Saying Goodbye to a Father Figure
By Joseph Freitas
In 1955, when I was four years old, my Aunt Addie fell in love with Roger Haugen. I never knew my father—a migrant farm worker from Mexico—and so Roger immediately held an important place in my life. He became the role model for what I believe a man should be: patient, fair, and unselfish. Roger was all that.
Uncle Roger and Aunt Addie were the cornerstones of my childhood. They were young and in love and I felt lucky to be with them. Even after they got married, they continued to include me in their daily lives as much as possible. And I was never happier than when I was with the two of them.
Today as I think of Roger, I realize that though I have many memories of him, there are three I treasure most.
The first, is a blur of long car rides, driving home from Grandma and Grandpa’s in the late evening or the middle of the night. Aunts and cousins are tumbled together in the back seat—but I’m always sandwiched in the front seat between Roger and Addie for the two-hour ride home. As soon as we get out of town, the radio goes on and we all sing. After a while, one by one, everyone drifts to sleep. And for the last hour Roger and I sing with and without the radio. Everything from Frank Sinatra and Bobby Rydell to the Shirelles.
Every once in a while Roger turns from the wheel and says, “You sure can sing, Joey. We’ve got to get you on TV!”
I sing away always keeping one eye on the clock, the other on the intermittent lights from the rural highway. Because I know that as soon as the bright city road signs begin to flood the car, we are nearly home, and I will be kissing everyone goodbye. Feeling sleepy and sad I give Uncle Roger a hug good night.
The second memory is just a brief image. A beautiful summer morning—very early—6 a.m. I’m 8 or 9. Roger picks me up to go golfing. We’re singing along to The Four Seasons’ “Candy Girl” as we pull into the parking lot of the golf course.
Roger meets up with his friends and introduces me, “Joey’s my caddy.” As we walk the course, he explains the difference between a four and a five iron, what the angle on a club means. He points to the shifting sun, the trees and the rough, and I feel like a regular kid out with his dad. Just golfing.
The third memory is November 29, 1980. The day I got married. Aunt Addie had died a month before. The wedding was at a friend’s house, and we were all running around making the last minute adjustments. There was still so much to do. But Roger came up to me in the backyard. He had gotten in late the night before and he looked tired.
“Let me buy you breakfast,” he said. “The groom has got to eat!”
I knew that he was still in deep mourning, but he wanted this day to be a happy one for me.
Over some eggs and coffee we talked about the wedding.
“I’m not sure what kind of advice to give you,” he said. “What do I know? I just wanted to make sure someone was taking you out for breakfast today. I’m glad it was me.”
“Me, too,” I said.
We tried to look to the future, but we were both missing Addie.
“You probably won’t see me much the rest of the day,” he said.
I started to object.
“No,” he said. “You’re going to get busy with everyone. That’s ok. I just want you to know I’m here. And I love you.”
He gave me a big hug and we walked back to the house.
He was right. We didn’t get a chance to talk again that day. And after the wedding, I moved to New York and we didn’t see much of each other again. But I often thought of my Uncle Roger with great affection.
Before he died last month, I was able to speak with him one last time. He lay dying, his family by his side, his breath labored. And though weakened by his illness, his voice still held the same tone of kindness, a gentle inflection up at the end of each sentence that I had always known.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Everyone’s here. I’m a lucky man.”
I knew we would not be able to speak long. But I had something to tell him. I couldn’t believe I had never said it. And I didn’t understand why—even at this moment—it seemed so difficult for me. But I knew this would be my last chance. And so I spoke.
“I love you, Roger,” I said. “You were the father I never had. Thank you.”
He took a deep breath before speaking. I could hear the wheezing in his throat. “You were a great kid, Joey,” he said. “You were easy to love.”
We said our final goodbye and after I hung up I turned to my partner, Chris, and just sobbed.
As I sit here on Cape Cod—a million moments away from the time I shared with Aunt Addie and Uncle Roger, a longing for their presence overwhelms me. Knowing that they are here—but not here—there—but not there—provides little comfort. Selfishly, I want more. Missing the ones you love is an honor.
Joseph Freitas is the father of two children, and former memoir writing instructor at the Westport Writers’ Workshop in Westport, Connecticut. Joe is currently completing work on his memoir, An American Dad.