As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 19, 2022. Above, my dad with my older brother Rob, left, and me at Scarborough Beach in 1961.
I envy them as they pass my house pulling red wagons with toddlers in tow: the new dads.
That was me 27 years ago when we moved to the neighborhood. Back when we had three children under age 5. Back when I was Superman.
My kids were all giggles and wide eyes when I spun a basketball on my index finger. They clapped when I made a kite soar against the cloudless sky at our Block Island rental. And if thunder cracked like gunshots during a summer storm, they climbed into my arms. I assured them the heavens would calm.
But when a fall gashed my younger son Evan’s hand in our backyard, his blood was my Kryptonite. I was Everyman, not Superman, face ashen and skin coated in sweat.
My kids saw me as Everyman on other occasions, too, like when I cursed the drivers who cut me off on Route 95 and sometimes snapped at our dog and, achingly, when I was putting Evan to bed one night.
I don’t recall what prompted his question, but it startled me.
“Do you miss your dad?” he asked with an innocence that belongs only to children. My father died three months after Evan was born. The last time I had seen him, Dad had handed me the bill for his recent, long-overdue doctor’s visit.
“Yes, I do,” I said. Evan’s eyes asked me for more.
“You know what I think?” I said, my Everyman voice quavering. “My father’s alive every time we talk about him. Maybe that’s what heaven is.”
My 5-year-old set me straight. “You don’t really go to heaven,” he said matter-of-factly. “You’re buried. Heaven’s where you go in your head.”
I have often considered the shocking wisdom of my son’s words that night, and I’m thinking of them now.
In my head, I see my dad in black-and-white glossies from family photo albums: as a Marine Corps officer getting his commission, as a dean of students at Brown, smoking a cigarette and looking like George Peppard.
I see him calmly whisking fourth-grade me to the emergency room at Roger Williams Hospital after I gashed my head on the corner of a coffee table while horsing around with my older brother.
And in a less-than-heavenly reverie, I see him 20 years later in his two-room apartment on Waterman Avenue in North Providence, writing a letter that recently came into my possession. It’s to his brother in New Hampshire.
In his elegant hand, my dad notes that he “finally got an underpaying, paralyzingly dull job, low wages, no benefits, but thank God a check every week.” He reports he has emphysema and flashes his sharp wit: “The diagnostician wants to run a series of tests. I asked if he were paying.” He closes with reassurances: “I write only to inform not alarm you. You see, with you out there and the boys back here, I have a lot going for me.”
Now in my head, I go to another heaven – to Dad and me in the water at Scarborough Beach on a bright October day. I am 7 years old and feel the strong tug of the undertow as a rising wave approaches. My father is beside me, lean and athletic.
As the wave curls and begins to break, I dive to ride it, arms reaching for the shore. But the water pounds me and I am upended in the churning tumult until, yanking me upward by my wrists, Dad plucks me from the ocean chaos.
We stand in the white sea foam laughing, Superman and me.