I want to thank everyone for being here. I think if my father were here… if he was alive right now, he’d…
If my father was alive right now…
If my father was alive right now, he’d be a very sick man.
Feel free to laugh. One of the few things my father and I shared was comedy. He left us when I was five or so and one of the few things he left behind was a comedy album by Don Adams – of Get Smart fame. I listened to it over and over again until I had it memorized. I memorized every scratch and tick as the album grew older and worn out and later performed them as sketches in school talent shows.
I didn’t have a father so much. I didn’t really know what that was like. But I had comedy.
When I started writing, I wrote comedy. And I would try to show what I wrote to my father. And he would give me this look that so many of those who knew him would always hope not to receive. It would say, “You are an idiot. A big one. With flashing lights and stereo sound. And now I have to pretend you’re not an idiot... and I really don’t want to do that. So, just between you and me – because I’m not going to say this out loud – You’re an idiot.”
My father communicated in looks. In the years I knew him, it was rarely with words. He was the master of the non-sequiter. I’d say, “Dad, I want to be a comedian when I grow up.” And he’d reply, “Don’t be so sure you’re growing up.” I’d say, “I think I want to be an actor.” And he’d reply, “Act like you’re in a silent movie.” He wasn’t exactly what you’d call nurturing… without laughing…
I can’t stand up here and tell you about my father’s faults. You just don’t have the time.
But we did have conversations. They were so few and far between, though, that I’d hold on like they were jewels of wisdom. Other times, he’d talk to me – a boy of 12 or 14 – about finances and what to look for when you’re buying a house and evil democrats. But I remember what he said when I was 16 or 17, when I’d discovered my muse, and said to him, “Dad, I think I want to be a writer.” He looked over his newspaper at me – he was frequently sequestered behind a singular, imposing wall of a newspaper – and said, “If you want to write, write.”
If you want to write, write. What an amazing gift that was, the summation of every artistic directive ever uttered, condensed, refined, clarified, and spoken to me at a time when I had no clue what writing or art even were. If you want to write, write. The only way you’ll ever become good at what you love to do is to go and do it as often as you can. So, I wrote. I wrote short stories, novels, and plays. I have grown to love writing the way you might love air, all as a result of this invaluable advice. If you want to write, write.
And then, I grew up… and I realized something.
This kid walks up to you. You’re trying to read your newspaper. Over and over, he’s bugged you, saying “I want to be a comedian” or “I want to be an actor.” And now, this time, the kid’s going on and on about this latest, teenage crush he has – not on a girl or even a sport. No, this time, he talks incessantly about how he wants to be a writer. What do you do? You loook over your paper and, in words as kind as you can muster – because what you really want to say is, “Can’t you shut your mouth for ten minutes?” – you say, “If you want to write, write.” Just leave me alone!
My father’s kindest words, his most informative passing of wisdom, always seemed strange to me. Oddly, it gives me some comfort to know he was probably just trying to shut me up.
My father was once an artist, too, so I’ve been told. I’ve heard rumors but we all know he was a musician. He left those dreams, whatever they were, behind at some point. I don’t know his level of regret but I can imagine what it must have been. So, I keep creating, acting, and writing, not because of my wonderful success – that much is clear – but because I am certain he felt some pride that I have not given up.
Most of my father’s life is a mystery to many of us. And I can say that however much I understood him, I doubt I ever really knew him. The way you understand that the sun will rise without knowing the formulae why. The way you might understand a poker hand without knowing if you’ll win. The way I, in my pursuit of wisdom, religion, and philosophy, can understand the value of faith without knowing it myself. I understood my father. But I never really knew him.
Once I heard he went AWOL while in the service, that he took off rebelliously, saying, “No more! I choose a new course for my life, one that doesn’t include militarism or violence or war.” And then, I asked him one day what that was all about. He said he never went AWOL, in that way he said things, that way that defied you to know him. He always seemed to speak through concrete walls. But then, he stopped himself – this was in 1988 after a long silence, when we found each other again and were trying to start a new chapter in our lives – and, remarkably, he explained that he’d been visiting a girl off the base and, without going into detail – wouldn’t want that – he said that he was there too long and didn’t get back to the base on time. He went AWOL cause of a girl – better than what I had made up in my mind in my attempt to figure him out.
I never expected to figure him out. So, on those few occasions when I saw him – and, believe me, they were few – I watched him very carefully. I became anthropological in my study of my father. This became very important from a very early age – 9 or so – and all because of this new person who entered his life: Blanche. You see, my parents had this horrible divorce with three kids who each ended up horribly scarred in his or her own way. Four years – ten years – twenty years after – all of us were branded, broken, bleeding, just mauled by the event.
And here comes Blanche. My first memory was of a time when Dad and Blanche brought the three of us – myself, Keith, and Audrey – to Disneyland. When my father did take us out, it was always to some Disney-centric event, where he would spend the day, the night, the hours, the entire time just going on and on about how much he hated Disney. But he fooled no one. Absolutely no one. So, we have Dad over there on one side, telling us how much he hated Tomorrowland and “Let’s go on that ride” and Blanche over there on the other side. She was smiling. She was completely at ease. She wasn’t neurotic – I didn’t even know what neurotic was and I could tell. She was, in short, some kind of freak. That’s what I was thinking at 9 years of age. What’s all that smiling about? She was a nice person and exactly what my father needed.
