Father’s Day rolls around again, and I am brought back 50 years to the smell of spent cigars and sweaty T-shirts in the mid-June heat. We argued about those T-shirts often and rancorously, my father and I. He favored the sleeveless, white-cotton variety, which I thought looked ridiculous.
“Why don’t you wear the right T-shirts?” my father would ask, with genuine bafflement. “You’ll be a lot cooler in the summer!”
“I like colored T-shirts, with sleeves!” I’d shout back. “Leave me the hell alone!”
I was 14, and anything but the son my father would have chosen. He was a natural athlete who loved nothing better than starting up a softball game with the kids at Kibbe Park, who knew him simply as “Jake.” He liked crooning along with “Dean Martin Sings Parisian,” channeling Groucho Marx (“I hate to be Russian, but I Mos-cow…”) and downing a cold glass of Genesee Beer with a few slices of pepperoni.
I was a studious nerd, given to spouting verses from Dylan Thomas and listening to Simon and Garfunkle, alone in my room. I hated almost anything connected with sports and, as my classmates frequently pointed out on the baseball diamond, I threw “like a girl.” On some level, I probably sensed that the arguments my father and I had over T-shirts were really about the kind of kid I was, and the kind he wanted me to be.
But when I turned 15, my father and I found common ground in the soft, leather seats of our 1962 Pontiac Bonneville. I was still too young to drive legally, but my dad and I would take the “Bonnie” out into the countryside, and he would let me take the wheel.
At first, I’d sit scrunched up against him in the driver’s seat — “Just in case the cops should stop us!” — with my father’s oniony breath hot on the back of my neck. But as he grew more confident in my driving skills, my father would take the passenger seat and let me drive on my own. Sailing along on the hot, sticky tar of those country roads, with watery mirages shimmering ahead of us, my father and I were almost at peace — or at least, abiding by the terms of some undeclared truce. I might throw like a girl, but I could drive like a man. My father sat smiling beside me and seemed almost proud.
Two years later, he was diagnosed with metastatic renal cancer. As I was already determined to become a doctor, my father’s physicians took me into their confidence, and under their wing. The oncologist from Buffalo held up a vial of vincristine, drew me close, and said somberly, “Your dad has a 30 percent chance of remission with this.”
Back in the 1960s, this kind of news was routinely kept from the patient, particularly if the family and the doctor agreed it was in the patient’s “best interest.” And so, my father was told he had a “cyst” on his kidney, and that it could be surgically removed. My uncle, a renowned surgeon, actually performed the operation. “It went very well,” he said afterward, “very, very clean.” But six months later, my father was dead.
We never resolved our argument over which T-shirt to wear, and I never became the kind of ball-playing, back-slapping son my father would have liked. But to this day, I can feel his breath on the back of my neck, as we cruised in the rough freedom of the summer countryside.
In some ways, I have kept the parts of my father that could reside comfortably in my poet’s heart. I’m no Dean Martin fan, but Paris is my favorite city. And, as I often say to my wife when I hurry out the door, “Honey, I hate to be Russian, but I Mos-cow!”