When I was growing up in Brooklyn my father always worked at least two jobs and sometimes three. When I left for school he was asleep. And, when I came home he was at work. And, yet, all through high school he never missed a game I played.
When I'd run out on the court, the first thing I'd do was try to find him in the stands. When I spotted him he'd nod and give a smile and a wave. And, that look that said, "I'm here for you." That said, "You're my boy and I love you win or lose. And, I always will no matter what."
This theory was first tested in 1964 when I lost my scholarship to Brandeis, and I dropped out. Tested a little more in 1967, when I quit Hofstra, two weeks before graduation, and went off to be a waiter in Greenwich Village. Tested even further and perhaps to the limit in 1972, when I, unmarried and without visible means of support, was about to become a father.
But he would never waver. He would keep his end of the bargain. He never said he understood. But, he always said I love you. As a parent myself now, I can only marvel at his tolerance, and patience. At his absolute belief in me, and what I would accomplish one day, when I "set my mind to it."
In 1984, with Family Ties already a success, my parents and my grandmother have come out to California for a visit. And, this afternoon's big event is a trip out to Burbank, to see The Johnny Carson Show. I explain to my father that NBC has set aside special VIP tickets for him. When we get there I'll drop them off in front, and he's to go around to the side door, the VIP door, and he's to say, "I'm George Goldberg and you have special tickets for me." He's on it.
When we get to Burbank, the temperature's 143º, and the line for tickets to the Carson show is stretching for about a mile and a half. And, as I drop them off, I tell my dad one last time, to be sure.
"Don't get into that line okay? The one where the people are passing out from sun-stroke. Go around to the side. They have special tickets in your name."
"Got it," my dad says. "Don't worry."
I go to park the car, and when I come back, the line for Carson, if anything, has gotten longer. And, there, at the very end of the line, is my father, my mother and my grandmother. I understand. He just can't bring himself to go through a door marked VIP. To go up to anyone and say, "I'm George Goldberg and you have special tickets for me."
I walk over to them. My father smiles, a little embarrassed. I put my arm around him, and I give him a kiss. Then, I lead the three of them around the corner, and knock on the door that says VIP. The door opens and we step inside.
Within two years my father will be dead. Lung cancer. He just could not give up smoking. I think, if they had let him, he would have smoked while he was on the operating table.
During the last years of his illness he was mostly confined to a hospital bed. And, either my older brother Stanley, or I, was with him in Miami, every weekend.
One Saturday, Stanley and I were down there together, and dad was enjoying one of his very rare "good" days. We were laughing and telling stories. Dad smiling, nodding in fond memory. Seeming for a moment like his old self. He looked over at us. Studying the faces of the men his two boys had become. He was so happy that Stanley and I had stayed so close. So proud of my brother, an assistant principal now.
It was late afternoon and dad was getting tired. He leaned back, this formerly 6'2" man swallowed up by the pillows and the blankets, and asked Stanley and me to come near the bed and he took our hands in his. Those once mighty meat-hooks, now rice-paper thin and cold. He looked at us and shrugged, almost embarrassed.
"You know when I look at you two guys. I don't know, I must've done something right."
He closed his eyes and fell asleep. We left him there and that was the last time we saw him alive. And those were his last words.