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Brian Paglia: Lessons from my father
My dad taught me that it was OK to embrace the uncomfortable feelings we all get, but I also grew up on his near-non-stop humor. - Photo courtesy Brian Paglia

From the June 2018 400: The Life

In 2013, I started to think about what I would say at my dad’s funeral.

My father, Peter, was diagnosed with liver cancer that May. The conventional chemotherapy regimen didn’t work, though doctors ordered it to continue to hold back the cancer. They were biding time for a transplant. 

The process to find a suitor was excruciating. My dad was placed on a waiting list for a deceased-liver donor. His place on the list was determined by his Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD) score, a number between 6 and 40 that represented the severity of his condition. The higher the number, the more dire. He could have waited days, months or more than a year for a suitable donor. Some never get one.

In the meantime, he hoped for a living donor, but that required waiting, too. First, someone had to be willing to go through the slog of physical and psychological tests, the 12-hour surgery and the months-long recovery. Second, they had to be a match. Several of my cousins volunteered, and two appeared to be matches until they were disqualified during some of the final tests. 

And all the while, my dad’s stature diminished in the way that’s familiar to too many today. He lost weight. His skin yellowed. His face tightened. His gait stiffened. 

I expected this all to work out. A donor would emerge, the surgery would be successful and the recovery would commence. My dad would gain the weight back. His skin would return its olive hue. His face would fill out again. He’d walk with vigor. 

Even still, my mind wandered into worst-case scenarios, and in that space I began to think of a father’s impact on his son — my father’s impact on me. 

If I was to lose him, what would I take with me?

Very gradually, the answers crystallized out of scenes from our time together, and three things stood out:

1. It’s OK to feel

Every summer, I spent a week at my father’s as part of my parents’ custody agreement. One year, my step-mother and brothers were gone visiting family in upstate New York for my week. It was just dad and me.

Brain Paglia
Faced with the possibility of missing my childhood, my dad did what he had to to avoid that outcome, setting off a life-long journey of self-improvement I try to emulate.
Much of the week was spent in one of my favorite places: Atlantic Woodworks, my dad’s cabinetry and custom furniture business near downtown Annapolis, Maryland. To young adolescent me at the time, it was a cavernous factory. The shop, as we called it, was filled with the aroma from a concoction of woods: cedar, curly maple, mahogany, pine, spruce. It was dusty. Machines roared. 

My dad would blare music over the shop’s stereo system, and one day during my stay he played famed jazz guitarist Pat Metheny’s version of the theme song to the movie “Cinema Paradiso” as I sanded cabinets in the back room. My dad soon walked in, and he proceeded to explain the 1988 Italian film’s premise. 

He told me how a young Sicilian boy befriended the projectionist of the local “cinema” during war time, and how the local church leader would clip out any scenes with romance. One day, a fire destroyed the cinema and killed the projectionist. The boy, now older, surveyed the remains and found a container filled with film taped together. 

My dad paused, caught his breath and voice, before explaining it was all the romantic scenes the village had been forbidden to see. All those years, the projectionist had kept the scenes with kisses and embraces and passionate connection. The boy sat and watched all the love he had missed. 

My dad wiped his eyes and walked out of the back room.

2. Never stop growing

The circumstances of my parents’ divorce have always been murky to me, but I got the impression it was warranted. Before I was 3, he was gone.

But not for long. Faced with the possibility of missing my childhood, or more, my dad did what he had to to avoid that outcome. It started with hypnosis to jumpstart a change in his mindset, and soon we were spending Friday nights together, getting Chinese food for dinner and Baskin Robbins after. 

My dad never stopped trying to improve. Sometimes he used books about Warren Buffet, the wealthy business magnate, or by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk. Sometimes it was weekend workshops. Sometimes it was couples counseling with my step-mother. 

In his work, he indulged his passions. When I started to learn to play the guitar at 13, he took it as the occasion to figure out how to make them. He explored real estate, and he took fact-finding missions to Puerto Rico and Dominica to scout sawmills for a potential exotic wood business.

I got to share in all of it, because he made the decision to be better. 

3. Keep fighting

My brother and I locked my dad in a bathroom once. 

We consider it the best prank ever pulled on my dad. We lived in a townhome at the time, in a corner unit that gave us the rare added luxury of a portico. But the first thing a person encountered when walking inside was the downstairs bathroom.

With my dad inside the bathroom one day, my brother and I tied a rope around the handle of the bathroom door, pulled it tight through the front door and tied the other end around one of the portico’s columns. Dad made a few futile attempts at opening the door. Our laughter echoed in the neighborhood. 

Eventually we noticed the silence in the bathroom. Our step-mother gave us a warning look. The time had come to let him out, and so we prepared for the worst. We loosened the rope, and my dad burst out of the bathroom and came straight for my brother and me. We roughhoused in the living room, pillows flying and limbs flailing. 

Despite our two-to-one advantage, dad was gaining control, so one of us — I don’t remember who — made the desperate decision to tickle him. 

When pushed, he fought back. He responded with a fury of kicks. Never had we seen dad display such intensity.

It was the one scene that kept coming back to me as dad was in the throes of his cancer. He was a fighter, I reminded myself. When pushed to his limit, he pushed back.

And so it made sense, in hindsight, that he was able to endure the fatigue and pain and uncertainty of the cancer until another cousin, Dominic, my dad’s brother’s third-oldest son, was found to be a match. 

On May 20, 2014, they went to the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for double surgery. My dad came out with a third of Dominic’s liver. A few months later, it grew to full-size. This past May marked four years since the surgery.