Father's Day Tribute: A Man I'll Never Be

Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine

My dad was a better man than me. 

That’s not some psychiatric couch-induced b.s. for which I shelled out tens of thousands of dollars. It’s just something with which I long ago, and very comfortably, came to terms.  I’ve seen so many people wasting so much energy swimming upstream to measure themselves against their parents. I never saw the point.

One of the things at which dad excelled was indulging the proclivities of his loved ones. He had zero interest in gambling, for instance, but he smilingly accompanied our mother on her one-armed bandit excursions to Las Vegas, Atlantic City and any Native American gaming hall that popped up within three states of Ohio.

So the invariable question I got when my friends first encountered my father was some variation of “Were you adopted?”

In my younger years, I took that as a compliment. Not that I’ve matured. My mom once told me, her eldest son, that she had never encountered a human being so fiercely committed to learning things the hard way. Game, set and match to Jane Higgins!

But I have had to re-think all those “compliments.”  My dad could be ferociously stubborn, but, unlike his firstborn, he erred on the side of caution when his stubborn circle merged with the circle of anyone for whom he cared.   

I at least had the common sense to acknowledge that trait in him, even though I was clearly a product of our mother, who seldom let an opinion die of natural causes. One of the things of which I’ll be happiest on my deathbed (assuming it comes with morphine) is that I told my father that he "had re-defined my definition of what it meant to be a man."

Those were not easy words, given the stoicism of our Irish-Catholic family. But I needed to say them, and I like to think Dad received them in the spirit in which they were tended -- a product of a son's awe of a guy who spent a fortnight trying to grab a few minutes of sleep on molded plastic chairs for a fortnight while our mother was hospitalized with cancer.  

Not that his resume wasn't chock full of the stuff that I previously thought a man should be. He not only was an all-state football player in one of the most competitive states in the nation, but a captain of the All-Ohio team. He pulled himself up by the bootstraps, from a thunderously broken family, to become a lawyer. When I was a toddler, he taught high school in the morning, coached football in the afternoon and, with a plethora of help from Mom, went to law school at night. And I wouldn’t have known many of the details if I hadn’t come across a dusty scrapbook in our attic as a freshman in high school, a project that he had no part in compiling. My dad would sooner have rather rectal surgery (he eventually got his wish) than be caught in a self-promoting moment. Which lends even more credence to the theory that I was adopted.  

I live near a hospital, and this Father's Day weekend has provided an unending cacophony of sirens. So maybe that was my trigger for writing this. Or maybe these thoughts are spilling out because his what 80th birthday is around the corner. We stopped celebrating those when he died four years ago, four months to the day after our mother passed away -- and two months after the 50th anniversary they never got to celebrate.

In large part, all of that pain was the catalyst for The Hills & Hops Hiking Club, whose fourth anniversary we'll mark this weekend with our semi-annul trek up and down the streets of San Francisco. "Turning shit into Shinola" was what dad would have called my transition from grief. The Irish are supremely skilled at that game.

Our dad loved a good party … almost as much as he would have detested being the reason for one.  As I noted aloud in his eulogy, I’m pretty sure he was pissed off the moment I even mentioned his name in that very eulogy. But he no longer holds the leverage of grounding me, so I’m going for it one more time.  

My dad, being my dad, was full-on supportive of my love for hiking -- even though, after serving in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in the Alps, he was incredulous of anyone who would voluntarily walk up a trail with a backpack.

But he would have dug this hike, gravity notwithstanding. He loved a good walkabout, and he thought San Francisco was the prettiest city in the country. Who am I to argue? (He would have bent over in laughter at the irony of that question). 

And he would have reveled in the post-hike part, where we gather at a pub to sacrifice all of those burned calories to the beer gods. I am, I’m proud to say, truly my father’s son when it comes to disdain for white tablecloths and appreciation for the camaraderie-compelling nature of pubs.  I draw the line, however, on toasting him with his beloved PBR. Okay. Dammit. Maybe this once.  Again.

So suck it up, Pops. This party’s for you. You can grouse about all the attention, or you can man up and buy a posthumous round. I think we both know which way this is going down.