My late father was my hero. He saved my life twice; he taught me enduring life lessons along the way but passed on before two of his greatest dreams were realized.
That ring on my finger, and a heart and mind full of memories, is what I have left of my dad.
He passed away on January 10, 2011 of a liver disease. On the day I discovered he was not perfect, he became my Superman but without the cape and tights. A mortal, in other words, as hero.
I’ll tell you why.
I was seven-years-old and in the Cub Scouts when a Pinewood Derby competition beckoned.
For those who are unaware, according to USScouts.org: The Pinewood Derby is one of the most popular events in Cub Scouting. Every year more than a million boys and parents team up to carve, decorate, weigh, adjust, fret over, and finally race a Pinewood Derby car. The first Pinewood Derby was held in 1953 by Cub Scout Pack 280C of Manhattan Beach, California, and as of 1991 (Ref. 1992 BSA Retail Catalog) more than 81 million Pinewood Derby model car kits have been sold.
While I had seen designs-in-progress from friends and fellow Cub Scout members, consisting of multi-colored paint jobs and meticulous decals, the following was my finished car:
When it was time to race our creation, we placed last. I could not be happier, however. In fact, I never felt so proud. Today, my Pinewood Derby car sits atop my work desk, and I consider it my prized possession.
As he had with helping build my myriad of monster model kits before, of which I was already an inveterate collector, the joy for us in the Pinewood Derby was defined in the mutual cooperation and bonding between father and son.
You see, Dad was not perfect. He did his best, and I did mine. When everyone else cherished the contest, we cherished the relationship.
Dad taught me priorities.
He taught me well.
This story represents the time I learned Dad was a very human hero.
Several years later, he taught me what it meant to be a human being.
When I was 12, we took a trip to Disney World in Florida from our native Brooklyn. As we were waiting for the tram to take us to the attractions, a teenage boy, maybe my age but clearly disabled, was giddily jumping up and down. “We’re going to Disney World, we’re going to Disney World,” he shouted many times over. His father was visibly uncomfortable at the display, his eyes darting back and forth to see if anyone had been staring.
My dad turned to the boy, as I and others around us were laughing. We didn’t know any better… Dad turned to him, the boy caught his gaze and became increasingly agitated. As his father went to retrieve him, my dad, very calmly, spoke to the boy.
“You’re going to Disney World?” he asked.
“Yes… yes! We’re going to Disney World, we’re going to Disney World!”
“Are you going to have fun today?” my dad asked.
“Yes, we’re gonna have fun! We’re going on the rides!”
“Good; it’s good to have fun on the rides,” said my dad. “You have a great day, okay?”
The other dad, embarrassed when he needn’t have been, nodded to mine, who smiled back, instantly putting him at ease. I watched this and was immediately ashamed of myself. While others continued to laugh and point, for a couple of memorable moments my dad treated the boy like he was family.
I considered it then as now a lesson about acceptance.
Decades following, Dad taught me his final lesson.
I had written about this lesson on NewsBreak before, in my piece entitled “My Dying Father Taught Me Life's Greatest Lesson: What Do We Have To Be Afraid Of?”
In the article I excerpted a recorded conversation from April 10, 2010, between me and Dad:
Me: We gotta talk.
Me: This isn’t easy for me. I love you and this isn’t easy —
Dad: What isn’t easy?
Me: I’ve always been the only one who could talk to you this way… You can’t use the checkbook anymore. You’re just making too many mistakes lately.
Dad: Oh you think so, do you?
Me: C’mon, I’m not joking.
Dad: Who said I’m joking? Are you joking?
Me: I’m sorry, but Mom’s gonna do the checks from here on.
Dad: Then let her do it.
I wasn’t sure how to take that, so I asked him a question that had been on my mind for weeks:
Me: Are you scared?
Dad: What do I have to be scared about?
He didn’t skip a beat. We stayed on for awhile longer, and his answer haunted me. We ended, simply: with this:
Me: I got you. I love you.
My lesson: He taught me to cherish life and no longer to be scared of death.
He was so damn cool about it.
Looking back, both my mother — who is presently thriving in Florida — and my late father long wanted me to be a writer. More accurately, they supported my dreams of writing full-time, which I attained.
Dad passed days before my first novel was published, and several months prior to the birth of his fourth grandchild. He had always wanted a granddaughter, and my brother and sister-in-law let him know they were expecting a baby girl just prior to Dad entering hospice care.
He veritably saved my life twice. The first time was when he moved the family from Brooklyn, New York to Aurora, Colorado just prior to my eighth birthday. The reason was I was suffering from extreme asthma and had been regularly hospitalized. He asked for and received a job transfer to give me a chance at an asthma-free life due to Colorado’s more favorable climate.
The sacrifice of moving away from friends and extended family paid off. I lost the illness that nearly caused me to be permanently wheelchair-bound.
My illness was that severe. I could not breathe at all when I suffered the attacks.
How does one possibly repay such a debt?
You do so by dedicating yourself to making that individual proud.
The second time he changed my fortunes was during my junior high years.
When in junior high, I was failing English due to “poor reading comprehension.” The truth was I was bored with our required books. I was a fan of comic books and horror movies. By the end of the school year, I was days away from not receiving a promotion to high school.
My father, knowing the truth of the matter, offered a deal to the teacher who had my fate in her hands: I would read a book of my choosing, in this case “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson, and write a book report. If I received anything less than an “A,” I would repeat 8th grade.
I had a week to make that work.
I received an A+, and I could not have achieved that either without my hero.
Dad, I miss you something fierce. I will always love you.
To those of you reading this, my father’s lessons and his unconditional support are models for anyone in any community.
I’ll label this piece as a New York piece, though, as both he and I were die-hard New Yorkers, the place of my birth, regardless of where life had taken us since.
Thank you for reading. And Happy Father’s Day, Dad, wherever you are…