When I was 16, I studied my father coming home from work at lunch and calling someone to tell this person how his day was going. It took me a while to figure out that he was calling Blanche. I had no idea what it meant to tend your garden, to keep your relationship strong, but I learned from that. I’m not saying it was his idea – odds are it was something Blanche taught him – but I learned it from him. I never waited for him to tell me – and most of my father’s lessons were “Never act like that” but I learned just the same.
We didn’t really have a relationship until after 1988. After he had walked my bride down the aisle. After he had cried at my wedding – a thought that still leaves me kind of speechless. Most of our conversations consisted of, “Are you still working? Okay, here’s Blanche.” But it was something. The thing was, I didn’t care if he wasn’t a great father. He wasn’t a great father. But he was there.
Anyway, I got a perfect opportunity to do something I never got to do as a teenager: Rebel against my father. Towards the mid-1990’s, I was doing research on a book I was writing and the research consisted of studying the Communist Manifesto. Now, I’d done the long hair thing and I’d done the motorcycle thing, both of which turned my father’s eyes red. But the day I sat down on his sofa and plopped down a dog-eared copy of the Communist Manifesto, the day he came out and looked at it like it was – Dad had a phrase. “Gag a maggot on a gut cart” – He looked down at me, practically shaking with anger and disgust. He pointed at the book. He asked, “What is that doing there?”
I looked up and said, “Oh, hi dad. Yeah, I’m reading it.”
It was priceless. And there was little he could do. My father and I had this unspoken understanding about things like that. Kind of like “You missed your chance.” I had an incredibly amount of fun at his expense. Had this been 20 years before or even 10, he would have probably thrown me out of the house. But he grumbled. And I moved the book. And he sat down where it had been and turned on the TV.
I say we didn’t have a relationship until after 1988 but it really didn’t start until much later than that. We both had some adjusting to do. I was a liberal atheist. He was a right-wing whacko – and I only say that because he’s not here. But when my marriage fell apart eight years ago – I guess we both decided we’d adjusted enough and I began to see that he really did care about me. And I began to see the changes that were taking place, like his hair that went from black to gray to gone.
What do I mean? The story that best sums that up is about when my father first met Vicky, my second wife. I thought I had his number on this. He’d been close to my first wife and I had screwed things up there. My father’s sense of what was right would surely prevent him from welcoming Vicky into his life. This was clear to me and I was pretty nervous about the whole thing. I knew Blanche would accept Vicky but I was doubtful about my father until they came to our door, I showed them in, and my father gave Vicky a big hug as they both welcomed her into their lives.
Something was surely wrong.
And to make matters worse, at our rehearsal dinner, where I kind of expected that my father would insist on paying – his sense of what was right again – he told me he loved me. My father. I don’t think it was the first time he said it but I know it was the first time he sounded like he meant it, as though it wasn’t a formality. He believed it.
I didn’t know what to do. You know, you have a father like mine and being told something like that really throws you off balance. I told Vicky, “He’s gotta be sick or something.”
Sometimes, you don’t want to be right.
We all know about my father’s illness. Even as doctor after doctor was struck puzzled, he withered away. It was slow. It was agonizing. I found myself on the banks of an Egyptian river. By the time I realized what was happening, when I said to my wife, “I’m a writer. I should be interviewing him so I can write his story,” it was already too late. But I take from those three years something just as important as the knowledge of a father I never really knew. I know for sure that I loved my father and that my father loved me. As his illness, struck away pound upon pound of his mortal flesh, it also served to tear down the concrete encasements in which he’d wrapped himself for so many years. He became human, more loving, and more deserving of love.
And now, here we are.
As I have mentioned, I am an atheist, something my father was not too keen about. And so, my meditations on the life of this man do not include thoughts of what may come after. A few words come to mind, however, with which I would like to close.
“People are greedy. They ignore the blessing they have in this life to imagine something that comes after." My father’s passing reminds us all how blessed we are in this life. Even with a man who never felt entirely comfortable talking to me, I know I have been blessed with the relationship we finally grew into. It reminds us that every day is an opportunity to embrace the miracle that is life, something I saw my father grow to understand.
From Shakespeare, “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts...” My father held down a lot of jobs in his life but the most amusing was when he worked for a cruise line. I used to tell a joke about that. “You don’t want to go to Mexico! You want to go to Alaska!” More than that, though, my father showed how change is possible in any life – if you want it.
Finally, from the Gospel of Thomas, “The father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.” So, it is easy to get caught up in details or the way things should be done. My father often got caught up in that dilemma, as do I, as I am sure do my brothers and sister.
Nobody is going to tell you my father was perfect. He can’t, anymore. He was often a shmuck. Other times, he could be a jerk. (See, my father hated it when I used swear words. To this day, he still hasn’t read any of my books or seen my plays… but I keep hoping…) The thing is, yes, he was a shmuck. And, very often, so am I. And are you. And you. And everyone here. And everyone else.
Thank you for coming.