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Chicken Soup for the Son’s Soul

Before the birth of his son, A.J. Daulerio tries to make peace with his own father — and himself

Last June, Father’s Day came and went without much acknowledgement from my father or me because we’d spent most of 2015 hating each other. That October, I checked into rehab. That December, we got into a physical altercation. My father, 74, and me, 41, struggled for position in the family room of his and my mother’s West Palm Beach condo as I grabbed his throat and trucked him up against the back of their couch. I leaned into his thighs and tilted him backwards — with enough force that I swear I heard his hip almost separate from its socket. His eyes opened a little wider so I’m sure he heard it, too.

A.J. (right) with his dad (middle) and musician Swamp Dogg (left)

The fight was violent and awful, but it had a long tail of resentment — the constant pressure built up between an only son who wanted more of an understanding of the man who’d helped create him and a father who was terrified of how different he was from his son as a human being. If anything, it was probably inevitable.

We obviously didn’t spend Christmas 2015 together. We didn’t even attempt to speak again until February. In March, I lost a very public lawsuit against a professional wrestler for $100 million. Embarrassed by the spectacle, my father kept his emotional distance. By the time mid-June rolled around, I’d moved down to a bungalow in Singer Island, Florida, to convalesce from the trial and throw myself back into recovery while the lawyers worked things out. My father and I were both still being melodramatic and sore at each other. It was our annual One of Us Would Swear Never To Speak to the Other Again event. “That’s it,” he or I would declare to whomever bore witness to our squabbles, “we’re done.” And like the year before, our estrangement lasted through Father’s Day.

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On the Father’s Days we did get along, we would play golf together at an annual father/son tournament down at his Northeast Philly golf club, and my sister would buy him books, usually about golf. My father’s literary tastes skewed toward Baldacci, Follet or maybe a self-help book like Who Moved My Cheese? or The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In other words: It was usually easy to find what he was interested in because Barnes & Noble would have it prominently displayed in the “Gifts for Dad” kiosk.

One year, he did try to elevate his reading list after hearing a radio interview with J.L. King, author of On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of Straight Black Men Who Sleep with Men. My father only caught about half the interview; he insisted, however, the book was about a more highly evolved secret society of black men who appreciate male beauty, but never act on it. This fascinated him. I bought him the book for Father’s Day, and he dove right in. A couple of weeks later, he called me and sounded so embarrassed and disappointed: “It turns out they’re really gay.”

Those were the good Father Days.

There was also the one when I was hungover, overslept and almost missed the father/son tournament he loved so much. I sprinted through the parking lot in my socks toward the first tee. I made it just in time, but that sight alone irked him enough that he pretended not to know me throughout the entire round. Then there was the year when I told him I wanted to go to quit my sports editor job to be a war correspondent in Kabul. He didn’t speak to me until I dropped the idea because, as he wrote to me in desperate parental all-caps:

WHAT IS THE END RESULT IF YOU ARE SUCCESSFUL ,BONUS MONEY,A RAISE? AJ , PLEASE GO BACK TO STEP 1, AND RETHINK NOT ONLY YOUR LIFE BUT THE EFFECT ON EVERYONE WHO LOVES YOU.

I dropped it. For a little while at least. Instead, eight months later, I went to Cairo during the Arab Spring instead of joining them for Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt’s house.

Finally, there was the time he found out I did psychotropic mind-expanding drugs while listening to his favorite morning sports talk radio show after the hosts began to discuss it on air. He had no idea what acid was so once he went home and Googled it, he was mortified.

Of course, there were many lesser offenses that led to months and months of petty silences that lasted through so many Father’s Days. Some of it was dredged out of childhood trauma neither one of us ever figured out how to address as grownups. I also think that, like most volatile relationships, we need a break from each other for extended periods of time to help forget the past.

Here’s one of the best Father’s Days: In 1998, while I was working as a full-time reporter for a small weekly publication in East Brunswick, N.J., a faxed press release came over the transom. (That’s how PR requests were sent, pre-internet.) It was from Chicken Soup for the Soul, Inc., and it called for submissions for a new edition of the best-selling series for golfers — Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul.

I saw the fax, snatched it off the pile and thought of what a perfect gift it would be for my father.

A few months later, a letter came in the mail from Chicken Soup for the Soul Enterprises that informed me that of the “thousands of submissions” mine was one of the 101 that would be published in the forthcoming edition the following spring. Both of my parents were thrilled, but my father was very high, practically in space, on the 600 words of overly-exaggerated treacle I wrote about him golfing with my grandfather during his beginning stages of Alzheimer’s. It was called “Butterscotch,” and it was a convenient way to rewrite our real feelings about our fathers — mine for him, his for his.

