My older brother Steve just turned 59. During the birthday phone conversation he said, “I’ve passed Dad.” He said exactly what I was thinking but didn’t want to say. He said it like he’d been wondering about it, and of course he had been, because what surviving son doesn’t.
We sons inevitably compare ourselves against our fathers, and that continues long after our fathers are gone. Steve said what he said in a soft voice, but there also was a tone of – not disbelief, but muted triumph. He’d eclipsed our father’s final milestone.
“I’ve passed Dad.”
Dad was five months short of 59 when he died, 25 years ago today, the low point of a year that could be called A Tale of Two Extremes. That year, 1987, is transcribed in jumbotron red in my mind’s eye, accompanied by a stadium horn, marking the end of youth and the beginning of all this.
My daughter Sam was born in April that year. The best of times. Dad died in August. The worst of times. It seemed like every one of Dad’s depressing visits to the oncologist or radiation therapist was countered by a good prenatal report about our bun in the oven, and eventually, her arrival.
She was born on a Monday night. Tuesday morning, Dad got to the hospital to meet the fulfillment of his dreams. This was a man whose father abandoned him before he was born. So, for Tony Grillo, being a father and then a grandfather were two of the three most important things in life – being my mother’s husband was the other.
I was in the hospital hall talking with someone on the payphone – remember those? Here came my old man, limping with the aid of a cane, lips tight to ward off the pain, not the usual whistle, like when he was healthy and could take one step for every two of yours and still leave you in the dust. His walk was fast and nimble with a rhythm.
On this day, his gait was shambling and clunky, but forthright. I hung up the phone and he embraced me, one hand open, the other clutching the cane. By then, I’d learned not to hug Dad too hard, because it hurt him. Then he met his granddaughter, and here was something lovely and small, and obviously his progeny.
In those last few months, I think Dad found a fair measure of contentment and happiness thanks to that tiny, grabby, high-pitched and sometimes stinky human bundle.
So yeah, 1987 was a bipolar year, not an emotional rollercoaster, more like a wormhole, space bending itself in half, a breakneck shortcut between unfathomable gloom and unfettered joy.
Birth and death are the dramatic entrances and exits we keep tabs of, but the real story is everything in between. That’s the main course, and Dad never went hungry. It’s been 25 laps around the sun since he left the table. I’ve missed him every day since, and that makes me a very lucky man. Much obliged, Pop. Hope we are together again, in some form or fashion, one of these days. But not until I’ve passed you.