A little over a year ago today I received the worst phone call of my life while standing 3,500 miles from home. My father had died at work. The words didn't make sense to me when I first heard them, and now even a year later there isn't a day that goes by that I don't hear those words and feel the same feeling of disbelief that I did that day.
This isn't a post about how devastating that day was to me though. This is about two ways that my Dad led me toward writing that I think about a lot now.
Before I was born, my Dad had done a few different jobs. The ones I heard about most were when he was a clam digger on Long Island and when he was a bouncer at a rowdy bar. By the time I was born he had started a career in construction as a Steamfitter. You would think with that kind of background I would have been brought up "tough", especially when it became obvious that I was going to wind up tall like he was. But that was never, ever the case.
My Dad introduced me to comic books at a young age, happily indulging me in trips to the comic book store, almost always picking up a few for himself. He grew up a Superman fan, but I started taking to Batman at a young age. Comic books might be really cool now, but they were definitely not when I was a kid. I never knew that though, because my interest in them was never questioned. I was never told that it was nerdy, or that I should take up other interests which were seen as more manly, or "normal". I was simply allowed to follow my interests without question.
When I sat with the woman from the church, along with my mother and brother to discuss my Dad's arrangements, she asked us what he was like. We talked about his hobbies and interests, his family and his heritage, but then I brought up his sense of right and wrong. He never lied. He never stole. He never took advantage of another person. Most importantly he never turned his back on a person or situation that he felt was wrong just because it "wasn't his business." Even in the year before he died, I heard a story about him confronting a man on the train who was threatening to hit his girlfriend. It was a packed train and everyone else ignored the situation, pretended they didn't see it happening, or assumed someone else would say something. Even though my Dad was in his 60's, and surely not the most capable person on that train, he was the one who stood up. He never sought out a fight, but he was the only person on that train to tell this man that if he didn't leave his girlfriend alone he'd have to deal with him.
Back to the church lady; she recounted her own story of right and wrong, and how when she was younger she'd accidentally left Macy's with a bracelet she had tried on still around her wrist. She told us how she considered keeping it since she had gotten away with it already, but then imagined her nephew falling in front of a subway. Punishment from God for her act of theft. I immediately became indignant. I explained to this woman how that was nothing like my Dad. My Dad didn't do "the right thing" because he was afraid of God, or out of guilt, or fear of being caught. He did the right thing for absolutely no other reason than it was the right thing. It really was just as simple as that.
I realized that day that this was where my obsession with superheroes came from, because to me that's always what my Dad was. He did what was right without fear, and without expectation of reward. He did what was right even when that was the hardest option. I'm not half the man he was, but I grew up with a role model that would have been impossible to emulate.
And that brings me to the other thing that I think about most now. I was lucky beyond words to have grown up with the friends I did. I'm still close with many of them to this day, and I think one of the bonds we share is having had parents who supported us no matter what. The idea of a disapproving mother or father was something I grew up thinking was just a trope of movies and television.
I've written about it before, but when I lost my job a little over two years ago, it hit me really hard. After a few months of frustration I decided I would change my attitude. I would take the time to do what I'd wanted to since I was 5 years old and write a book. I told very few people about it at the time, but I was surprised by some of the reactions. There was concern and doubt. A relationship ended at least partially as a result of my decision to take this somewhat risky move and I started to seriously doubt what I was doing.
A response that I heard often after I told people what I had been working on instead of trying to find a job was, "sooooo, what do your parents think?" It was a way to signal that they thought it was bad idea without having to say so outright. The thing was though, I never understood the question. It's not that I didn't understand the concern, I knew it was not the most reasonable thing to do. But to me, the answer was always that my parents never really said whether they thought it was a good idea or a bad one. They just supported me. That didn't mean sending me money or anything like that, although they would have in a heartbeat if I'd ever asked, it just meant listening.
And they did listen, because I sure as hell was not sure about what I was doing at all. There was no one more dubious about my plan than me, and they listened to every anxiety and concern I had. But I remember one day in particular, talking to my Dad on the phone when he told me the most heartening thing I could have heard at that moment. It was simple, but more powerful than anything else I could have imagined. I was explaining to him what I had left in savings, what my expenses were, what I could cut out, what I could sell, what jobs I would look into after the book was finished, etc. He let me finish and then just said, "you know, your Mom and I don't worry about you." I asked what he meant by that, and he just repeated it. He told me that they'd be there for me if I ever needed it, but that they didn't worry about me. That they knew I'd figure it out because I always did.
I'd felt like I was at a low point in my life and that my prospects were dire, but here was someone who I had shared all the details with telling me that he wasn't concerned. It wasn't a grandiose statement, nor was it dismissive. He understood how concerned I was and reacted by telling me the truest thing he could say at that moment. It's a cliche, but he believed in me more than I believed in myself, and without that I have no doubt that I never would have finished my first book.
I remember talking to him months after the release, when the response had been so overwhelming positive that it was clear writing was what I should focus on right now. I read him some of the emails I'd received from readers, and told him how happy I was when I was writing. He told me that he'd always suspected that this was what I would be happy with. That he always thought I wasn't cut out for working for some big company, that I would do best on my own and working creatively. He rarely gave advice, he wasn't the type of person who pretended like he knew what was best for other people, but when he did it was often the truth.
I finished writing The Second Wave after he died and struggled with whether I should dedicate it to him. The truth is that I honestly don't know if I'll ever be happy enough with something I write to feel like it lives up to being dedicated to him. Maybe that's just my own insecurities, maybe in time it will pass. In a way everything I write will always be dedicated to him, because without his love and encouragement, I would have never written a word.
Thank you, Dad. For everything.