Sixty years ago, on Cinco De Mayo 1959, in a white Ford station wagon, my father came to this country on a 3-day pass. And, as he would later explain, he ended up staying a little longer than 3 days.
He never had much of what many of us take for granted, and was always poor in finances, but always wealthy in spirit. Whether together, or far apart, we’d sit up talking for hours and hours about life, death, love, God, and everything in between, until the morning light began to shine through the blinds, or until one of our phones ran out of minutes.
My father once told me that when I was a baby, he picked the Joe Cocker song You Are So Beautiful, as his song to me. Such a joy he was to be with, that as a child, with my father going through some of the toughest times of his life and living out of his van for a brief time, I’d often opt-out of sleeping in my own bed at home, for sleeping next to him under layers of blankets in the back of his Ford Econoline, which was usually parked on a public street, or in someone’s gravel lot.
My father always reminded me of Anthony Quinn’s portrayal of Santiago from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. A lonely, aging, workhorse of a man. Once the best at his craft, now well past his prime and down on his luck...but still tough as nails. Casting off every morning in his rickety old craft with hopes of bringing home a big catch. And like Santiago’s young apprentice Manolin, reluctantly, I had to leave and go to where the fish were more plentiful.
He worked every day he could, until his body began to give out. And everyday, like Manolin waiting on the beach until he saw Santiago’s familiar old skiff sailing into harbor, I would run out to embrace my father and help him carry in his gear.
The great marlin fish was to Santiago, what God was to my father--the most important catch of his life, something he tried with all his strength to tow back home with him in hopes of showing it off to all those who loved to doubt him, and always jumping at the chance to tell his story of the mighty marlin to any ear willing to listen.
When Santiago slept, he dreamt about lions on the beach. My father dreamt about lions while he was wide awake. One of my favorite memories of him is watching him sitting on the couch every Sunday morning, blindly scooping up my mother’s scrambled eggs and beans into a folded tortilla, unable to tear his eyes away from Wild Kingdom on the TV screen, and the lions hunting.
Also like Santiago, my father kept an eye on the sports pages when he had the chance. The old man and I used to sit and talk sports over fried rice, beans, and stews of improvised ingredients. We’d talk about how many points the Browns were going to lose by, or how many rounds it would take for Julio Ceasar Chavez to clobber an up-and-coming Peurto Rican contender. He also loved golfing, and would head out to the course every chance he got. But to my father, a 9-iron wasn’t just for whacking a bucket of golf balls, it doubled as a walking cane, and an all-purpose self defense weapon.
I can count on one hand the times we argued in the decades we spent together. The times we told each other “I love you” are uncountable, and were usually answered with “I love you more.”
When I thought I was going to lose him several years ago after he was beaten up, my world almost fell apart. It would have been sudden, random, and devastating, with no way to tell him all I had to say. Thankfully, I was blessed with many more years of his laughs, his counseling, his advice, and his love. And his death now, brings with it peace due in-part to the extra time we were able to share.
He never drank or swore in front of me. Not only did he teach me the virtue of working hard, and the value of money, and how it pales in comparison to the value of the time we’re allotted. But he also taught me the value of compassion. The times he did have a home of his own, he opened it to the wayward, nomadic friends or acquaintances that had nowhere else to go, even if they showed their appreciation by stealing from him. Still, he never regretted doing it.
I remember him stopping the car once to help a man who was lying face down on the sidewalk. I watched through the rear windshield as my father hurried to the man and offered him help. But the man responded with anger and hostility at my father’s attempts to aid him. And as my father climbed back into the car and drove off as if nothing happened, taking up our conversation right where it ended, I knew such acts of kindness were routine for him.
He tried everything within his power to make sure I was happy, and for a poor man, that often requires thinking outside of the box.
