Campaigning in the era of COVID-19 has its complications, but it also can offer some different opportunities. What do we know as voters about the people we vote for? Generally you hear a quick two-minute summary about a politician's life, and we don’t really get to know them. I have decided to open up myself in a 3-part series, and give an intimate look at my life and the events that have made me the person I am today. I hope you will take the time to read it and by the end feel you know me better than any politician you ever voted for. Welcome to Part 1.
My Worst Day
I wonder why our worst days usually become our most formative? For me that day happened on a beautiful Monday morning in November when I was ten years old. Before I get into that, I feel I must set the stage. I have joked that I was an only child with a brother and sister. After my mother had my sister, she was told she couldn’t have any more children, but 18 years later she got the shock of her life when she was told she was expecting me.
I grew up in a house with my mom and dad; both my brother and sister were married and out of the house before I had any memory of them living at home. My father decided to be a different kind of parent with me than with my siblings. They were told to be seen and not heard, but with me I was encouraged to take part. Of course I was warned never to embarrass them, but my father would talk to me like a friend, not an equal mind you, but with respect and understanding. When most parents his age were done with parenting, my dad was teaching me how to play baseball, bowl, golf but also how to be a man. The three of us were close, but my dad was my best friend. I was far more comfortable with adults at the age of ten than I was with kids my own age. Don’t get me wrong: one of the biggest complaints from my teachers growing up was that I was very immature, but I think that was because I didn’t really know how to relate to kids my own age, so I went overboard.
The weekend before that fateful day was my mother’s birthday. On Saturday night the three of us got all dressed up for a night of dinner and dancing. I can’t remember where we went, but I do remember how much in love my parents were. We had a nice dinner and I remember my mom and dad dancing to all the slow songs the live band played. I remember dancing with my mom too. It was a wonderful night and when I think of it today I can’t believe how fortunate I was to be a part of their evening. Truth be told, they probably couldn’t find a babysitter for that night, but I never felt that I didn’t belong.
That Sunday we went to visit my grandparents. Right after church we drove to my mom's parents in Brooklyn and spent the early afternoon with them, and then we drove to my father’s parents on Long Island for a late supper. We had a great time at both places and got home pretty late.
As was my father’s habit, he came into my room to talk to me before bed. Every time he did I could still hear my mother yelling from their bedroom, “Jack it’s late, let him go to sleep, and come to bed!” That night he talked to me about helping my mother more. Just a few months earlier she had been in the hospital with pneumonia for almost a week and I knew it shook my dad up. He told me I was older now and I need to help more around the house. I went to Catholic school and had a uniform. My father told me he didn’t want me to just throw it on the floor any more, he wanted me to hang it up before I went out to play, to make less work for my mom.
The next day was unseasonably warm. It had to have been in the mid 70’s. I remember sitting in science class and out of the blue getting an unbelievable pain in my stomach. I was just about to ask my teacher if I could go to the nurse when the pain passed as quickly as it had come. Today I believe it was a sign. When I came home from school I hung up my uniform; my mom said that I didn’t have to, because she was going to do laundry, but I said, “No I want to show dad that I hung it up.” I was getting ready to take our small Yorkshire Terrier for a walk, but as I opened the door to the apartment, a police officer and a neighbor was at the door and asked if my mother was home. They told me to go walk my dog and so I did.
I took my dog to the courtyard where an older couple sat, who I would talk to each day. She was in her 80’s and her adult son was in his 60’s. I sat down with them and I heard my mom scream. The older gentleman grabbed me by my arm and asked me to stay with his mom and he would go find out what was wrong. As I sat on the bench I thought my sister’s husband who was a police officer had been shot or something. I sat there for what felt like hours but sure was just a few minutes. The gentleman returned and I asked him what had happened. I remember him telling me that my dad had been in a car accident, I asked him if it was bad and he said it was pretty bad. He told me that I had to be strong, and something about being the man of the house, which at the time meant absolutely nothing to me.
After that things seem fuzzy. The memories come as snapshots or short scenes. By the time I made it back to the apartment there were so many people there. I remember my mother crying on the couch surrounded by people I didn’t know, or just can’t remember. I still had no idea what had happened; I just thought my dad was in an accident, sure he must have been hurt badly but everything was going to be okay. As I approached my mom I said, “Don’t cry mom, he’ll be okay, we can see him in the hospital.” My mom burst into tears again and said, “NO HE'S DEAD!” I remember her reaching out and hugging me so hard that it hurt a little. My head was spinning: there had to be a mistake, this couldn’t be true, I was just talking to him last night. At some point I remember going into my parents’ bedroom and curling myself up into a ball and laying on my father's side of the bed, eventually falling asleep. I don’t remember crying. I even remember forcing myself to cry on the way to the grave-site a few days later. Oh there would be tears later, real tears, many of them, and some as I type this.
Why have I let you into this glimpse of my life? Because everything I am, everything I believe, I can trace back to that day, the day my life would change forever. My dad died as my hero, before I knew of his faults, before my teen rebellion years where we might not have seen eye to eye. On one of our late night talks, I remember him saying he would never tolerate a liar, a cheat or a thief, so that became my mantra. Adults love to ask kids, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I had different answers at different times in my life, but truthfully all I ever wanted was to be in love as much as my parents and have a family. Family has always come before anything else in my life, and that was the one lesson I learned from my dad.
I will leave you with my happy ending. I have three adult children of my own, and they are a source of endless pride. We remain close even with two of them living in Chicago and one in Indiana. I met my wife in college, we are best friends, and still love each other deeply. My parents had 35 happy years together, and Kathy and I are quickly approaching that number. Just the other night Kathy and I slow-danced in the kitchen to a song on the radio, and it brought me back to that night my parents held each other close on the dance floor. Although the pain never fades completely, sometimes your worst day will change the person you are or become in ways you can’t imagine; it can send you down a path you might never have expected or even chosen, but ultimately find the most rewarding.