By Todd Harrison May 03, 2003 9:58 am
I had a father figure. My grandfather Ruby was my best friend, sage, spirit and soul. He taught me honesty and integrity, the value of my spoken word and the importance of conducting myself in a manner consistent with who I believe I am. I was also blessed with a mother who raised my brother and I with dignity and class. She attended every game I ever played in and was always the loudest cheer in the crowd. I consider myself fortunate to have been surrounded with a loving family in my youth.
I was too young to understand what divorce was when it happened. I just knew that my dad wasn't around anymore and was confused as to why that was. I vaguely remember sporadic weekends of visitation and occasional summers with him in Los Angeles. As the years passed, our time together became the exception rather than the rule. I didn't know what I did to upset him but, after many birthdays waiting for calls that never came, I got used to the separation.
After college, my career summoned and I devoted my energies to building a future. My triumphs and setbacks were shared and supported by my mother and grandparents. My dad faded slowly and surely as I accepted the fact that he was gone. I heard he had migrated to Maui and settled into a simple life but, truth be told, I never really knew for sure.
And then one day, out of the blue, I got the call.
It was the middle of the trading day early in 2000 and I was actively moving merchandise back and forth. I can't tell you exactly where the averages were but suffice to say we were beginning to slide down the slippery slope and it was pretty intense. "Hello, can I speak to Todd Harrison please?" the voice on the other end of the phone asked. After the initial exchange, the bomb dropped. My father was in Maui, alright, and he was in a lot of trouble.
As the facts slowly came to light, I found that my dad had managed to dig himself in to a deep hole. He was homeless, he was penniless, he was abusing substances and he was in jail. It had been ten years since we last spoke and while my initial reaction was muted, I knew I had to do something. He was my dad, after all, and he had nowhere else to turn. I dropped everything, gathered my brother Adam and caught the first flight to the Hawaiian islands.
The next morning, sitting in the courthouse awaiting the arraignment, the attorney filled us in on the situation. Then, as the judge called the session to order, the bailiff led a string of defendants into the room. I didn't recognize my dad at first -- the orange jumpsuits were all the same and I was admittedly distracted by the chains that bound them together. I scanned the group actively before focusing on a gaunt man with gangly facial hair and tattoos. His emotionless eyes rose to connect with mine and I saw my father. He was broken and had hit rock bottom.
Over the course of the week, Adam and I jockeyed between the jail, the courthouse, the lawyer and scattered locations on the island picking up the pieces. What we uncovered was a twisted tale that led us through a maze of debt, despair, depression and dereliction. We also discovered that our father was a sick man who had suffered through many years of an undetected and untreated mental disorder. That, more than anything else, stuck out in my mind -- he was a sick man. Maybe the 30 years of moody neglect wasn't our fault after all?
During our last visit to the Maui correctional facility, we handed our father pictures of his grandchildren for inspiration and told him how fortunate he truly was. I promised that if he stayed clean and sought help, I would help him to start a new life. I also assured him that I would return in one year so we could spend time together in a place that didn't have steel bars and barbed wire. He looked me dead in the eye and told me that he'd make us proud.
True to my word, I returned to Hawaii the following year and witnessed a remarkable change. My father, properly medicated, was as clean as a whistle and volunteering his time at an animal orphanage. He was also practicing a new-found faith and, while I was raised Jewish and remain close to my roots, I respected and encouraged his decision to attend church services. He was still lonely, he said, but he understood that he was responsible for his own actions and wanted to make peace with those whom he had hurt. As I would find, he was also making peace with himself.
The time we spent together was cathartic and while I surely battled some internal demons, I "let go" of the anger that swam in my subconscious for so long. It was bittersweet, in a way, as I was grateful for the reconnection but sorry that his bipolar disorder wasn't diagnosed years earlier. Still, it's not very often that you get a second chance with a lost parent and I wasn't going to let it slip away. My dream, as I explained to him, was to introduce my niece and nephew to their grandfather. It was said as a means of motivation but my intentions were equally selfish. I missed having a father in my life.
Last week, my dad set foot in New York City for the first time in nearly 20 years. As I greeted him, we embraced in a long, hard hug that melted away years of disappointment, anger and judgment. He was a humbled man, the type of humility that I suppose comes after you've lost everything and stared deep into the abyss. He told me he had contemplated suicide many times but the glimmer of his children saw him through the pain. He cried-we cried-and then we talked for hours upon hours about everything and nothing.
My dad and I traveled to Baltimore last night and he met his grandchildren for the first time. As we sat around the active dinner table, I found myself looking at him proudly. I think it was the first time I ever experienced that particular emotion and, after a childhood of seeking his approval, I found it ironic that our roles had somehow reversed. I have no complaints though. This reunion was a long time in the making and I've found that the longer you wait for dinner, the better it tastes.
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