My father was 16 years old when I was born. He dropped out of high school and got a shitty job working for shitty wages to be a father and take care of his kid. He had no real examples of fatherhood or any role models. We were poor with alcoholism and abuse around every corner. One day my father came home from work visibly upset. He looked sad but he’d never say anything. As a matter of fact, I never knew how he was feeling. This was Chicago in 1974. Men did not talk about feelings. They were viewed as a liability. He was always covered from head to toe with black grime from factory work. He worked on machines, repairing them, so that they could whine, roar and manufacture. But this day, something broke inside him that he could not fix. So he went out and bought the one tool he knew would work – a case of beer.
We walked in silence down to the liquor store on Chicago avenue. I tried a few times to say something but he wouldn’t even look over. We strolled out of the store with a case of Old Style under his arm and headed over to the corner. He cracked open a beer as the CTA bus pulled up. We jumped on and walked all the way to the back.
We rode that bus to the end of the line. Then waited for another, taking it in the opposite direction, the case of beer getting lighter and lighter with each pass. The old ladies stared at us with a smug look of disdain. The look old ladies give when you’re clearly doing something wrong. They are old and frail but their looks pack the punch of Silver Back gorillas. My father turned away and looked out the window, towards the magnificent giant sky scrapers reaching toward the sky.
We reached the end of the line. I’ll never forget the look the bus driver gave my drunken father when he told us we had to get off and my dad couldn’t stand. He leaned on me to walk, then fell off the bus onto the sidewalk. The bus driver looked at my father with sheer disgust. Chicago is a tough city. The bus driver looked over at me and said “Good luck. kid”
My father slumped against a building and passed out. I sat next to him as the wind slithered off the lake through the buildings and licked our feet. I looked over to my right and noticed we were at the base of a bridge that ran over the Chicago River.
I wondered if that was his original idea. It couldn’t have been to take a drunken bus ride with his six-year-old son and then pass out on the street.
Maybe he crossed this bridge once and it was so beautiful, he knew he had to bring me here and show me.
Maybe he wanted to walk me over the bridge, hand in hand, and show me this magnificent city. Maybe he was going to take me to City Hall and explain politics. Or maybe he was going to walk me over to the Board of Trade, where millions are traded every second, and explain finance to me. This is how you save for your future son. This is how to invest in stocks. This is what money is and how you deal with it. Maybe he was going to walk me over to Wrigley Field for a game. We’d sit in the bleachers and he’d explain the game of baseball to me, what each position was and how you play it. This is how you swing a bat son, you swing from your hips, not your arms. Head down and swing right through the ball.
But we never made it over the bridge that night.
When he came too, he stumbled to his feet trying to figure out where we were.
As we waited for the next bus, he turned to me and said – “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, Dad. I love you.”
He went missing a week later.
When you grow up around chaos and alcoholism, somebody not making it home for the night does not raise alarm. Maybe they partied too hard at a pal’s place and passed out. Surely they’d wake up in the morning, walk through the door, head hanging low, full of apologies and promises that it would never happen again. But my father did not come home the next day.
On day 2 when there is chaos, you call around the local police stations and hospitals. Maybe there was a fight and he got locked up. Maybe he got caught holding and they took the drugs and gave him an night in the drunk tank.
On Day 3 when there is chaos, you call the morgue. And that’s where a man matching my father’s description had been lying for 3 days under the name John Doe.
He died alone, without ID, next to the railroad tracks.
Nobody really knows what happened that night and whatever the beginning and middle was, the ending was always the same – John Doe found dead by the side of the tracks.
I was six-years-old.
It still hurts.
There has been a tremendous amount of chaos in my own life. My own demons and alcoholism encouraged history to repeat itself but I’ve been sober for 12 years now.
I’d like to thank the following men and women who have mentored me and given me, through example, lessons on how to be a better man and father (they are the same thing.)
My Gramp: For hugs I can still feel to this day.
My Uncle Matt: For showing me the power of a creative mind.
Clay: For showing me what a friend is, what a brother is and what courage is.
My father-in-law Hal: For showing me how to show up day in and day out and love your family unconditionally, no matter what your past was like.
My mother-in-law Eileen: For showing me what having a big heart really means.
Bobby Spillane: For showing me how to have patience, reminding me that everybody is carrying their own cross.
My Mother: For showing me how to throw a baseball. It’s the same way I taught my daughter and son.
Tom Egan: For treating me like a man when I was at the most dangerous crossroad in my life.
Steve Ogle: For showing me how to live one day at a time, sober and sane, so that I could begin the life I was always supposed to have.
Larry Novak: For showing me you can be strict and loving at the same time and one can nurture the other. Also how to hang my dress shirts.
Patty Novak: For knowing I was up to no good most of the time and loving me anyway!
Laurel: For showing me that love and kindness is the only way out of complete darkness.
These people were my fathers. Because of their kindness, friendship, loyalty and love I was finally able to walk over the bridge and this is what I saw…
So on this Fathers Day, I celebrate the people who helped me grow as a human being and as a father. I make so many mistakes as a Dad it’s embarrassing. But at the end of the day, as long as my children know they are loved and that life is to be lived and not endured, then I believe I am doing my best. But there is one thing I want them to say about their father, and one thing I’d like them to posses as people – Never give up trying to be a better human being. No matter how far down you go, now matter how many mistakes you make or how high you may ascend, never give up the search for a better you. Love and Kindness is the way out and there is no such thing as forgiveness until you learn how to forgive.
Happy Fathers Days to everybody out there holding it down and taking care of their business. Mick