For My Dad

Every August my family gets together in Annapolis and we celebrate “The Pete and Evelyn Wiley Memorial Crab Feast.” As part of the tradition we all have a toast to my parents. I’m in charge of offering a few words about my Dad.

Every year I say the same thing as we all raise a shot glass full of Natty Boh beer: “A toast to Walter Emerson Wiley, the man who gave me my sense of humor, my intelligence, my good looks, my diabetes and my alcoholism.” Every year it gets a mild chuckle. I believe in recycling old stuff…even toasts.
As Father’s Day is upon us and FaceBook is inundated with glowing tributes to all fathers great and small, I feel the words of my toast need a closer look. The chuckles at my words are getting fewer every year but the truth in them is becoming more apparent to me. My Dad did have a great sense of humor. He was smarter than I realized at the time and he certainly was handsome, down to his small squinty eyes and his large Native American nose.

All of my Dad’s virtues were met head on with the opposing forces of two different diseases with which my father was cursed. Type1, diabetes and alcoholism hammered at “the old man” and made his life a true challenge. When I was just starting elementary school my father was diagnosed with the diabetes. He was 40 years old at the time and his life lasted only another 27 years. In those days, people didn’t carry around glucometers to test their blood sugar levels. Consequently, he received the same amount of insulin from a needle to his ass every single day of those 27 years. My mother was responsible for administering the insulin shots until circumstances lead him to his final residence at the V.A. hospital in Perry Point, Maryland in the psychiatric ward. He spent the final ten years of his life living among the insane. Medical science knows better nowadays but to receive the same amount of insulin every day was a bad idea. It made him crazier than a shit house rat, thus the incarceration with the insane.

I got off easy. I came down with Type 2, diabetes and medical science knows better nowadays. I test my glucose level daily and my blood is drawn 4 times a year to check my A1C. I exercised regularly and thanks to Barb’s healthy cooking and our good eating habits, I have lost 75 pounds since my diagnosis 10 years ago. My A1C is now at the exact level that my doctor wants it to be. My weight and body mass are where they should be.

I hated my father for decades because of his wild and verbally abusive behavior that was a result of his diabetes and excessive beer drinking. I had no idea. I hated my father because I was so damn socially awkward, not just in those difficult teen years but in my young adulthood when we were all trying to get laid and strike out on our own in the grown up world and trying to establish a career. I struck out miserably on all accounts and it was all my father’s fault. That was my story and I was sticking to it.

But Dad took great pride in the fact that he never physically abused Mike or me. Lynn was the fortunate last child and only female among us siblings. She has very few bad memories of Dad and mostly good ones. I have been told that Tom, who was the first and only child for 10 years, did indeed get hit by “the old man.” Birth order means a lot.

For many years my siblings and I retold stories of Dad’s erratic behavior. Some of the scenes we thought were funny, but a great many of these episodes caused us to hate him. Thanks to my own diabetes I now know better. I know what high and low blood sugar levels can do and how they can make one feel and affect one’s attitude and behavior. I thought I got a shitty deal when they were handing out fathers but my Dad got a shittier deal in life when they handed out diseases.

I am so sorry Dad. I grew up totally afraid of you and with a total fear of authority figures. I feared parents, teachers, school principals, policemen, firemen, music conductors, music contractors, yada, yada, etc. A therapist once told me, “You have populated the world with a slew of W. Emerson Wiley’s. I had indeed.

And in a strange way I am grateful for the relatively benign diabetes which allowed me a look at the disease that took so much away from my father. There are 3 principles I try to live by: gratitude, generosity, and forgiveness. Gratitude is an absolute necessity to me and generosity is easy and fun. But forgiveness gives me one hell of a time.
There is a meme floating around FaceBook of an empty bench overlooking a gorgeous ocean. It reads, “If you could sit on this bench and chat for 1 hour with anyone from the past or present who would it be?” Most people mention a parent or grandparent and I am no different. Of course I’d love to sit there and talk to Walter Emerson Wiley. (Yes, he gave me his middle name too.) Don’t get me wrong: I cannot speak for my siblings but, I now know there is nothing that my father said or did that needs forgiveness from me. Quite the contrary.
I would ask him to forgive me for being too shy and afraid of him to even make small talk with him. When I was going through a phase of learning to play chess and practicing every day he said to me during a sober moment, “I wish I knew how to play chess too so we could have a game.” I offered no “Field of Dreams Moment” where Kevin Costner says to Dwier Brown, “Hey dad, ya wanna have a catch?” I merely let out a guttural grunt in response but nothing further.

I wish I had offered to teach him the game of chess. And if I could meet my father on that bench, I would tell him how damn funny and clever he was. I would tell him how smart he was and how I admired his knowledge of American history and of his keen interest in the Civil War. He had beautiful penmanship and according to my brother Tom, “That sonofabitch could draw!” I would share all of this and more with him.

I would tell him I admired his pride in his Native American heritage and thought it was really cool that he had collected 2,000 Indiana Head pennies when he worked in the bank. I would tell him that when I was an awkward and clumsy and goofy looking kid, I secretly admired how damn handsome he was.

And Dad, when you were sober and your blood sugar was normal, I was so proud of you. You were a bank officer, a city councilman and admired by the community of Eastport and Annapolis. I am so sorry you had your disease and I love you.

Happy Father’s Day.

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