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Meeting Dad

September 18, 2008 by · 8 comments

Brian Russell

Photo: mark lorch

(The following is an excerpt of a memoir in progress.)

The temperature was in the single digits and a fierce wind blew on the afternoon of December 28, 1977 as my brother Dave and I prepared to fly to Puerto Rico. Mom drove us to the airport reminding us of all the precautions we had to take since we were two kids flying alone. I was nervous and excited, eager and apprehensive, and, in some ways, filled with fear. How would I recognize my father at the airport? How would he recognize us?

I recall little about the flight from Buffalo to Miami, where we had to change planes. The Miami airport was vast – far larger than the Buffalo airport, and my brother and I had to practically run from one end of the terminal to the opposite end in order to catch the plane that would carry us to San Juan. I had not realized at the time that, as two minors traveling alone, we probably could have easily had a gate crew worker drive us over on one those carts, and so we ran.

During the flight from Miami to Puerto Rico, Dave and I made promises to each other: “Whatever happens, it’ll be okay if we stick together,” I assured him. “You’re my brother and we’re never going to leave each other alone in any place while we’re there,” he replied to me. We were both scared. And excited.

At nearly one in the morning, the plane touched down in San Juan. Disembarking from the plane, we descended a staircase to the tarmac. The temperature must have been in the eighties at least, and the pavement seemed as if it was melting beneath our feet. There was no wind, and although we lived on an island surrounded by the Niagara River, I had never felt such humidity.

It felt like we had landed in a foreign country. All around us people spoke Spanish or switched from English to Spanish and back again with ease. The men all wore short pants and short-sleeved shirts with the top several buttons unbuttoned. The women mostly wore light cotton dresses that looked as if they had been vibrantly colorful at one time but had long since been bleached by the tropical sun.

Dave and I followed the others from our plane to baggage claim.

As we waited for our luggage, I looked around for any sign of Bob Jaycox. I saw a man who looked a little bit like Bob had looked in a fifteen-year old photograph I’d studied of him, but he didn’t have a mustache, so it couldn’t be him. Bob didn’t have a mustache in that old photo either, but during our last call before the trip he had told me that he had a mustache, a receding hairline that was beginning to gray, and what some might refer to as a beer belly. He also said, “Son, don’t you worry. There ain’t no way I’m not going to recognize my boys. I bet I’d know you both if I ran into you in the middle of Times Square.”

He wasn’t at baggage claim.

I struggled to try to remember what he’d told me. Had he said that he’d meet us at baggage claim or right outside? Why wouldn’t he be at baggage claim? He knew that we had never been here before. He knew we were kids, traveling alone. I pushed my worries away and focused on searching for our luggage on the baggage carousel.

Upon securing our bags and assuring Dave that he was probably waiting for us outside, I led us toward the exit. A long hallway led to the door at the front of the terminal. The outside wall of the terminal was made of cement in a crisscross pattern that formed diamonds of open space. Through these diamonds, we saw what seemed to be hundreds of people waiting to meet arriving passengers. For a moment, I panicked. How will we ever find him among all these people?

There were mothers, fathers, grandparents, infants, squealing babies, and little children running around as if in the middle of some great party or celebration. The sticky, hot air felt heavy on my shoulders and I had to strain not to let Dave see my fear.

After what seemed like a very long time, but was likely only a couple minutes, I saw him. And he saw me.

My father had turned thirty-nine earlier that month, but looked older to me. At least he looked older than my mother. I knew him instantly though, and the broad smile he flashed indicated that he recognized his sons as well. He was five feet nine inches tall and barrel-chested. The combination of his ruddy Irish skin and a very dark tan gave his skin a sort of burnt umber tone. He wore a short-sleeved white cotton shirt that effectively masked the extra twenty or thirty pounds he carried in his midsection. The khaki pants and loafers with no socks completed the image that almost seemed a cliché of tropical climate garb.

My father pointed towards the door outside, indicating he’d meet us there.

Upon exiting the terminal, we saw him standing near the curb with his arms folded across his chest. He walked toward us as we approached and gave us each a bear hug.

“Well, it sure is good to see you boys. A sight for sore eyes indeed,” he said as he held onto our shoulders. “I don’t know how I’ve let it be so long. I’ve missed you both so very much. C’mon now, let’s get you home – we have plenty of time to catch up.”

