Today is my father's birthday. He would have turned 84 years old today, had he survived beyond the way-too-impossibly-young age of 68.
Though it's closing in on two decades since I last shared my day with him, road-tripped with him, or swam with him out to that little sand bar in the Gulf of Mexico, I can still hear his voice. He had a good voice, lovable and loud. But mostly, I hear his laugh. Nobody laughed like my dad, and the two of us together were ridiculous. Though I have never had a drink, and he drank his last well before I was born, I like to think our laughter together would have gotten us kicked out of bars, sober and disorderly.
I miss that man, and I think of him often. Given another day, there is so much I would want to show him. I would want him to see that my wife Julie and I are still crazy about each other. I would want him to see that I now have a house, instead of an upstairs apartment. I would want to show him my book, and that I've been on TV. He would have gotten the biggest kick out of that. I would want to show him my iPhone, knowing full well he'd hate it, a lot.
He was a car guy, so I'd definitely want to show him my car too. I'd drive him to the beach, his favorite place on earth. And I'd play some Springsteen for him too, though he used to joke that, off stage, Bruce was a preening Mama's boy pretending he knew about factories and textile mills and getting your hands dirty. My dad was wrong sometimes.
But mostly, I'd want him to see George, my son, his grandson. Man, Walt would have loved George.
George was three when my dad died. But they spent a lot of time together. When George was little, I was in grad school, and Julie was working. So George would often stay at my parents' house during the day. And Walt, who was notoriously terrible with kids, would be sitting in his chair, like usual, the same chair he'd sat in for years and years. Only now, little George would be comfortably sidled up against him. Walt was bad with kids, but he was good with George.
And I'm grateful beyond expression that my father got a glimpse into the man that little boy would become. Because every moment George and I have spent together, father and son, is colored, at least a little, by my relationship with Walt.
George and I up too late, laughing our asses off. There's Walt in that moment.
George and I, philosophizing over Colbert. There's some Walt there too.
George and I, racing from beach to ocean, breathless and overjoyed. There's a whole lot of Walt in that one.
If I could rewrite family history, my father would have spent his birthday today at George's water polo game, laughing, celebrating, marveling at his grandson's strength, grace, and love of the water.
He didn't get these 18 years. Sadly, he only saw those first three. But that connection was enough for Walt to make an indelible mark on the life of this boy, now a young man.
And lately, as George shifts gracefully from boy to man, I can see my dad in him.
The passage of time, and the strands of DNA, play tricks on our consciousness. For surely I can see my father somewhere in George's eyes. And that's Walt's voice I hear in George's kindness and empathy.
But mostly, it's in the laugh, that bold, fearless, go-for-broke laugh. That laugh of George's could only come from my father.
I miss my dad, and I will miss him for the rest of my life. But I am so grateful to have George to carry on his legacy. A man can be long dead and buried, but his living laughter can bring healing, consolation, even joy.
Fathers, be good to your sons. And sons, be good to your fathers. They may disappear too soon. So don't miss it.
Take no moment for granted. And laugh hearty.
Happy birthday, Walt. I love you, dad.