Father’s Day

Father’s Day


 Here I am in the bed I slept in 40 years ago, in the 3-bedroom duplex
 of the working-class neighborhood Garrett Hill, a blue-collar section
 carved out amidst Philadelphia’s elite Main Line. Surrounded by large
 single houses I was embarrassed growing up that nine of us lived in half a house, 
and embarrassed that I had to help Dad in his
 janitorial work at our elementary school. I was also embarrassed
 by Dad driving a decade old car without a working radio. His
 transistor radio played the Phillies game, and with every turn, slid
 off the dashboard and fell on the floor.

I moved back to Philly from Santa Monica four years ago when Dad was 87. It was time we got closer. Also, by being back where my biological son was put up
 for adoption 42 years ago, I thought I’d be more likely to meet him somehow.
 Maybe we’d pass each other and be struck by the uncanny resemblance. 
Or maybe he’d be at a Moth when I told my story.

Over and over again private detectives and others told me since it was
 a closed, catholic adoption and my name wasn’t on the birth 
certificate, it was impossible. I desperately wanted to meet him, get 
his forgiveness for what I had done.

In addition to being a janitor, Dad was a full-time mailman and often stressed out. Growing up I feared him. When My brother Bill was 16, he told
 Dad he no longer wanted to go to church. Dad threw his coffee on him. 
At the dinner table my father’s hand would lash out at anyone who
 misbehaved. When he reached for a roll, everyone ducked.

I was the daydreamer, the lazy one. Whenever he took my six brothers
 and me to help him clean I was the one who got his rage. “You call 
that done?!,” he shouted after inspecting a toilet stall, “I can’t 
even tell you were in there. Wake up! You’ll never amount to 
anything.”
 My brothers laughed, as my thoughts raged, “Wake up to what? All Dad’s
 anger? I won’t be cleaning toilets the rest of my life.” I daydreamed
 about running away and becoming a stand-up comic; I knew I could do 
one thing well: make people laugh.


In high school I wrote and directed a comedy show, collaborating with 
fellow students. My comedy sketches brought down the house. Hearing
 all the laughter, I felt connected, worthwhile.
That night Dad gave me a compliment. I remember it because it was the 
first one.
 “Paul, I’ve never been so proud in my life!” Lifting my spirits 
even higher. Then he added, “Nothing John did compares to 
this.” Why did he have to bring up John? My older brother, was the 
star of the family—a football hero, MVP. Couldn’t he just acknowledge 
me? My father couldn’t even give a compliment right.

Also, I knew he wouldn’t be proud at all if he found out about the 
pregnancy and adoption. Afraid of his temper, I never told my parents.
 From the moment I got Patty pregnant at 16 I was devastated. 
Everything Dad had screamed at me, bubbled up. He was right: I was
 useless. I set out to redeem myself. My grades went from C’s to A’s. 
All my anxious energy went toward football and landing the starting 
quarterback position, which never panned out. Then, I wrote the show.
 But despite its success, I still felt broken, unable to forgive myself 
for giving away my son.

Dad found out about the pregnancy two years later in a bar. A 
neighbor, Mr. Doyle said, “Bill, I need your advice, my son got his
 girl in the same predicament as your son.” Dad didn’t understand. Mr. Doyle asked, “How did you handle it, when you found out Paul knocked 
up the O’Leary girl?” My dad slugged him. That’s how he handled it.

At 19 I escaped this house to pursue stand-up comedy and began making my living at it. For forty years the
 judgments I made at 16 stuck with me, weighing on me like
 a low-grade fever. And then 4 years ago I saw a YouTube video of adoptive parents 
meeting their child for the first time, showing me the other side of
 adoption. Filled with awe, the new parents couldn’t stop crying. The
 conclusion I held for so long began unraveling: maybe giving him up
 didn’t screw up his life, maybe it didn’t screw up mine. I may have
 missed out on being a father, but he didn’t miss out on having
 parents.

Recently, I thanked Dad for the compliment he gave me at 17. He
 replied, “Well, I knew how difficult it was for you your senior year
 not starting quarterback.” So that’s why he brought up John. Dad
 is way more more sensitive than I ever realized.
Dad continues to surprise me. Last year I lost my life savings day
 trading. I was in shock and, once again ashamed. John consoled me. I 
couldn’t tell Dad; he’s conservative with money. A month later, to
 celebrate Dad’s birthday I took him to New Orleans. At Preservation 
Hall in between songs Dad starts talking about 1991. He got a stock 
tip on Eastern Airlines, invested twenty grand. Two weeks later
 Eastern folded. He lost it all.
 How coincidental! I never knew about his loss. Then Dad asked how I 
was doing with stocks.


