Big Shoes To Fill

      208 Comments on Big Shoes To Fill

My dad passed away early this morning after a years-long fade from Alzheimer’s.  We knew this was coming, but I’m nonetheless not exactly in a blogging mood.  There will be a memorial service in Illinois at some point, but arrangements haven’t been made yet.

I posted the following letter/essay on my other blog some years ago.  Since that blog is currently dormant, I’m posting it again here while I take some time off.  I don’t plan to deal with comments other than to click the Approve button, so I’ll thank you all ahead of time for your kind thoughts and good wishes. 

Dear Dad:

It’s impossible to explain a father’s influence on his son in something as measly as a letter.  I could write volumes and still have more to say.  So let me just talk about your shoes.

Although more than forty years have passed since I was a little boy, I still remember waiting for you to walk through the front door at night after work.  You were HUGE.  You wore dark suits and serious business shoes, usually black or brown wingtips, polished to a high shine.  You always struck me as being in a bit of a hurry, and when you strode across our wooden floors, those shoes went BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.

I wanted to grow up as soon as I could and wear shoes like yours.  Sometimes I would pull a pair of wingtips out of your closet and remove the wooden stretchers – which took some effort for a skinny kid like me – and slip those big shoes over my feet.  I’d try walking in them, stepping carefully to avoid tripping.  I wasn’t big enough to make them BOOM, but I liked the way they looked.

I knew the wingtips were your working shoes.  I didn’t really understand what kind of work you did, but I knew working was how you took care of us.  I knew the dark suits and the booming shoes and the daily trips to your office were the reason we lived in a nice house, and also the reason we didn’t look like the shabbily-dressed kids we saw when Mom took us along for her charity work.

Now and then you took Jerry and me to the office on a Saturday when you needed to catch up on some paperwork.  We enjoyed those office trips, partly because of the old-fashioned soda dispenser, the kind with rows of metal rails that held the bottles upright by the necks. For a dime – you always seemed to have dimes in your pocket – we could slide a bottle along those rails and out the side to release it. The lid was heavy and you had to hold it up for us.  But that was easy for you because you were HUGE.

I liked the way your office smelled … like paper and ink.  I liked the starkness of the fluorescent lights.  I liked looking at the photo on your wall of someone handing you a plaque and shaking your hand.  I knew that whatever you did, you were good at it, good enough that people wanted to shake your hand.  When I sat and did math exercises at my desk in school, I pretended I was in my own office, doing important work that would make someone want to shake my hand.

I don’t know exactly when I decided I didn’t want to grow up and be just like you. Certainly by the time I enrolled in college, I knew I’d never be happy wearing dark suits and working in an office.  I rejected your advice about majoring in accounting.  I explained, somewhat hesitantly, that accounting might appeal to you, but I’d be bored out of my mind.

That’s when I began to realize you didn’t want me to grow up and be just like you, either.  When I chose pre-med for my major, you said that’s great, go for it, I’ll support you.  When I switched to psychology, you said that’s great, go for it, I’ll support you.  When I switched again to journalism as a junior, you said that’s great, go for it, I’ll support you.

I’d like to say you were simply doing what any father would do, but I already knew that wasn’t true.  I had a girlfriend whose father disowned her when she switched her major from business to art; without any support from him, she graduated swimming in student-loan debt.  In high school I had a classmate who’d been told from birth he was going to be a doctor like his father, period, end of discussion.  He flunked organic chemistry in college and committed suicide.

When I had some humorous essays published after college, your golfing buddies told me how much they enjoyed reading them.  I was proud to be published, but more proud to know you’d been bragging about me to your friends.  When I announced I was going to quit my magazine job and go freelance, you said that’s great, go for it, I’ll support you – after all, you had quit a comfortable corporate job to run your own business and understood the drive to be independent.

And so, in a fit of optimism, I struck out on my own … and fell flat on my face.  That’s when I found out what “support” truly means.

It was embarrassing to spend part of my adult life living off loans from you, loans I knew you would never let me repay.  It’s still embarrassing when I think about it.  But I believe things happen for a reason; and even if they don’t, we can find our own reasons in them.

Unlike Mom, you were never comfortable being affectionate. Until you became a grandpa, it took a couple of tall drinks to pry the words “I love you” from your lips.  I knew you loved me, but I didn’t fully understand that you love me, period, no matter what, just like Mom.

I kept expecting one of those loans to come with a lecture attached, firm instructions to wise up, let go of my childish dreams, go get a real job as a sales rep.  But that never happened.   When you said anything at all, it was along the lines of, “Don’t worry.  Do something you love, and be the best at it. Things will get better.”  Those years, painful as they were, finally made it clear to me that you didn’t just support me.  You supported me.

