An Ordinary Man

I never really knew my father and then it was too late

The author at rest.

When I was 19, my father seemed like a boring guy who I deemed so inconsequential that I didn't speak to him for the next 12 years. I'd moved to New York City to become a classical dancer, and wanting to seem cool and strong, thought the idea of not having parents made me more interesting.

I received scholarships to the Alvin Ailey Dance Center and the Joffrey Ballet School. After a few promising months of training, I was rapidly improving and my primary teacher suggested I transfer to Juilliard. To explain the absence of a father in my life, I recounted as many negative stories about him as I could.

"He adopted me, so I never really had a bond with him," I told my artsy friends. I described how my dad served in the Air Force and how we constantly moved, relocating from Asia to America to Europe and then back again to the States.

"I was the second youngest of seven children, so my father didn't have much time for me," I often complained. I had always felt insignificant, growing up one of so many. When I left for Manhattan, my intention was to prove that I was special. I'd show my entire family that I was the standout.

I was so determined to establish myself as an independent adult that when I was diagnosed with cancer seven months after starting school, I never called my father. I didn't tell him of the illness, which prevented me from attending Juilliard and ended my dance career. I spent the next two years in and out of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and through it all, maintained a distance—believing I was better off being an orphan.

In my thirties, cancer and my father were distant memories when I started dating Carmen, who I met in acting class. She was a talented, Italian fashionista who lived in Westchester and spoke five languages. She was also tenacious with questions about my past.

"You were one of seven kids?" Carmen asked.

I shifted uncomfortably. "Three of us were adopted from Taiwan," I said.

Another reason I avoided talking about my family was that I had lied about my age to just about everyone, hoping to improve my chances of landing dance and acting gigs by appearing to be younger. Suffice it to say, I was unaccustomed to sharing any personal information about me or my family.

"After your parents divorced, your father raised you?" Carmen asked, undettered.

I told her that my mother moved out when I was 6 years old, leaving all the kids with my father.

"What does your father do now?" she asked.

I told Carmen my father had become a Protestant minister after retiring from the Air Force and how he had crusaded for the environment but didn't have the guts to ever run for office—all information I got from my younger sister. The town locals actually called him "The Trashman" because he walked around the neighborhood picking up litter, even cigarette butts.

He paid for his own ticket to the Earth Summit in Rio but never got more involved than that. He had the chance to be extraordinary—to really change the world—but he declined. He was unassuming and basically lived a small life, unlike me. I wanted to be a famous dancer. When that didn't pan out, I decided to become a famous actor. I would be someone. I had nothing in common with my dad.

"Your father was always an environmentalist?" Carmen asked. "Wow, recycling and the environment are big issues now, but they weren't 30 years ago. Your dad sounds like a visionary."

This surprised me. "He was a bumbling fool who ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every day of his life," I said.

"What you're saying doesn't make sense," Carmen continued. "He adopted several children and raised seven of you guys. He sounds like a good man to me, and a good father."

Carmen's logic deeply troubled me and I spent the next few months reevaluating my father's past and our relationship. I came to the conclusion that my father hadn't been a bad parent—I had been a bad son.

When I finally had the courage to pick up the phone and call him after 12 years, it was too late. My father didn't recognize me. He was suffering from frontal lobe dementia, which is similar to Alzheimer's. For the next three years, I tried to rebuild our relationship, but I'll never know if he realized his prodigal son had returned.

He was in great pain at the end and a morphine drip was administered in his last few days. All of his seven children, traveling great distances, made it to his bedside before he passed away. The hospital didn't try to prolong his life because he had been clear he didn't want to waste unnecessary resources on himself if he wasn't mentally present. He wanted a natural death.

At his memorial service, I described how my father didn't say a whole lot or show much emotion, which I always thought—wrongly—meant he didn't love me. I described how he helped me with my homework, got me to my basketball practices and put seven kids into college with a little bit of financial help for each of us. His support was incredibly generous, considering his modest military salary. I looked out into the full church—my father was loved in his community—and admitted that I hoped one day to be half the man he had been.

I've since grown closer with my relatives. I know he would've liked that, as he was a family man. I now enjoy telling stories of my dad's idiosyncrasies. He used only cold water in the shower, turning it off after barely getting wet, lathering and using just enough to rinse off, saving gas and fresh water. He bicycled several miles to work and never took a sick day.

I am now 46 and live in Queens. I'm not a famous dancer or actor. I turned out to be quite ordinary, paying my bills as a dog walker. I don't know what lies ahead for me, but I do know that I'd give anything just to share a cup of coffee with my dad on Father's Day.

Tags: family