NEWS OF MY 71-YEAR-OLD crippled father’s passing saddened but didn’t surprise. The afternoon update that the man pronounced dead that morning still lived jarred terribly. The nursing home responsible for the disinformation had played grim reaper to the wrong patient. There are worse, if not weirder, situations than calling off a funeral. “I’m sorry, sir, he’s no longer deceased” is a real conversation killer.
This isn’t the first time my father has died. He vanished during my freshman year and reappeared—tanned, vibrant, and sober—junior year at a high school football game shortly after I had assumed him departed. About a decade later, my dad, stumbling blind drunk—glaucoma had taken his sight; alcohol, his sobriety—experienced a close encounter of the speeding SUV kind. It catapulted him over 100 feet. He fractured his skull, broke his neck, and shattered bones in every limb. The driver, compelled by his soul to illuminate the brake lights after contact, used his foot to overrule the better part of him by hastily depressing the gas pedal. When a nurse passerby, as anonymous to me as the hit-and-run driver, found my dad, he showed no signs of vitality. But then, with some angelic assistance, he willed his heart to beat.
Like all boys, I viewed my father as immortal. He may have appeared to others as a drunk whose habit had cost him a marriage, jobs, and ultimately a roof. To me he was a superhero. I watched crowds marvel as he hit the speed bag at South Boston’s L Street Gym. I heard secondhand stories of his Golden Gloves championships and, more impressive to a boy, his many impromptu matches contested anywhere betwixt the Mystic and Charles rivers. One final fight pitted my dad against an unruly, charging Boston public high school student averse to a substitute teacher’s pleas to keep quiet but fond of loud swear words. My fiftysomething father knocked the oversized youth out cold in front of a classroom of stunned students. Like my a.m.-inebriated forebear, the unconscious kid wasn’t big on rules.
Years of vulnerability go into becoming indestructible. No man gets strong before life first makes him feel weak. Prior to the state making my father a ’50s foster-care ward, Stanley Gusciora, who had blitzed Normandy on D-Day and participated in another daring mid-century caper at Boston’s Brinks Building, made him his ward at the Stoughton, Massachusetts, farm where he melted down a getaway truck in front of the 8-year-old version of my progenitor. Shortly before the statute of limitations expired on the largest theft in American history, Gusciora, my dad’s only male role model in the days when he needed one most, died of a brain hemorrhage in custody. Years later my father’s own unknown father surprised him in his locker room—strange how patterns repeat—to congratulate him after a boxing match. Seeing what you forgot existed can be as startling as learning that the dead walk, or in my dad’s case, wheel again.
Fathers are indestructible, never more so than in their children. Try to live as your own person. You’re still your father’s child. This is even (especially?) true for the fatherless. When gunman Gusciora forbade my father from reading comics to encourage him to read books—criminals not then being as criminally illiterate as even the law-abiding are now—the makeshift pa influenced not just my father’s future but his author-son’s. Before they reach their end, predecessors on the family line change its direction. Parents remain here even when they’re in the hereafter—in their children, grandchildren, and beyond.
Somewhere along the way I lost faith in my unbreakable paterfamilias. My view had become more mature, sober, detached—but not more correct. Five-year-olds who survive a Lord of the Flies existence on Boston’s streets can survive speeding SUVs and the rough draft of an obituary. Our fathers are more fragile, and more enduring, than we know.