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As My Father Fades

For the past few years, my greatest fear has been running out of time. I left the East Coast at 25 with the goal of becoming a successful outdoor adventure writer, and justifying all the sacrifices my parents and brother had made for me.

I’ve never doubted that I would accomplish what I set out to do, and that I’d get to enjoy a lot of whiskey and cigars with my big brother on the celebratory fishing trip. But my parents concerned me. They were 61 when I departed for Montana, and my father had battled his first brain tumor two years earlier.

The goal wasn’t to find Stephen King levels of success and generate enough wealth to purchase my own island. It was simply to get a book deal, or a story in a major magazine. I wanted something tangible that I could hand to them, something with my name on it that they could see, touch, and feel. I desperately wanted the chance to hold them both and say “I did it”, so that when their time came, they could pass knowing that the kid who had come home drunk, bloody or riddled with rage so many times, was now a man, was happy, and would be okay.

But in the past few days I’ve had to accept that half of my greatest fear is coming true.

My mother is fine. I don’t worry about her seeing me accomplish something. Her mother is 88, still alert and aware, still full of fire and wickedness, and even with those demon-like eyebrows she draws on each day, it doesn’t seem like she’ll be taking her rightful place at Satan’s side any time soon. My mom is the polar opposite of the pale serpent that spawned her—nothing but light, love, and a relentless commitment to her family. I’ve thought about it a lot, and if my grandmother has managed to keep a pulse despite all the garbage karma she’s accumulated, my mother—with advances in modern medicine, her pure heart, and the clear genetic predisposition to longevity—will surely live to see 120.

My dad won’t though. He’s going to die.

Time has run out and unless Penguin Random House decides to call after reading this, when the reaper comes to collect the debt my father owes, I will still be a starving writer and dirtbag river guide, figuring out a new hustle every few weeks to keep my belly full, the fridge stocked with Pabst, and my head above water.

In September of 2019, I got word from my older brother that Dad had another brain tumor.

He’s in a hospital bed right now. The tumor’s growth has accelerated and he has a blood infection. From what I understand, treatment is no longer a viable option.

I’ve been preparing for this moment since my brother made that call. The first eight months of Covid left me marooned at my parents’ home, and gave me a front row seat to his decline. I journaled a lot. I ran. I lifted weights. I tried to process what was headed my way, and thought I’d done so successfully. I truly believed that when the time came, I’d be ready. But I’m not.

My dad is a towering figure in my eyes. At some point, I will dedicate a few thousand words (or a book) to his story. He was my greatest friend at times, but more often, my most bitter rival. He is a Cuban immigrant who came here with no father and nothing but the clothes he was wearing. Somehow, he managed to give his own family a home with an expansive yard and an in-ground pool.

Dad always possessed a maniacal work ethic. The overarching message of my upbringing was that there was always a way, so long as you were willing to work or fight hard enough. He also insisted that I never back down from anyone, because he feared no other man, and his son shouldn’t either. Watching him maneuver through life, I saw those ideas put into practice a thousand times, and so badly wanted to be like him—indomitable, unstoppable, and in control.

When a cocaine-addicted partner destroyed the shipping business my father had built from nothing in the 90s, and we almost went bankrupt, he pivoted into mortgages. Despite no experience, he was a quick success, and we traded in the rickety Volvo that smelled like cat shit for a Land Rover, then moved a few miles over to the town where all the country club kids lived. We always had food on the table and I never wanted for any material things as a child.

A middle school tech teacher once bullied me. He wasn’t your standard, overzealous, hard-ass educator—just a creep who truly got his jollies from talking down to children. When Dad found out, he showed up to school the next day, long business coat billowing out behind him, and his eyebrows cocked in that telltale way that indicated an imminent explosion. I watched through the wired glass of the classroom door as he sat upright across from my teacher, and put a stiff finger in the man’s face. Dad explained to him step-by-step how he’d destroy his career, or drag him into the parking lot if I was ever made to feel uncomfortable again. He melted beneath my father’s glare and Dad nodded to me wordlessly as he stepped out of the room. With the right combination of words and threats, my father had harvested that thuggish teacher’s soul. I rarely completed an assignment the rest of that year, and never got anything less than an A-.

If he was working from home, I liked to eavesdrop on Dad’s business calls. He would deftly maneuver through a myriad of situations, chipping away at whoever was on the other end of the phone, until they were on his side. Though I never understood the context of any of those conversations, I took great pride in having a father who was so adept at closing deals and making things happen. I felt like I was watching a man mold the world around him into exactly what he wanted. He was in complete control. Nothing and no one could get in the way, because he worked too hard, and because he was always willing to step into a fight.

