By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent magazine
June 16, 2013: My father died today.
That is a sentence I have been thinking about writing for years.
My dad has been sick for about a decade, struggling with dementia and drug-related problems that stemmed from his tough and troubled, wild, and wonderfully raucous life.
A deeply generous man, he lived his life on his own terms. While he paid the price with his health, my guess is that he wouldn’t have done anything differently.
When he poignantly passed on Father’s Day, at 2:05 p.m., I was on my way from DC to Philadelphia to see him. I didn’t get there in time.
And now that he’s gone—now that I have seen his ice cold, ghostly pale body lying on a gurney under a blue blanket at the funeral home of Goldstein’s Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks, Inc.—I honestly don’t know what to say, much less what to feel, or think.
If you have a conflicted, tumultuous relationship with a parent—I’m sure you can relate.
Odds are good that there is some whisper in your heart that figured once they were gone the despair of never truly knowing them—never completely feeling loved by them—would dissipate.
It doesn’t. Or, at least, it hasn’t for me.
So I scan for evidence that he did love me, that he was proud of me, and that I didn’t disappoint him, after all.
My dad wasn’t that traditional Beaver Cleaver father that so many of my friends appeared to have.
A genius when it came to playing with numbers, he was a professional bookie and master blackjack player. In fact, he won money for my Ivy League college education at the tables in Atlantic City. Ditto for my brother to go to Boston University, and my sister to attend Syracuse.
He also showered the fruits of his earnings on anyone else he deemed in need of some of the wad of cash that he stowed in his right front pants pocket.
With the money he made came power plays that many successful people struggle with. There were women, pills, piles of designer clothes and shoes, sports cars, and expensive trips to feed his other passion: golf. He loved Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus—almost as much as he adored Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Scrappy men who excelled were his heroes.
Throughout his 71 years, he toyed with just about anything he fancied with little thought to the consequences.
My dad’s reputation for being a “bad boy” started as a kid, but crystalized when he was 16 and wrecked the summer camp motorboat on a lake in the Poconos. Called crazy by some, reckless by others—it was merely foreshadowing.
My father simply loved taking chances. And he often beat the odds.
When he didn’t, he found a workaround—such as the year the casino dons caught onto his card-counting ability and blacklisted him, or when the police began tracking his dealings. He almost always got off with a slap on the wrist. Good attorneys, sound alibis, sure. But mostly, he was smart, wily, and fearless.
A defining moment came when I was a teen and he had taken the family to Boca Raton for Spring Break. At 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, he got a call that his cousin (his business partner) had embezzled millions from a start-up they were launching. There was nothing left.
This had been my dad’s attempt to walk the straight-and-narrow. I think he took it as a sign.
He was different after that.
He seemed to have even less regard for rules, or for what other people thought. Fueled by cocaine and frustration, he began walking for miles around our neighborhood, and spent little time at home.
A year later, I graduated from high school and to celebrate he took me to The General Lafayette Inn for our favorite dish, duck a l’orange.
He got me drunk for the first time on white wine. When his Stoli on the rocks kicked in, he went on to explain that “men only think with their pants.” And he told me again what he’d been telling me since I was 8: “You are a great writer, Hopie. Don’t forget it. And don’t let anyone take advantage of you; you are so nice. Don’t let people treat you like a doormat.”
So it came as a shock when I was a sophomore in college and told him I wanted to travel for a semester to Tel Aviv University.
He hit the roof, and threatened to stop paying for school if I went.
I went anyway.
Instead of disowning me, he and my mother came to visit. They loved Israel, and after a week of riding camels in the Eilat, and buying Jewish star pendants for the entire family in Jerusalem, they thought it was the ideal time to tell me they wanted to get divorced.
And they asked my permission to do so.
Suffice it to say that I had become very familiar with such role reversal. Being the loving, supportive daughter that I always tried to be, I told them, “Yes, absolutely. I understand. I just want you both to be happy.”
I wish I would have said, “Be careful what you wish for,” because the following years were filled with so much angst for everyone involved that it became clear to me that the only way to protect myself from the mayhem was to move as far away as I could manage.
My dad must have been on to my scheme, because I recall the day in 1987 that he and my brother tried to run an intervention to stop me from taking a job at The Miami Herald. They sat me down at a Philadelphia deli and forbade me to leave, informing me over bagels and lox that they were convinced if I went, I would be killed.
Amused more than concerned, I remember thinking how nice it was that they cared so much—and how great it was that they were bonding over this attempt to protect me from what they had likely seen on “Miami Vice.”
I took the job, of course.
Not long after, on my lunch break one day at a deli in downtown Miami, I pulled out a legal tablet and started writing a letter to my father. It turned into an essay that a journalistic hero of mine, the Herald’s “Tropic” magazine editor, Tom Shroder, deemed worthy of publishing.
