When my dad was five, he watched his father beat his mother so severely she required hospitalization.
This was hardly the first time he'd witnessed such a beating but, thankfully, it would be the last. When he heard the voices rising, heard the kitchen chair slam into the wall as his father stood to tower menacingly over his mother, my dad grabbed his younger brother and hid him under blankets in their bedroom closet. And then he ran back to the kitchen to stand beside his mother while she took her brutal beating.
When it was over, his mother was bloodied and swollen and unable to speak. My dad snuck out of the apartment to use a neighbor's phone and call the police. In was an act which, when discovered, earned him a beating of his own. It was also an act that saved his mother's life. She would have died on the kitchen floor without him.
My dad wasn't sure what happened after that: whether or not his father was arrested (it was the '50s, after all), whether his mother told his father they were leaving, or his father told his mother to get out. But one way or another, they left my grandfather in Boston and came home to Seattle.
My grandmother refused to take care of herself or her children, so my dad did the best he could at that very young age to do it for her. He made peanut butter and jelly meals for the family. He watched over his brother and - eventually, when his mother got knocked up a few years later - his baby sister. He tucked everyone in at night. He worked paper routes and took odd jobs around the neighborhood to supplement the welfare checks. His mother became increasingly dependent on him, both emotionally and financially. It wasn't long before she started charging both preteen boys rent.
They grew into troubled children befitting their circumstances. My dad, who took the brunt of the dysfunction and did his best to shield the younger two, was a heavy drinker by the time he was ten.
Many years later as a young adult, my dad tracked down his father and confronted the man whose shoes he'd had to fill. This act triggered a series of events that would haunt my dad for the remainder of his living days. His father got back in touch with his mother. A bi-coastal romance budded between them. And twenty years after the beating that landed her in the hospital, his mother returned to Boston to remarry his father, leaving her sixteen-year-old daughter to deal with the astronomical long-distance phone bills and delinquent rent.
Those twenty years were swept under the rug, coined by his mother as the time "while your father was away," and off-limits for discussion. They were never acknowledged again. Nor was the abuse that preceded them. There was never an apology from either parent to any of their children. Instead, the children were required to pretend that their lives up to that point had not happened; that different lives, the happy lives of a complete family had filled those years.
And then, because she knew he would pay them like he always had, my grandmother began forwarding my dad her bills. In great manila envelopes they would arrive, just as they had for years...except now they contained his father's bills as well. The father whose sole contribution to his childhood was nearly killing his mother. And my dad paid them. Supported both his parents for twenty more years, until he died.
And in the hospital, just before his liver gave his parents the finger and took their money tree into the great beyond, my grandmother sat at his bedside, looked at her son and said:
"I don't know why he drinks the way he does..."
My father was not a perfect parent. There was, after all, that small issue of his alcoholism to contend with, a flaw which he always believed precluded him from being a good parent. He believed, in fact, that his alcoholism - a trait he shared with his father - equated him to his father.
My dad's only real flaw was how stubbornly he kept his head up his own ass.
The truth was, he had spent a lifetime being an excellent father, not only to his two biological children, but to anyone who needed him. Step-children, former step-children, children of ex-girlfriends, grandchildren of ex-girlfriends, friends of my brother's who he'd taken in when their own parents threw them out, random "strays" he'd picked up off the street.
He had left his mark on each, big or small.
He had fed and sheltered, assisted with homework, bailed out of jail. He had put some through college. He had walked some down the aisle. But more importantly - most importantly - he had been there when their own fathers weren't. And he had loved them all until the day he died, unconditionally and without the excuse of a biological obligation.
I wish he could have seen the number of his "children" in attendance at his memorial. I wish he could have witnessed the people who came to me after the service to tell me that he'd been a second father - an only father - to them. I wish he could have heard the timid young woman who thanked me, with tears streaming down her face, for sharing him.
I wish he would have known while he was here how many people were proud to call him dad, and how many more people wished they could have.