The last time I saw him, he looked as if he were sleeping.
But then I realized that there was an unnatural stillness there. No gentle rise and fall of the chest, no sounds but the muffled cacophony of the hospital ICU unit just beyond the closed door.
What struck me was how small my father looked. He was naked, except for a tiny modesty cloth draped over his midsection. The tubes and wires that had been attached to him for the last few days had been removed, but he was still surrounded by machinery that dwarfed him.
I kept looking at his shoulders, thinking how long it had been since he had hoisted me onto them with an “Upsy-daisy,” telling me to duck as we passed through the doorway into my room, where he’d deposit me onto the bed and tuck me in. But the shoulders I was looking at weren’t really my father’s. This wasn’t really my father at all. He was gone. Had vacated the premises, leaving behind only this oddly childlike shell, a familiar but soulless vessel that would never again open its eyes and smile at me.
Now, here it is, over thirty years later and three days past Mother’s Day, and as much as I love my mother, it’s my father I’m thinking about. Mostly because of what he’s missed since the day he died. What I’ve missed sharing with him.
My marriage. My children. My successes and failures.
Pretty much my entire life.
My father had a gift that I’ve always envied: the ability to walk up to anyone, anytime, and start a conversation. The ability to be instantly charming, never forced, always genuine, with a warmth and humor that made whoever was in his company feel accepted. He was an unpretentious man, not a deep thinker but always interesting. He spent the last years of his life — his late fifties — struggling with emphysema, unable to cross a room without huffing for breath.
And thanks to a neglectful doctor, the disease finally took him.
When I was seventeen years old, I wrote my first television script. I had long wanted to be a novelist, but had somehow gotten it into my head that I should write for TV. Probably because the scripts were short and full of white space, and dialog came naturally to me.
When I was done with that script — an episode of Harry-O — my father read it, loved it and immediately started making phone calls.
Anyone who has ever tried to break into Hollywood, especially the world of television, knows that it’s nearly impossible to get someone to read your screenplay. Yet two days later, my father had the name and address of one of Harry-O’s producers, along with a promise to take a look at what I’d written. Within a few weeks, I got a letter back from the producer telling me that he thought my work had a lot of potential but that I had to be careful not to “overwrite.” Keep it lean. Shorten the dialog. Have your characters get to the point as quickly as possible. And don’t try to explain everything.
This was wonderful advice and encouragement that I never would have received if it hadn’t been for my father.
A few months later, I finished my one and only attempt at writing an episode of The Rockford Files, and my father once again went to work. This time, while at the local race track, he ran into one of the Rockford co-stars and convinced him to read it. Nothing ever came of the gesture, but to this day I marvel at my father’s salesmanship.
What I’ll always carry with me, however, is how proud of me he was. I can think of no greater gift a parent can give a child than the gift of pride.
Which is why it’s so hard whenever I reach another milestone in my career. He would have been so proud when I won the Nicholl. Would have been bursting with it when I made my first deal with Showtime. Would even have been excited to know I was writing episodes of Spider-Man for Fox Kids.
And all these years later, working on my fourth book for St. Martin’s, my father would be calling everyone he knows just to boast about me.
My father’s pride is his legacy. The part of him that most resonates with me whenever I think of him, even when I have a hard time picturing him beyond the small, still figure on that hospital bed.
I suppose I could have waited until Father’s Day to say all of this. Especially when we’re still so close to the day we’re supposed to be celebrating mothers. But my mother is alive and well and has always shared in my successes — and for that I’m grateful.
But this morning I’m compelled to talk about my dad. Because, for me, every day is father’s day.
And my only hope is that when I’m gone, my children will feel the same.
Rob,What a beautiful post. And it doesn’t matter a whit about timing. Celebrating people who’ve had a profound impact on our life should never be relegated to one day a year.
I’ve had three fathers in my life . . . father, step father, godfather. All of them gone, all of them leaving that same legacy of true pride in who I was and what I was doing with my life.
None of them lived to see me published. Only one lived to meet my children.
I think about them every, single day.
Rob, that’s a gorgeous tribute to a fine man. My father died in his late fifties, too, when I was only sixteen. We weren’t close, but that’s a post for another day. I still measure my success through his eyes.
What a beautiful post, Rob.I no longer have my dad either. I miss him every day, and I have little chats with him often.The saddest thing in my life is that he died before Donald entered my life. I would give anything to have had some time watching those two wonderful men getting to know and love one another.If y’all are going to keep making me cry, I’m gonna have to quit coming to call!
RobYour Dad is very proud of you and what a wondrous tribute to himYou have truly proved with this post he was a terrific DadHe lives in your heart, you live in his spiritJust magicwarmest thoguhts to you and your tremendous DadKen
Thanks for making me almost cry. It doesn’t do a lot for my image.
Great post, Rob. I’ve heard you tell it before, but for some reason this time it got to more than any of those other times.
Thanks, all. The one thing I didn’t mention is that I firmly believe that he’s around somewhere, watching and enjoying my success. At least I hope so.
What a touching tribute to your father and yes, I believe he’s around watching and smiling as you make your mark in the publishing world. He’s probably forced God to read every one of your books too!
Just lovely. You’re right, the ones we love most always stay with us.
I’m blessed to still have both of my parents, and I try to spend as much time and share as much of my life with them as possible. They get to celebrate in my success and help me through my failures. I don’t know what I’ll do without them. It’s good to see that it is possible to go on, though I can’t imagine how.
Beautiful post, Rob, and like JT, I still have both my parents, and they’re doing really well, health-wise so far, but it terrifies me that we’ll eventually get to this point. I have made it a rule that they CANNOT GET SICK OR DIE. They better be listening.
(they read the blog)
Any son who could write a tribute like this is undoubtedly a father who will receive one. Thanks.
Ah Rob, you caught my heart with your observation about how small he looked. When my best friend of 35 years died, I was stunned at how small she seemed. But it comes down to greatness of spirit, doesn’t it?
Your dad sounds like he was an inspiration, and every day’s a good day to remember someone like that. Thank you for sharing!
well, having shared a childhood and father with you Rob, I do know what you feel and I share those same thoughts and feelings. I did cry(and I am not embarressed to say so), when I read this.
Some of my failures and success have also been met without him, and I rarely go without noticing that fact.
I think of how he so desperately want one of us to be an althelete – and that duty full to me quickly because he couldn’t get you out of bookstores. I failed miserably of course because I had not desire to play ball – and I know what you are thinking and stop it! The next generation came along and my son was a good athelete and is now a coach and is even playing daddy’s sport – golf and shooting only 4 over par. Our daddy would be so proud of his grandson.
I long for him to know our children, and am thankful that at least he met mine. I wish he knew my grandchildren and your two wonderful kids.
I smile when I remember the look on his face, and strain to hear the happiness in his voice, while selling someone else on his sons talents. I long to sing with him again.
I laugh out loud when I remember the times that we three(you, mother and I), would sink down in our chairs, as he would approach any star or celebrity he saw as if he were his long lost friend. I still want to have steaks all over the world with him.
But right now, this moment, I would just like to thank him for making my brother and helping him become the man, husband, father, son and brother he is today.
Thank you for helping me to keep our daddy alive in our hearts. Thank you for helping me to remember he is part of the best part of both of us!
Well. Now it’s my turn to cry.