When I was a kid, Mom would take my sister, brother and me into a department store and have us pick out gifts for Dad. The items were never glamorous: shampoo, a comb, a pack of white T-shirts. I have a vague recollection of a tie. Mom would wrap up all our gifts and make a big deal out of presenting them to my dad as though they were gold. He would in turn make a big deal out of pretending to be thrilled. I mean, really? The guy didn't need another comb.
As I got older, things weren't quite as simple. The last couple of years I lived at home were a war zone. I was a strong-minded rocker, artist, poet, renegade and self-anointed badass! Yes, I know; hard to imagine. My parents were pushing 40 when they had us, so in many ways they were closer to grandparents than parents. Their values were straight from the 1950s. They were afraid of everything: rock'n'roll, communism, their own kids (well, their female kids, anyway), sex, and most of all, any of their children marrying a non-Jew.
We were not to curse, not to watch R-rated movies, not be out after 10:00 p.m. (well, the girls, anyway), not to have non-Jewish friends and not to watch anything on television that talked about sex or Jesus, though not necessarily in that order. No "Charlie Brown Christmas" for us!
My dad wanted his daughters to dress like virginal Jewish good girls of yesteryear. He wanted his son to be a macho man who excelled in sports and knew how to take apart a car engine. What he got was my sister, a beauty school graduate who bleached her hair yellow, put on more make-up then Cher and dressed like a go-go dancer. My brother preferred his mother's love to the call of the car engine. And then there was me: Sex Pistols T-shirt, coke spoon necklace, pint of Hiram Walker blackberry brandy in my Levi's back-pocket, and a pack of Marlboro Lights in my denim jacket. Nice Jewish girl -- NOT!
He and I were two bulls fighting a turf war. It ended with me running away from home a couple months after I graduated high school. In the 20 years after that, I may have made the obligatory Father's Day phone call, but not much more than that. As I entered my 40s, feeling my dad's impending mortality as he entered his 80s, I upped the ante and started sending him flowers, fruit baskets and potted plants, compliments of a 1 800 flower service.
Three years ago, something strange began to happen. Dad started asking for help. He had already given up his beloved racquetball, but now arthritis had withered his daily two-mile walk to a hobble of a few steps in and out of the car. He had begun to forget things and no longer was comfortable driving out of his neighborhood.
"Can you help me figure everything out?" he asked, tears in his eyes. I felt honored that he trusted me enough to ask for my help and stepped in to make sure his affairs and his life were well in order.
Two years ago, my father slipped in the shower and lay there nearly 24 hours before he was discovered.
I flew out to California to be by his side and stayed there two weeks, overseeing the start of a new phase of his life. There were frightening, sad and horrible things to help him through in those weeks, but there was also something else.
For countless hours we talked. It had occurred to me one day while I was sitting by his hospital bed that I was a child when I left home and that my father didn't know very much about me. I began to tell him stories about my life -- what it was like to cater a wedding, what it was like to live in New York City in the '80s when it was scary and dangerous, how nice my girlfriend was. Not Jewish, but very nice!
Gone was the why can't you marry a nice a Jewish boy? Instead he said, "Oh I'm so happy for you!"
He described to me watching from his ship in the Navy as they bombed the Japanese a thousand feet away. He told me that he was kept safe by the ship's captain, a very short man. Dad's father had been a shoemaker and had taught his son the trade. Dad put a lift in the captain's shoes that made him appear to be 6 inches taller and the captain made damn sure that Dad was kept alive ever after.
"He kept me in the bowels of the ship after that, not on the top where you could get shot!" Dad explained.
On the last day of that trip, Dad was tired and fell asleep while I was sitting with him. When he woke up, he smiled wide.
"There's my daughter who saved my life!" he cheered. "She's the reason I am here!"
"I don't know about that, but you are definitely the reason I'm here," I said, and we both laughed.
I surveyed Dad's possessions: clean underwear, a sun hat, two pairs of glasses, hearing aid batteries, pajamas, toothbrush and toothpaste, two pairs of sneakers, a pile of family photos and a promise.
"I promise I will be here for you, Dad, whatever you need."
"Okay," he said as his eyes blinked, fighting back the sleep.
"Okay," I said kissing his forehead.
"Okay," I said to myself, knowing that every time I said good-bye to him might be the last.
This year marked two more Father's Days for Dad since then, and his 88th birthday. Since that fall, his new life includes a wheelchair and nurses, but the champ is far from counted out.
"I want to live to be 95. ... Do you think that's okay?" he asked, devouring the eggrolls I brought -- his favorite snack.
"If anyone can do it, you can."
"Good! Next time you come, can you bring me a new comb?"
"Sure, Dad, " I said laughing. "I'll bring you some T-shirts and shampoo, too."
"That's my beautiful daughter who never forgets her old dad," he said, chewing happily.
And I never will. Happy Father's Day, Daddy.