“Oh, you talked to John. Yeah, I lost my savings.”


Dad said, “Don’t start working too hard. You’ve got plenty of time. I
 don’t want you to worry about money.” He handed me a $10,000 check.

Deeply touched, I paid his bar tab. Why did I fail to see this other 
side of him? Why do I hide my mistakes from him? I’ve always wanted to
 be better than him. I began to realize that this man—who I thought 
never understood me—was a big ally. My world was dark because I kept 
turning out the light.

On our flight home my father talked about how his life was idyllic until he
 was 11, when his drunk uncle moved in and began berating him and 
hitting him. His dad never protected him, or even attended one of his 
sporting events. Dad rarely missed one of mine.

For 42 years connecting with my biological son seemed
 impossible and then … he showed
 up. I’ll never forget my son’s first words to me, “Per 23andMe, you
 are my biological father.” It happened so simply. I spit into a vial, mailed it
 in, and was connected to this stranger who shared 49% of my DNA. Why
 did he join 23AndMe? Does he need a kidney? For so long I lived with the 
aching unknown; how was he doing? I sent an email asking about his
 life.



A day later I was greeted with a five-page response. His name, purely 
coincidental, is Paul. He loves his parents, thoroughly enjoyed his
 childhood, and appreciates his life. He too, had to deal with the 
disappointment of being a back-up quarterback. The nature versus nurture debate intrigues 
him. Paul also grew up in a 
very working-class neighborhood and always wondered about his life-long
 passion for writing. He always understood his adoption situation without remorse.
 We’re a lot alike, except Paul always accepted his family and feels
 fortunate.

He wanted to learn about me and for some reason I put it off for two
 days. Why would I put off something that I wanted for so long? At 
McDonald’s I bought a senior coffee and began, “Paul, so glad to hear
 you feel so fortunate.” I stopped writing. I began bawling, my body 
shaking, my heart beating as if a clogged artery opened up. 42 years
 of hope and worry met with such joy. Tears raced down my cheeks. I 
smiled uncontrollably, covering my face with my cup, snot running from 
my nose. At McDonald’s, I kind of fit right in.

After reading about my experience he wrote, “I’m touched, but also 
saddened, about how you struggled with the adoption. I wish I had
 reached out years ago to say I’m fine.”

That’s my kid! Thoughtful, Concerned. I can’t take credit for the
 nurture part, but damn he’s got my nature. I 
did not not raise my son to be insensitive. Discovering Paul’s
 appreciation for life has me experiencing an odd sensation, not joy or
 sadness, but peace. Unlike ever before, at least for now, I can be, simply be.

Last month I had two days off and looked forward to time alone. But 
my father needed help. With a sense of duty, I went: Did his laundry, made 
him lunch, and cleaned his bathroom. And didn’t miss a spot. It was 
magical. As I left, Dad handed me a birthday card penned with his own 
words, “So grateful to have you as my son — and my friend.” 

Since the virus pandemic wiped out my comedy work Dad suggested renting out my condo and moving
 in with him. So here I am, in the home I couldn’t wait to flee. And I
 keep thinking of the T.S. Eliot quote that hung in my therapist’s
 office, “And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we
 started/ And know the place for the first time.”

I am fortunate. And humbled by the delicate intricacies of what it’s 
like to care about someone, care for someone. It’s a lot like being a
 father.
Happy Father’s Day to you fortunate soul’s taking on the heart wrenching task of fatherhood.

Mom, The Cat’s Meow

It’s 2 a.m. and a rat is scampering around in my attic. Last week without really thinking it through I put birdseed in my window box which attracted a cardinal, a hummingbird, and a fat rat. When I spotted him, the enormous rat leaped onto the side of the building and rocketed his way vertically to the roof with his bare claws like a comic book arch-villain.
Hopefully, Leviticus, my cat, can scare him away. I live on the top floor in a house divided into apartments. I inherited Leviticus when mom died 5 years ago.

When I was first told Mom had a brain tumor the size of a tennis ball, I sat down on mom’s porch chair, Leviticus next to me. All the times I absent-mindedly petted her seemed like mere practice for this moment. I wanted so much to experience this petting. It felt so good to touch Leviticus, to experience the flow of my fingers through her silky, slippery multicolored fur coat, her body of flesh so slight, her beating heart so tiny. Such vulnerability, such frailty, such a thin line between life and death, yet Leviticus purred with delight, savoring my touch, aware only of the sensation of life as she rolled over on her side in sheer surrender to receive a massage.
My life as I’d known it was crumbling. Mom was a life-long smoker. She coughed throughout the night my whole life. Dad once said, “Those cigarettes are going to kill ya.” She exhaled, twisted out the cigarette, and said, “Well, not that one. Ha!”

