By the time we had reached Cedar Rapids, a little more than three hours into our 31-hour drive from Chicago to San Francisco, my father had already dispensed what would be the first of many unsolicited pieces of advice. “I always move over to my left lane whenever I pass an emergency vehicle or a car that’s pulled over,” he offered as incontrovertible fact as we passed a police officer helping a car with a busted tire on the right shoulder of Interstate 80.
He says this kind of shit — opinions that he considers crucial life lessons to everyone in his immediate vicinity — all the time. Some other recent favorites include: “I always like to start a road trip with a clean car.” (A cue for me to wash and vacuum my truck before our trip.) “When I travel with dogs, I like to strap them to the seat in a harness so they don’t fly around back there.” (A suggestion that I stabilize my dogs in the back seat for this road trip.) “You’ll need to get road flares in case we break down on the side of the road at night so we don’t get rear-ended.” (I forgot to buy them.)
My reaction, as I sat in the passenger seat, was to nod in acknowledgment and let him know that I not only agreed with him but also followed the same principle while on the road. Even though I wasn’t driving in that moment, I knew it brought my father some sort of comfort knowing that I would drive the right way — especially on this particular trip, where he was mostly riding shotgun with me for more than 2,000 miles. My wife, son and I were moving from Chicago to the Bay Area. I wanted to make the drive because I felt driving was a rite of passage in moving to the West Coast. I had some trepidation about having my father be my co-pilot because the last road trip we took together — from Florida to Philadelphia in the summer of 2003, with a stop to visit family friends in South Carolina — was a procession of endless nagging that’s still seared into my brain: I was going too fast. I was going too slow. I didn’t have enough distance between us and the car ahead of us. I needed to learn when to pass a vehicle.
But I also knew that he would be the most reliable person to make this trip with. And I was grateful he agreed to join me. So the Friday before Memorial Day, my dad, my two Maltese Shih Tzus and I climbed into my 2002 Land Rover Discovery and headed West.
My father determined that, because of his work schedule, we had to drive straight through, leaving no more than 42 hours to complete the trip in time to meet my wife and son at SFO and put my dad on his red-eye back home. During my five years in Chicago, I went from being unemployed to more than doubling the salary I’d had at my previous full-time gig; from living in an old, 300-square-foot studio apartment to a modern high-rise; from struggling to have children to having twins to losing one of those twins. And though my dad was present for the ups and downs, I’m not sure we really got to know each other. It wasn’t for a lack of trying on my part. I frequently opened up about myself and my struggles in the hopes that he would reciprocate, but he never did.
In spite of that lack of deep emotional connection, I was still becoming a lot like my dad. My wife often points it out to me, usually through a simple glance as I’m obsessively cleaning my 18-month-old son’s face as he eats and wincing every time he plays with his food. Or when I attempt to show him the “correct” way to play with his toys, instead of allowing him to just play. Or when I hush him any time he shrieks, yells or cries in public, especially at restaurants, because I don’t want undue attention.
“It’s like you expect him to naturally know how to be civilized,” my wife tells me. “But he’s just a baby.”
I figured our insane driving schedule would make for great conversation, since my father would likely become delusional or slap-happy from lack of sleep, at which point his guard would be completely down and stories about his childhood, his not-so-great father and his regrets would just pour out of him. Then I remembered that my father is a machine who routinely operates on minimal sleep.
My dad grew up in the 1950s in a South Bronx housing project. The predominantly Puerto Rican Ghetto Brothers and African-American Black Spades were among the neighborhood gangs. His parents, both Puerto Rican, didn’t come from much. My grandpa worked a lot so he was rarely home, leaving my dad to serve as the man of the house. “I would always throw my brothers’ toys and stuff up the stairs to keep the hallway clear,” he tells me somewhere in the middle of Wyoming.
