Fathers Day, 2007.
I was 19 when Dad died after a long battle with cancer in 1984. Even then I knew 47 was not old, certainly not old enough to live a full life. Now I’m 43 — four years shy of Dad’s age at his death — and I understand far more clearly how young he really was. And I find as I approach that age, I miss him all the more.
I’ve written before in this space about the man who was Robert Gillis Senior. He was a paradox. He didn’t graduate high school but remains one of the most well-read, best informed people I have ever met. He adored his mother despite her inability to return that affection (although I know she loved him). He was a tough kid who grew up street-fighting and playing stickball, but was popular, very well-liked and respected.
He grew up in a home where “I love you” was rarely expressed yet constantly told my mother, sister and me how much he loved us. He adored my mother, “My bride,” he called her sometimes. He was raised without a father yet somehow knew how to be a good father anyway.
After nearly twenty-five years I’ve long since gotten used to his not being in my life anymore, but every now and then — particularly when the Red Sox are in the news — I think of him.
He LOVED his beloved Red Sox, and I wish he’s lived to see October 2004. I can imagine him floating above Fenway Park that October night singing “Halleluiah!” as the Red Sox finally won the series.
Like so many sons and fathers, we were too alike and we started clashing as I hit my late teens. But I think a lot of that tension was due to his increasingly poor health and frustration with not being able to support the family anymore — something he’d done so well for decades.
My dad was, like all of us, a flawed human being who did the best he could in sometimes trying circumstances, often when he was very ill.
On the opposite side of the coin, Dad had so many qualities I try to emulate. He had such a strong core set of values. He had such wisdom. His sense of right and wrong helped shaped me.
He was extraordinarily generous. He was a kind man.
His family was the most important thing in his life and he just wanted us to be happy.
He wasn’t materialistic. It didn’t take luxury to make him happy. He just wanted to be with his family.
He never spoke ill of the dead, even if they deserved it.
He worked for years in the A&M; Market on Hancock Street. He treated people kindly, and was impeccably honest and very hard working.
Any time I walked with Dad — anytime — people greeted him in a friendly manner and were glad to see him. He was extremely well liked.
My dad could fix anything. Anything.
And on this father’s day I think back to those random memories …
When he won money playing cards (and he often won) he would give us money to go to the store and get apple pie and ice cream, or strawberry shortcake, or a pizza from catalonis. Simple pleasures. Cherished memories.
He smoked Kents. He loved yellow cupcakes. He took his tea with sugar and his coffee without. His favorite ice cream was a butterscotch sundae from Brigham’s. He would pour over his baseball encyclopedia for hours. When he couldn’t sleep, he was at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper, reading books.
He kept a lot of his “Dorchester” speak. The bar was a “gin mill.” Soda was “tonic.” Going food shopping was picking up the “order” (pronounced (aw-dah). A submarine sandwich was a “spukie.” The refrigerator was often, “The ice box.”
And comics were “funny books.” When my collection of comic books had grown, he found an old cabinet someone had discarded, sanded it, painted it, and measured shelves to perfectly fit my comic books.
When I was a kid I couldn’t afford a new bike so he spent over a week painting, polishing and refurbishing my old bike — it looked brand new when he was done.
When he couldn’t work anymore and Mom went back to work, he made sure the house was sparkling clean every Friday.
He was a storyteller. I could listen to those stories for hours and I miss hearing them.
I remember sitting on the back porch with him in Dorchester as planes flew out of Logan. He could identify the type of plane (say, a 727) by its engine noise.
I remember the first night I worked at my new job at the hospital — he was waiting on the corner at midnight to make sure I was okay. It was June — but he was already so sick he was wearing a jacket.
I come back to present day life and I know Dad would adore his grandson Colin — my nephew is much like Dad — outgoing, aggressive, a terrific sports player, and a heart of gold. He would be so proud of what my mother and sister have accomplished.
I’m 43 and I miss my Dad. A flawed human being like all of us. He did the best he could and succeeded far more often than not. A good man, a loving husband and father. A friend to so many people, a kind and generous man who made a difference in so many lives, especially mine.
I am thankful that my dad loved me, but more so that he could say it. He told me he loved me many times. And despite any teen angst and father/son friction, there were never lasting problems, nothing unresolved.
My last words to my father, the night before he died, were, “I love you.”
Happy father’s Day, Dad. Rest in peace.