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.