From Chicken Soup for the Father & Son Soul


Life is a sum of all your choices.

Albert Camus

I can’t say I much liked my father while I was growing up. Typical stuff bothered me—overworked dad, factory job, mom at home with three babies. I was the middle one. We lived in Brooklyn, New York, near my dad’s family. He didn’t understand me and couldn’t possibly grasp the sixties. Many factors defined his life: coming from an immigrant family, working hard, joining the Army, working hard, marrying his Army sweetheart, working hard, coming home and having babies, and working hard all the while. “Get a job,” I heard from him from the time I was fourteen years old.

I must say, in my mom’s later years, after Dad had died, I was very surprised to hear her stories of their life before kids—sneaking off together during the war when they were both stationed in England, hopping a train to Scotland, spending a weekend together against all regulations; living in New York City and going out dancing every weekend; generally having the time of their lives. This was not the dad I knew. “No, you can’t go to another movie. We can’t afford that.” That’s the dad I knew.

I knew strict, angry, distant, tired. I knew his volunteering to walk to work during the worst snowstorms, leaving us home with Mom. I knew special, better food for Dad. I knew Mom keeping us kids in line so as not to upset him. I knew his anger when we went too far. “I’ll give you something to cry about.” That’s the dad I knew.

He gave me $100 when I moved out of the house at age eighteen to seek my fortune.

I visited him regularly, my growing family in tow. My wife and kids loved him, but they loved my mom more easily. I cared for Dad but did not know how to love him. I don’t know if we would have even stayed in touch had it not been for Mom. Luckily, she kept the wheels greased, and our family stayed connected; siblings and parents and the next generation of kids got to know one another because Mom kept it all happening.

It was at a family gathering that I first noticed: Dad’s jaw was a little slack, his speech a little slurred. I mentioned it to Mom. Soon after this, he fell. I told Mom to take it seriously. She did and sought medical attention for Dad.

The doctors promised his brain tumor was operable, not malignant, and would be no big deal to fix. Dad was stoic. Mom was scared. I tried to get Dad to talk about some important things: his will, money, wishes for burial. He refused. Same old dad. He’d be in charge till the end.

Then things went wrong. He survived the surgery, just barely. He spent weeks in the hospital, surgery after surgery, in and out of consciousness. He’d get better one week, go into rehab, and crash the next week, then he’d be back to the hospital. Mom was always at his side.

I drove the three hours from my house to the hospital weekly, sometimes more. My family came often. Even the little ones sat at his hospital bed. On a particularly bad day, my six-year-old daughter was with him, and he faded back in time, thinking he was with his own daughter. He softened visibly and held her hands. “I love you.”

“I love you, too, Grandpa.”

I saw for the first time the loving father he had probably always been, hidden behind his hard work and worry.

I began softening, too.

On Christmas Eve, my mother leaned over to her husband and said, “It’s okay to leave, Ted.” She loved him and didn’t want him to suffer anymore. On Christmas morning we got the call. “Dad is gone.” I softened still more, but not enough to cry as my wife and kids did, so easily and authentically.

We moved through the funeral. Then I had to start asking my mom the hard questions: “Where’s his will?” “Do you have money, Ma?” “Was there life insurance?” She knew virtually nothing. He was truly old school. Even though my mother was an Army nurse and an officer to boot, even though she worked in methadone clinics in the darkest parts of New York City, even though she reared three babies mostly by herself, she had never handled the checkbook, didn’t know about insurance, and now she was left in the dark after Dad died.

The softening I felt for dad during those difficult months faded and my anger returned. Stubborn, as always, I thought. Too proud for his own good. My wife and I began to think about how we could help support Mom. She would get his Social Security. But it wasn’t enough to live on. She was only seventy-four.

I began to feel what he must have always felt: scared for the well-being of those he loved. I began to despair. We were living close to the edge, as were both my siblings. No one had extra money.

And then in cleaning out yet another box of his personal items—cuff links, tie tacks, company awards, old can openers, souvenirs of places he’d visited—I found a safety deposit box key. “Mom, where’s the safety deposit box Dad has?” She had never heard of it.

Luckily, this small town had just two banks. We got it right on the first try and went with death certificate and key to open the safety deposit box. “Did you all have family heirlooms he might have put away?”

“No,” Mom said. “It’s probably just papers from work. He always saved everything from work.”

The box did contain papers from work, but not the kind she’d expected. My dad had diligently bought stock in the company he had worked for, first as a laborer, then as a foreman, and finally as a vice president, one stock certificate at a time.

Every movie we didn’t go to, every dress Mom didn’t get, the big red fire engine I wanted and didn’t get was in that box. I can’t even imagine what Dad had wanted and didn’t get that went straight into that box.

That’s when I cried and softened for good.

“Your dad was so peaceful when he was dying. I didn’t know why it was easy for him. Now I do. He promised to take care of me forever, and he has kept his promise,” Mom said.

Yes, he had. And the promise he made to me, that I never really heard, was the promise of my becoming a good man. I now have a small pile of stocks, too. They just happen to be with a stockbroker, not in a small metal box.

Ted Slawski

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