For the forty-four years we walked together on this earth, my father and I were never close. How could we be? He was a former boxer who ate a cheese sandwich before bed every night and never adjusted to having children. I was a gay son, sick and puny as a little boy, who silently sang Peggy Lee songs before bed every night and never adjusted to having a straight man for a father. I tell people that Daddy and I became closer following his death (eleven years ago this week), than we ever were when he was alive. Maybe that’s because all the pressure was, at long last, off. It was game over and the score, if you were to measure it by the extent each of us lived up to the role the other envisioned, was tied at 0-0. Instead, in death, Daddy’s and my relationship became a lot clearer, a lot simpler, and a whole lot gentler.
In death, I could see that, while Daddy never taught me how to tie a tie or shave or drive; that while I can’t doing homework with him or having him at a birthday party, I can remember…and be grateful for…the one thing he did teach me. Which was, simply, to slow down.
It started when I was a little boy, sitting up on the barstool of Campisi’s, an Italian restaurant that is a bit of an institution in Dallas and, when I was growing up at least, the unspoken but well-known headquarters of the local Mafia (to which Daddy had very strong ties). Sitting there and drinking my Roy Rogers as I took in the hushed conversations had by larger than life characters, Daddy would glance over from time to time and point to my always bouncing left leg.
“Slow down, son, slow down,” he’d say.
“I can’t help it Daddy,” I’d say,”I just go fast.” For reasons I never understood, he always responded that if I would just eat breakfast, maybe it would help (it did not).
Over the years, as I made a name for myself in national politics, consulting, gay activism and so many other stops along the way, Daddy and I would meet at Campisi’s. Every visit, without fail, he’d glance down at my leg and say, “Slow down, son, slow down.” Somewhere along the journey, I stopped making anything resembling an excuse and just said, “Never, Daddy. I’m never going to slow down. There’s too much to do.”
I said it as a man who woke up every day ready to ravenously devour life. But I also said it as a son who had no intention of ever being anything like my father. Daddy’s life slowed down soon after his glory days as a Golden Gloves welterweight champion in the late forties and early fifties. It never picked up steam again.
Daddy, when he talked about any of it, would just say he had bad luck. My grandmother would just say that, “while Jack is a good man, he’s never going to amount to anything.”
And he never really did. At least not to me.
At least not when he was alive.
But as the years have gone by, I’ve reconsidered that opinion. I’ve rethought my father’s life. In particular, I’ve replayed that phrase over and over.
“Slow down, son. Slow down.”
And I’ve come to see how wise Daddy was. How that phrase was his lifelong attempt to be a father. A good father, even. One who just wanted his hyperactive, stubborn, driven son to slow down.
So I wouldn’t miss important things.
So I wouldn’t burn out.
So I wouldn’t live life as if it was nothing but a series of projects and tasks.
So I wouldn’t miss what people who cared about me were trying to say, even as I thought I had all the answers.
People like Daddy.
Now, why am I telling you this, especially on a blog site called “The Mom Chronicles”? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about Daddy’s wisdom these past few weeks. Not just because of the anniversary of his passing, but also the relevance to these times. And the truth is, I don’t have a “Dad Chronicles” site, so there’s that, too.
See, as we face the twin viruses of COVID-19 and racial injustice, I think we could all benefit from slowing down. Not because we need to catch our breath (though I know a lot of us do) and not because we don’t want things to change (thought I know there’s a lot of that out there, too!). No, I think we need to slow down so we can get a better sense of what’s really going on. So we can let it sink in just a little bit more that we are living in a global pandemic the likes of which most of us have never seen. And that COVID-19 isn’t going to go away because we’ve lost patience with it, become bored with it or, (how very American is this?) feel like four months is a long-enough sacrifice to make. No, it will go away when we change how we behave.
Similarly, after weeks of rapid progress brought about by historic protests and toppling monuments (not to mention the Mississippi state flag), it feels like now is the time to slow down just a bit on our march toward racial justice. So the rawness can heal, the roots can be exposed and, again, it can truly sink in what we are talking about here: Changing the democratic principles of fairness and justice and equality that America was founded on 244 years ago next week.
Because they were never democratic, fair, just or equal.
A client of mine has a mantra that all of its employees know by heart: Go slow to go fast. I wish I had known it when Daddy was alive. Maybe if I had slowed down then, I would have gone a bit faster to knowing him, respecting him, seeing him. Maybe if America can slow down now, we, too, can go faster to ending COVID and beginning racial justice.
Thanks for reading and, Daddy, wherever you are, thanks for you.
The Mom Chronicles is a blog series about a middle-aged son learning to care for his elderly mother.