He was my lifeline to sanity.
By his model, I learned to love.
It is no wonder, then, that I would have died for my Dad.
Now, being a girl, of course, my feelings toward my own differed from those of a son for his father. For me, Dad was my affirmation – of talent, personality, desireability, value. He was my nurturer and my affection. He was my wink and smile. He was my honesty, my truth, my sure thing.
Tony didn’t know how to hide. He could play a character with the best Hollywood had to offer, but there wasn’t a deceitful bone in his body. He didn’t hide, because he had no reason to do so. Everything he had to give was always apparent, and presented, liberally, with heavy doses of joy.
When the Ken Burns special on WW II aired the first time, and we watched footage of Patton – standing over the bed of the raven haired soldier found cowering there – I recognized that my father was the first, and most brave, defender of pacifism. He wasn’t afraid, at all, to be honest about his feelings: fear, bewilderment, and lack of willingness to follow through on the rage of war. He thought that, if he stayed in a bed at the infirmary, he could escape the horror of man against man. Lord knew he’d not escaped a childhood of abuse and neglect as cast off to the state of Massachusetts, a ward of the county, both a resident of the Fernald School and lightweight defender against Mrs. Bracchi’s burly boys. Unfortunately, Patton, who couldn’t face the truth that Private embodied, held tight to all his power and convinced the man, who would become my father, to get up, go back to the front lines, and fight. And, God, the Infinite Wisdom, took care of the rest. God brought the remnants through, to the end of that monstrosity and home again – to grieve the bloody losses, to tremble at the memories, to blindly venerate the war leaders and, ultimately, to move on with the lives God had preserved for them. I’ll never forget Dad’s own words, at my reminder that he’d earned the Bronze Star for Valour in the Battle of the Bulge: “I wasn’t brave; I was scared to death.” The voice of truth, in every other man’s denial.
Perhaps my father speaks through me, in those moments when I am most emboldened. The truth persists, at the top of my list of reasons to keep on living; I want to be true to truth, live it out in my every, breathing moment, and open up its nourishments to those who are prisoners to the lies of dogma, denial, resignation, and defeat.
When Dad stepped into a room, he brought with him a burst of irrepressible, inner sunshine and slightly musty air – the air that carried a little of the day’s sweat and blood, the body’s casting off of fuss and care, and a mind’s treasured ability to turn away from all imposing forces. He was self-possessed; he knew what he could do, he knew how well he could, and he was ever willing, every day, to do it. He made his own lunch the evening before; went to bed “at a decent hour” (or, as he so fondly intoned with reference to Mum, a night owl : “the same day I got up”); rose with the sun; walked, all the way, to work in his own barbershop; stayed there, not leaving until he was finished; and, walked home again with his lone companion, the setting sun, carrying the cash money with him – under the trestle bridge, and up the long hill past the street vermin and what would later become the prison – all the way to his own driveway, and up the steps, and into the kitchen to meet a hot supper waiting on the stove.
As a toddler, I would bring my love to his table. Up on my knees on the chair at the head, I’d lean toward him, his back to the window, watching that brown hand stir the milk and sugar into his hot tea. He’d look at me with his twinkling eyes, take the first spoon of tea, swallow it, smack his lips when it was just right, and then put the spoon back into the cup to fill carefully, “not too full”, and then put his other soft hand underneath as he held it out to my open mouth. And, I’d swallow my single spoonful of warm sweetness – supping with him, and he with me.
His stories were ever ready. While he could read aloud like a grand orator, he preferred the realm of his own imagination, which he shared at a moment’s notice and, usually, at the head of the Saturday morning breakfast table. Eagerly accepting his unique blend of missionary fortitude and Pop-eye, we’d travel with him in a small, prop plane, deep into the African jungle, to face Sabre tooth tigers and all manner of associated beasts, only to meet Pop-eye’s spinach fed muscle and save-the-day bravado, always finishing with a song, always his theme: “I’m Pop-eye, the Sailorman!” Somehow, he knew that, in the face of every pompous pious or power-mad tyrant, all stories should always end with a laugh, a wink, and the salvation of a true Superhero.
In fact, on the morning of his death, he was still laughing. His final earthly yarn was spinning away inside his delirious, fevered head, and I am hoping he just slept it off into the ether. I know that everyone who ever truly loved, even for a minute, was there waiting for him.
And so, I can only give what he left with me. Truth, affection, mirth, music, deep knowing, and devotion. I hope I can even touch what he gave me as I bring of myself to the place where I am destined to love. I will not bear a child, or know that bond; but, perhaps, God permits the grace to love, even still – unconditionally, and always in the name of truth.