Remembering a father who wasn’t always there

I got some nice presents for Father’s Day, but I think I liked the present I gave myself best. I made it a point to set aside some time to think about my own father.

My father was forced into marrying my mother and he didn’t stop protesting for another 10 years. I came along about four months after the wedding and the only thing I can remember of my father in that time was what a lout he was. Drinking, gambling, womanizing, wife abuse – he had the whole package.

I remember him coming home late at night often and my mother meeting him at the front door with terror in her eyes. He would bash her around and then start to get sick from the exertion.

“What are you looking at?” she’d yell at me. “Get the bucket for your father.”

After he threw up, as often as not he’d start in with me. More than once I got to school in the morning with a black eye.

Sometime around middle age my father found religion and, with it, respectability. His love of life did not diminish, but he found his excitement in fishing and hunting, instead of drinking and gambling. He went to confession weekly and mass every Sunday. As he mellowed my mother grew more and more bitter.

I left home at 18 and never looked back. Years later, I discovered the depth of my father’s feelings for me through my mother. One day after a particularly bitter fight she told me that “The only person he cares anything about is you.”

After she died, he went from hospital to hospital, each time the doctor calling me to tell me that the end was near. I flew to hospitals in Ellwood City, Pa. (our home town), to Pittsburgh, to West Palm Beach, and each time he cheated death.

Finally, he could no longer live on his own. I had to sell his house and all his belongings and move him to East Bay Manor on the Wampanoag Trail. Moving day he was so depressed he was ill. At age 78 he had lost all his belongings, what few friends were still living, and had become a stranger in a strange land.

Yet, from those innocent beginnings sprang a new Tony DeMaio. Within a few weeks he was dating not one but several women at the Manor. “Always knock before you walk in my room,” he warned with a twinkle in his eye.

Next, he took over the greenhouse. “I’ll show them how to grow vegetables,” he said. Within months the greenhouse was finally green.

Next, he organized dances, poker parties, bus trips. In a short time he had made new close friends and had become one of the most vital members of the community.

One day as our car pulled into the parking lot at the Manor I asked him if he still missed home. “Home?” he asked. “This is my home now. My friends are here!”

Then, within a few months, he was gone. His tenure in Rhode Island ended up being a mere six months.

But what he had accomplished in that short a time. A memorial service in his name was standing room only. One by one, his newfound friends stood up to memorialize his effect on their lives; people in the audience were crying.

But my father’s most important accomplishment will always be how he resurrected his relationship with me, and made me forget that mean drunkard who married my mother and abused the two of us.

I was particularly struck with that as he looked at me and whispered his final words: “I love you.”

And me, still too shocked to give him the response he needed to hear, I mumbled something incoherent about how important he’d become to my whole family and took my leave of him. I was sure he would beat death once again. I was wrong.

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