Today would have been my dad’s 76th birthday. He died suddenly in May 2020 — although he had been in poor health (physical and mental) for years. At the time, with Covid-19 raging across the country, we weren’t able to have a funeral for him.
Which meant that I never delivered a eulogy or public remembrance of my dad. Instead I did the best thing I could: I wrote about him. I am re-publishing that essay here as a way of celebrating his life and remembering what people loved about him. Thanks for taking the time to read it.
My father died yesterday.
It was sudden, like death always is. But it had been a long time coming. He didn’t take care of himself. He was overweight and a former smoker (30+ years). He had struggled with depression and anxiety for decades.
He wasn’t happy. And that always made me sad. And frustrated because there was nothing I — or anyone else — could do about it. (Trust me, we tried.)
My dad and I weren’t all that close, which is a weird thing to say as an only child who, now, only has a mom left. But, as I worked to raise my own family and build a career — and he retreated from, well, most things — we struggled to find common ground. We’d talk, on occasion, on the phone. But, mostly he wasn’t a presence in my life. Or me in his.
I wish that last paragraph was different. I wish I could say my dad and I talked every day. I always envied friends who had that sort of relationship with their dads — or even people who would write stories or books about journeys they had taken with their dad (spiritual or physical) or how they had some sort of dramatic reconciliation later in life.
But, that wasn’t in the cards for me and Dad. I’m not sure why. Both of our faults probably. We wanted better and more. Just couldn’t — or didn’t — make it happen.
In the time since I got the call from my mom that my dad had passed away, though, I’ve had time to think about him — and the things I loved about him.
You didn’t know him. But I wanted to tell you a few things about him — my dad, John Charles Cillizza.
He had a kind face. My dad was a teacher, which meant he had summers off. My mom worked — so it was just me and my dad all summer long. A few mornings a week, we would drive to the McDonald’s in the next town over (the town I grew up in was small and didn’t have its own fast food)to get breakfast or lunch. We’d order, sit down, start to eat and then, almost every time (not kidding!) an older person would sidle up and just start talking to my dad. About their families, their son, their lives. And he would listen patiently and ask questions. Sometimes this went on for our entire meal. I’d always ask Dad when we left why “old people” (I was 12-ish and thought everyone over 40 was old) liked him so much. He said he didn’t know, they just did. I realized as I got older that it was his face; it was kind and inviting, the sort of face that made you think he might not mind you pulling up a chair and chatting.
He was generous. My Dad didn’t have much money growing up. He was 1 of 4 sons of Italian immigrants living in a 3-family house in New Britain, Connecticut. His dad — my grandfather — was a cop and a butcher. (Yes, both!) My grandmother was a homemaker. So, when he got a job of his own — he taught elementary school his whole life — and had a little cash, he liked to carry it around. Like, all of it. In a big wad. I think he just liked to know he had earned that money and, if he really wanted to, he could spend it. But, what he mostly did with it was give it away. He was a legendary over-tipper at restaurants. Anyone who did any sort of work in and around our house was invited in, given water or a beer and a little something extra for their hard work.
He was a collector. My Dad loved, loved, loved to collect things. Like, lots of things. Watches. Weird wooden sculptures of animals. Bizarre artwork of clowns at graveyards. (Literal nightmare fuel!) And, when I was a kid, baseball, basketball and football cards. Lots and lots of them. Every Saturday morning, he would drive me 30 minutes to our favorite card shop — Three Brothers — so we could shop. He would buy me sets, boxes of unopened cards, all sorts of stuff. (Remember what I said about him being generous!) And then we would drive home and open them — sorting out doubles from new ones, putting them in binders and looking up — in a magazine we had bought that day — how much they all were worth. We still have all of those cards — stacked in boxes and binders under the guest room bed in the house I grew up in.
He was loyal. Until I left for college, only one person ever cut my hair: Dominic Formato. My dad knew him from growing up Italian in New Britain. And, even though it was a 40 minute drive to and from Dom’s shop from, my dad made the trek once a month. Because Dom was his guy. Because he felt comfortable with him. And, probably, because he liked to shoot the shit with him about life while Dom cut both of our hair. (There was also a guy who sold jewelry out of the back of the shop and a guy who took bets. But that’s a whole different story.) There were a lot of places where we could have gotten haircuts that were a lot closer to my house. But my dad was loyal. Dominic had always been a good friend to him and he wanted to be a good friend back.
He was funny: Even in his later years as he faded more and more from active life, my dad was still funny as hell. Not slapstick funny. Slyly funny. Sarcastic. Quick witted. Good on his feet. That was one of the reasons all of my childhood and college friends loved him (and man did they love him). Because, unlike some of their dads, who were really serious and talked about work all the time, my dad would joke with us, screw around with us and be irreverent with us, which, as a dad myself now, I realize is coin of the realm stuff to kids.
He was a perfectionist. My dad’s best friend was the vacuum in our house. He and that damn thing spent a LOT of time together. He was forever spying some bit of dust on dirt on the ground that no one else could see. (Even now I’m not sure it actually existed.) When I got to be 12 or 13, my dad said it was time for me to start mowing our lawn myself. I’d get 5 minutes into the process and he would emerge from the house, noting that my lines — the ones caused by the mower’s wheels — weren’t straight. And, inevitably, he would take over, which was just fine for Teenage Me who didn’t really want to mow anyway ;)
He had really good musical taste: One day when I was 15 or so, I was looking through my dad’s record collection to see what kind of music he listened to. (At that point, I listened exclusively to hip hop — mostly De La Soul and 3rd Bass.) The first album I remember pulling out was “Blonde on Blonde” by Bob Dylan. At the time, it made my dad seem incredibly old and lame. Bob Dylan? The guy from the 60s??? He had A LOT of Bob Dylan records — and could quote the lyrics back to me. It took me into my 20s to realize that all his Dylan (and Stones)records meant he had really good taste in tunes.
That’s how I’ll remember my Dad. He wasn’t perfect. He struggled. He often made life harder — for himself and for the people he loved.
But, he was mine. My Dad. And I miss him.
“And take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen leaves
The haunted frightened trees
Out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow”
— Bob Dylan, “Mr. Tambourine Man”
Thanks for sharing your dad with us. I lost mine in Sept. 2020. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in July, and was gone three months later. I miss him. Raising a glass to our dads.
I too had a very disjointed and unsatisfactory relationship with my father, but in very different ways that what Chris describes. But that was a beautiful piece, thank you for sharing.