My Father Was an Imperfect Man
and I thank God for that
At about 3 a.m. on Thursday, November 26, 1992, my phone rang. My Mom was on the other end of the line, apologizing for calling in the middle of the night. She also apologized for calling so early on Thanksgiving morning.
“What’s wrong, Mom? Is everything alright?”
“It’s your father, Edward. He fell walking to the bathroom, and he can’t get back up.”
“I’ll be right there, Mom!”
I threw on some clothes and raced to my parent’s house to find my father on the floor halfway between his bedroom and the bathroom. He was alert, but insisting we just leave him there. He knew he was dying and didn’t want anyone or anything to interfere with the process. My last words to my father were “You’re not dying today. I may be almost thirty, but I still need my Dad.”
To understand how I arrived at that moment, sitting in a dark hallway at 3 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning 1992, I have to take you back to Halloween, 1929.
My Father was fifteen months old, one of ten children of John and Anna Jacko of Jessup, Pennsylvania. One of only five children who would make it past the age of two. His Father, my grandfather, was a coal miner and a part-time constable for the town. There had been a catastrophic collapse of supporting timbers inside the Sterrick Creek mine, owned by Temple Coal, and my grandfather, with his twenty years of mining experience, would not be going home.
I think about the problems I face today and am embarrassed by my difficulty in facing some of them, as I marvel at the resiliency of my grandmother; five children, no husband, no social services to bail her out, and the country in the midst of the Great Depression. Thank God for our ancestors and their indominable strength.
Childhood memories are typically something we cherish. “How I miss the good ol’ days of my youth,” is a common refrain of anyone over the age of fifty. My father was likely the only person I’ve encountered in my life who didn’t share that sentiment. I could never fault him for that. Not only did he grow up without a father, but a good meal meant there were potatoes on the plate, and a good Christmas meant a single new pair of underwear. Luckily, my Dad growing up in the Byzantine Catholic faith meant that Christmas was celebrated two weeks later than the neighbors (the shift from the Julian to Gregorian calendar hadn’t taken place yet). His Mom would scour the streets on Christmas Eve, looking for a discarded tree she could drag into the house. Needles intact or not, it was a happy sight, a temporary respite from a life full of hardships. Throughout my childhood I could never understand why my father seemed to have to “work” at being happy for the Holidays. I would sometimes see him sitting in “his chair,” staring at our lit Christmas tree, presents piled high beneath it, and wonder why he looked so somber. I understand completely now.
By the age of seven my father was spending his summers picking beans at a local farm. He was paid a penny for every basket he filled. Those pennies were often the difference between the family eating or not each evening. While other first graders were heading to the nearest creek to cool off with friends, my Dad was hunched over rows of beans in the blazing sun.
Regardless of how many days ended with a less than full dinner plate, or how many years would go by with my Dad wearing over-sized, donated shoes with holes in the soles, one thing remained constant; my father, his siblings, and my grandmother would faithfully walk in to Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church every Sunday morning to offer thanks to our Lord. Little did he know it, but my Dad’s future wife, my Mom, was sitting just a few pews away every single Sunday. They wouldn’t meet until decades later in New York City.
The day after graduating from high school, my Dad did what every young man did during World War II; he visited a recruiting center. In a few short months he was a Seaman, Second Class, in the United States Navy, serving on the destroyer, the USS Wallace L. Lind. When I was twelve years old, I had the brilliant idea of getting a picture of my Dad’s ship as a birthday present for him. It wasn’t as easy as it is today. I couldn’t just Google “Wallace L. Lind,” and download hundreds of photos. A few phone calls and trips to the library led me to the knowledge that such photos, at the time, were mostly classified. I got another brilliant idea, to write to the Secretary of the Navy explaining how much it would mean to me to be able to present my father with a picture of his ship. Much to my mother’s surprise, I received a response. Secretary of the Navy, J. William Middendorf II, was delighted to help out. He explained that while most photos of active ships were classified, there are a few that have been declassified. He enclosed a photocopy of those that were available, I sent a few dollars back to cover shipping, and several weeks later I was presenting a framed photo of the USS Wallace L. Lind to my Dad on his birthday. When my Mom explained to Dad all that I had done to get that picture, and how many months the process took, my father’s eyes welled up. That day will always be one of my fondest memories.
Back to my Dad’s story.
Returning home after World War II, my Dad moved to Trenton, New Jersey with his Mom. He attended Trenton Junior College and Lehigh University on the GI Bill, became a design engineer, worked briefly for Trenton Refrigeration, met and married my Mom, got a job at United States Steel, Trenton Wire Works, settled down with Mom in Yardville, New Jersey, and raised four children.
I proudly drive over the Verrazano-Narrows bridge every once in a while, knowing my Dad was a key contributor to what was, at the time, the world’s largest suspension bridge. The bridge opened the same year I was born, 1964.
