“How’s my little monkey?”, he used to say. I remember running as fast as I could, jumping into my Dad’s arms. He would swing me around in his arms and tussle my hair. All the other kids would stare in wonder at him.
He stood 6’4”, and was well over 220lbs. Like a giant. He dwarfed most of the other children’s fathers. And his personality made him even bigger. Deep, bellowing laugh. Charismatic. And, he had swagger. A true New York Guido. With the hairy chest and the thick gold chain, and the Cornicello (Italian horn) hanging from it. He drove a 1980 blackT-Top Camaro.
And, my Dad was always there to back me. I remember when I joined a pee-wee soccer league, both my parents would attend the games. My Dad was literally kicked out of one of my games by the referee, for cheering to loudly for me. He was my biggest cheerleader. He was my hero. I suppose every 7 year old looks at his father, like a God.
My Ma used to mutter under her breath,when we hosted parties at our home, “It’s time for the Joseph show, again.” I would giggle. He made me laugh with his loud mouth, and macho banter. Women swooned over him. And, I wanted to be just like my Daddy, when I grew up.
Every other weekend, he organized family soft ball games with several other Italian families. I remember my first bicycle. My Dad taught ride it. First, with training wheels. And, when I initially tried to ride my bike without the training wheels, and crashed..My dad picked me up. He spit on my elbow to get the dirt off. Then, he said to me, “Get back on that bike, and show your Dad how a big boy rides his bike.” And, I did. I felt like I could accomplish anything when my Dad was there to guide me. It was such a wonderful time in my life.
Until the darkness came…
Something shifted. In my Dad. He started taking work trips, for days at a time. Apparently, his work trips weren’t exactly going as he explained they would, to my Ma. I remember listening against a closed door, as my parents yelled at one another, My Dad was desperately trying to lie his way out his infidelity. He owned a high end hair salon, and he had told us that he was traveling to San Francisco for a hair convention. My MA had credit card statements, from a honeymoon suite in the very city we lived in. They documented every purchase he made while he was on his supposed trip to San Francisco. Nothing was ever the same in my family, from that day forward. Nothing was ever the same between my Dad and I, either.
Without going into a detailed narrative, (I’ll save that for the memoir) I will say that my father’s presence in my life became sparse.
The after school video game arcade trips. The weekend softball tournaments. The family outings. They were gone.
I still had my Ma. And, please don’t misinterpret my words. My Ma is my world. She has never been an absentee parent. She always made me feel loved. And, I am aware of how blessed I was to have a parent who was always there for me. I do know how many men and women weren’t fortunate enough to have even one of their parents present in their lives.
But, this is my story. And, for a 7 year old child, who grew up with a Dad who was very demonstrative with his love. Who was always present in his life. Then gone. It was earth shattering. He didn’t pack his bags and leave. We were all still a family. But, a very broken one.
My Dad had begun a love affair with cocaine. It was the early 80’s, and cocaine had become a huge part of many people’s lives. My Dad had also started an affair with the manicurist, who worked for his salon.
Now, hindsight is 20/20. Having this knowledge as an adult’s helped me to understand what was happening at this time in my life.
My Ma was trying to protect me, as best as she could. It’s not like she ever sat me down and explained to me, (at 8 years old) “Don’t freak out. It’s not you. Daddy is fucking the manicurist and snorting large quantities of cocaine.” That wasn’t a conversation that ever came up, if you know what I mean.
This was also a time, when divorce was just become a “thing” amongst married couples. Kramer VS Kramer has just premiered 3 years prior, and sparked the “divorce revolution”, amongst American families. And my Ma, coming from a Sicilian Catholic upbringing,was still trying to find some sort of way opt salvage some sanity in our insane household. Shows trying to find a way to salvage a functional “family unit” for me to grow up in. But, you can’t fix broken.
And, there is nothing to find, once something is gone. And, my Dad was gone. Long gone. As a recovering drug addict, myself..It’s not difficult for me to relate to what the disease of addiction was doing to him.
But, for a hyper sensitive little boy…All I knew was that my Daddy was gone. He was no longer at my soccer games. He was no longer at any of my elementary school functions. He was no longer present in my life, whatsoever. There was no explanation given to me. I concluded that I had done something terribly wrong. I would lay awake at night, wondering to myself, “Why doesn’t Daddy love me anymore?”
