You Only Go Around Once

My dad visited me in Los Angeles several years ago. It was early summer, could have been right around Father’s Day, and he loved it here — the weather, the cars, the girls, the style, the smarts, the energy, my friends, my future wife. My dad was like a barracuda, the way he was attracted to shiny, bright things. We walked down the Sunset Strip, and he really wanted to see a movie star. No such luck, but later we spotted Jay Leno having brunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel. That was good enough for my dad. He talked enthusiastically about coming out here more, and my new goal after his visit was to get a place with a guest room for him to stay in. It didn’t happen that way. I’ve only watched one person die, and it wasn’t pretty, noble, redemptive, affirming, or even close to what you see in movies. In fact, it pretty much sucked. My dad didn’t meet his death with anything approaching dignity. He met it kicking, screaming, crying, fighting. He met it with lunacy. He simply didn’t want to go. I don’t blame him. After he spent several months in rehab, followed by his first few years of sobriety in decades, his life had pretty much gotten really good right when he started to die. Over the course of a year or so, I watched his death slowly, relentlessly and cruelly grow from a fleeting glimpse in the corner of his eyes into something that got bigger and bigger until it was the only thing reflected there. Considering how new and exciting his life was just becoming, the timing seemed wholly inappropriate. Sometimes I wished he’d just stop fighting and accept. But my dad wasn’t like that. He was always a fighter. He came from the bottom and he made it, well, if not to the top, then to the top of anything we, his family, could imagine or hope for. He was just starting to understand all that and like himself for it. He died of cancer on the night before Thanksgiving, but I tend to mark his passing on Father’s Day, which is funny because even though I’d send him a card or give him a call, he always sloughed off the significance of the holiday. It didn’t mean anything to him, and he didn’t want anything out of it. He was much better at giving than receiving. But now Father’s Day is for him — in ways that it never was when he was alive. That’s because Father’s Day three years ago, the first one he wasn’t around to see, happened to be the day I got married at the Westlake Village Inn — to a bona fide L.A. woman. It also happened to be the day a story I wrote about my dad came out in the Los Angeles Times Magazine. It told about some of the triumphs and tragedies of his life, things he was trying to come to terms with when he realized the end was near. My sister had the paper delivered to the rooms of all the wedding guests. It’s corny to say, but it’s true; he made it to Los Angeles on that Father’s Day. He was in the perfect blue, sun-kissed sky; he was in the flowers whose color exploded like fireworks over the wishing well where we were married and out of the bouquets held by the bridesmaids and off the prints on my mother’s dress. He was in the smiles of friends of mine I hadn’t seen in years who my dad knew and loved. And he was in my best friend’s heart, whose toast to my wife and me was in good measure a eulogy to my father. He was in the fortune cookies we handed out to everybody that when opened contained a simple thing he was fond of saying: You only go around once, so remember to have a good time. The sad thing about my father’s life and death was that by the time he figured out what good times really were, he had so little time left. The great thing is that he was one of the lucky ones who did figure it out. But that’s what our fathers do for us; they learn the hard way in order to make it easier on us. On Father’s Day I take comfort in knowing that although my father only had that one short visit to Los Angeles, this is where he finally died peacefully.

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