My brother, sisters, and I all attended Saint Mary of the Assumption Byzantine Catholic elementary school in Trenton, and Saint Anthony Catholic High School in Hamilton, New Jersey. Mom stayed home, and Dad worked to make sure all of that could happen; Mom being home when each of us got off the school bus, and a Catholic education for all four kids. That’s not to say that Dad wasn’t involved in our upbringing. My brother and I played basketball throughout elementary school, and Dad would drive home from work in Trenton, wolf down dinner, and drive us back in to Trenton for basketball practice three nights a week. He would run home for a couple of hours, then be right back in time to pick us up afterwards. He would also take us to our games on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
In high school, during track season, I would look up in the stands every time I approached the starting line for the hurdles, 200 meters, or relay. Dad was always there. He did whatever he had to in order to see every one of my meets. He would skip lunches, fight traffic; anything to get to whatever high school track I was competing at before the gun went off for my first event.
Win or lose, he would always greet me after the meet with “good job, Tiger!,’ or “good job, Shortstop!” Not only was I the only kid in the family who had a nickname given by Dad, I had two!
Throughout my life at home, Dad took every opportunity to teach me responsibility, dependability, and resourcefulness. If he was working on the car, I was holding wrenches and screwdrivers. When he was working on the heater, washing machine or dryer, I was holding a flashlight. I think of him every time I change my own brake pads or make a repair on a household appliance. He has saved me more than a few bucks over the years.
Dad’s favorite saying was “measure twice, cut once.” My brother and I still remind each other of that when working on projects around our houses. We live eighteen hundred miles apart now, but our love for, and memories of our Dad are just a couple of the many things that keep our brotherly bond strong.
Yes, my father was a good man. He was a good father. He loved my Mom with all his heart. He had a genius IQ, and seemed to know a little something about everything. He would eagerly await the end of college semesters for all of his children because he would read through our now unnecessary textbooks to learn about a subject his knowledge might be a bit lacking on. But, like all of us, he had his kryptonite. Some people struggle with addictions. Some of us are a bit on the lazy side, curse too much, get a little too silly at company Christmas parties, are lousy employees, neighbors or friends, or are just plain mean.
My Dad’s weakness was not being able to outrun his childhood.
The struggles of his past yielded a belief that he didn’t deserve his present. Instead of enjoying the little successes of life, he was consumed with guilt that he had succeeded. It was as though he believed that since he had nothing as a child, he deserved nothing as an adult.
My father was born at a time when you “played the hand you were dealt.” That makes for a snappy saying, but it’s not exactly helpful when dealing with unresolved childhood trauma. Was help available to my Dad? Of course it was. My Mom would suggest my Dad “talk to someone.” My siblings and I, as we became adults, would say the same. My Dad never took any of us up on that suggestion. He was going to solve his issues on his own, or he would live with the consequences. I am confident that he didn’t realize his wife, children and grandchildren would also live with the consequences. If he had any thought of this, he would surely have changed his approach to the issue. He was a good man. He would have done anything for his family.
I carry no ill will toward my Dad. I certainly would have liked to have more time with him, but the lost years haven’t led to lost love. His mental health took a toll on his physical health, and I’m sure that led to an increased penchant for making poor decisions. He had become convinced that his death was inevitable, and that it may be for the best. The mind is a terribly strong source of delusion. When it tells you an outright lie, like you don’t deserve the wife and children you have, you tend to believe it. My Dad was rarely wrong about anything, but he was very wrong about that.
Despite the games my Dad’s mind was playing with him, his love and concern for those he would leave behind never wavered. He spent his last few months prepping us for a future without him. When I would visit Mom and Dad on my way home from work, he would always spend a few minutes showing me where the extra air filters for the heater were, or how to complete wiring of the lights for a deck we had been building on the back of the house. I didn’t realize it at the time but he was preparing me to take over to help Mom; to be the man of the house. I though he was just Dad being Dad.
That brings us back to Thanksgiving morning, 1992, and my Dad laying on the floor.
An ambulance was eventually called, and my Dad was taken to Saint Francis Medical Center; the same hospital where each of his four children were born. My sisters met my Mom and me there. We surrounded his bed, and sang hymns of praise as our Father breathed his last.
I have nothing but good memories of my father. He took a week off every year for Christmas and New Years and again at Easter. He wanted to give his children the special memories of those days that he didn’t have as a child. He led us into a pew at Church every Sunday morning and “lined up our noses” because he was so proud of his family. The order in which we lined up changed over the years as my brother and I overtook our sisters in height. Dad, the tallest, was at one end of the pew. Mom, the shortest, was at the other. There was a comfort in that; being guarded on both sides by the two most important people in our lives.
I never heard my father curse. I never saw him treat anyone with anything less than respect, even when they didn’t deserve it. I never heard my father lie. I never saw him hold a grudge. I never saw him withhold forgiveness.
My father was an imperfect man, and I thank God for that. Yes, he had his demons, and some would say his battle plan against them was not the best. But the way he lived his daily life left a far greater imprint on me than the childhood pain that had always haunted his own life. He tried desperately to give his children a better start than he had experienced, and I will be forever in his debt for that. Despite his imperfections, he taught me how a flawed man can rise above a flawed world.