By 1984, the cold war in my home, between my Ma and Dad shifted to a full on World War. Frequent arguments. Yelling. My father breaking things. Looking back, I would imagine that he was most likely in a cocaine induced psychosis.The yelling between my parents scared the shit outta me. I would be huddled in my bed. Door closed. Blaring Culture Club. My hands over my ears. Crying. Trying to drown out the screaming and slamming doors. When the front door would open and slam shut, I would timidly go to my bedroom window, which faced our front driveway. When my Dad’s Camaro would go flying up the street, I would finally be able to breathe again. The monster, whom I once called “Daddy”, was finally gone.
I’d come out of my bedroom, and curl up in Ma’s arms. She would hold me and rock me, as I cried myself to sleep.
And, that was the way things proceeded. Me and Ma. Dad gone. And me constantly wondering what I could do to win back my Dad’s love.
By 1985, my parents were barely speaking, When they did, they were usually cursing, accusing, and pointing at one another. I was becoming more and more distressed. Anxious. Frightened by my Dad’s rage. And, deeply depressed. Despite every effort I made to win his love back…I had failed. I blamed myself completely for this mess. I would spend school functions, locked in the bathroom, crying. Everyone wanted to know where me Dad was. I had run out of excuses.
My 11th birthday was the breaking point. It was 1985, and Chuck E Cheese was the new, cool place for a child to have a birthday party/ (This was long before the franchise became notorious for gang shootings and brawls)
I had invited many of my classmates, friends, and their parents to my party. Despite the disharmony, which had become the dark, corroding thread woven through my families existence..I was hoping that this birthday party would somehow give me a few hours of family bonding, without the yelling, or pain.
I was dressed and ready to go. Ma had just finished putting on her lipstick and she looked radiant and beautiful, as always. I went through the house. looking for my father. I walked into the living room. There heat, on the couch. Unshaven. Untoward. In his bathrobe. I began to grow a bit nervous. I ran to him, and jumped in his lap. “Daddy. It’s almost time to leave. Ma is out of the bathroom now. Are you going to get dressed?”
My Dad looked past me. He wouldn’t look me in the eyes. And, he said nothing. I began to panic. I threw my arms around his neck and whispered, “Please, Daddy. Please get dressed. Everyone will be there. And, I was hoping we could play ski ball, like we used to! And, air hockey! And, make great big sundaes together.”
My Dad finally looked me in the eye and said solemnly, “I can’t go, Son.”
I shudder, writing this now. Remembering the sinking feeling in my 11 year old heart, when I heard those words.
The tears spilled, uncontrollably down my face.
“But, why?? What did I do wrong? Whatever it is, I did wrong. I’ll make it better. Please. Please, Daddy! Please come to my birthday party.” I was growing hysterical.
Out of the corner my eye, I remember seeing my Ma enter the living room. My Dad had just begun speaking again…”Your mother doesn’t want me there.”
My Ma quickly swept me off of his lap, pulled me upright to my feet,and took me by the hand. She faced my Father fearlessly, looking him square in the eye. She said, “No, Joseph. Not this time. You will not put this on me. And, you will not lie to our son.”
Before he could even answer, Ma had taken me outside the house, onto the front porch. She took a tissue from her purse, trying to dry my tears. But, I was inconsolable. I ran back int to he house, and threw myself at my Dad. “Daddy, please. I’ll do anything. Please don’t leave me on my birthday!”
I looked into his eyes. They were vacant. There was nothing there. No sadness. No remorse. And, I felt helpless. Ma came back in to the house again. She scooped me up to my feet, once more. And, she delicately led me out of the house. Down the driveway. And, into the passenger seat of her car. She dried my eyes. She kissed my cheeks. And, she told me in the most convincing tone she could muster, “We are going to have the best birthday party ever.”
But, her words slipped through me. A mantra of sorts was repeating itself in my mind. Like a drumbeat. “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.”
Those words weren’t directed towards my Ma. And, they weren’t directed towards my Daddy, either. They were directed towards myself. I hated myself. All I could think was, “What kind of a Son could make his Daddy, no longer want to be his Daddy?”
TO BE CONTINUED.