Entitled Daddy’s Girl, I wrote about how much I loved my dad, and how I was struggling to explain to him my need to grow up, and move away.
My father’s reaction to seeing the bittersweet account shouldn’t have surprised me. It didn’t make him sad or remorseful or want to sit down for a heart-to-heart. Rather, it made him proud to see my byline in such a prestigious publication.
A few years later, when I got left at the altar, my dad and his new wife flew in and found me drowning in a puddle of tears.
Other members of my family thought I should shrug it off and enjoy touring around Miami with them. After all, they had flown down for the wedding and could at least enjoy the sun and surf a little. But not my dad.
He simply looked at me and said, “I never did understand why you wanted to marry him in the first place.” Being in the pathetic state that I was, I assume he felt badly that I was so miserable. Still, he intimated that I had chosen a path unworthy and unnecessary. And if I hadn’t come to Miami in the first place, well, I wouldn’t be in this pickle.
By now, I had gotten used to the emotional and physical distance I felt toward him and the rest of my small clan.
I found that writing essays about my heartbreak proved to be a powerful salve. It didn’t quite heal the wound, but it softened the scab.
Again, Shroder published the piece on my wedding drama in another essay called Prince of Darkness.
Interestingly, decades later, Shroder wrote a book called Old Souls, which provided me with powerful insight into what I had gone through with my family. So I featured the book in my business magazine because I felt others who grew up in a similar way might benefit from the wisdom. It also enabled me to reconnect with Shroder to thank him for believing in me all those years ago.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have such closure with my dad.
As the years passed, the rift between us grew.
He flat out stopped talking to me in 1992 when I moved to San Francisco to turn my master’s thesis into a nonprofit organization.
When I moved to DC in 1994 to marry Michael, my sweetheart from grad school, my dad didn’t want to come to the wedding. His wife—who was becoming a friend to me—insisted they attend. At the reception, he kissed me hello and whispered, “Now I can stop worrying about you.”
They also came to visit when my daughter, Anna, was born. My favorite photo is of my dad, sitting on our sofa, holding her so gently. That was the father I remembered, the one who loved and cared, and didn’t want to let go.
As I watched him coo at her, it dawned on me that perhaps the conflict centered around his old-school idea of what a woman was supposed to do with her life: get married, have kids. Maybe my ambition of traveling around the country as a journalist just didn’t fit into his worldview. Or maybe he was jealous of my fearlessness. Maybe I looked too much like my mother. Or maybe he just didn’t like who I had become.
I now believe all of that may be true.
But mostly, I don’t think he thought much about me, or our relationship, in the last few decades.
In fact, the day after my dad’s funeral, my son Dylan graduated from middle school, and the following day Anna graduated from high school. We had barely seen my father a dozen times in the last 17 years, so his presence wasn’t missed.
Like Anna, Dylan barely knew his grandfather. But my boy’s love for golf, and his brilliance with math, are so much like my father’s. If my dad had been open to it, I think my kids would have really enjoyed knowing him. I know for certain that he would have loved my kids.
But his choices—including leaving his second wife to have an affair with a 20something who enjoyed the dark side as much as he did—made it impossible for me to stay in touch with him.
Today, I finally felt ready to write this eulogy to my father.
It is two weeks to the day that he died.
With a heavy heart, I put away the funeral swag they gave us at Goldstein’s. The yahrzeit candle burned out last Wednesday. It’s time to take off the black pin with the torn ribbon given to the mourners at the funeral.
I think it’s time to put away my regrets about my dad, too.
The good news for me is that each day it gets a little easier to swallow the memory of our relationship.
The one thought that keeps swimming to the surface is what he told me on my 21st birthday: “You are seven times three, kid. You are on your own.”
He was right. It was appropriate to be independent from him once I became an adult.
And although our relationship pains me deeply because I always wanted more from him—more time, more love, more heartfelt chats, more insight into what made him tick … I choose to remember the essential gifts that he did give me: A generous spirit; a deep desire to help those in need; a passion for knowing, loving, and working with wildly interesting people; and an unquenchable thirst to live life to its fullest.
My parting gift to him was slightly more symbolic.
The day before the funeral, I had gone into the chapel with his wife to view his body for the last time. Brave and strong for all of us in the end, she smiled, gave me a hug, and told me that he did love me, that he was proud. I really wanted to believe her.
Unable to get too close to his body, which he honestly seemed to no longer inhabit, I asked her to do me a favor. I handed her a small white organdy bag filled with two marble dice, and my lucky penny. “Will you give this to him?”
She placed it on his chest. And we held hands as we walked away.
Goodbye, Daddy. I love you forever. And I thank you for everything. Godspeed. — Hopie