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The Day My Dad Became Human

Filed under : Happy Stories

Written on June 21, 2015

I’ll never forget the night of January 2nd, 2000. I was living in Seattle, holed up in my shitty attic room, while rain smacked against the small, rickety old window in my room. I was feeling lonely, and depressed. My father called me to check in on my New Year, and see how things were going with me in Seattle.

Since around the time I first moved out on my own, I think I’ve averaged a phonecall with my dad about once every 6 months. Sometimes it’s gone a year between calls, sometimes (like when we did our podcast), it was every week. These days, we average about every 3-4 months. He’d like if I called more, but I’ve always been terrible about keeping in touch with people. My mom had the same complaint when she was still alive, but I at least saw her damn near every holiday. I’ve seen my father on a holiday maybe twice in the past 20 years. It’s because of these relatively infrequent conversations, and the fact that we’re both chatterboxes, that our conversations are rarely under an hour long.

Such was the case on January 2nd, 2000. It was the first time we actually talked for more than a few minutes since just after I moved. He wanted to know about my holiday, when I flew out to Colorado to spend time at my mom’s ranch. It was my first time out at the ranch, since she’d only finished building it the year prior1. It was on this trip that my sister’s first husband (and father of my two full-blooded nieces) proposed to her, which warmed my dad’s heart. It got us talking about marriage and him asking me — as he has practically every time we’ve talked in the last 18 years — if I ever planned on getting married. My answer has remained the same : “I don’t think it’s for me”. I’ve seen far too many people close to me get divorced, and my dad’s on his 3rd marriage, so I’m not sure why he believes in it either.

That’s when he told me that the biggest mistake he ever made in his life was leaving my mother. But, he said, he didn’t feel like he had much choice. That got me curious. Throughout my life, my mom had given me many stories about why they got divorced, each time saying “you’re old enough to understand now”, and then dancing around any actual reason. It never made sense to me, and it always seemed so complicated. I can’t remember any of them now, but that night on the phone with my dad, I recalled single-sentence versions of a few of them. He laughed and said “no, none of those were the reason. I could tell you the reason, if you want to know”. I was in the mood for a story, so he let loose.

before us kids arrived, they were just another young couple in LouisianaI’m a little unclear on the exact details, but apparently he was dating my mom’s roommate for a short time before he met my mom. Or at least, before he went on a date with my mom. I think the roommate couldn’t make it to a date they had set, so my dad took her instead and they both preferred each other. Their first date was to a boxing match of all things. My mom would later tell me “I didn’t really like boxing, but he was the most handsome man I’d ever met so I’d have gone anywhere he asked me to go”. After that first date, they both say they fell hard for each other and were practically inseparable.

My dad, like a stereotypical Italian, loves CaesarMy dad already had 2 kids from his first marriage, and knew my mom really wanted kids of her own. He tried to hold off on that as much as he could, because — as he tells it — he and my mom were great travel companions. Everywhere they went was the time of his life, and she was just so lively and cheerful about everything. Their first kid was either a stillborn, or died shortly after birth — like he was a breach birth, or there was an umbilical cord-around-the-neck mishap? I don’t really know, and that’s not something I asked either of them about in any detail. I saw a little plaque/headstone thing my mom kept in an old box with his name on it, but I didn’t know much else beyond that. She was depressed for a time afterwards, as one might imagine, but they got right to work on Child #2 — which ended up being my older sister. At the time, they were living in Louisiana, and my dad found a job in Texas. So, they packed up everything and headed over to Texas. The Woodlands, as I’ve mentioned before. That’s when I was born – just outside The Woodlands in a tiny town called “Humble, TX”2.

