During a drive home from work one early morning, a familiar song came on the radio, one not heard in a very long time. As is sometimes the case, lyrics and harmonies stir up thoughts and visions in my mind. Harry Chapin’s voice came through with his classic “Cat’s in the Cradle,” and I began thinking of my life’s journey and my relationship with my father.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as my family recently celebrated his 70th birthday with him. The words told a heartbreaking story of a father and son who can’t schedule time to be with each other, a troubling recollection of two lives dealing with the reality of putting one’s career before family.
In that moment, I was thankful my experience has been so different, and felt grateful to have my father.
I want, on this Father’s Day, to tell why Joe Fawcett is so special. We have had good times, rough times, tragedies and celebrations, and through it all we have had each other.
Shaping his character
As a boy, I remember my father was a striking figure, an imposing man, intimidating as much as he was comforting. He had powerful arms and a frightening glare, one shaped from experiences too haunting to imagine. Still, he had a welcoming smile, an infectious laugh and an engaging personality.
I learned about his youth as I grew older. My dear grandmother always proudly praised her son for all he did to stabilize his place in an unsettled world. His father, my grandfather, himself a towering man I am told, died at the age of 46. During the turbulent late 1960’s, my father took charge of his life by accepting a ruthless challenge, where there were few victors. He became a Marine. The Few. The Proud. More importantly, as my grandmother reminded us, he became a man. He stood as a warrior, fearless and unshakable, a volunteer for a term in hell, where not even the dark jungles of Vietnam, the pouring rain or the echoing sounds of combat could overpower his resolve, from what I have been told. His time there shaped his character. What he saw and fought is unimaginable. He came home humbled with an appreciation for freedom, for family, for the rewards of being committed to defending a flag and a way of life, so often taken for granted.
My fading memories as a boy take me back to a time when I would wait for the police car to roll up to our townhouse. Trading in one uniform for another, my father joined the Pennsylvania State Police. There were long hours and stressful times. His work shifts would change, I remember, and there were days when disturbing his sleep was forbidden. His weary eyes reddened sometimes, his body was exhausted but never broken, and I could still see how much he loved being a dad, accepting his most important responsibility. He helped teach us to ride a bike, to run, to throw. When he walked out of the house and said good-bye for the day, even we knew the the risks. And knowing made his safe returns more special.
Some day, I hoped to be like him.
My family moved back to this area after a work transfer, and my father chewed up what few free hours he had by coaching junior football, a sport he never had the opportunity to play. He taught many of us the game the best he could. He preached playing as a team and having pride in our uniform. He taught us how to compete and to have humility. Ask those who played for him and they will tell you they were better for having had him as their leader. While only my coach for one season, he always reminded how important it was to be a team player. I wanted to be like him.
We didn’t always have easy times. How many families do? My mom was diagnosed with Lupus, a terrible disease, at a very young age. My father, brother, sister and I were there every step of the way. We were a close family, depending more each day on this man, who had seen and endured so much terror and mayhem. He was our rock as we all fought an unbeaten opponent.
Through the years, my father and I built a solid relationship. We had our battles, of course, but they were few and far between. A disciplinarian from his military and academy days, my father, affectionately called Sarge, showed me the depths of his compassion when I inadvertently drove home past curfew one night while still in high school. Our cars passed, each on an opposite journey, and we slammed on the brakes. He looked disheveled, and his glare, that same one I feared seeing as a boy, softened into a display of relief. A comforting hug, and a reminder of the rules came swiftly. Being home safely, truthfully, was his only concern. For as powerful a professional he had become, he was still, first and foremost, my dad.
My brother and I played football and we ran track. My sister was a cheerleader and an accomplished academic. A quiet fan, dad cheered within himself. His kids were his greatest achievement and our victories were shared. He never asked for too much, and expected very little. He demanded we give our best effort. He believed in setting goals and working hard to achieve them. There were losses and small victories. Failure was a harsh reality, and something to be learned from. He wanted us to earn a diploma, go to college, take advantage, not take for granted, the opportunities, he didn’t have in his youth. His sacrifices were our motivation.
When I went away to Lafayette College and suffered a serious knee injury, it was clear my athletic career all but shattered. He stayed by my side as I blankly stared outside my window, distraught for days. One night, my father grabbed my hand, and when he thought my eyes were closed for the night, prayed for me to be all right and asked for guidance. He knew it was bad, something he couldn’t protect me from, and for probably the first time he showed fear. When I faced my new future, he reminded me being a football player would be only a small part of the man I should work to become. I took that to heart.
After my mother died, this stoic, admired leader of hardened men, broke down like a child. He didn’t know I had been just a few feet outside his room, hearing his emotions pour out, reminding me of when he would sit on the porch, listening to the serenity of a summer thunderstorm. He, along with my mom, had taught us that death was part of life. But this hurt. Still, he just closed his eyes, collected himself, and remained composed. He was much more than just our father. He was our guiding light.
Best of friends
Once I graduated college and began taking my own path, my father and I became best friends. We were just two guys building memories.
When he retired, Troopers who worked with him, and for him, came from near and far to salute him. I couldn’t believe the respect, the honor. Here he was, my dad, everything the stories described him to be. A dignified man of conviction. A brother. Someone who gave everything he had, and more, for those he loved. I admired everything about him.
In my tough times, he’s been there, too. When finding a job became tough, he told me to keep looking. There were days where I felt sorry for myself and he picked me up and said take charge, never give up, be a man. When I started my own family, he said work hard, be there for them, love them. He gave me guidance, support, encouragement. Most of all, he was the shining example of what a father should be.
At his most vulnerable time, when he needed open heart surgery, he stayed strong. I nervously walked into that cold emergency room, grabbed is hand, just as he had mine so many years earlier, and said, “We aren’t done here, Dad.” I saw that glare, again. The one I feared. The one I knew would keep him fighting. He didn’t just cheat death, he beat it into the ground. He fought, because he knew his family needed him.
I am a father now and my daughters are growing up fast. I always want to have the same influence he has had on me, on them. It isn’t as easy as he made it seem. I miss a lot. Days are busy. School, work, activities, life, it all moves so fast. Our time together is short. He reminds me, every now and then, to make more time, to know my limitations, just as he learned his, and be their father first.
Each day, often when my house is quiet, I call him on the phone or he calls me. It’s not habit. It’s not required. It’s more like a security blanket you don’t want to relinquish. I like hearing his voice. I look forward to our conversations. We laugh, sometimes about each other, sometimes about others, just so we feel good. We share a bond that isn’t always easy to describe other than to say, we are father and son.
And we are best friends.
Thank you, Dad
Through 47 years, I have in so many ways, become my father. I’m a lucky man, no doubt, and I could never thank him enough.
My words are the only gift I can give him now.
He probably won’t forgive me for saying to me and many others, he is a legend.
He’s a man. He’s a Marine. He’s a Trooper. He’s a proud American.
Best of all. … He’s my father.
Happy Father’s Day, Sarge!