Friday, January 4, 2013

The Richest Man in Town

"Remember: No man is a failure who has friends." -It's a Wonderful Life

I never thought it would be us sitting in that front row. Sure, it was always in the back of my mind. Certainly I could imagine losing a close family member. But I really never thought it would be us sitting in that front row at the funeral parlor, receiving condolences for our loss. At least not yet. Until it was us.

The man loved Christmas.
This is from 1992.
My dad died of a heart attack ten years ago today. He was 59. It was sudden and painful for all of us individually and as a whole. Sometimes I still can't believe it happened. Sometimes I miss him so much the ache runs through my entire body, up my spine, and settles in my heart. Sometimes if I think hard enough I can still feel his strong embrace, I can still smell his unmistakable musk, I can still hear his voice calling my name. This is not an easy day for me. For us. Those days immediately after he died, and eventually those weeks and the better part of that whole year, were somewhat of a blur and, as you might imagine, a nightmare. Sometimes it still is. Especially today.

One of the things I remember through the haze of heartache, was how amazingly strong My Director was for us. The euphoria of our wedding less than a month before still lingered in the air and then unceremoniously evaporated. Our honeymoon period came to an abrupt halt. Yet, she carried me without hesitation. For months.

Another thing I remember is the parade of people who came to my dad's wake. It was non-stop and it was so comforting, heartwarming and, if I'm being honest, unexpected. I say unexpected because when I was a teenager, I thought my parents were lame. Nothing new there, right? Worse, I thought they had no life. No social life, at least. They had no friends. (Actually, they did. They just didn't see them much.) They worked, came home, we ate dinner, they watched television and went to bed. Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed high-school big shot that I was, I had a very busy social calendar.

By that time they didn't have much of a social life outside of family events. (But there were plenty of those in our big Italian family.) What I realize now that My Director and I are parents is that we were their life. Their children. It took my dad's death for me to begin to realize this. At his wake, when face after face from his past, many of them familiar and admittedly long-forgotten, came into view, shook my hand, hugged me, kissed my cheek, and offered their sympathies, I realized what a wonderful life he lived. How many lives he touched.

In saying my dad lived a "wonderful life," I am being ironic. For he hated the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" with a passion. He didn't think the story of a man who felt unfulfilled about his life to the point of suicide was appropriate for Christmas. When he put it that way, I saw his point. My Director has that in common with him and I love that. (I still like the movie anyway.) At the end of the movie everyone George Bailey has ever met, every life he has ever touched, helped him in his time of crisis. In his toast to his brother, Peter Bailey called him "the richest man in town."

That's how I felt at my dad's wake. I felt like he was the richest man in town. From the moment I learned of his death up until that point, most of my sadness was for what I perceived was his lack of accomplishment. Meaning, he died too soon. He wasn't finished. Sure, he had built a successful business over the span of two decades. But he closed it without much fanfare and retired a few years before. He had no hobbies and I felt sorry for what I thought was his lack of a social life. I cried for him, not me. Not us.

Then came the parade of people, and I was able to be happy for him. I was able to be satisfied with his life, even though it was cut way too short. I was able to see all of those he encountered on his journey - customers, co-workers, former employees and employers, old friends from Jersey City, church people, current and former neighbors. It seemed they all had a story of what a good guy he was. Really? Are we talking about the same guy? The same harda$$ who sat in his chair every night smoking cigarettes, eating Shop Rite krinkle cut potato chips and watching old movies? Yes. The same guy. I was being introduced to the man he was before he was my dad. The man I was just starting to get to know before he died, before any of us expected him to.

My dad, mom, brother and sister. That's My Director
and I standing behind them. April 2002.
(My oldest sister wasn't at this wedding.)
My dad chose family. He chose my mom. He chose love. Decades later, I would do the same. So would My Director. We'd choose love instead of job opportunities. We chose us. And we'd continue to. We'd fight for weekends and holidays off. We'd turn down job offers and promotions because they would take time away from family. You can't put a price tag on our time with Peanut. Even cranky, tired time. That's when she needs us the most. And maybe my parents - exhausted from running their business - realized what we needed most was them vegging out on the couch every night. Just being there.

It's not a lack of ambition, after all. It doesn't mean you have no life. In fact, it means you have a wonderful life. Turns out I'm not all that different from my dad.


  1. Thank you for sharing this - really wonderful as a tribute (and possible beginning to a book!).

  2. I didn't realize we were raised by the same man. I don't remember you from childhood. Loved this so much. Peace in your heart today as you remember him. xo

  3. What a lovely tribute to your father. I miss mine too, it'll be two years next month.

  4. I'm so sad for you, or even for me, i guess. for everyone, because we all lose people we love and it will be too soon. i love that you realize his life choices were choices and good ones. it's something i value about my husband, that he's never put work before family. family first. there's nothing else that matters. it's a gift that he's left you with. have some krinkle cut chips and watch an old movie today.. but no smoking.

  5. I too lost my father, I am thanking you through the tears. My dad also chose love.
    It seems recently you wondered if you had anything more to say (was that you? even it it wasn't...) it certainly seems to me that you have much more to say; with decency, eloquence, clarity and honor you choose to cherish yours. There is nothing nobler. Well done.
    I considered this for on your page but, I didn't want to offend anyone. Should I? (I did.) Nice post

  6. Amazing what we can learn from our parents, even after they have passed.

  7. The parade of people who pay tribute not only are a wonderful comfort but help color in the shades of life we missed. It's the primary reason I desire to not wait for the eulogy to honor those we love. At the risk of sounding like a John Mayer song...say what you need to say :-) Just last week, on a stop to the pool store, I stared at Dad's picture on the wall. In my private reflection, I actually said "I'm still mad at you Dad for leaving so soon". His image just smiled back. Then I thought of a recent book I read (recommended by Uncle Norb, who never disappoints) "Proof of Heaven" by Eben Alexander. The author is a brain surgeon who believes in science first until he has his very own 'near death experience'. His story left me wondering why we would question death when we are offered a place of everlasting love. It's the struggle between my head and my heart, I head knows Dad is in a heaven, but my heart is still breaking.

  8. Beautiful post and tribute. My mom is battling cancer now and it's very hard to watch her try to be strong for us, her kids, even though we are adults. Thank you for touching my heart today.


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