Hat on Top, Coat Below


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June 16, 2002

It’s Father’s Day (at least here in the United States), so it seems appropriate to write about my dad. He’s made cameo appearances in a few of my dreams lately, after not showing up for months. I blame all the “buy Dad a gift” e-mails I’ve been getting for the past several weeks from every company I’ve ever ordered from online; in one of the dreams, he was dressed in a jacket and khakis that would have looked perfectly at home in a Lands’ End catalog, very unlike his actual wardrobe.

It makes sense to start with this 1963 portrait with cigarette, since this is what he looked like when I entered the world, and it was the smoking that took him out of it. He got hooked early, and only quit after the throat cancer had taken hold and wouldn’t let go. He died on September 11, 2000, four days before his 73rd birthday. When I was a kid, I was convinced he was going to die long before that, so that he lived as long as he did was kind of a bonus. Sometimes I thought it would be the smoking that killed him, other times I believed it would be the drinking. My dad was an alcoholic. He had an anxiety disorder, too, but that wasn’t clear until late in his life, since the alcohol masked it, distracted from it for so long. I sometimes wonder how things would have been if anti-anxiety meds had been an option when my dad was in his 20’s. Maybe he wouldn’t have felt the need to medicate himself with Christian Brothers brandy, maybe he could have dealt with his life and his family in healthier ways. He did have long stretches when he’d get his drinking under control, but it was always lurking in the background.

This later picture of my dad, shown to the right, is one of my favorites. He’s happy, he’s sober, and it was taken in the receiving line for my wedding, an event I wasn’t even sure he’d show up for, given his poor track record on special occasions. Indeed, early on in the planning, he said he didn’t know if he’d come, asking “what would I do there?” But he did come, on time and in the right clothes and did what he was supposed to do and even seemed happy to chat with all the guests, even those he didn’t know, which was most of them. That was a huge gift, a bright spot in my wedding experience and my relationship with my dad.

Strange as it may seem, Dad’s final illness was another bright spot. As death got more real for him, my dad opened up more and more. We had conversations about things that we’d never discussed before. Some it was fun, stories about when he and my mom were first married that I’d never heard before, and some of it was heavy and heart-wrenching, like the conversation that started when he said, “I hope to God you can forgive me”. I could, and I did. I so wish we could have gotten to that point earlier, before we’d wasted so much time avoiding the painful subjects, pretending everything was fine, but I’m so grateful we had a chance to get there at all. In the last months of my dad’s life, I met a man I hadn’t known before, the man my mom says she married, and I loved him.

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