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.
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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