When Sally Draper got out of the car on a recent episode of “Mad Men” and turned to her father, the handsome and tortured Don Draper, and said, “I love you, Dad. Happy Valentine’s Day,” I saw my father and me.
I saw the love that she felt, despite her father’s mistakes, neglect, lack of interest and misguided efforts to connect with his daughter. I saw Don’s awe at his daughter’s newfound maturity and kindness. I saw Sally’s need to be sure that her father is, despite everything, still her daddy — still the man she could turn to for protection, for love, for a ride back to school. I saw myself.
My father was a bit of a Don Draper type. Handsome, charming, magnetic and entertaining, he was that Sixties-era dad, setting off each day in his suit and tie, taking the Long Island Railroad to work on Wall Street, coming home each evening, tired and remote, and collapsing in front of the TV to watch Walter Cronkite or his beloved Monday Night Football. Before he came home we would often listen to the radio to hear whether the stock market was up or down that day (he was a stockbroker) to gauge his mood. Many evenings he went to the gym — years before everyone began going to the gym — before returning home, and my brother and mother and I would eat dinner without him.
When he was around, my interactions with him consisted mostly of him telling me not to eat any more cookies (he worried, too much, about my weight) or to stop fighting with my brother. Every so often we’d have a conversation about school (“How are your marks?”) or safety (“If a guy attacks you, hit him in the Adam’s Apple”). I never doubted that he loved me — but I knew his interest in me was limited. What’s a father supposed to do with a daughter, he probably wondered.
When I was a teenager, our relationship didn’t improve. I rebelled in destructive ways, and he came and went from our new home in California, depending on the status of my parents’ marriage. Still, I loved my father. Despite the upheaval he’d caused in my life, the wreckage of my parent’s marriage that seemed to be cluttering everything around and inside of me, even with his short temper and long tirades — I loved him. I was just like Sally Draper: Beneath my anger at him for the things I felt he’d done wrong, a powerful part of me felt compassion for him. He was my dad, after all.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that our relationship developed into something substantial. My father rescued me from a terrible first marriage, taking me into his home and unleashing a tirade of expletive-laden fury at my husband over the phone. It enabled me to finally collect my things from our apartment, no questions asked.
When I became a mother, he was enthusiastic and involved in a way that he'd never been able to be as a father, and as his life continued to disintegrate (during a second and then a third marriage), he became more and more a part of my life. My home was a safe place where he could retreat from a world that had lost interest in him. No longer the handsome young man, my father still had an optimism and charm that kept him afloat, even in the worst of times.
When my father got cancer at the age of 65, it was as if the universe laughed at everything he had ever believed about himself — whatever else he had lost, he had always kept his body fit and strong. His body, which had been toned from weight lifting, became weak, and his optimism waned as he went through two bouts of cancer in just three years. He grew remorseful, apologizing to me, to my mother, to anyone he had ever hurt in any way. He wanted so badly to live, but in the end what he wanted didn’t matter. All the weight lifting in the world couldn’t beat this.
I’m glad I told him “I love you, Dad,” as often as I could. Like Sally Draper, I looked past the damaged man my father was and saw simply my dad. When I think of him now, years after he died, I think of the handsome, charming man who swept me up in his big, strong arms when I was a small child and kept me warm on New York winter nights. He’s the man I will always love.