The truth is my father didn’t have a great amount of respect for his dad growing up. He thought he was meek. He thought he wasn’t good at deciding things for himself. He thought shitty things about himself for feeling this way, especially after the Alzheimer’s had robbed them of any breakthrough in their relationship. My story may have helped that a little bit. It took a shortcut around the hard stuff and got right to the gooey center.

I took a shortcut as well. I wrote “Butterscotch” in the first person — meaning most people assumed I was talking about my father and were surprised to learn that he didn’t suffer from Alzheimer’s and hadn’t died in 1995. “Are you allowed to do that?” my more ethical friends asked. I guess this makes me the Stephen Glass of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. But believe me, it read much better as a first-person essay. Besides, as we would later find out, we were already misidentifying ourselves for most of our lives.

The full name on my birth certificate is Albert James Daulerio III. My father’s is Albert James Daulerio Jr. Based on that one would assume my grandfather’s name was Albert James Daulerio. It is not. Due to some sloppy immigration paperwork, it turns out my grandfather’s birth name was Umberto D’aulerio. This was revealed to our family when we had to find all of his paperwork to create a death certificate. Neither my father nor I wants to formally change our name, so we’re stuck with these phony ones forever. Me a third, but really a junior. Him, a junior, but really a first.

Last October, my girlfriend, Julieanne, got pregnant. It was during one of those totally inconvenient yet absolutely perfect times when we we both convinced ourselves that we were ready enough to do it despite the chaos going on in my life. (I was still being actively harassed by the professional wrestler’s lawyers, and my financial outlook was exotically bleak.) I told my father “Umberto” was short-listed if it’s a boy — I love the name’s old-timey goofiness plus the haphazard way it became a family name — but that he shouldn’t get his hopes up because Julieanne hates it. He did anyway; he was so happy he even cried about it.

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For three months, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, my father and I were closer than ever. Maybe it was the baby, maybe he’d read an essay about mindfulness, but we were on to something. I think we both considered ourselves healed from one another. In January, however, a ghoulish story appeared in Esquire about how my personal life was affected by the Hogan trial. It included unflattering, unfair accusations about both my father and mother. After he read it, he called me. His voice had that familiar raging shake to it: “Have you read this article? It’s horrible!” I agreed with him. The writer was a thoughtless hack. I explained this to my father: That I had no control over what he wrote; that I also was upset by the article’s litany of mistakes and omissions.

It was no consolation.

Once again, the pronouncement happened: “You’ve ruined our name for the last time. I’m done.”

I didn’t yell back.

“Okay, I understand,” I responded.

I hung up quickly because I didn’t want to give him the opportunity to say anything else he’d soon regret.

Thankfully, this fight didn’t last that long. It was about two days of silence on his part. After which, my father called me and apologized for what he’d said. I accepted. We got back on track to where we were before, open and honest, genuine in our affection.

Julieanne and I found out we were having a son and decided to name him Ozzy, which confused my dad. “Who the hell is that named after?” he’d ask. He also continued to passive-aggressively gripe about my son’s name which annoyed the hell out of me. “What about the middle name?” he’d complain.

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“Barack Obama,” I said.

That’s when he got really mad. I explained to him my rationale — our family lacked any truly great male role models whose name I’d want them to share and President Obama was an exceptional leader whose traits I hope my son can emulate.

“I can’t believe you’d do that to YOUR son,” retorted my father, a lifelong Republican and fervent Obama hater. “He’s gonna get beat up every day.”

Still, a few weeks ago, he told me, “You’re going to be a great dad. But don’t be like me. Be more like your grandfather.”

Immediately, I forgave him and rattled off a list of what I considered the moments he made me the most proud. Like when he finally decided after 40 years to remove his hairpiece even though he was scared to death to face the world as a 60-year-old bald guy. Or the time he performed a pitch-perfect eulogy at his ex-wife’s funeral and his leg didn’t shake once. Or when he surprised me with a Rush CD because he remembered I liked them. Or how he’s become the reliable, humble caretaker to my mother for the past five years as she’s been recovering from ovarian cancer.

“Did you know I thought that?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t know any of this.”

We still get heated and frustrated with each other. Mostly it’s when I suggest my father go see a doctor. He’s repeating stories. He’s forgetting some names. “You know how this ends,” I tell him. Sometimes he’ll hang up quickly. Sometimes we’ll have the same exact conversation the next time. You know how this ends.

So that’s why this story is also, once again, a gift to my dad, from his grandson: Ozzy Umberto James Daulerio. I hope he will have the good sense to never ruin another Father’s Day.