I’m happy with my life, Dad.  It’s been a thrill to play in a band, act in plays, publish humor in magazines, travel the country as a standup comedian, and produce a film.  But without you behind me, encouraging me to pursue my dreams, I wouldn’t have done half of those things.  At some point, I would’ve given up.

I once asked another comedian what his parents thought of his act.  He said they’d never seen him perform.  They didn’t think standup comedy was a respectable career, and they weren’t going to encourage him by showing up.  He asked if you and Mom had seen my act.  I just said yes — I didn’t think it would be polite to say, “Yes, many times, and they bring their friends.”

You didn’t choose my path, and I didn’t follow in your footsteps.  But when I look back, I realize I’ve worn your shoes many times.

When I left a secure job to pursue my own goals, I was wearing your shoes. When I wrote clearly and powerfully, I was wearing your shoes.  When I made people laugh out loud with a witty observation, I was wearing your shoes.  When I worked and re-worked a programming project to get it exactly right, believing that “good enough” isn’t good enough, I was wearing your shoes.  Every time I returned money to someone who accidentally overpaid me, or gave to a charity, or helped someone in distress without expecting anything in return, I was wearing your shoes.

These past few years have not been kind to you, Dad.  Cancer, Alzheimer’s and age have diminished your body and your mind.  Your quick steps have slowed to a shuffle.  I’ve had to hold your arm and help you navigate the single step from the garage into the house so you don’t trip over it.  On some days, you don’t recognize Mom and have to ask who she is.  I know the next time I visit, you may not know who I am.

But I know who I am.  I’m your son.  And in my mind, you’ll always be huge … and you’ll always BOOM when you walk.

I love you, Dad.  Thanks for the shoes.

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208 thoughts on “Big Shoes To Fill

  1. Tom Welsh

    Tom, I’m so sorry to hear of your father’s death. But I am happy that you had such a good relationship, and that he lived a long and satisfying life – and that he had sons like you and the Elder Brother. I hope you both understand how proud he must have been of you!

    And thanks for publishing your letter. It’s the first time I have read it, and I think it’s really wonderful. It expresses a whole lot that I felt about my father too, but I could never have expressed those thoughts so clearly.

    Reply
  2. Eric from Belgium

    Your dad’s time on earth may be over, but stil spirit still lives through you.

    Mes sincères condoleances Tom.

    Eric

    Reply
  3. Jason Seib

    I’m very sorry for your loss. My heart goes out to you and your family. Your father was clearly an amazing man.

    Reply
  4. Elenor

    Ah Tom, how lovely that you got to SHARE with your dad these amazing feelings! That alone is worth gold! And to *know* him — and have him know you — also, gold! (I can see you in the photo you posted.)

    Please try to remember to ‘sort through’ the thoughts and memories that will flow into you in the next few months (and beyond) — and throw an intentional stop-sign on the ones that don’t please and uplift. ‘Hovering over’ the ones that reflect his illnesses (or bad times) rather than the good memories merely reinforces them. Recent negative memories may be stronger (and thus ‘easier’ to play over again) but they don’t serve — him or you.

    Much love and gratitude sent your way. (I still describe to folks your amazing kindness to me at the first AHS Symposium, a mere three weeks after my husband had died. (Michael’s last gift to me was a trip across the US to AHS; he was SO pleased I was going.) Meeting you — and your big sympathetic hug (and we’d only just met!) and ongoing warmth — allowed me to make it through those couple of days.)

    Reply
  5. Elle

    So sorry to hear about your loss. We’ll keep you and your family in our thoughts and prayers. It was a lovely letter that you wrote and I am so glad for you that you had such a wonderful relationship with him.

    Reply
  6. Raynote

    Tom, your letter to your Dad brought tears to my eyes…
    May all the good memories of your life with him help you through these painful times.

    Reply
  7. Tom Welsh

    Tom, I’m so sorry to hear of your father’s death. But I am happy that you had such a good relationship, and that he lived a long and satisfying life – and that he had sons like you and the Elder Brother. I hope you both understand how proud he must have been of you!

    And thanks for publishing your letter. It’s the first time I have read it, and I think it’s really wonderful. It expresses a whole lot that I felt about my father too, but I could never have expressed those thoughts so clearly.

    Reply
  8. Namu

    To any decent man, losing his father is certainly the hardest thing that can happen. So sorry for your loss Tom…

    Reply
  9. Jason Seib

    I’m very sorry for your loss. My heart goes out to you and your family. Your father was clearly an amazing man.

