and survive and heal because of and with others. The notion that we do not, is delusion, poison.
(Power structures and wealthy institutions and often governments typically work hard to reinforce this delusion over and over, because it keeps others disempowered, silent, and scared).
He was always about children and of course he made mistakes.
I love Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” which is about this gray area of love and purpose and error and pain. Listen to "No One is Alone," here by clicking the image.
My favorite memory about my father involves him and my own children.
I brought my kids, ages 8, 6, and 3, to his hospital room in Vero Beach, FL, in March, 2001, just a few weeks before he died. I was in the process of divorce, it was school’s spring vacation, and so I took my three small ones to Florida and we stayed in his empty house. The kids snorkeled in the pool and we played miniature golf at a place with a pirate theme, and a parrot named Rainbow talked to them.
At the hospital, my youngest daughter stealthily approached his bed, reached out and tickled my dad’s bare foot, and darted away, madly giggling. My father feigned shock, and then laughed uproariously.
Back at his house, getting ready to leave for the airport, the kids used sidewalk chalk to write on his driveway, “Welcome Home, Pop-Pops!” in hopeful anticipation that he would recover and get home. But he didn’t get the chance to read their note, because he never left the hospital.
In our core, we want “home.” And home is other people.
Già volgeva il mio disio e 'l velle,
sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,
l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle
Now my will and my desire were turned
like a wheel in perfect motion,
by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars
(from Dante’s Inferno)
*We can make a religion out of “never complaining,” and we can idolize those who remain upbeat and hopeful even when they are clearly in physical or mental pain, and we can scorn those who can’t do that, but we must at least listen. Behind every statement that sounds like “complaint” or “whining”, there is an ask. The ask is: please listen to me, please help me if you can, there is something going on in me that really hurts. All you have to do is listen and reflect back to that person your love. You must not say, “Eat more kale,” or “Get some exercise,” or “Everyone suffers – get over yourself.” Those things may be helpful or true, but are they necessary? We want to be of service, because to try to "fix" or "heal" implies there's something wrong, and it reinforces condescending power structures.