It’s Fathers’ Day, a day I normally dread, a day I’ve dreaded for twenty years. My own dad died on February 12, 1997. I usually try to lose myself in other things on this day every year. I’m torn. Equally, I resent that mothers get more focus and adulation, but I also hate hearing people yammer on about happy father’s Day, when I can never say it to my own. And I never say it to anyone else. After all, nobody else is my father, but my own dad, Jerry Gomes.
But today, as I have a twitter conversation with friends about our dads, there was so much I wanted to say, things I couldn’t say in 140 characters or less. Flashes of memory, of all the good and bad things about Dad. He was not perfect, but I loved him more perhaps because of those flaws. Here, in no order, are my thoughts, the memory flashes I’m having today.
I’m a little girl. My daddy is a brave fireman. Grandma and then mommy take me to the firehouse, where I am spoiled by the other firemen and shown off by Daddy. I feel like my grin will burst off my face. I am so proud of my Daddy.
I am a nearly graduated high school girl, and I fall in the pool in our back yard, damaging my fused knee on the hard cement corner. Dad ties my legs together with towels and puts me in his Porsche, driving as fast as he can get away with from our home in Los Gatos to my doctors at Stanford. Both of us so terrified of what it can mean that my knee is moving, when it hasn’t moved since I was three.
I am a little girl, a teenager, a woman, and it’s Christmas. Dad’s joy in the day fills the room, spreads to everyone around him. His voice rises above the others as we gather around my aunt’s piano and we sing carols.
I am thirty-nine, and it’s Christmas, and I gather with my brothers and sister, their spouses and children, for what we all know will be his last Christmas with us. We all smile. We take pictures. We laugh and sing and joke. Our hearts going to pieces inside. I’m the only one to witness dad’s breakdown after everyone has gone home. His rush to the phone to wait on hold forever for the doctor on call, his agonized cry out to God, that he can’t take the pain anymore. “If you want me so badly, God, then take me! I can’t take this pain anymore!” He screams it to the heavens, and I gasp and hang onto my emotions with all my being, so as not to let him see the anguish that cry brings me.
I’m in fourth grade. My teacher brings in a story for current events. A firefighter named Jerry Gomes, saved the life of a small boy who had fallen in a pool and nearly drowned. There is a picture of my young handsome father, and my teacher has me walk up and down the rows of desks showing his picture to my classmates. I’m beaming as the girls squeal and say how cute my dad is.
I’m sitting in a wheelchair at my high school graduation. I’m in the wheelchair because of that knee I damaged falling in dad’s pool. As the principal calls my name, and someone I don’t remember pushes me to the microphone to receive my diploma, dad’s voice rings out: “I can’t believe it!’ He wasn’t quite sure I’d get through high school.
I’m thirteen. I wake up and sense that something is wrong in my home. Dad and Mom—mom being my dad’s second wife and my beloved mother of the heart forever—they are in their room. I hear hangers, empty hangers. I hear Mom crying. What is going on? I hear Dad say he needs to tell me. And he takes me into my room and tells me he is leaving. He says he’s “going away to think”, but I know what that means. I know my home, my safe secure place, is never going to be the same. I know someday I will have to leave, because in those days, around 1971, stepparents did not get custody. I am torn again. I want to stay with Mom and the little ones, but I want to go with Dad too. I hate this feeling. I’ll never get over it. I never did.
I’m in high school. My best friend and I are crazy about Jesus Christ superstar. I listen to the double album constantly. My high school has a braille transcriber, and she brailles the lyrics for me, so I can know all the words and sing along. Dad and his third wife take me and my best friend to San Francisco to see the show. I am enthralled. And Dad is blown away too, commenting how one actor dances so well, dad thinks he must even move his toes, because he moves every part of his visible body. I think for the first time, how weird it is that my dad is only eighteen years older than me, and we actually like much of the same music. Not like my friends whose parents are far older than mine.
