My father’s life was one to make you disbelieve in justice.
He was born to an outwardly decent family. His father & namesake was a decorated Korean War veteran from a classic American Protestant family; his mother a Mattapan Jew. He originally grew up both; synagogue on Saturday, church on Sunday. It started out well enough on paper.
However, after six brothers and sisters, his father was gone, and his mother overwhelmed; so he was the acting father himself to his brothers and sisters. His mother married again, and another brother and sister came, but that marriage too ended. His litany of former residences read like a Hall of Fame for dangerous, poor and downtrodden towns and cities in Massachusetts. The oldest of nine children, he worked from his early teen years. He joined a gang, a notorious one, because it was easier to protect his siblings from its violence by commit it himself on others.
He was intelligent, but spent his life working with his arms, not with his mind. He enjoyed none of the quiet, steadily accumulating success and authority that are supposed to gather to the hardworking American. He began his working life just as Reagan dismantled that dream in favor of stockbrokers and magnates; the worker now runs in place, and my father was one of them. His successes were mostly others’; he got to see me finish college, and missed my sister’s graduation by days; but he knew that she had done it, all the same. He himself labored day after day, never adequate to his own dreams and potential, and never rewarded terribly well with money, prestige or comfort.
He was a proud man who refused to take gifts even in the midst of his sick helplessness. But he would ask to “borrow” my money, in a polite fiction of repayment he maintained until the very end. He never admitted he was going to die, and that his cancer was beyond beating, even though it was past cure from the day he was diagnosed. He was used to living in hopeless conditions, in worlds without reward, where you work for others and save nothing for yourself. That had been his entire life.
There was some dim promise he’d have a better old age; because of his protection and efforts his children are doing what he should have done, given the chance; we may have been able to support him in doing many of the things he’d dreamed of and never did. And then, on this cusp, lung cancer took him, two weeks short of his 57th birthday.
His joys were in his family; in his short travels. He loved cruise ships and casinos; he got to be a father at Harvard’s commencement. He started the path of the downtrodden who rose up, but his rises were always frustrated, always on the edge of failure and defeat. Always some circumstance of life made the goal of a little breathing room and comfort just out of reach.
The point of this litany is not to depress. The point of this is to cause America to understand what it has become. America prides itself on opportunity and progress — we cannot exist without believing our system rewards work with inevitable success. But those rewards no longer are broadly shared; we build yachts and golf courses with our excess, instead of better schools and housing for the poor.
Instead of rebuilding our system to be more fair, we’ve rebuilt our believes to make it seem fair, as long as you don’t look too closely. We live according to selfish myths that mask the people who need help into cyphers of irresponsibility and deceit who deserve their lot in life. Poverty without help breeds crime; and we build prisons instead of help. We tell ourselves the poor deserve it; they don’t work hard enough, are lazy, and taxing those with extra — staggering amounts of extra — to benefit who cannot is thus decreed patently unfair. The wealthy are deserving, because our system is holy and fair, so it rewards and punishes perfectly. We sin who doubt its judgments of income and wealth.
There is no place in this myth for my father. He’s the hardworking man who tried all his life and still got nothing for it but an early grave. He doesn’t even inhabit that grave. He gave his remains to medical science, in the hopes that in his last dying, he could make the world a better place still. Gave and did not get; perhaps his remains will help the research that cures his disease. It would be a fitting, anonymous epitaph for this anonymous man that Republican and Democrat, Congressman and President, stockbroker and lawyer, all have forgotten.
And it brings me to want to do something about it.