My Father’s Suit

When this article was first published, I hadn’t shown this to my dad, in spite of the urging of friends. I don’t know why. Call it a mental block. Call it stupidity or selfishness or insecurity. How hard can it be to break through generational walls and simply say, ‘I love you?”
{Years later my father passed away. I told him I loved him several times before that sad day.]


My brother-in-law called me the other day to see if I wanted an old suit he’d been storing. Out of curiosity, I drove over to his house and waited while he retrieved it from a closet. It was dish-water gray, with narrow lapels, matching pants, and a JC Penny tag. The kind of ordinary corporate camouflage that depends heavily on a good tie. Not a BAD suit, nor an expensive one, but average; a costume for anonymity.

“This used to be your dad’s,” he said. And suddenly I remembered.

An architect, Dad worked for the company that oversaw development of Crown Center. He sometimes took me through the buildings as they were hammered into shape, and I would have these moments of connection. We’d ride the glass elevators, take in the mechanical whine of circular saws, the whirring of fans. I would hold his blueprints to my face and inhale the smell of the inky paper, an aroma he wore continually, like cologne. At some point I understood that his job was a bridge between the two worlds of theory and fact; he wore a suit, but also a hard hat. Then he would take me to lunch, and my mother would ask about work, and I knew that all was not well for him professionally. She would urge him to defend himself, and he would say quietly, “No,” and she would purse her lips. It was years before I understood the power – and difficulty – of not caring what people thought of you.

Anyway, I tried the suit on, and, to my astonishment, it fit perfectly. This took a moment for me to accept, because I think of my father as… well, bigger. Not fat, but German. Which means short and barrel-chested, like one of the dwarfs from Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings,” with wide hips, and a runza or two around the belly. Not obese, mind you, but someone who definitely shouldn’t wear lederhosen.

All of the predictable emotions, revelations, and fears washed over me like a Hollywood soundtrack. This COULDN’T be my father’s suit. It was too small; it fit me.

I have a four-year-old daughter who plays this game where she puts on my wife’s shoes and clomps around in front of us. Of course we laugh. But each time she does it, her feet are a little bigger, the shoes a little less clownish. This hurts, but it is also lovely, like watching a helium balloon that you have lost to the wind rise into the sky.

Dad suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1986. The doctors gave him little hope, and he went into and out of the hospital for months as his health wavered. The night of my brother’s wedding he “took a turn for the worse” as the doctor put it, and I sat on the steps of the church, still in my wedding attire. One of the groomsmen found me and pressed an unopened bottle of cherry vodka into my hand. I drank it in fifteen minutes, drove home, passed out. Alcohol is a lousy substitute for grace.

Afterwards, as he fought his way back to life, to walking with a cane, to camping and Christmas and holding his grandchildren, people began to stop by the house. Men pulled me aside, his old friends and new ones – former co-workers, an air force officer, his physical therapist – out of ear- shot, as though to tell me a secret. I suppose each of them sensed that I, being family, would be the last to know. “Your father,” they said invariably, “is a great man.” And then they would look over at him and pat my shoulder.

One day I called a tile company to see if they would sell me seconds from their warehouse. The owner refused, “We never do that. What made you think we would?”

I shrugged. “My dad said you might.”

“Who’s your dad?”

I told him, and it was as though I’d used a Jedi Mind Trick. “That’s different,” he said. “If you’re HIS son you can come any time you want.” I thought of the last scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with people throwing money all over George Bailey’s living room, pumping his hand.

I’m a little older now. I keep my father’s suit in my closet, but I do not wear it. I do not really believe my eyes.

Any suit of his is too big for me, and always will be.

© Daniel Schwabauer. All rights reserved.
May not be copied or used in part or in whole without express written permission from the author.
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