This is the first in a short series of blog posts about my father. He wasn’t a father in the conventional sense of the term as he died before I was born. The fact of his life and death has, in part, shaped me into the person that I am. Thus, through me, he is shaping my daughters even now. In order for my kids to understand who they are, they must understand what I know about the man whose name we carry. His legacy is at once an honor, a burden and profoundly confusing for me. What fatherhood means to me is greatly affected by his absence.
Dear Alexandria and Mary Ellen,
I guess at some point we should talk about my father. While who you become is mostly a product of your choices, you carry your family around with you like a birthmark. You grow and change, but family indelibly remains part of who you are.
I am not, as you may well guess, talking about your grandfather─ the one whom you call Babbo (who as you know is my step-father). No, I am referring here to the man both you girls and I have never known: My biological father. The sad fact of the matter is that I don’t know all that much about him. Everything I know comes from the stories told about him by the people who were there during his life. While I don’t think that I have been misled, I think it would be fair to characterize their memories like this: When people pass before what we think is their time, we often beatify them in our minds. Unintentionally, the memories become more and more selective over time and the person we aim to recall ends up being a symbol of what we wish could have been. The reality of the sum of that person and all of their inherent qualities and flaws becomes lost to grief, time and wishful thinking. I often find myself asking whether I am thinking of the father that really was or the beatific symbol of him.
My father was 24 years old when he died. Candy (my mother) was nine months pregnant with me; I was born nine days after his death. The circumstances surrounding his death are something of a mystery to me. I know that he died in a single car accident and that he wasn’t wearing a seat belt. I know that Candy found out about it on the radio. She said he “fell asleep.” That explanation sufficed long ago when I was young, but the more experienced me sometimes yearns to ask the question: What on earth was he doing out that late on a Wednesday? I suspect there is more to the story, but my own curiosity is a poor excuse for reopening old wounds. In the end, it doesn’t matter; he left and that is that. Somehow, in ways I cannot even begin to explain, that wounds me grievously. For reasons I cannot fathom, I feel his loss more acutely now that I am older and a father myself.
Even though he was gone before I arrived, my father was never a nonentity. That my “real father” had died became the fact by which I defined myself as a child. This was true even after my mother was remarried to Babbo. It made me special. It differentiated me from others that I deemed to be more fortunate than I. It meant that I took trips to Arlington National Cemetery to lay flowers at his grave─ always carnations. I made my father out to be a sort of mythic hero, a Marine Corps superman who was cut down in his prime and left me to carry on his proud legacy. Sometimes the fantasies about him were fun. Announcing apropos of nothing that my real dad had died got me plenty of attention.
But, there was a dark side to the “dead dad” narrative; from the earliest possible age, I understood that life was uncertain. I knew from the very beginning of my ability to think that the people you love sometimes do not come home. When they leave, it might be forever. That knowledge caused me no small amount of anxiety as a child and even colors my thinking today. Risk of loss was not an abstract notion. It was something that I experienced in actuality. Mary Ellen, you seem to share that same fear of loss. I hope that by the time you read these words, I have helped you counterbalance that uncertainty with faith and hope.
I want you to know that my father’s death uncovered a hidden well of strength in your grandmother, Candy. She is truly an amazing woman; a widow at 20 years of age, she somehow found the strength to dust herself off, raise her son, have a career and find love again. You can learn much from her faithful resilience. Between her and your mother, you are surrounded with examples of strong and wise women. I pray that you will follow their example. I stand in awe of both of them, and I thank God for their presence.