I am not crying yet, but I know the tears will come. I learned only moments ago that my father just died.
I have not been a good son. And he has not been a good father. But that seems hardly to matter now as I envision his flesh suddenly cold.
Here is his brief biography: He was born in the town of Sfakia in Crete more than 80 years ago. He snuck into the country when he as a child with his father. They crossed illegally from Windsor, Canada, into Detroit. They lived hand-to-mouth and soon my father was on his own, a Greek Oliver twisting from one day to the next.
As a young man, he lived by means of a gun and cunning. He and his "crew," the word was his, robbed payroll trucks for a living. It was a good living, too. He owned an apartment building where he spent most of his time. "You needed a warrant" to get to the upper floors, he told me. When the "heat" was on, he had a "safe house" he would hide in.
He needed to only "knock off" three or four firms a year to live. He was content.
My father was at pains to tell me he was not a violent man. Except for one night. In 1954, he shot a man. He said he only wounded the victim. And then the feds got interested, or so my father told me. He took the young woman he was seeing with him to Chicago. She is now my mother.
They were happy for a time. I have some pictures that prove it. But he had no education and skills only in crime. One night he walked out of my mother's and my life. I cried for a decade then, and my mother seemed lost in ways from which she never really recovered.
I told myself he died for decades. He must have died. Half-hearted efforts to find him always failed. Then one night his new wife called. He was living in Virginia. I went to see him. He had settled in the South, working to build homes for troubled teens. Oh, that I had lived in one of those towns, I thought.
It was odd to see an older version of myself. I was not his spitting image, but we were father and son. I am not sure I liked it. Suddenly, a future that seemed unlimited was now bound by the image of a man in his eighties who was mortal. My future.
And not just mortal. I could not trust his candor. There were stories he'd told his new wife that made no sense given what I knew. It seemed as if he wanted me to keep his secrets in his new life. Would I convey his thoughts to my mother?
It was too weird for me. I could not bear stories of how much he loved me as a child. He disappeared, the event which perhaps more than any other explains my bearing in the world. Am I distrustful of authority? Gee, I wonder how that happened.
We did not talk at all after a year of trying to reconnect. What could give back all that is lost? Was I a mere bauble at life's end, some consolation prize he could give or take with impunity when it suited him?
And now he is stone-cold dead. Now I will travel South to give a farewell kiss to lips whose absence destroyed a boy and made a man of many struggles. I will stand before his new family as a stranger. I will take my place beside a grave and look into a hole and wonder where time goes, where hope goes.
My father died an illegal immigrant. He had false papers throughout his life. He robbed people at gun point. He shot a man. He broke a boy's heart and walked out of the arms of a good woman who adored him. And when, like Odysseus, he returned after his many struggles, he seemed unaccustomed to truth.
This was the father I knew. James Pattis died this week. He was not a good man, but neither was he bad. He was my father. And now I have to learn to cry all over again. •
Reprinted with permission of The Connecticut Law Tribune.