Saturday, May 03, 2008

Happy Birthday, Pops.

My dad was born May 3, 1923. He died June 26, 2005, of stomach cancer.
I thought the old grump was immortal.

My dad, who was Polish, admired Pope John Paul II, the first Polish pope. Somehow, between the myriad pictures and literature I grew up with in the house, and the fact that my dad and the pope kind of looked like each other, I felt their fate was intertwined. When the pope became ill, I felt a strange sense of foreboding. When he died on April 2, 2005, something told me my father was not long behind.

For my dad's birthday a month later, I wrote in his card, "Isn't this cool: You're 83 and I'm 38!" When I spoke with him on the phone he said, "You know, you're wrong -- I won't be 83 until next year."

I had a superstitious pang: He wouldn't live to be 83.

That June 6, my sister's birthday, she took my dad to the doctor because he was so weak, he couldn't get out of bed. Four days later, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer that had started migrating up his esophagus. The doctors told him he wouldn't live more than six months.

I was shocked. I shouldn't have been -- after all, at 82, my dad had outlived the average life expectancy, as well as everyone in his immediate family. But he just always seemed too damn stubborn to die.

Growing up, I didn't like my dad much. He was eternally pessimistic, seemingly unengaged with my life and always said "no" to whatever I wanted permission to do. He could be manipulative and mean. In general, not a pleasant presence to be around. I wondered what my mother -- who I viewed as a saint -- ever saw in him.

After my mom died in 1990, my dad started to change. It wasn't overnight, and he remained set in his ways til the end of his days. Or maybe it was I who changed, and stopped wanting to force him into the mold of the father I had in mind, and instead started to understand and appreciate who he was.

Whatever I did, he supported me. When my boyfriend moved in with me in North Carolina, he simply said, "You know I don't agree with living together before marriage, but I'll always support you."

When I moved to Boston for grad school, when he would have preferred I move closer to home, he lent me money and support. When I announced my engagement to the boyfriend I'd lived with in NC, he opened up his checkbook and happily paid for my modest wedding. When I moved to San Francisco, he told my sister that he didn't want me to feel lonely, and so dropped notes in the mail to me every week; my favorite ginger snaps at Halloween; Valentine's candy; and my favorite Reese's peanut butter eggs at Easter.

He would end every phone call with, "If you ever need anything, you just let me know." He nicknamed me "Bootsie" (with the emphasis on the "Boot") and liked what he called my "big laugh."

A wise professor at Emerson College, poet John Skoyles, once advised: "Whenever you think you are absolutely sure about something, consider that the opposite may be true."

And so it was: After a life of missing and mourning my mom, it turned out that my dad -- who I had so many arguments with, who I disrespected, who I tried to change, who I couldn't understand -- became the man of my dreams, the man who I would admire out of all men, and who I would miss, every single day of my life.


Shaken Mama said...

Happy Birthday to him indeed. The true progenitor of "Only a Pole." I miss him too.

Vicky said...

I feel so honored to be able to admit that I'd met both of your parents, even though I never got to know them well. Thanks for another great blog entry.