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.

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