When they horsed around in the apartment hallways and scuffed the walls, my dad would scrub the walls clean with a sponge. My aunt tells me he was neat, orderly and selfless, never asking much for himself. He was self-sufficient even early in his teens, buying his own clothes and always giving my grandmother $50 from each paycheck, whether he was working at summer camps or bagging groceries, to help the family — an order from my grandfather.
I never knew much about my grandpa. He passed away from Alzheimer’s disease when I was just a freshman in high school, and my father was always reluctant to talk about him. When I ask him what kind of influence his father had on him, my dad, per usual, is curt: “He taught me how to drive,” he said while as we cut through the old coal mining town of Rock Springs, Wyoming. “That’s about it.”
Their work ethics seem very similar, though, too. My grandfather often had two lab jobs in different hospitals, sometimes working both in the same day. For as long as I can remember, my dad always woke up long before sunrise, usually around 3 a.m., to make sure he hit Wall Street an hour or so before the markets opened. And long before that, while attending community college, he worked the night shift in the operations department at a securities firm. It was there he stumbled into his first career as a broker. Eventually, he worked his way up as a trader in the fixed-income securities market. “Your father was always a hard worker and exceptional at math,” my aunt says. “Which is a very black-and-white subject — you’re either right or you’re wrong.”
The topic of my grandfather popped back up somewhere in Nevada.
“I just always wanted to be a better father than he was,” my dad offered when I pushed him a bit more about their relationship.
I flashed back to moments in my life that my dad was present for. Little League baseball and high school basketball games; even when I failed to leave the bench he was always there, coming directly from a nearly 80-minute commute from Manhattan, still in his shirt and tie. College graduation and the smile he had on his face as I approached him, diploma in hand, the end of my three-college, six-year journey. His oftentimes-unspoken support of my recovery from drug and alcohol abuse; we rarely ever speak about my sobriety, but I know he’s proud of me because he’s told me so. His steady, firm hand on my shoulder as the N.I.C.U. nurses bathed my dead twin son, only 19 hours after he was born. I’ve replayed that scene at least a hundred times in my head.
“You were a great father,” I told him, as I fought back tears, my father’s eyes squarely on the road and surely unaware of my emotions.
“Well, thank you,” he replied.
Despite his micromanaging and grand edicts on how I should behave in every realm of my life, my dad did do whatever he could to make my childhood as carefree as possible. Sure, it was my job to mow our massive lawn and to start working once I turned 14 — first at Burger King, then as a lifeguard. But I didn’t face much adversity or understand the true value of a dollar until I was older. “We gave you guys the best of the best,” my dad told me as we passed by Donner Lake, now in California. “And you knew that if there was anything you or your brother ever needed, we would give it to you.”
That left me grateful and in disagreement all at once. As a father, I want to be the ultimate provider to my children, but to a point. I told my dad I wasn’t against letting my son, or his future siblings, learn things the hard way, which my dad clearly bristled at.
“So if he picked up a match, you would let him light a fire?” my dad asked me, incredulously.
“Not necessarily. Why, what would you do?”
“I would tell him, don’t play with matches, they’re dangerous — they can start fires.”
“I would like to think I would ask him questions that hopefully led to some type of clear understanding that matches start fires,” I responded.
“Look, there are several approaches, but only one right way,” he retorted — per usual, ending any further conversation.
And that was okay. For the first time I could remember, what he said didn’t bother me. Nor did it bother me that it was all he said. Maybe the point of the trip wasn’t getting to know my dad better — maybe it was getting to know myself better. Or at least that the pearls of wisdom my father regularly doled out as cardinal law had much more to do with him than me.
So, with about three hours to go before we arrived in the Bay Area, I stopped. With the questions. With the search for answers. With the worrying that somehow my dad’s way would become my way and ultimately screw up my son—or inspire a similar road trip in 35 years where he attempts to make sense of me and my dad in some sort of misguided quest to figure himself out.
It just seemed best to let my dad—and all else—be.
Chris Silva is a freelance writer based in San Francisco who’s work has appeared in Playboy, GQ and the New York Times.