Over the next three years Leviticus comforted me as mom painfully withered away. But I also watched an amazing transformation. At first mom was filled with constant irritation at the continuing assault of her non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and two strokes. However, as time went by she started to accept it all.
Paralyzed on her right side, I would ask mom if she wanted me to wheel her outside. She’d raise her only moveable limb, her left arm, point her finger, and say, “Let’s go.” There was so little she could do. But after a few minutes, she’d smile and say, “Hear the birds?” I often thought, is she really able to enjoy all this, or is she doing it for me? And figured, either way it’s an incredibly deep love that’s motivating her.
I saw Mom focusing less on what she couldn’t do and more and more on what she could do. Depleted and exhausted she accepted her death, letting go of everything that was not essential let her live. Even at 10% She lived fully. She cared less and less about the indignity of having someone bathe her, about her inability to control her body. Instead she was grateful for every little thing anyone did. she’d softly say, “Thank you”
Leviticus has been with me five years and I’ve taken her for granted. In fact recently I had lost her trust because my apartment is not safe. I enjoy perpetually redesigning, coming up with a theme and running with it. In these past few years, my studio apartment has been a Mexican cabana, a diner, a tiki hut, a tree fort, and a nautical nook. It changes so often my friend refers to it as “the set”. The horrible part is that I never bother to fortify my new designs, which means shelves, paintings, and curtain rods are constantly crashing down. It’s so precarious that Leviticus stopped coming back inside the apartment. I had to feed her on the porch. Luckily I’ve gotten back her trust.
To get to the attic I stand on my kitchen counter lifting myself up through an air vent barely large enough for me to squeeze through. Everything in my attic is useless, a detention center for all things broken and reeking, lots of wood crates and books. A fire hazard? No worries there–thanks to a leaky roof everything’s soggy. And what could be more fitting than a wet edition of Moby Dick? My landlord doesn’t see the porous roof as a problem; he calls it ventilation. The attic holds twenty years of bad decisions: a magic bullet, parachute pants, a Flowbee, etc… (as long as I still have it, I didn’t waste money buying it). 

It’s now 2:30 a.m. and I’ve got to do something about this rat. I gingerly lift Leviticus up through the air vent. She walks a few feet into the attic then back to the opening, crying to get down immediately. I reach for her and she goes ballistic, scratching my arms and fleeing.  She’s terrified! I got back her trust and now this. She’s meowing loudly enough for the neighbors to hear! I place a bar stool on top of the kitchen counter so that it’s a very short jump, but she begs to differ. She continues meowing as if crying out for a better owner. I go back to bed thinking she’ll give in and jump. A half hour later she’s still meowing in a high-pitched whine, as if she’s bringing up every single debacle in our 5 year relationship. I shriek, “Leviticus! Leviticus!” I sound like a holy roller.  What was I thinking? How do I know this huge rat wouldn’t harm Leviticus?
I google “how to get a cat down from a high place.” What appears is “how to get your cat high.” So instead I lift myself into the attic and wait. Leviticus soon mellows and comes over. I Grab a mildewed wicker hamper (thank God I saved it) and she crawls into it.  I’m surrounded by boxes of 8 tracks, Mardi Gras beads, and books on MS-DOS. It’s now 3:45 a.m. I’m huddled in a crawl space on a George Foreman grill next to a hamper containing my scared cat. And wonder why I’m single. And I realize my life has been weighed down by all this stuff I impulsively acquire and refuse to get ride of. And it might help to not rush into relationships, instead building a good foundation.
I go back to bed. Leviticus cradles up next to me. And think about the profound gift mom gave me — how to die. It’s all about letting go. And I recall what Maya Angelou wrote, “Letting go isn’t painful, holding on is.”
Tomorrow I’ll seal up the air vent and while I’m at it nail down everything in the apartment. I graciously pet Leviticus and let out a soft, “Thank you.”

Sit Down, Enlighten Up

Recently, I began meditating. Actually, I sit and fall asleep. At first, meditation seemed ridiculous. There’s so much to do, so little time. It’s one of the lovely paradoxes of life: when I let everything go, I see I have everything I need. And there’s something about doing nothing that cheers me up- like taking the day off. It’s the same joy I feel when something on my to-do list gets canceled. Yes! I have more free time. Meditation brings me to that place of seeing I have all the time in the world. I don’t need to do anything. And when I meditate, I don’t sit on the floor cross-legged; I prefer a nice, comfy chair. Continue reading