Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"Who Is That Man In The Photo, Mommy?"

Two months before I got married, my father fell off of a treadmill. A trip to the ER led to some testing and the testing led to a diagnosis of late stage lung cancer. Just a few days after he walked me down the aisle, he fell into a coma and on the night I returned from my honeymoon, he died.

I’ve struggled for years to write about my Dad, the father who raised me. While I’ve nearly completed a memoir about my birth father--who I really only got to know later in life--I have rarely written about Anthony (Tony) Franco.

Dad was ever present, nearly omnipresent. In fact, when I was in first grade, he told me he was a magician and therefore could see everything I did during the day. A note had just come home saying that I was "too social". For the next week or more, I barely spoke at school. I kept imagining Dad as this sky high presence in the classroom, hovering above our desks. 

Later, when I strayed too far while selling Girl Scout Cookies in our suburban Detroit neighborhood, he somehow found me. I will never forget his big boat of a car pulling up in a driveway I didn't recognize. "Time to come home, Meredith," he said. And I knew he would always be there.

He raised me as his own and never failed to tell anyone who might listen that he felt like he brought me “home from the hospital.” He said this frequently in front of me I think to very clearly state the point that he loved me wholly, completely and without conditions. He tried for years to legally adopt me, but my birth father wouldn’t sign the papers.

And, then, as Dad was essentially dying from lung cancer and we were planning a wedding, we decided to finally make my adoption official. At 23 years of age, I got adopted and changed my name legally.

I appeared in court, Dad via phone from Florida, and we explained our situation. He had raised me from the time I was 4 years old, 3 if you count when he was dating my mom, and he had been responsible for me since then.

Even when I pushed and fought against some of his conventions (an early curfew in high school or his suggestion during my heavy 'grunge' phase that I not dress “like a hobo” come to mind) he still so clearly provided that initial base for me where and when my birth father could not. 

He took the time to talk through any problem I was considering. He argued and debated with me. He cheered me on. Growing up, I was one of nine children, but he still made sure he had the funds to pay for college, to help me buy a car when the time came and to facilitate a move to New York City.

You always knew where you stood with my Dad - which meant that when he was disappointed in you, you knew it. When he was excited or happy with something you were up to, he was a loud and passionate cheerleader. He used to tell me pretty regularly that I had more talent in my little finger than he had in his whole body. He was also fierce about the fact that I could be anything I wanted, that moms could also work and provide for their families, that women were tough as nails and that I should always seek the best for myself.

When he died, it was like the world fell apart for a little while. The glue that held everything together in our blended family melted. What was left were broken apart pieces of a puzzle I still can’t quite put together.

So, for years, it was hard to recall much of anything without breaking down. The pain was just too raw.

But lately my daughter has been asking, “Who is that man in the photo, Mommy?” And I’ve started to answer her. Sometimes her retention of what I’ve said is humorous (she recently told my brother that I said Dad was "in space now.”) and some are downright halting, “Mommy, do you ever just miss your Dad?” And yes, then the tears start to flow.

There are some that would claim that because his blood does not coarse through my veins, that because we share no biology, he is not really mine to claim. But when Eva asks me if unicorns are real I say, “Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

Kind of like love. You can’t see it all the time. But dear lord, you know it’s there.

I may not be Italian, but I feel Italian (just come to my house one night for linguine alle vongole). I may not have been born a Franco, but I am one. I may not have had the conventional father set-up growing up, but I still know I was claimed, loved, renamed and worried over.

Happy Father’s Day to every father out there, no matter how you came to know fatherhood or love your children. And happy day Dad, wherever you are.

1 comment: