Monday, February 19, 2007

Help From Above

As I embark on this journey of fatherhood, start driving on that long, bumpy, wonderful road, I realize there is one big thing that I am missing. One big thing that I wish I could give my daughter. You can't find it on a registry. You can't buy it with a gift card. It won't come in a Babies 'R Us box, wrapped in pink and yellow paper with a rattle and some ribbon stuck on top.

When my daughter arrives in a few weeks, she will be missing a grandparent. She'll be a hockey team starting the game one skater down, forever trying to kill off a power play. Someone else will have to sneak her orange soda behind our backs. Someone else will have to grab her hand when she's two, and walk her around the amusement park when she's acting up and getting on our last nerve. Someone else is going to have to wrap all of her Christmas presents, and put funny notes on them. My father won't be there to do it.

He passed away suddenly four years ago. Since the day I found out I was going to be a father myself, I've been thinking of ways to make him a part of our baby's life.

But sometimes you get so busy, you forget the most basic things that you would think you'd always remember. Recently, I tried my best to recall what my father's laugh sounded like, and I couldn't. I sat there on the couch for what felt like hours, eyes closed, TV and stereo off, trying to remember. I want one day to describe it to my daughter. Find the perfect words to explain to her what it meant when Popsie laughed. And I couldn't.

I can see him laughing. I do have the memory of that. I just can't remember what it sounds like. I'm waiting, hoping, praying for it to come to me in a dream.

I must admit, there are days where my father barely crosses my mind at all. Probably those busy days at work, or lazy days hanging around the apartment. The funny thing is, looking back on those days, they're the ones I need him the most.

There are just so many questions I have for him right now: What is the one thing you thought you knew about becoming a father, that you actually didn't? What were you nervous about? What mistakes did you make? What would you do over again? What do you think you did right? If you and mom only had sex three times, why are there four of us?

I know he would laugh at that last one. My mother always referred to me as a 'miracle.' Oh, those old-school Catholics and their rhythm method! Gotta love 'em. But I still can't hear him laugh.

So I've decided to pass along the good memories I do have. Like how he would use dry wit to discipline us. Growing up, I hated pasta fagioli. For those of you regular Americans who may not know, it's an Italian soup made with a tomato broth, pasta and white beans (the beans are the fagioli, commonly, but incorrectly, pronounced fazul). So when my mother made it for dinner, I would refuse to consume this evil concoction. My father would respond, stone-faced, "You don't have to like it, you have to eat it." Classic. The man was a poet.

By the way, I love pasta fagioli now, in case you were wondering.

I'll tell her how he was a fearless singer. In church and in the car. He would have no problem attempting those high notes, knowing full well he had as good a chance of hitting them as I have of hitting a major league curve ball. He must have done it for the laughs. I remember one car ride on the way to Christmas Eve dinner at my aunt's house, when he was belting out 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town' like he was a Pointer Sister. He had to have heard us laughing at him in the backseat.

She'll know what a hard worker he was. The hours he dug through clay and mud in the backyards of New Jersey, building swimming pools. How he wouldn't come home some nights until it was well past dark, then eat his dinner at the table alone, cement mix caked under his fingernails. Eating the same food he was providing for us. What he didn't know is that I never fell asleep until I heard him walk through the door. It was then that I felt safe. He made it look easy. But knowing now what I didn't know then, it was not.

He eventually became his own boss, opened his own business, teaching me the value of a dollar and an honest day's work. Those are traits I'd like to pass along. He was also fiercely loyal, offering jobs to friends of his and friends of mine who needed one. That's a good trait to pass along as well.

He was brutally honest, like when I crashed his brand new Lincoln Town Car into the drive-through at the bank. He shouted not an expletive, but insight: "It's all Physics and Geometry! You get straight A's in Physics and Geometry!" I got those brains, and my dashing good looks, from him. He was probably the smartest and most insightful man I'll ever meet.

He chose his words wisely and carefully. Sometimes, a lot of times in fact, they came out in just four-letter increments. But even then, he wasn't resorting to a poor man's vocabulary. He was using them for effect. And what an effect they had! The man used the "f" word like Billy Joel uses a piano. Masterfully. I would like to teach my daughter to choose and use her words with such precision and poise. Even if they do have four letters.

Near the end of his life he was very generous to me, with his time and his money. When my parents dropped me off for college my freshman year, he sneaked me $200 when my mother wasn't looking. That's something I'll always remember. And something I'll probably do myself when the time comes. Maybe he was making up for all of those late nights, all of those things he missed. All of the mistakes he thought he made.

The last time I saw him alive, he was doing me a favor. I was having car trouble, and he was having it checked out for me. He knew a guy who would take care of it free of charge. Could have been a guy to whom he once gave a job. Could have been a guy who loved hearing his ridiculously long, but wildly entertaining stories.

We had switched cars while the repairs were being done, but I was driving a Chevy Blazer at the time, and I wanted it back to tailgate for a Jets playoff game. So he drove from my sister's house in Virginia, back to his house on the Jersey Shore, picked up my Blazer, and met me at the Cheesequake rest area on the Garden State Parkway, and we switched back. He didn't look well, and when I asked him about it, he said that he had been feeling sick, run down. We both figured it was the winter, the holidays. "Get some rest, dad, feel better." And I hugged him.

As I climbed into that Blazer, something stopped me from closing the door. I saw him in the driver's side mirror, huddled over in his coat on that bleak, freezing, early January morning, walking back to his car. I stuck my head out of the still-opened door and shouted over the traffic, "Thanks, dad. Thanks. I really appreciate it." And that's the last thing I ever said to him. And I really appreciate it.


  1. Nice post Justin...I've got your dads laugh on video. Even have you on video. Remember when I put that hot dog in your face while you were napping??

  2. justin,if you remember your father's singing which he loved doing,then you do indeed rermember his laugh.his singing was his laugh!!we do miss him very much.

  3. I use your dad's words of wisdom almost every day with my son who hates to eat everything. "You don't have to like it, you have to eat it". Classic. Thanks Uncle Dick.


  4. just,
    just remember da da da da. you know, his signature magic act:) his singing was his laugh is right!


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