(Originally published May 27, 2013. My dad died in October that year.)
That's my dad in the picture.
I've taken to calling him Mr. Voldemort in my blog posts because, well, it seems to fit.
He really is, despite his good looks, a rotten old bastard, and as much as I adored him to the point of worship when I was a kid, there's not much good in him. He is brilliant, funny, and astoundingly successful at talking women into bed, and on the face of it, you'd think he was a good guy.
You'd be wrong. He's not nice. He's not kind. He's not reliable, honest, sweet, dependable, trustworthy, good-natured, even-tempered, sober, cheerful or loyal.
In fact, of all of the Boy Scout traits of good character (trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent,) he gets two: Brave and clean. Well, and I'll give him courteous, because he has flawless, impeccable manners, as long as he's not mad at you. If he is, all bets are off.
He's 81 years old, and he's dying. He doesn't have much longer -- my mother says it's less than a month. Maybe it will be this week. Maybe it will be a few weeks. He should have been dead years ago. He's the kind of guy they made up the phrase "tough old bastard" about.
I joke that he's on his last horcrux -- in Harry Potter, Voldemort splits his soul into seven pieces, and can't be killed until they're all found -- because by all rights, this guy should have died when the mafia stabbed him in the kidneys, or when my mother tried to poison him, or when his first wife tried to kill him when she found he was leaving her for my mom, or when he had a heart attack and drove himself to the hospital, or when any one of a dozen men found him in bed with their wives.
Yet, yet, yet.
This is my *Daddy* we're talking about. Who took me fishing when I was ten, and quoted MacBeth to me, and told me about the constellations. The man who taught me to sing "It ain't gonna rain no more," and who told me wild stories about wrestling alligators and riding his bike cross country and lumberjacking with the Indians in the '50s. The man who was roommates with Warren Beatty, who boasted that he could "out-think, out-play, out-smart, out-wit, out-last and out-fuck" every man in the room when a young punk talked smack about his game of pool.
He taught me to play pool, how to make a shrimp cocktail and a mean chocolate mousse, and how to appreciate a Matisse and a symphony. He explained why the Great Books matter, and he showed me a quick wit is sexier than a great body. And I really thought that perhaps he was super-human, and he'd live forever.
He was an actor, when that meant something besides movies. He never wanted to be a movie star. He just wanted to be adored. And now, because he's been mean and nasty to anyone who ever loved him, he is alone with my mother. Mrs. Voldemort. I wouldn't wish dying alone with her on anyone. Not even him.
This boy, in the picture to the right, is my boy. Sander.
He's eight years old, and so much like my father. He's stubborn as a mule, he wants what he wants when he wants it, and he believes that he should be the center of the universe.
The last time we saw my dad, he took one look at Sander, and my dad looked at me, and said, "Good-looking boy."
I said, "With any luck, he'll be as good-looking as you were."
My dad said, "NO ONE is as good-looking as I was."
And that, of course, was part of the problem. My mother said that women just about fell over themselves to get to my dad. The night she met him, she saw him get out of a limousine in a tuxedo, and she said to the friend she was with, "He's mine. Hands off."
Apparently, it didn't matter to either one of my parents that he was already married. Or that he had a son who was not quite three.
My father, at some point on our last visit, told Sander that he was going to grow up to be a *very* handsome man.
Sander has said to me, "Mom, you're going to have to help me let down all of the girls gently. I really can't handle more than one at a time."
But here's the thing: Every time my father mouthed off to his mother and step-father when he was a kid, he was beaten.
When Sander mouths off, we work through it and give him a hug.
When Sander refuses to work and lies on the ground and says he wants out of the family, I remember that when my dad did that, he was locked out for three days. And I hug Sander and tell him that he's stuck with us.
When Sander can't quite get a grip on himself, I think of my father. And slowly, gently, quietly, inch by inch, I see the shining, beautiful, amazing things that are hidden deep in my father, and I see them coming through in Sander. The stubbornness turns to determination, as he tries to get things done.
The frustration that he wants it NOW turns into patience, as he learns that a baby sister takes precedence over non-essential needs. The trust that my father never had, and never deserved, grows every day with Sander, as he learns that really and truly, if he gives in, just a little, and trusts that we're all on the same team, it will come back to him in spades and he will have someone watch his back.
Sander's frustration lessens every day as he gets older. He's still tough. There are still days when I want to just say, "Goddamn it, kid, I'm going to ground you, punish you -- do what it takes so you will just LISTEN!"
And then I remember that my grandmother beat my father so badly that he left home at 14 and never went back.
And from the very few times when I have tried "discipline" rather than "massage" as tactics with Sander, I know what happened.
This child has an independent, wild streak that will never be broken. He will never "listen" to me. He will never "obey." It's not in his nature. I can coax him to be on my team, win him over so he's a loyal team player, and love him like crazy. But with a kid like this -- volatile, edgy, and determined -- one violent act would be the end of everything. He trusts me. He loves me. All of the beautiful "could have beens" that make up my father come out in my beloved, gorgeous, amazing boy. All it would take is "one good spanking to set him straight," and I'd lose that forever.
And so, while I will mourn my father, or what's left of him, I will celebrate the new. Sander doesn't have all of the Boys Scout traits: He's not thrifty or reverent, he's certainly not clean, and I don't know if he's ever going to be obedient. But he's trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful and brave.
I can be proud of that. I wish my dad were the kind of man who could be, too, instead of only seeing that he's good-looking.
But I can't save my dad. I can't go back and have a re-do with his childhood, and be kind to him, and tell him that it's all going to be OK. Because it wasn't. His childhood was hellish and violent and full of nastiness. To his credit, he was never violent or unkind to us as children, because he wanted better for us.
And so, when Mr. Voldemort finally gives up that last horcrux, whether it's a day from now, or a month from now, he will have taught me the most important lesson of all: How to raise his grandchildren into wonderful human beings, with all of his good traits, and none of his bad ones. And if I succeed, that will be one hell of an accomplishment.