Going the distance on Father’s Day

By JOHNNY ANGEL  |  June 13, 2007

My father died on April 25 at 1:15 pm in Largo, Florida. He had suffered debilitating bouts of dementia and diabetes and was unable to recuperate from the gallbladder surgery intended to restore his appetite. He was 79.

I wasn’t there. I was 2700 miles west in Los Angeles, where I’ve lived for 18 years, in a casting office waiting to meet my friend Jack at an audition. Just before he arrived, I checked my voice mail and heard my younger brother’s somber intimation of “bad news.” Jack knew what had happened and walked me to my car.

My first impulse, native New Englander that I am, was to show no emotion — to anyone. My second was to reflect on the marvelous, perpetual sunshine of my adopted home. How was it possible, I wondered, to be glum in the warm California sun, to paraphrase the surf-rock classic of the same name.

On one side of my eyes were the familiar daily sights of Hollywood and Silver Lake, of endless freeways and my son’s preschool, of Gold’s Gym and the Burbank Pinnacle, where I work. But peering within, I was back in Massachusetts at age 14, strolling through the Financial District toward the family business on Court Street, long before I found myself half orphaned and a long, long way from home, unable to return.

Throughout the past 20 years, I became separated from my father, first emotionally and then physically. As a prominent local conservative political activist, he was horrified that his first-born became an unrepentant leftist champion of everything he despised, from gay rights to the anti-war movement. Here was a man who entertained Chuck Colson and Richard Viguerie (the Watergate felon and founder of the right-wing direct-mail network, respectively) at his home. My metamorphosis from eager conservative acolyte to snide detractor so infuriated him that he didn’t even acknowledge my fill-in drive-time-host performance, in 2004, on his beloved WRKO, despite the fact that his radio was always tuned to the station.

Even at 48, you seek Dad’s approval. That truly hurt.

So did the fact that he never spoke to my wife — not even once — and never met either of my two sons. Or showed less than even the most cursory interest in what I was doing.

We were truly estranged when I finally saw him after 15 years of occasional phone calls. I had returned to Boston to play some reunion shows with my ’80s rock band the Blackjacks. I decided to see him at his managed-care home. It was like a scene out of Cocoon — I could hear the residents of the home singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” as I approached the activities room, and I sat down beside him and asked how things were going. When he asked if he knew me, I replied that I hoped so, since I was his son. A moment later, tears rolled down his face.

We spoke for an hour and had lunch a few days later, and I was struck by the fact that I was now the caretaker if I chose to be, that he could never be leaned on again. How I wanted to call him a while back when Satan incarnate, Mariano Rivera, blew that lead, or how the Sox came back from five-zip to beat Baltimore. I wish I had shared those moments with him for so many reasons, not least because if my Dad had known that I still loved the Red Sox, he would have known by extension that I loved him — without my having to say so aloud.

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