His directness was unsettling and, just as it had on that first phone call, made it difficult for me to hold on to my anger. If I’d heard kindness in his voice, now I was confronted with seeing the kindness in his eyes. They were very dark brown, just like mine, yet at the same time bright, warm, and inviting.

As we rode in his beat-up brownish Volvo to his home in San Juan, I realized that I had to address the “what to call him” question sooner rather than later. I noticed he had a CB radio in his car and I asked him about it.

“What’s your handle?”
“Oh, the CB – do you boys use the CB radio?” he replied.
“Yeah, we do sometimes. We’ve got one at home. My handle is the Fiddler,” I answered. I’d been so taken by Lou Gossett Jr.’s performance in the mini-series Roots that had aired earlier that year that I’d adopted his character’s name as my handle.

“I’m King Crab,” Dave volunteered from the back seat.
“I’m the Motivator,” our father said as if it were a State secret.
“Why the Motivator?” I asked.
“That’s what I do. I need to motivate my salespeople everyday, so I’m the Motivator.”
After a rather lengthy pause, I cautiously began, “Well, I’m not really sure what we should call you… maybe Motivator would work.”

“Well son, you and Dave can call me Motivator, or you can call me Jay, which is what most people around here call me, or you can call me Bob, or you can always call me Dad.”
Dave and I spent much of that first visit calling him Motivator, interspersed with the occasional “Jay.” Since the end of that trip, I’ve always thought of and referred to him as Jay.

Everyone was awake when we got to his house, despite the lateness of the hour. Jay introduced us to his Puerto Rico family. His wife Jamie was a petite woman with short-cropped black hair and the thinnest lips I’ve ever seen. She had a shy, almost cramped smile and seemed to keep her lips pursed tightly at all times, as if she had just eaten the rind of a lemon or something. Tiny little wrinkles appeared above her lip, no doubt from the constant pressure of maintaining her pursed expression. When she smoked a cigarette, which was nearly all the time as best as I could tell, she held it between the third and fourth fingers of her left hand and inhaled almost violently before exhaling languidly, forcing the smoke in a downward diagonal contrail towards the floor.

Katie, Jamie’s daughter from a previous marriage, was twelve. She didn’t look very much like her mother at all and was already an inch or two taller than Jamie – perhaps five foot four to Jamie’s five foot two. Katie wore her mahogany hair just past her shoulders and was already developing into a woman with Barbie-like curves. She was quick with a smile and seemed to have a confidence in herself that I didn’t quite understand, for I had no such confidence myself.

Kevin was Jay and Jamie’s son and he looked quite a lot like both of them. He must have been eight or so that December, but he was already as tall as his mother and it was clear he’d inherited Jay’s stocky frame. Kevin was in near constant movement – jumping up onto a sofa or chair and then jumping off again to run and retrieve something from the other room, a ball or a baseball mitt or whatever it might be that caught his eye. Jamie was forever telling him to just sit still, but Kevin would have none of it.

Katie and Kevin were both very excited to meet their two, new older brothers. For my part, I found it hard to think of them as siblings, at least right away. They were, rather, children who were with the father who had left me. They were living with my father. They had what I had been longing for all these years. This was at the forefront of my mind right then.

After visiting for perhaps forty-five minutes, Jamie announced it was time for bed, saying, “Now gimme some sugar.”

Jay immediately interjected, “Now kids, you heard your mother, it’s time to give her and me some sugar and get on into bed.”

I did not know what this “sugar” thing was all about, but quickly learned that it meant a kiss on the cheek. Both kids kissed their Mom and Dad and headed off to their bedrooms.

It is difficult to describe what it felt like to see those two kids kissing Jay and Jamie. Dave and I never kissed Mom or Dad goodnight. I wondered, if Jay had never gone away, would we have grown up kissing out parents goodnight? How could a man who embraced this nightly display of affection be the same man who left us and remained in the shadows for eleven long years? How could this be the same man who agreed to John Russell adopting Dave and me without so much as a phone call or a letter explaining himself? When I learned that he had agreed to the adoption, it felt like a final, formal rejection. He was perfectly willing to give up his place as our father. I wondered if I would ever understand, if I would ever be able to ask him to simply tell me why.

But, tonight was not a night for me to ask why, and besides, I was exhausted, physically and emotionally. It was time for bed, for all of us.

Jamie said goodnight to Dave and me, and Jay helped us open up the sleeper sofa in the living room. This was where Dave and I would sleep.