The time in The Woodlands was always referred to by my dad as the high water mark of his accomplishments. He was doing well financially, he had a loving family, his dream wife, and a job he loved. At some point, they both decided to head out west to Arizona, where my dad had some new job prospects, which brought us to Flagstaff, AZ for a few years. He said he never much cared for Flagstaff, but my mom — as always — loved every minute of it. He found a better paying job in Phoenix, AZ and we packed up and found a house with a giant backyard (great news for Toby).

my memory is that we did this shit every sunday after churchIt was in that house where things started getting a little rocky for my dad. He’d found some kind of investment opportunity with some uhh.. less than non-mobster characters and a Jewish co-worker of his. I don’t know the particulars of the deal, though my dad has promised one day he’ll explain it on paper, but basically it was a high-stakes investment. The Jewish guy was getting cold feet, and wanted to pull out of the whole deal. My dad met with him for dinner to try and talk him out of pulling out his sizable stake in the group investment. The Jewish guy said “sorry, I’ve made my decision”. My father woke up to a phone call from that guy’s son the following morning, saying he found his father dead in bed, of an apparent heart attack. In my dad’s telling of it, he laughs at the coincidence — it was just a heart attack, but it came at the worst possible time. The FBI started to investigate, and my dad’s boss called him into the office to figure out what was going on. My dad told him everything, and the boss said “okay, I want in. If you go down, I’m going down with you”. Well… they both went down. I guess everyone got cold feet once the FBI started sniffing around. That left my dad unemployed and something of an unscrupulous character on paper.

We moved out of the big Phoenix house into a smaller home, and my dad struggled to make ends meet. It was during this time that my mom started teaching full-time (she’d been a substitute teacher for a few years prior). With bills mounting, and my dad falling into a depressive slump, my mom started making new friends in her teaching job, and they were drifting apart. Nothing so crushed my dad as a man, and as a human, as being unable to provide for his family. They fought all the time. He was fucked. And broke. And his credit in this town was dwindling down.

He tells me they went out to dinner, just the two of them, to sit and discuss their future. My mom had been talking to her sisters, who never liked my father (most of this part of the story has been confirmed by my mom, and the sisters) and they — both of them divorcees themselves — told her to “just move on!”. She told my dad she wasn’t sure if they could make this work, and was tired of holding down the finances of an entire 4-person family on a first-year teacher’s salary. He didn’t have the energy, or the ground to stand on, to stay and work things out. I’m not excusing everything he did, certainly not everything he did that led to that point, but I can understand the bind he was in.

When he flew back to New Orleans, he ended up living in the exact same apartment where he and my mother spent their first night as newlyweds. He says it’s only snowed twice in New Orleans in the last 50 years3. The first time was that night he and my mom moved in, the 2nd time being that first night he spent there after moving from Phoenix. He was crying and at the end of his rope. He got out a tape recorder and talked into it for an hour, telling my mom everything he never had the guts or willpower to say before. The next morning, he sent it via next-day post. When it arrived at my house, my Aunt Karen (who was staying with us during this “transitional period” for a week or two) opened it and immediately threw it away. My mother never knew he sent it, and what he said on it is lost to the sands of time. Or the grinder of the garbage truck, I s’pose.

All he ever wanted was for us to live, again, in a big old house in a nice, safe neighborhood and to live out the rest of his days with my mom. Hell, they started getting close again in the last 2 years of her life, and I’m not entirely sure he didn’t try and make another go at it. He still refers to her as the love of his life, and he still cries when we talk about some of our shared happy memories of her.

just after The Masters at Pebble Beach, my dad swung through my apartment for a photo opIt was also during this conversation that my dad explained the other side of that phonecall on the scariest night of my life  and It all made sense in context. I finally understood why they got divorced. I understood it like it could happen to me. Hell, it sounded like me telling a story of how any one of my own relationships, or those of my friends, had ended. He ceased to be a character of folklore, existing in a time before time, riddled with more layers than I’d ever understand. It wasn’t that complicated, not nearly as complicated as my mom always made it sound. It was just… human. Flawed, yes, but human all the same.

That was the night he became a normal human being to me. And that’s a fucking weird and wonderful feeling.
Happy Father’s Day.

  1. you might recall she was still living in a trailer next to the house in Oct, 1998 

  2. When there was a big kerfuffle about Alberto Gonzalez being asked to resign from the office of Attorney General under GW Bush in 2007, Bush said something like “all you need to know is that he was born in Humble, TX” and if that’s all you need to know about him, then what’s that say about me

  3. He told me at the time “look it up!” but I never did, until now. Turns out, he wasn’t too far off — and those dates do line up pretty well with his memory