My dad saved me, and I killed him
Why did I do it? It’s complicated.
I loved the son of a bitch more than anything on the planet. You see, 28 years earlier, I was born a cripple. A breech birth, feet first, my head stuck in the birth canal. By my first birthday, I couldn’t crawl, stand or walk. My right arm and hand awkwardly clung to my torso. At first, the doctors told my dad I would never walk or run normally because the muscles in my right leg and arm would continue to atrophy.
When I was 3, Dad brought me to Children’s Hospital in Boston for answers. They told him I had cerebral palsy. A loss of oxygen to my brain had destroyed brain signals to the right side of my body. The doctors recommended that I attend private schools. They gave him a long list of places that could better care for cripples like me, and they prescribed a full-length removable leg cast to wear at bedtime.
He refused to listen. No son of his was going to be a cripple. He found a doctor who instructed him in how he could take the place of my injured brain. Every morning before breakfast and every evening before bed, my dad placed me on the bedroom floor to exercise my right leg. The muscles were shrunken and twisted together. His job was to craft them straight, at any cost. Back and forth, up and down, my dad pushed and pulled the muscles into shape. He stretched them until the heel of my right foot evenly matched up to the heel of the left foot.
My Aunt Helen told me the process was almost unbearable to witness. She said the sounds of me screaming soured her stomach. I was too young; I don’t remember the pain. But my mother said my dad would cry. He couldn’t look into my eyes. His tears made wet stains on my T-shirt.
But my dad’s exercise of passion didn’t stop there. For my 13th birthday, he threw me a special party. First, we ate my favorite peanut butter cake. Then he allowed me to open every present but a large box neatly trimmed in colorful birthday-balloon wrapping paper. When everybody was gone, he marched me into the basement to open the box.
It was a set of boxing gloves. We put them on. My dad proceeded to beat me unmercifully. Each time I tried to get up, leather kissed my nose, eyes and jaw. Blood ran into my mouth from the spot where my front teeth punctured my bottom lip. I begged him to stop. Instead he carefully, systematically picked a target, never once missing his bull’s-eye.
Hysterical, I collapsed in his arms. He cradled me, rocking back and forth. Dad said, “I’d cut off my right arm if that would make you whole.” I couldn’t talk. He said he beat me to get me ready for the world. Told me I was a man now and things would be extra tough for me.
That same year, he caught me hitchhiking, duct-taped me to a kitchen chair and turned on Mom’s electric carving knife. He never touched me with it, just held it close to my ears. It was for my own good, he said. I needed to know what would happen if a “bad man” picked me up.
Ironically, it was also easy for my dad to engage in an uncommon act of discernible love. That same year, I was the only kid in my neighborhood that wasn’t picked for Little League. Everybody laughed at me at tryouts. My right leg awkwardly slanted inward as I ran.
My father heard their snickers. On the ride home, neither of us spoke. I sat close to him. He held my hand, and we cried together. Two weeks later, Dad started the Shedd Park Minor League. He raised money, bought uniforms, enlisted coaches, acquired permits, and every kid played. Dad coached the Yankees and made me a pitcher.
In high school, I became a football star. People said if I had two good legs, I might have played on Sundays. One Saturday afternoon, I read the quarterback’s eyes, jumped the tight end and pulled the pass out of his hands. Immediately, I headed for the end zone. At the five-yard line, I looked around to see if anybody was close enough to catch me. Nobody was chasing me, except Dad running full speed along the sidelines.
The power of my dad’s love, insidious and reckless, guaranteed I walked and more. And this Father’s Day, like every Father’s Day, I’ll relive the last time I saw him. My mother was in the hospital recovering from surgery. And Dad was on the kitchen floor having sex with another woman. I found them. He went for his heart. I thought he was faking. By the time I realized he was dying and tried to help him, it was too late.
At the end, I remember a tear rolling slowly across his cheek. His eyes opened wide. I bent forward and whispered, “I love you.” He slowly reached for my hand just as he had done years ago on that ride home from Little League tryouts. And at that instant, we both experienced the pain and madness of love. Then he was gone.
That night, I shot my first bag of heroin. Three years after he died, I kicked a 10-bag-a-day habit. I became a journalist, covered the war in Bosnia, made an award-winning documentary. In 1997, a brain surgeon in San Jose told me I didn’t have cerebral palsy after all. He explained precisely how and where the doctor’s forceps at birth had damaged the frontal lobe of my brain.
My dad never knew the whole truth. But all that counts is the bottom line. After all his madness, on this Father’s Day, like every Father’s Day, I’m not a cripple.