That first night, I had an accident. I wet the bed. Something that, while a problem for me as a younger child, I had not done in at least five or six years. The warm liquid awakened Dave.

Shame filled me and I began to cry. I was fourteen years old for Christ’s sake, sleeping for the first night in Jay’s house and I wet the fucking bed! I thought Jay would be ashamed of his first-born son and I knew that Dave would be furious with me. But Dave wasn’t mad. He simply said that things happen and that we should wash the sheets.

As quietly as we possibly could, Dave and I stripped the sheets off of the bed, tiptoed down to hallway to the washer and dryer we’d seen earlier when Jay was giving us a “tour of the estate,” and we stuffed the sheets into the washing machine. A few minutes after we started the washing machine, Jay appeared.

“What’s up?” he asked.
“I, um… I… I had an accident. I wet the bed,” I stammered.

I feared the worst. He’d hit me. He’d yell at me. He’d belittle me for wetting the bed at fourteen. He’d tell me that this whole visit idea was dumb, and that he was going to put us on a plane back home the next day. Tears welled in my eyes, which only deepened my shame. Cry baby!

Jay looked at us both. He shook his head slightly and said, “Well, it seems at least your mother has taught you both how to use the washing machine, and I appreciate your taking the responsibility to clean it up. Why don’t y’all come on into the kitchen and I’ll make you some of my strawberry shortcake?”

I couldn’t believe it. I had expected to be yelled at, criticized, ridiculed, maybe even beaten. Where was his shame in me? Where was his disappointment? I felt as if I was on location at some exotic movie set and nothing was going according to script. I’d done something that I was certain would make Jay ashamed of me and his response was to make us strawberry shortcake at three in the morning.

With the benefit of hindsight and the halting steps toward wisdom that accruing years provide, I’ve come to see that bedwetting incident as an attempt to go back in time, to go back to being – and behaving like – a little boy in need of his father. Jay didn’t see a little boy, though. He saw a fourteen year-old young man attempting to get to know his father. He recognized the courage that was required for me to reach out to him and then to accept his invitation to visit him in Puerto Rico. He understood how emotionally difficult this trip must have been for Dave and me. And so he didn’t yell. He didn’t treat me like a little boy. He simply acknowledged that we were taking care of things and he opted to move on.

In later years, how Jay handled that incident came to symbolize for me how he demonstrated his love for his two boys. He accepted us for who we were no matter what we did.

The rest of that first visit to Puerto Rico is something of a blur. Jay took us to his office and introduced us to all of his colleagues. He seemed to beam with pride at calling Dave and me “my sons.” At times, this annoyed me and the anger rushed back, with me thinking, “What right do you have to introduce us as your sons? You haven’t been there for us, hell, you don’t even know us!” But then, Jay would put his bear-paw of a hand on my shoulder and my self-righteous indignation would evaporate as rapidly as San Juan’s daily morning rain did into the tropical air. Just as the air remained heavy with humidity once the water was off the ground, I remained heavy with my inability to forgive quite yet.

Jay had arranged to take all but one day that week off from work. So, on that first day, when he had to work, we simply went with him. After the office, it was off to do his rounds, visiting 7-Eleven’s, several restaurants, and nameless stores in plazas with Spanish names from one side of San Juan to the other – any place that sold I-Cee frozen drinks. Watching Jay interact with all these people was extraordinary.

He knew everybody’s name. He asked about their wives and children by name. He moved about these stores as if he was royalty of some sort and each store manager treated him with great deference and good humor. He introduced us to all, displaying that same pride he’d beamed in the office.

“Meet my two boys,” he’d say. “This is Brian, he’s quite a piano player, you know… and this, this is Dave, a very gifted swimmer.”

After that first day, Jay tried to show us as much of San Juan and the “Puerto Rico experience” as he could. He took us to the El Morro Fortress, an impossibly large fort that towers above San Juan Bay. It’s the largest fort in the Caribbean and has served as San Juan’s protector for more than four centuries.

He took us to the Condado, which at night was San Juan’s red-light district, and at the Condado Plaza Hotel we sat by the side of the sea drinking pina coladas made with Baralito Five-Star Rum. You haven’t had a pina colada until you’ve had one in the Caribbean with fresh pineapple and fresh coconut milk.

He took us to Old San Juan along cobblestone streets lined with pastel-colored, tile-roofed houses that were classic examples of Spanish Colonial architecture. This area of town reminded me of photographs I’d seen of Greece or of the French Riviera. It seemed as if we’d been transported to the Mediterranean Sea.

