Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Best Dad I Know

What do you say to a man who has no idea what he means to you? What do you say to a man who means the world to you?

There is a man who is reading this right now, and he has no idea it's about him... yet. He's a dad. But he's not just any dad.

He's my friend. He's my uncle. He's my godfather.

Me and "Unc" at my 29th Smurfday Party
August 2004
He has perhaps shown me how to be a dad, in good times and in bad - the worst, in fact - more than any other dad I know. Including my own dad.

This is not to criticize my dad. He was intimidating, unapproachable, and generally surly for most of my childhood. Then I went to college and he started to become the dad I choose to remember most. The loving, caring, open, honest, understanding, patient guy who died just as our relationship - just as our friendship - was starting to bud into what it would have been had he lived for a couple more decades. How wonderful that would have been.

In his absence, I guess I've chosen my uncle as my de facto dad. I've shared a bond with this uncle since I was a boy. Ever since I reminded him one Christmas that he was my godfather, and he went out of his way from then on to make a big deal out of me.

Most important, this one uncle possesses most of the qualities I wish to emulate as a dad.

He loves his four sons, but I've never seen him dote over any of them. He's tough, but fair. He's honest and involved. And he cares. You can just tell.

My uncle and his four sons:
December 1998
(photo courtesy: Darren Snow)
His son who is closest to my age is one of my dearest cousins. He's three years older than me, and would routinely beat the crap out of me growing up. In the pool, on the baseball field, in the rec room. Indoors, outdoors, on dry land or in the water. He tormented me.

One Easter, that cousin brought a bunch of baseball equipment for all of the cousins to play a game before dinner. Including my brother and myself, there are thirteen male cousins on my mom's side. Ten of us made that fateful trip to the park to play ball that day.

When dinner came, we went and ate. But left the equipment behind. You just don't do that in West Paterson, NJ. When we returned an hour later, it was all gone. Except the pencil with which we kept score. My uncle then administered the beating that to this day is known as the Easter Day Massacre. And to tell you the truth, I loved every minute of it.

Please understand, when I say "beating," I'm talking about a few smacks and some hair pulling. Our dads grew up in a different time, and were raising kids in a different time. And while I do not condone hitting children and do not do it myself, in hindsight I don't consider this abuse. It was their kind of discipline.

That being said, our dads eventually mellowed out. Morale apparently improved, because the beatings stopped. And they became real people to us. They started hugging us. And kissing us. And asking us about our days, and about work, and about our girlfriends and eventually our wives.

And with my dad gone that's what my uncle now does. Without fail every time I see him he will ask me about my job. And he listens. He remembers my last job was a nightmare, and that my current one is going really well. He asks about My Director's job too.

But perhaps more important to me than that, he's a fan of my writing. He's a follower. He mentions specific posts and particular topics. After I emailed him this post about my family's Christmas Eve tradition, he simply replied, "That was great!"

He knows just when and how to encourage me.

Since DKL has grown so much over the past year, he told me at one point he's having a hard time keeping up with all of the posts. "I'm just going to have to wait for the book," he tells me. He knows that's my goal. And he believes it's going to happen.

He is an avid reader of anything he can get his hands on. So that he reads me is a huge compliment. One day, he made a comparison. "Hey, Justice," he said. (He's the only person who calls me "Justice." I love that.) "You ever hear of Bill Bryson?"

"Uh, the best-selling critically-acclaimed author of A Walk in the Woods, among many others? Yeah, Unc... you could say I've heard of him. " Of course, I was being a wisea$$.

"Well, your writing reminds me of his," he said. "You can take something so small and routine, like eating a hot dog, and make it interesting and funny. And he does the same thing." Holy sh!t did he just say that?

Considering the source, that was one of the most amazing, inspiring compliments I've ever received in my life.

You may be thinking he's only saying these things because he's my uncle, my godfather, and he loves me. But I'm telling you the men in my family don't just hand out compliments like Jolly Ranchers. They mean what they and they say what they mean.

My uncle is still the same good-natured, tough yet approachable man I've always known. Instead of digging into his pockets to give me whatever cash he has on hand, he now does that for Peanut and the other kids in her generation.

But he's a little different now. A little sadder.

Almost three years ago, he and my aunt lost one of their sons to lung cancer. F*cking cancer. It was heartbreaking to watch my cousin die and it was equally heartbreaking to watch my aunt and uncle powerless to stop it.
Cousin Mike, before cancer took him.
At my cousin's funeral, my uncle made a brief speech. He stood at the altar in front of all of these tear-stained faces, and he thanked everyone. He told everyone that somehow, some way, he and my aunt would find their strength and their faith again. He fought tears as he said it. You could tell he didn't plan to say anything, didn't write anything down. He just spoke from his heart. His broken heart. And it was one of the most powerful speeches I've ever seen.

Still to this day I cannot comprehend the sadness, the loss, the hopelessness. Sometimes I still see it on his face. Sometimes during moments of family hilarity I see his inner optimist return. You might hear from another room his instantly recognizable laugh that turns into a hacking cough and run in from wherever you are and drop whatever you're doing just to see what it was to make him laugh so hard again.

As My Director and I were leaving the lunch they held at my cousin's favorite hang-out after the funeral, I sought out my uncle. I gave him a big hug and a kiss. (Now commonplace for men in our family). I held on tighter and longer than I ever had.

What do you say to a man who has no idea how much he means to you? Who means the world to you? What could you possibly say to him to begin to relieve a morsel of the pain he is feeling on what surely is one of the toughest, darkest days of his life?

Conjuring up enough strength to ensure my voice wouldn't crack, I got into this ear and said, "I love you, Unc. You're the best dad I know."

I originally wrote this post for the finale of Blogger Idol 2011. If you can stand my emotional Father's Day post about MY dad from last year, you can read it here.


  1. UGH. I am in tears again... that would be the third time this morning.


    So very well written. BOTH your dads would be proud.

    1. Thank you. Sorry for the tears, but I take that as a huge compliment. :-)

  2. twice in one year,you're killing me ,justice. but thank you & have a great fathers deserve it as all dads do.we have to play the "tough cop" role,have to do when we dont wanna do,& can exist with very praise but at the end, its worth very single second of being a "dad". amen.

    1. Thank you, Unc. Glad you liked it. Happy Father's Day. Love ya.

  3. From the true.....beautiful.

  4. So awesome, for you and Unc. To have each other and to have someone in your lives like that. You both are very lucky.
    And Bill Bryson...I can see that (my favorite Bryson book was the 'Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and I'm reading his 'The History of Everything' right now)

    1. Yes. I am lucky that in my dad's absence I can rely on my uncle. We don't talk as often as I'd like. Maybe once a month. But I know he's there and that's enough.

      As for Bryson...I need to catch up on some of his stuff. Than God for summer.

  5. Very touching. I wish I had a guy like that in my life.

    1. Sorry, dude. I know I am fortunate in this way.

  6. I never fail to be blown away by your writing and the emotional reactions that well up. Outstanding man and a Happy belated Father's Day.

    1. Thanks, friend. I appreciate that so much. I try to evoke emotion so you guys keep coming back. Thanks for telling me it's working! ;-)

  7. Thank you for the good cry. I needed it. Your work is not only refreshing it's so reality ridden. No one could invent the way you say things. Good gift, and I'm glad you share it.

    1. Oh my goodness I completely missed this wonderful comment. Thank you so much. A good cry is necessary every now and then. I appreciate your kind words about my writing. Makes me think I'm doing something "write." (And then I go and use a cheesy pun.)


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