For example, when I was 12, my parents took me to a carnival. There was a midway game that was giving away Halloween masks as prizes, one of which was of my favorite monster--the Creature from the Black Lagoon. My father tried and tried to knock down those bottles with the baseballs they supplied, but he just couldn't do it. Finally after a while, and over the reiterating persuasion from my mother to concede defeat, he finally gave up. Later, as the carnival was closing, he rejoined my mom and I as we were walking out to the parking lot. My dad put his arm around me to console me, saying "I’m sorry son. I tried my best. There’ll be other carnivals." Then he gave me a reassuring pat on the head and began walking ahead of me. There, stuffed through the belt on the back of his jeans and staring back at me, was the one and only Creature from the Black Lagoon. “Hey!” I yelled as my dad did his best to play dumb, turning around and saying something to the effect of “What? Is there a bug on me?” After a huge embrace, my dad humbly admitted to having covertly slipped the game operator a ten dollar bill.
...It was one of those perfect moments.
My father knew how much I loved Halloween as a child. And even though personally, he didn’t celebrate it much, he would embrace the holiday just to make me happy. Like the time he put on a dark trench coat and my plastic King Kong mask, and stalked me and my friends as we went trick or treating, walking with his hands folded calmly together in front of him, peeking out from behind bushes.
Even the everyday picnic was an adventure with my father. I’ll never forget the time he drove my mother and I out into rural Ohio to find a nice shady place to have a picnic. We ended up finding the most quaint, picturesque spot you could imagine, with rows of trees, acres of grass, and a large old school building in the distance.
We spread out a tablecloth, got out our dishes, food, and soda, and were reclining in the soft afternoon breeze when we noticed other people slowly making their way into the area. Several people, actually; all women, and all staring at us as if our heads were huge flaming Jack O’ Lanterns. One of the women appeared to be brazenly flirting with my father from a distance, waving her hand and smiling, then recoiling in coy, almost theatrical, bashfulness. It was near this time that my mother spotted the sign sticking out of the ground that we’d all somehow managed to miss on our way in. Realizing we’d haphazardly trespassed on the grounds of the Cleveland Development Center--formerly known as the Cleveland Asylum for the Insane--we quickly shoved the dishes, napkins, and food back into the cooler, piled back into the van and drove off. I can vaguely remember my father putting the van in drive, and laughing at our foolhardiness through the huge wad of sandwich still in his cheek.
Then there was the time he came to pick me up at the local video arcade, and ended up sharking all of the best, cockiest, young billiard players there out of their money. I remember the astonished looks on my friends’ faces as he walked out past them counting a huge roll of greenbacks, and leaving a trail of squashed egos behind him.
These are just some of the wonderful and precious memories my father has given me, and I always smile when I catch myself emulating him and feel his lessons manifesting in the experiences of my own life. And having been blessed with someone who was there for me every single time I called upon him, always offering the most unconditional love possible...I feel I have to re-dedicate my father’s favorite Joe Cocker song back to him, because the lyrics never rang truer:
You're everything I hoped for. You're everything I need.
At the end of The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago, battered and beaten, finally pulls the skeletal remains if the marlin into the harbor, stumbles to his tiny shack and collapses. Manolin weeps when he sees the old man’s ravaged body lying on his bed, and the other fisherman, seeing the remains of the great marlin, cheer the old man’s overdue redemption from the beach, yelling:
"Santiago! This is a truly GREAT fish! This is a CHAMPION fish!
Your bad luck is OVER, old man! You’re not unlucky anymore, Santiago!”
We’re never told what happened to young Manolin. But I’m sure that if he grew and lived to be a hundred, the best catch of his life, will always be Santiago himself: the old man with nothing but bones to bequeath, yet so much more to pass down.
And if I know my father, after he crosses over, falls to his knees and kisses the hand of his savior, and has all of the answers to life’s age-old mysteries at his fingertips, one of his first questions will be…
“Where do you keep the lions?”
So rest now, old man.
Rest, my beloved father, and dream of the lions on the beach, until the day I sail my own skiff onto the shore, and together we run with the lions under bright blue skies,
over warm white sands,
and into cool crystal waters.