I’m in my twenties, at my brother’s wedding, and I hear family members talk about how they advised my dad to give me up, when the truth came out about my disabilities. “Give her up for adoption, or put her in a special home.” They tell me they gave him this advice, but he refused. My thankfulness for being given the dad I had is overwhelming. Imperfect, yes, he was so imperfect, but he would not send me away.
I am growing up, totally blind, with a disabling disease called Juvenile Rheumatoid arthritis. Dad sends me to public school. He and Mom tell me to believe in myself. They tell me I am as good as anyone else, and that nobody but me can ever stop me from achieving my dreams. They tell me that the only things I can’t do are drive a car and fly a plane.
I am staying with my sister’s family after that last Christmas. She and I drive to and from Stanford every day, listening to Collin Raye. Collin sings about living life for all it’s worth, or about how love remains. The songs are a part of that time, the thing, the music that helped me keep going day after day. We visit Dad in the hospital. We smile. We tell him we love him. We get the chance to remind our aunt that he is our father, when she tries to shoo us away and says we shouldn’t be hanging around the hospital all the time. We are adults now and we can’t be sent away like children. He is our dad. And we win. He wants us there, and we will be there unless he sends us away.
I am thirty. My Granny, Dad’s mom, has been in the hospital for two weeks. It is dad who calls and tells me, “Sherry, she’s gone, that great lady is gone.” Ten years later, it is I now, the one who must call my sister and tell her that he is gone. How did he stand having to tell me? I cannot express the pain of having to tell my sister.
I am thirty-nine. I go with family members to see dad one more time. He is gone. His heart and soul, his essence, the stuff that made him that charming, messed up, lovable and loving man, it is gone. But I must see for myself. We have a brief window to visit the body before cremation. I go to him. Trembling, I reach out my hand and barely touch his cheek. There is stubble on his cheek. But it is cold. It is hard. It is not the warm living flesh of the cheek I’ve kissed so many many times over the years. I cannot kiss that cheek goodbye. I stroke his face. I turn and move away. This is not my dad. This is a cold replica.
I am somewhere, some age, probably at the gathering at an aunt’s home, following the memorial service. It’s all such a blur. I don’t remember who and what and when and where. Someone tells me, “You know, sherry, your dad always worried about you. He worried about what would happen to you if you could not work, if your arthritis got so bad that you were completely disabled. Who would take care of you? How would you survive?” I wonder then. I wonder now. Do I wish I had known his fears for me back then, when he was alive? Is it better that I never did know? Would I have worked harder to achieve the things he hoped for me, if I’d known he was so worried? What would I have done?
I am thirty-nine. My sister and I arrive at Dad’s house, for what we don’t know, will be the last time we see him alive. I am nearly forty, and he is sick and frail from chemo and cancer, but he pulls me onto his lap and asks how I am doing. He’s watching golf, as he always is, and I listen to the commentators. I had never paid attention before. I realize wow, when they hit golf balls, they hit them into the air. I make some comment about it, and Dad laughs and laughs. My last memory of being with him is that I made him laugh. Always a good thing.
Two months later, we, Jerry, John, Joe and Rosie, and me of course, the children of our dad, and Jerry’s oldest daughter, stand in a circle at a river where he loved to fish. We hold roses and glasses of wine. We each say something. One brother sends the ashes out into the river, as dad had wished. In our own time, we each move to the bank and send our rose into the river as well. We say our own farewells and walk away.
Today, I am fifty-nine. Some years are better than others, as I face this day. His birthday is usually harder for me. This year, I remember him without fleeing my thoughts from the memories. I smile. I frown. I cry. I laugh. I want to hug him so much. I envy those who have their dads around. I want to snarl at them to remember how lucky they are and for goodness sake talk to your dad today. I thank God for the dad he gave me, flawed, messed-up, but mine, mine. My hero in my early life, as he raced into burning buildings or saved children who fell in pools. A hero at the end of his life for fighting so hard to live and for showing me how to keep fighting, in spite of everything.
I think of him. And I remember him. I hope my words will honor him. I wish I could tell him, just one more time, how much I love him.