As I grew, I adopted and exaggerated all of his traits. I applied that same maniacal drive to anything that mattered to me. Through careful calculation and the right selection of words, I found ways to get what I wanted. And I would bite into a brick before I allowed another man to take any of my self-respect from me.

Such a disposition was useful, in that it helped me to accomplish things and to bulldoze through challenges. It gave me the courage to dive headfirst into whitewater, skiing and a lifestyle I knew nothing about. But more often, it was a hindrance, and resulted in a great deal of self-sabotage. Like my father, I turned myself into a cornered animal, lashing out at any perceived threat. It’s why I can’t breathe properly out of one side of my nose now, why my one shoulder doesn't really function properly, why I’ve shattered some friendships, and why I had such difficulty reckoning with my emotions as a younger man.

As I have aged and worked to understand the psychology of myself and those around me, I have come to realize that my father built that shield of impenetrable masculinity in order to insulate himself from the lingering hurt of a painful immigrant experience. I donned similar armor and began to approach life as it were a tooth-and-nail fight, in order to deal with the pain of a dad who turned his warrior-like attitude on his own family.

Within the walls of our home, I began to see the deft maneuvering as twisted manipulation, the willingness to fight as an attempt at intimidation, and the crazed work ethic as a cloak meant to hide a latent darkness. While he was a titan in my eyes, he was also a tyrant—a scaled-down emulation of the communist dictator he had fled in the 60s. The man is incapable of seeing himself as wrong in any context. I have been guilty of that as well, and because we both built our personalities around the idea that if we were willing to smash our skull against the wall enough times, it would eventually give way and crumble, we were often engaged in a battle that seemed to have no end.

When I was 18 or 19, Dad and I squared up in the garage. It was a showdown that was long overdue. As I followed him down the creaky stairs, I remember thinking about how satisfying it would be to finally bury my knuckles into his cheekbone. But when our fists were raised, and we both started to sidestep circles on the concrete, it became clear that neither of us had the heart to pull the trigger and throw a punch. Without a word, we walked away from each other, in what was likely the first time either man had ever slunk away from a fight.

Only one of us has ever done any work on themselves, tried to admit their faults, and gone through hundreds of hours of therapy. It isn’t Dad.

I have tried desperately to relinquish that need for control, because I saw the havoc it wreaked on the people who matter most when my father couldn’t let go of it. I have succeeded for the most part. But occasionally it pops up, and I have to work to beat it back. In this particular scenario, in facing my father’s imminent death, I find great difficulty doing so.

I thought I’d be ready when word came, but instead I folded. I drank nine beers. I thought about flying to Jersey to take my cowardly uncle’s teeth from him. I wanted to send text messages to other family members and enemies, telling them they should be praying that I don’t come for them once my father is gone. I talked the old animal down, and tried to muscle my way through another chapter of the book I’ve been working on. But instead, I melted into a puddle of tears.

There is no one to go to war with. There is no soul to harvest. No door to kick open, no hand to stomp on, no searing words that will tear someone’s heart from their chest. There isn’t anyone I can contend with. All I can do is think of him in that bed, of the incessant beep and whir of medical machinery, of the four white walls that are slowly closing in, and pull my knees to my chest, then weep.

Not long after that moment in the garage, I began to see what kind of man I’d become if I didn’t work to change. I recognized that the titan was a myth, conceived by him, and propagated by me. If there was anyone to emulate, it was my mother, the vehemently selfless woman who despite her struggles, had done all she could to give us every ounce of her heart.

In the 48 hours since learning of my father’s situation, I have ridden one wave of emotion after another, all the while bracing against my old instincts, fighting to not allow that obsession with control to manifest itself again.

I couldn’t tear anyone or anything down to ease my hurt. I had to honor the pain, soak in it, and feel it seep deep into my bones.

I sat on the cold stone floor of the shack I call home and cried, like I had countless times as a child and teenager, with the lights on in my bedroom late at night.

At first I wept for myself, at the injustice of losing my father before I could show him that I had defied the odds, staked a claim, and made my own mark on the world as well.

That self-indulgence was brief though. The tears flowed faster and more forcefully, with shudders and frantic moans, as I thought of him and what’s going through his head. I know what he’s thinking, because in my adolescent attempts at imitating him, his mind became mine.

I imagine the torment he’s going through, having been robbed of his mobility by the tumor. It took three pairs of hands to get him out of bed and onto the toilet a few days ago. I recognize the helplessness that’s digging into his gut, knowing there isn’t a move to make, a challenge to take on, or an obstacle to obliterate. Even if he imagines an enemy, there isn’t a way to bring them to heel. That lack of control is like a knife stuck in his ribs, and the blade is being slowly twisted against the bone and cartilage. There are no more opportunities for self-deception. There is nothing but forced reflection, the bite of which is unbearable.

