The three of us—two other visitors and myself—sat in silence in an upper floor waiting room of the Veterans Administration Hospital, a brick fortress atop a hill looking over tightly packed homes in a working class Connecticut suburb.
Fifty feet away, my father was dying, barely conscious.
The hurried attention of teams of doctors and nurses in the well-lit corridors of Yale-New Haven Hospital had given way to the drab hallways and institutional care of veterans whose limited private insurance had run out.
Across from me, a young man and woman introduced themselves and began to share the story of their father. He had been very sick many years earlier, at a time when he was raising a young family on his own.
He asked God to spare him until his youngest child was through high school.
The father recovered, and now, shortly after the last child was an adult, he had fallen ill again and was nearing death.
It was a story biblical in nature: The idea that you could enter into a bargain with God, who would allow you to guide your children to the cusp of adulthood, but deny you the Promised Land of an old age sharing the bounty of love with the generation you raised.
Further, that this man, having received the gift he asked for, would not negotiate any longer for his life, but accept his mortality as part of a divine plan.
At that point, amid my own anger and despair, all I prayed for was that I would not lose my faith.
Even at age 26, it seemed to be the only way I was going to survive without my father.
The Rock Upon Which My Life Was Built
One of my early, vivid memories was being in the kitchen around age 5 or 6 when we received a phone call that my father had been in a car accident and was taken to the hospital.
My response was to walk in a continual pattern along designated tiles of different colors on our kitchen floor, somehow thinking that by tracing this path over and over I could restore some sense of order.
Even then, deep in my subconscious, I knew how vital my father was to my existence.
I learned in later years the science of the ways adopted children already have an inner sense of abandonment from being given up by their birth parents. This was compounded in my case.
My adoptive mother endured lifelong struggles with alcoholism and mental illness. Frequently she was passed out in bed for days on end. In both practical and emotional terms, this was a second abandonment by a mother.
My father, however, got up early in the morning six days a week, went to work, and came home in the evening or early Saturday afternoon.
There were moments that were particularly treasured, such as going to the Polo Grounds or Shea Stadium once a year to see the Mets play his—and of course, my—favorite team, the old Brooklyn, now Los Angeles, Dodgers.
But what mattered was waking up early to have breakfast with him, and finding a sense of safety and security when he returned home each night. He was a dependable father, and I could be a child with him. It was what I needed.
Yet what I received was so much more.
A Humble Life
Leslie Briggs (his friends called him Tony) was born in 1920. His own mother died at an early age. His father remarried, but his stepmother’s attention, much less affection, could only stretch so far during the grinding hardships of the Depression.
He would be the valedictorian of his senior class, and he kept up his Latin skills throughout his life, but college was not a possibility. He went to work to support his family. During World War II, he joined the Army, returning with a Scottish bride, again forestalling the possibility of higher education.