He took us up into the El Yunque Rain Forest on a road that curved up and out of San Juan. Along the road were hundreds of ramshackle wooden shacks covered by rusty roofs of corrugated tin. Every now and again we’d come upon small storefronts – El Kiosko, with Coca-Cola signs plastered all over the place, and Taller de Mecanica, which translates to “factory of mechanics.”

On New Year’s Eve, a few nights before we were to return to Buffalo, Jay threw an enormous party in his back yard, inviting all his friends and coworkers to meet his sons. He had a friend bring an electronic keyboard that was set up in the backyard for me to play. His guitar came out, and before I knew it, Jay and I were making music together. Jamie and Katie brought stacks of sheet music out and piled them next to the keyboard for me. Show tunes, pop songs, jazz standards, country music – we played a little bit of everything. As a reward for my playing I got to have a couple of pina coladas that night, too.

I do not recall the trip to the airport for our flight back to Buffalo. All I know is that the night before Jay had offered to fly Dave and me down again in the summer and he wanted us to visit for as many weeks as we were comfortable. Dave and I both wanted to return and we eventually determined that the summer trip would last three weeks.

I think that the reason I can’t remember anything about our trip home is that I was already anticipating the return trip. I wanted to get to know Jay more. I wanted to get to know Jamie, Katie, and Kevin more. I’d come to discover that Jamie wasn’t as unhappy and uptight as her visage initially suggested. She was a private person, and often reserved, but I’d learned that she did have a sense of humor, arid though it might have been.

Katie was endlessly curious about Dave and me. She wanted to know everything about our lives on Grand Island, about our mother, about the lake in Ontario where we spent most of our summers. She wanted to know about our other brothers and sisters, how we liked school, and what sort of friends we had back home. Katie was guileless and somehow instantly embraced us as the big brothers she never knew she had.

Kevin took to Dave. They were both athletic and had a similar mischievousness at their core. I think I was so focused on getting to know Jay that I barely got to know Kevin. He was like a gadfly who flitted about aimlessly and complained bitterly when he was not allowed to join Jay, Dave, and me on an excursion. Who could blame him? He just wanted to be included. He was too young to understand that Jay needed some time to try to get to know his two first-born sons.

I do have one clear memory of our departure from San Juan. It was at the airport. Jay walked us to the desk where we would check our bags and pick up our tickets. Once we had checked the bags and received our boarding passes, Jay walked us to the gate. I remember him hugging us both. Dave first, then me. While he held me tightly, he whispered, “I love you, son. And, I can’t wait to see you the next time.”

With that, the embrace was over. He took a couple of steps back, appraising his two boys and saying, “Well, good enough.”
Then he was gone.

Standing there in the airport watching Jay walk away, his figure getting tinier and tinier in the distance, I was filled with contradictory emotions. On the one hand, I had just heard what I’d so longed to hear for so many years. On the other hand, I was thinking, so, that’s it? You can simply tell me you love me and can’t wait to see me the next time and that’s supposed to make up for eleven years of no contact? Eleven years of not paying child support? Eleven years of utter absence and silence and neglect?

I was angry.
I was hurt.
And, I was also very much looking forward to our return trip to Puerto Rico.
How could I process these contradictory emotions?

It felt like – it feels like – Jay got away with his crime. His crime of abandonment and neglect. He’d charmed me with his gentle eyes and strong hand, with his easy laugh and warm smile. So, now that we’re together again everything should be hunky-dory, right? Wrong.

I was furious and grateful. Angry and happy. Sad and elated. Upset and calmed. I had wanted to confront him in some way, but at the same time, I was worried about spoiling things, and therefore I never did.

Thirty years later, little has changed. I didn’t confront Jay on the second Puerto Rico trip. I didn’t confront Jay – I mean, really, seriously confront Jay – when I saw him or wrote him or spoke with him on the phone for the remaining twenty-eight years of his life.

Justice delayed is justice denied. With his death, Jay escaped justice and secured his victory. His dying did not absolve him of his sin of abandonment. His dying was simply his final act of abandonment.

The forty-four year old me wants to tell the fourteen-year old boy: “It’s okay. It’s not your fault. You were just a kid, and you were scared. You’d lost him once, you didn’t want to lose him again. It felt too risky to confront him then. No, the failure was not yours, young Brian. The failure was mine.”

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