    Reply
  10. Elenor

    Ah Tom, how lovely that you got to SHARE with your dad these amazing feelings! That alone is worth gold! And to *know* him — and have him know you — also, gold! (I can see you in the photo you posted.)

    Please try to remember to ‘sort through’ the thoughts and memories that will flow into you in the next few months (and beyond) — and throw an intentional stop-sign on the ones that don’t please and uplift. ‘Hovering over’ the ones that reflect his illnesses (or bad times) rather than the good memories merely reinforces them. Recent negative memories may be stronger (and thus ‘easier’ to play over again) but they don’t serve — him or you.

    Much love and gratitude sent your way. (I still describe to folks your amazing kindness to me at the first AHS Symposium, a mere three weeks after my husband had died. (Michael’s last gift to me was a trip across the US to AHS; he was SO pleased I was going.) Meeting you — and your big sympathetic hug (and we’d only just met!) and ongoing warmth — allowed me to make it through those couple of days.)

    Reply
  11. Elle

    So sorry to hear about your loss. We’ll keep you and your family in our thoughts and prayers. It was a lovely letter that you wrote and I am so glad for you that you had such a wonderful relationship with him.

    Reply
  12. Raynote

    Tom, your letter to your Dad brought tears to my eyes…
    May all the good memories of your life with him help you through these painful times.

    Reply
  13. tony

    I’m very sorry for your loss. Your dad was a remarkable man. My prayers go to you and your family.

    Reply
  14. Susan

    I am very sad for you. My wonderful dad passed away in September. It was expected also but it doesn’t make it easier. I pray your wonderful memories will help you to smile and even laugh along with the tears.

    Reply
  15. TM

    I am sorry for your loss. It is a trying time to deal with the loss of a parent. I lost my Dad at this time four years ago. He also suffered from Alzheimer’s. His lasted for 13 years. I became his caregiver the last three years of his life. I still think of him daily and almost every night he is in my dreams. Your letter was very touching especially those last lines.

    Reply
  16. Piper

    What a beautiful tribute to your father–it is something I’m betting the girls will love to read in years to come to remember their Grandfather. I’m sorry for your loss.

    Reply
  17. Susan

    I am very sad for you. My wonderful dad passed away in September. It was expected also but it doesn’t make it easier. I pray your wonderful memories will help you to smile and even laugh along with the tears.

    Reply
  18. TM

    I am sorry for your loss. It is a trying time to deal with the loss of a parent. I lost my Dad at this time four years ago. He also suffered from Alzheimer’s. His lasted for 13 years. I became his caregiver the last three years of his life. I still think of him daily and almost every night he is in my dreams. Your letter was very touching especially those last lines.

    Reply
  19. Piper

    What a beautiful tribute to your father–it is something I’m betting the girls will love to read in years to come to remember their Grandfather. I’m sorry for your loss.

    Reply
  20. Valerie B

    I am incredibly sorry to hear of the passing of your father. Your letter to him made me cry. Please take care.

    Reply
  21. JillOz

    I think you’ve done your dad proud with this essay, Tom, and I think he could be proud of you once and many times more given the huge and growing number of people you have helped just by making a film and keeping a blog full of actual and useful info and support for those who had no info and little hope about their health issues. You’re one of a pantheon of health communicators communicating the right stuff, not the garbage, and that he supported you in what you wanted to do no doubt helped to put you on this path.

    My sympathies to you for your loss and to Chareva and your kids for losing the fine man in all your lives.

    Reply
    1. JillOz

      My sympathies to your Elder Brother too, and apologies that I briefly forgot him in my original condolence post.

      Reply
  22. Valerie B

    I am incredibly sorry to hear of the passing of your father. Your letter to him made me cry. Please take care.

    Reply
  23. JillOz

    I think you’ve done your dad proud with this essay, Tom, and I think he could be proud of you once and many times more given the huge and growing number of people you have helped just by making a film and keeping a blog full of actual and useful info and support for those who had no info and little hope about their health issues. You’re one of a pantheon of health communicators communicating the right stuff, not the garbage, and that he supported you in what you wanted to do no doubt helped to put you on this path.

    My sympathies to you for your loss and to Chareva and your kids for losing the fine man in all your lives.

    Reply
  24. Rimas

    My sincerest condolences, Mr. Naughton and the rest of your family. Your letter is a perfect eulogy for your father.

    Reply
  25. Rimas

    My sincerest condolences, Mr. Naughton and the rest of your family. Your letter is a perfect eulogy for your father.

    Reply

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