On Pearl Harbor Day, 1996, I came home early from work, and within minutes of walking in the door, my sister called with news of our father’s death.
After hanging up, the poet Robert Lowell came to mind. A New Englander who spent his life at odds with an old-school father, Lowell once wrote:
I struck my father; later my apology
hardly scratched the surface of his invisible
coronary…never to be effaced.
With Lowell’s echo ringing, I sat on the bedroom floor and reached for the portfolio under my nightstand. Spilling its contents, I leafed through hundreds of black and white photographs of my father, mostly from his fighter pilot days in World War II.
There were also some recent shots. I hadn’t seen Dad for five years, and for a decade before that we had found more ways to disagree than I cared to remember.
Yet I had spoken to him that morning. Dad was ill, and our exchanges had withered to birthday chats and holiday cards. My mother and sisters pleaded for me to come to him, but at the time, my career and life circumstances made that difficult.
Yes, it was a convenient excuse to avoid discomfort, as well as another quarrel. My father was in an intensive care unit at half his normal weight. His mental acuity – once as sharp as a meat cleaver – had been dulled to hallucinations and early-life flashbacks.
Even though he could be very demanding when healthy, I only wanted to remember Dad strong and on top of his game.
So I made a phone call instead, and lied.
Knowing he was just hours from death, I told Dad I loved him dearly, which was true. I also said I’d be by his side in the morning, which wasn’t. When I hung up, I could hear the dip of his paddles start the river crossing.
Only then did I allow myself to recall things about Dad I had long buried.
Unlike Lowell, I never hit my father, but we both spent years pummeling each other with the force of our wills. In that arena, many good sides of him had slipped my mind.
As E. E. Cummings, another New England poet in a life-long paternal melee once wrote about his father:
If every friend became his foe
He’d laugh and build a world with snow.
Indeed, following years of fighting, killing and then recovering from devastating wounds, Dad then spent the rest of his life building the world for others. Always gentle with babies and infants, and charitable to a fault, he was at his best when helping the downtrodden.
Dad would go out of his way to find people jobs, give them money to feed their families, or help educate their kids. He opened our home to many of his poorer relatives and friends, often using his patronage to better their status.
Dad’s only reward was seeing people succeed.
Raised in poverty back in the old country, he sought education as a way to make something more of himself than his background would suggest. Even at the height of his achievements, those roots kept him well grounded, and sensitive to the plight of those less fortunate.
I can still see him stop on a busy city street corner to talk with a panhandling veteran who had lost both legs to a land mine in World War II. He slipped the man $100, and then as we walked away, wiped tears from his eyes and told me:
“Telly, don’t ever forget that others who can’t do for themselves have often given more than you’ll ever know.”
Still, my father was a tortured man who fell victim to the wars of his youth. Once out of combat and healed in body, his spirit fought demons the rest of his life.
A child can’t fathom such trauma from a parent — call it PTSD or whatever you will. But at times being witness to it was unavoidable.
Once, when I was 9 or 10, my oldest teenage sister drew Dad’s ire with some stubborn backtalk full of sass and venom. The shouting match percolated to an explosion. Then the start of a beat down drew an immediate intervention from my mother and other sister, who forced Dad out of the room and into the hallway, slamming the door behind him.
There, I stood quietly in the shadows and watched him stumble into his bedroom. Petrified yet curious, I made my way to the door. Dad was sitting on the bed’s edge with his left hand in a vice grip around his trembling right wrist, as if trying to hold himself back from doing any more harm.
He sobbed like a toddler in distress, helpless even to grasp the depth of what ravaged him within. And that image of Dad broken down has never left me.
Today, although a father and a veteran myself, I still lament what was taken away from our family: Dad lived a double edged existence, depriving himself of joy at times when there was no reason for anything but.
Time, of course, is a great equalizer, and the next generation can always do better.
My own son Jason is now an adult. As he was growing up, every night before turning in I would stop into his room. While he slept, I straightened out his blanket, ran my fingers through his hair, kissed him on the forehead, and told him I loved him.
Jason couldn’t hear me. If awake, he’d have been squirmy – my display incompatible with our usual father-son spats.
When I was a boy Dad would discipline me as he saw fit, then bumbled his way to make amends while I was still fuming.
It was only much later, when I was a father, that I recognized those instinctive paternal efforts to reconcile. So, whatever buttons of mine Jason’s swagger pushed, I still conducted that bedtime sacrament until he left home.
On this Father’s Day, my son is home for a visit, and I’m sure we’ll have a hug and a good laugh about something.
But more importantly, when I get a moment, it’ll be time to pull out the portfolio, as many years have passed since I sat alone with Dad’s pictures.
The evening of his death, now almost 20 years gone, remains one of the most peaceful moments of my life. I didn’t have to beat my head against a wall following yet another clash of lions.
Instead, after far too long, I finally surrendered to the tears — and loved my father for nothing more than trying his very best.
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.
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