There is an old Buddhist proverb that goes something like this: if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. If you meet your father on the road, kill him. I’m sure I got that wrong. It’s been a long time since my “Eastern Religions” course in college. The first part of the proverb reads like some vague comment a prophet might have screamed on a street corner, but that second part…kill my father? I think I know what it means, or at least it has meaning for me which may in no way relate to its intended meaning, but as it turns out, I didn’t kill my Dad. Cancer did.
My sister reminded me on Facebook that yesterday, 8/25, was my father’s birthday, but it’s not a day I’ve had cause to celebrate since that date in 1992. I don’t recall the celebration that year. Either it was the typical celebration at our beach house in Avalon, NJ, by the Bay during one of those wonderful summers long gone, a day only made different from other years by my Dad’s laryngitis-like symptoms; or it was a day when the whole family traveled to Sloane-Kettering to be by his side. I don’t recall the date of his diagnosis. “I don’t recall” is a phrase that begins many of my sentences. It’s not emotional repression–my inability to remember things is staggering.
I am fantastically ill-equipped to memorialize my father, and not just for my poor memory. I suspect there is no one who knew Dad who knew him less than I did. He had 6 kids–one girl, then three boys, then two more girls, and I was the fourth overall (which would make me one of the boys, incidentally). The first four of us came in a marathon 6 year stretch decades before they made minivans with DVD players. Some basic stats: he was the oldest of three kids. He grew up in West Philly, went to St. Joseph’s Prep, and hard work and intellect propelled him to a successful practice as an orthopedic surgeon. As I boasted many times in my life, he and his business partner were the orthopedists for the Philadelphia Eagles for many years. (It’s telling that I would boast about something that wasn’t my accomplishment.)
You could pick all that information up from his obituary, but it seemed that in all the loud clatter at the dinner table, all the times I was sent to my room, the times I retreated to my Brit TV and sci-fi, I never ended up hearing anything about him. He shared–I just never listened. He once gave a eulogy when a great-uncle died, and as I heard him describing his childhood neighborhood, I heard for the first time in my life about my Dad’s old neighborhood. My wife can probably tell you the name of her father’s childhood dentist in Cuba. Me, not so much.
Around the house, my Dad and I were nodding strangers. He didn’t get me; a fanciful, wanta-be artistic kid daydreaming constantly, incapable of paying attention (still true). I didn’t get him; a logically rigorous, scientific intellectual relaxing in front of the TV after a day in surgery. I adored him and I told everyone I hated him, possibly because I suspected I’d never fill his shadow. He was a big man figuratively and literally, and maybe our distance was partly because he simply scared me. During a family argument once, I remember chiming in with a decent retort to his viewpoint, after which I fixed my gaze at the dinner table, too scared to meet his eyes. I was very young, but old enough to know I should be able to look my Dad in the eye.
He did not surround himself with friends, but those he had were fiercely loyal. From all accounts, he could be a delightful man, and I have no cause to doubt it. Unlike my humor, consisting of silliness and sarcastic asides, my Dad’s humor was drawn out, logically-based and very funny. His jokes were classic-form jokes, a sometimes lengthy set-up and punch-line. At a eulogy for him, one of his orthopedic colleagues described him as the “smartest man I ever met.” Imagine hearing a guy who also went to med school to become an established orthopedic surgeon saying your Dad was the smartest man he’s ever met.
I once overheard an orthopedic surgeon describe me as “a man he’s met.” It’s not the same.
My brother Mike told this story while eulogizing him: Mike had approached my Dad, who was lying on his hospital bed, in and out of consciousness. Mike said, “Hey Dad, how’s it going?” Dad said, “Not so good, Mike.” MIke asked, “How about pain?” Dad said, “No thanks.”
Allow me another deathbed vignette. My Dad was a junior, Herman Phillips, and on the day he was to start chemotherapy, his Dad, Herman Phillips, died in his sleep. So, we had to tell my Dad on his first day of chemo his own dad had died the night before. After doing it, as we left the room, he said, “If you guys know anyone else named Herman Phillips, tell him to stay home today.”
One of my most fond memories is the time I wrote my parents a letter from school my freshman year. It was a collection of silly jokes, non sequiturs, even some rhyme, and I have no idea why I wrote it or sent it. I was embarrassed that I had. Some time later, my Mom told me my Dad loved it, and he would even show it to his friends. I still can’t imagine that, though the idea makes me smile today. Thank you, Mom, for lying to me.
Another aspect of my own humor is that it is self-effacing to a fault. (News flash, right?) I tried a joke on someone once who said, “You sure beat yourself up a lot,” which was not the reaction I was going for. Which brings us back to killing your father.
I take the “kill your father” expression to mean that you have to outgrow your Dad’s shadow. You have to grow up, be yourself, be willing to assert the differences between yourself and your father to become a man. Partly because of the distance between us as I grew up, partly because he left too soon, I don’t feel I really grew in front of him, even though I was 27 when he died. My own growth was stunted as a result. I was not yet beginning to become who I am now. I was a waiter, just starting a immature relationship with a girl who was completely wrong for me, no kids yet. I was planning to go to med school, a desire that did not survive him.
In the ensuing years, I did finally grow up. I found a career, meet the right woman, and I have beautiful, joyful kids. I often regret that my Dad never got to meet the superhero I married, a physician like him and a woman he would have loved, and I often regret that he never met these amazing girls we have. I wish I hadn’t squandered my chance to get to know him, and very often, I regret that my Dad never got a chance to meet me.