Ever hear of a mechanical ambush? It’s basically an improvised explosive device or grenade on a timer or tripwire, set to explode on unsuspecting patrols during the Vietnam War. I just had a memory that hit me like that. The last time I saw my father, he’d already been diagnosed with stage IV brain cancer. Stubborn SOB that he was, he hadn’t gone to a doctor until he collapsed at work with a seizure; his films & other scans led to the on-call oncologist, who told him he had three months left, at best.
My happiest memory of Christmas with my dad, before the downward slope of adultery, neglect, then abandonment, was when I was six years old. We lived in a tiny two bedroom apartment in Staten Island, and like most kids, I had no idea we wanted for anything. As far as I knew then, my parents simply left the door unlocked because we didn’t have a chimney for Santa to slide down. I don’t recall what I got that Christmas, almost 40 years ago. I remember warmth, a note from Santa saying how he wished he’d met me but didn’t want to disturb my sleep (I know, any sane first grader wouldn’t have been put out if St. Nick woke them up), the joy that this holiday is supposed to engender.
Fast forward to 2009. I flew to Atlanta because I didn’t know if I’d get to see my dad alive again. I had tried in vain to get him to New York, to see and enjoy his newborn grandson, offered to pay for his ticket and put him up at my house, but he kept demurring. He wanted me to visit him in Atlanta. The problem with this, however, was that Atlanta meant her. His wife, for whom he left my mother long before my parents divorced, and her teenaged kids whom he’d adopted & doted on more than he ever had with me at their age. My step siblings were blameless, I knew, but in my mind I couldn’t accept that package deal. After some back and forth, I just never went. He never came north.
My dad passed, ironically enough, around Ryan’s first birthday. Ryan is the same age now as I was then. He’s asked about his grandfather, using a child’s unassailable logic to say, why didn’t Grandpa love him enough to ever visit before Grandpa went to heaven? I still wish I knew.
What I can control, however, is how Ryan and Sophie remember their Christmases. Not as a one-and-done like their old man, but as a continuing series of happy days, with presents and family and food. Their maternal grandfather, who loves his grandkids to pieces and spoils them rotten, will be around as ever, though with various ailments, for how much longer is anyone’s guess.
This is my mission. My children’s happiness. My father couldn’t understand that, or if he did once, he forgot. I won’t. I just wish he’d met his grandson before he died.