As he’s in that bed, I’m at my desk, and we’re both doing the same thing—mulling over every instance in which we let each other down.

I’m remembering each time I turned down the opportunity to throw a football around, each time I told him to leave me alone when he asked to play Madden, and how many fishing trips I skipped to get drunk with my friends. He’s having to reckon with the will he tried to impose on my brother and me, the dirt bike he never took me to ride, and how he opposed my getting help through therapy.

As the shudders and tears slowed in the hours after learning his situation, I made a list of what I could find solace in.

This website is growing. People who can make things happen in this industry have made contact. Readers send emails that touch my heart. I have a dog that sometimes gets into the garbage and shits on the floor, but is otherwise a steadfast companion. There is an army of friends (both dirtbags and civilians) at my back. I’m with a woman who faces a hundred hurdles each day, but manages to vault them with an almost ethereal grace and fluidity, while still maintaining a softness in her heart, and a quiet fire behind the eyes. Her ability to overcome motivates me to soften my rougher edges even more than I already have.

What brought me more comfort than anything though, is the knowledge that I have time and opportunity on my side. I can continue on the mission of constant self-improvement I committed to in my mid 20s. I can make up for the coarse nature of my past. I can radiate the same love my mother always has. I can be vulnerable with those closest to me, I can provide them with a sense of safety, and I can make sure I always take on the enemy that will forever pose the greatest threat; the only real enemy there’s ever been— myself.

My father can’t do that. There is no time for do-overs. No time to suffocate the ego or to put new plans into action. There is nothing but the weight of the past, the knowledge that it can’t be reversed, and an agonizing silence dripping down those white walls at night.

While there is no battle I can fight in this moment, there is a difficult task that I will have no choice but to face and complete in the coming weeks.

At some point, I will have to fly home to see my father for our last conversation. And I don't know how to approach it. I don't know what to say or do.

I remember the abrasive aspects of my father vividly, but the moments of love and connection are there too.

We can talk about our trips to Disney World. I can tell him how I've never felt as safe as I did when I was seated on his shoulders and gripping the stubble of his cheeks at the SpectroMagic Parade.

I can thank him for driving me into the city at 4:00 AM every morning after I ended that two-year Budweiser binge, and somehow hustled my way into an internship at SiriusXM.

We can laugh about when we tried to make our own barbecue sauce, when I burned my thumb the first time he let me take a puff of a cigar, or when I bitch-slapped that kid who kept calling me a spic.

I can admit to him that I'm grateful for some of the animal instincts he injected into my mind, because were it not for that fervent commitment to never giving up, I would have succumbed to the extreme bouts of depression, and stopped my own heart from beating a long time ago.

We can talk about escaping Castro and what the promise of America really meant to him.

I can assure him that both of his sons will be great. But our greatness will not be in goals we accomplish, money we make, or adversaries we vanquish. Our greatness will manifest itself in the way we show up for the people we love and in the effort we make to be at peace with ourselves.

I can ask if there's any last lessons he wants me to learn, or stories I haven’t yet heard.

I can tell him I’m proud to be the son of a refugee, I forgive him, and that I understand why he developed such a dangerously calloused heart.

I can tell him I love him, that his impact will echo through all that I do in the coming decades, and that after I sign that book deal, the first copy to come off the press will be framed and set aside for him.

But no matter how many statements and sentiments I prepare, when I feel alone at night and crave a hand to hold, as I have through every second of writing this, the thought of that last day forces the air from my chest.

I think of turning my back on him and walking out of that room, of stepping into the elevator and waiting for it to hit the ground floor, then walking outside and breathing fresh air, something he’ll never get to do again. I think of the guilt I’ll feel at still being on this Earth, of having to drive away while looking at that building and knowing my father is in it. I'll get sick staring at it, knowing he’ll never have a chance to step out of its confines under his own power and feel sunlight or wind on his skin a final time.

I will collapse. I will heave and scream and probably vomit as I claw at the ground. But it won't change the fact that he'll never leave that bed.

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Sep 18, 2023

Gut wrenching reality. I hope writing is cathartic for you. You deserve peace in your life. I am hooked on your novel briefs and I need more fixes. Please keep your stories coming. :)


Apr 19, 2021

Our stories are similar.. my own hard as fuck crotchety Scottish mountaineering dad is fading from pulmonary fibrosis. He's on oxygen all the time now and can't talk much. It's hard to watch the giants in our lives fade out and realize it's us now. We are the giants that stood on their shoulders. Sending lots of hugs. @m_fearless

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