[Editor’s note: It’s become an annual tradition to run this piece by Jim Glennon in honor of Father’s Day. We send our respect and thanks to every father, grandfather, and anyone who plays the role of a father, as well as every parent, relative, friend and person who lends guidance and support to kids everywhere.]
I’m a third-generation cop. My dad was a Chicago cop, and his dad was a Chicago cop.
Never knew my grandpa. He died when I was 11 months old. My Mom’s dad died before my parents ever got married. Consequently, I’ve never called anyone “Grandpa.”
But now I’m a Grandpa. And I can’t describe how happy it makes me. Having grandkids is such a blessing, as is watching my sons be fathers. All good ones. But every day—every single solitary day—I miss my dad.
James Stephen Glennon was born on January 15, 1929. The exact same day as Martin Luther King Jr. He died the day of the Oklahoma City bombing: April 19, 1995. He was only 66 years old.
The other night I went out to dinner with three grammar school buddies, one of whom I haven’t seen in about 40 years. We met at an Irish bar, talked, drank, laughed, reminisced, laughed some more. Eventually we talked about our families and friends—the ones still with us and the ones who are not.
We talked about our dads.
All four of us lost our fathers, we discovered, within two years of each other. Those men were all too young to go, especially as we find ourselves getting close to those same ages. The four of us, all agreed, were too young to lose them, especially in hindsight as fathers and grandfathers.
I was 39 when dad died. I’m the oldest of nine so my youngest brother was only 26. But, any age is too young to see your dad go.
Mine wasn’t perfect. He had his flaws like most. He was never abusive. I don’t think he ever spanked us. The possibility, always looming, served its purpose. He wasn’t a huggy, kissy, feely type dad, but he was always there. And that mattered.
He quit law enforcement after eight years on the job and became an insulator, a pipe coverer for 45 years. It was a good living, better money, and honorable but very hard work. After a few decades the skin on his hands got eaten up by the cement compounds he mixed every day. He worked with, and eventually died from, asbestos exposure.
His retirement party from that profession is one of the best memories of my life. The family surprised him at a church hall. When I informed him that another 200 were coming he took me to the side and said, “Jimmy, I don’t know 200 people,” totally unaware of the impact he had on the lives of others.
It was the early 90s and we had a VHS video camera running. We toasted him, gave humorous speeches, wrote him a funny song. My dad who was inwardly emotional, had a ball, laughed a lot and even cried that night. Towards the end he took the microphone and simply said to the crowd, “Thank you all. And I have to say, I have the best damn kids in the whole world.”
He handed me the microphone and went back to his chair.
My mom called several days later and told me that my dad was seated in front of the TV and just kept watching the video of the party over and over.
So why did I write this article?
I miss my father terribly. I never, ever go a day without thinking about him. Most of my thoughts are just about him being him. My imperfect hero. But my hero nonetheless. A man I always tried to make proud.
Too often I have regrets. After he retired he golfed with my brothers once. Golfed! He had never before picked up a club in his life. I remember telling him I was going to go next time.
There was no next time. He got sick, had surgery, and never walked again. Seven months later he was gone.
Three Sweet Words
My dad, as I remember, said the words, “I love you” once to me. When I was in college, at the handshake of peace I said it to him as I grabbed his hand. I thought about doing it for weeks, knowing we were all going to go to mass with our parents. I was nervous. It was an emotional risk.
His response to my “I love you, dad”?
“Thanks,” and he turned and shook another hand.
I was devastated.
We had a party at my parent’s house that day, which was an hour away from my school. Friends, family, roommates, and so forth were there. We played guitar and sang (my father absolutely loved when we did that, always insisting we bring our guitars to parties). We drank. We played games.
As the group of us were getting ready to pile in a car and go back to our college we made our round of goodbyes. I was the last one to walk down the flight of our stairs and get to the front door. Suddenly I heard behind me, “Jimmy!” I turned and saw my dad at the top of that staircase. “I love you too!” he said with emotion in his voice and a look on his face I was unfamiliar with. Then he turned and went back to the party.
Why did it take him eleven hours to respond? Well, I realized, he had never heard it from me. I caught him by surprise. That moment, when he said those three words in front of everyone, loud and clear, is one of the most cherished moments of my life.
Still, that didn’t start a regular “I love you” between us. That just wasn’t him.
In contrast my kids hear “I love you” from me virtually every time we talk or see each other. I probably said it to them 100 times a day when they were infants.
When dad was unconscious for five months I said it to him every time I saw him. Then he woke up and eventually went to rehab. He was aware and talking. And I stopped saying it.
One day as I was leaving the center I almost said it to him, but I didn’t. I chickened out.
When I got to my car I cried because of my cowardice. I had a tape recorder that I was using as I was trying to write a book at the time. I used it to record ideas that popped in my head. I picked it up and spoke into it, “Next time, I’m telling my father I love him.”
He died the next morning.
Sorry, there is a rambling to this article: apparently my thoughts and feelings about my dad still aren’t linear. That’s probably because I still don’t know exactly how to talk him. But I do every day. And every day I tell him that I love him.
Cops, especially male cops, too often harden their hearts. It’s a coping mechanism. We distance ourselves. We trust very few. Don’t do that with your family. Don’t do it to your dad.
So here we are. Another year. Another Father’s Day. For many of us, dad isn’t present anymore. Maybe we don’t know who he is or where he is. Maybe he’s passed on.
But, if you’re lucky, your dad is alive and known to you. I would ask of you this: don’t hesitate to say those three words. If you already do that regularly, good for you. So now take it to the next level and tell him why. Tell him why he means what he does to you. Recognize his efforts. If there’s an estrangement—and I recognize there are a million legitimate reasons why there may be—if at all possible, see past it.
Take it from me, you may not have a tomorrow.