This Saturday, we are having a multiple-family reunion of sorts at the home of my parents. We are celebrating four birthdays simultaneously – my brother Rick’s 35th, my brother Mike’s 45th, my brother Jack’s 50th, and most importantly, my father’s 70th. All of my family, my father’s family, my stepmother’s family and dozens of friends will gather together for the first time ever in one place. The night before last, as I laid in bed, it occured to me that I should propose a toast to my father and I began to think of all the things I wanted to say. I could not stop my mind from thinking about it and ended up getting up and writing out what I wanted to say in the middle of the night. This is what I want to say about him and what I will say on Saturday:
My father did not have the best of childhoods. He was the oldest child born into a cold and often destructive family situation where his father never showed him any affection. My mother and my older siblings have told me that before I was born, he was to some extent like his father – cold and distant and unemotional. They’ve also told me that when he found out that my mother was pregnant with me, he decided that he was going to make a change. He didn’t want to be the man his father was, he wanted to be better. My mother told me many times of the conversation they had after she became pregnant with me. She said he told her, “This child is going to know that he was loved.” That’s my father.
When I was growing up, he went to everything I was involved in, and I might add that this involved some personal sacrifice on his part. In the 8th grade I took up freestyle wrestling. For those of you who do not remember this dark time in our past, let me assure you that I was the worst wrestler in all of recorded history. Steven Hawking would likely have beaten me. I had a perfect defeated record for the entire season, not winning a single match and only once managing not to be pinned. My record was getting pinned once in 7 seconds – and it takes 3 seconds to count the pin! Because there were few kids in my weight class (119 pounds, if I remember correctly), I “won” a lot of medals and even finished 11th in the state – the top 3 from districts went to regionals and there were 3 of us; the top 5 from regionals went to states and there were 5 of us; there were a total of 12 kids in my division at states, but one was injured. Voila, 11th in the state without winning a single match. But as bad as I was, Dad was there every single week. After working all week, he’d get up early on Saturday morning and drive me to the tournaments. He’d sit there all day through what must have been excruciating boredom. The tournament would go on all day, but I would actually only wrestle 2 or 3 minutes total because I usually got pinned that fast. But he was there every time, cheering me on, giving me pep talks, and doing his crossword puzzles in the stands in between matches. That’s my father.
When I was in high school, I met Rick Suwarsky and he would quickly become my best friend. Rick also had a difficult childhood, losing his parents very young and being raised by his grandparents and bounced around a lot. When things got bad for Rick the summer before his senior year in high school, I asked if Rick could come and live with us. Dad didn’t hesitate to take Rick in to our family and treat him like a son. Years later, when Rick got married, he spent dozens, perhaps hundreds, of hours helping him build the home they now live in. I remember a few years ago having a conversation with Rick and he said that he couldn’t think of anyone in the world he respected more and that he thought my dad was the best man he knew. That’s my father.
One of the most vivid memories of my life was when I was away at college and my father called to tell me that Uncle Richard had AIDS. I was genuinely worried about how my parents would react. I remember just as vividly when he told me that he had asked Richard to come and live with them. He knew that Richard wasn’t acutely ill yet, but that he would need some care and he insisted that he was the one who should care for him. I’ve never been more proud of my parents. When Richard decided to do something positive with the time he had left, Dad spent countless hours helping him. He helped clean up and remodel the Rainbow House. He spent day after day, week after week, month after month at Rainbow Resale, sorting and tagging clothes and working behind the counter. He helped establish the Brayton Foundation that would help educate and care for AIDS patients throughout the area. That’s my father.
Best of all, in each of these examples, there was never any question in his mind about what to do. He spent all those Saturdays watching me get pinned because that’s what a father does. He took in my best friend because that’s what a good man does. He took care of Richard because that’s what a brother does. This is his greatest legacy and lesson to me and to all of us: when someone you care about is in need, you’re there to help – each time, every time, without fail. It’s not negotiable, it’s not open to question, and it never changes. That’s my father.
Ralph Waldo Emerson gave us the definition of a simple life well lived:
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children; to learn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a little bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
By any measure, his life has been a great success. Not only did he succeed in making sure that I knew I was loved, he let all of you know it too. He is living testimony to the ability of people to overcome their past, to change and grow and become better. He is a 24 hour a day demonstration that a life well lived is a life lived with a sense of duty and a sense of honor. Arthur Ashe once said that service to others is the rent we pay for the space we occupy on this planet. No matter how long he lives, his rent is already paid in full. He is turning 70, but he’s not done yet, not by a longshot. And I look forward to being back here to celebrate his 80th, his 90th, and his 100th with all of you.
To my father. To a good man. To the best man I know.