by Henry Suarez
Distinct recollections emerge from the day of my oldest daughter’s birth. The wondrous feat of my wife pushing an entire human being out of her sacred crevice. Hearing my daughter's first cries—her wails like the quack of an angry duck being repeatedly prodded. Sharing a long embrace with my father from the hospital lobby.
We usually greet with a handshake or a slap on the back. On that day, we instinctively opened our arms and embraced. It’s not the hug but the words he uttered that resonated, “Ya si eres un hombre.” The words seemingly not only meant for me but rather an affirmation to himself, your job is done.
While already a grandparent, the dynamic between us shifted. Over the years, I have given papi more than my fair share of headaches. At times it looked like he had lost complete faith in me. After some cooling off, he would sit me down for a talk, setting me back on a righteous path. Until then, we were father & son; with the birth of a granddaughter, he was promoted again.
Papi always valued education and self-enrichment. I don’t know anyone that loves books as much as he does. He travels to DR for La Feria Del Libro annually and returns with a maleta full of books. Reading time was sacred for Papi; whether it was a newspaper or a book, disturbing him almost made you feel like you were on death’s door.
Family reading time was significant, and it had different iterations. Once we had developed some level of comprehension, he would read us longer and more complex stories. As a teenager, though, storytime with papi was done away with, and everyone read individually for a given period of time; even Mami participated on a few occasions.
One of our many adventures I remember with papi was going with him to the library searching for a particular political memoir at Barnes & Noble. My brother Ariel and I sat on the bench by the entrance when he walked over and said, “Mis hijos parence de ahi y busquen un libro. Miren ahi la literatura classica, escojan algo.” Classic literature? At age 8 & 5, what would either of us have known about that genre?
Instead, we stumbled across the sports section; Ariel immediately grabbed hold of a Michael Jordan biography. Being a diehard Yankees fan, I decided on a Mickey Mantle biography. His reaction wasn’t one of disappointment but more so of disgust. It didn’t stop him from buying the books, though; I guess he figured any reading is better than none.
Papi was also involved with helping us with homework, overseeing that it was completed. As a math teacher in San Francisco de Macoris, he was excited to work on math formulas. Once, we worked on a packet of worksheets for hours. When I received the graded work, I was surprised that almost all the answers were wrong. Let’s just say he was careless that day or the tale of him being a math teacher was slightly exaggerated.
Getting us out of the house and immersing us in new experiences was something he focused on as well. We visited museums together long before any class trips. He would pick up a few of my cousins, and we’d go to the park to play catch or shoot the ball on the basketball court. Weekend road trips were always something to look forward to; there was D.C., Boston, or Philly, you name it. He loved a good road trip, so long as we kept it quiet in the back seat.
As great as papi is, he didn’t exactly shatter the mold of the stereotypical Dominican dad. Many parts remain intact. He didn’t rule with an iron fist, but decisions at home were made by him. Papi was methodical with how he wielded power. He opened topics up for discussion, only to give the illusion of democracy—it's anything but that.
When I wanted to take up football my freshman year of high school. I approached him for permission. He listened to all my reasonings as to why it would be enjoyable and beneficial. Then he asked what my backup option would be, and I mentioned boxing.
Esas son buenas opciones, por la cual tu puedes pagar si quieres. Ahora, las dos opciones por la que yo estoy dispuesto a pagar son volleyball y tenis.
I knew he wouldn't offer the stereotypical baseball because he wasn't a fan, and I sucked at it. But volleyball and tennis? These two options were terrible! Where in the hood was I supposed to play? With no money of my own, my choices were to head down to Linden Park, where they were playing volleyball on a basketball court with a soccer ball, or skip sports altogether. I opted for the latter.
I have never met a more stubborn person. He has never lost an argument.
For years he drove around in a car that would constantly break down. We pleaded with him to upgrade, but he insisted all that car needed was a good tune-up, and it would go another 100,000 miles. They visited my brother in Boston two days after tuning up the car. Mami phoned a little while later to tell me they were stranded somewhere in Connecticut.
He didn’t come to the phone, though. If you refuse to acknowledge defeat, then you’ve never lost.
Domestic work, bath, and bedtime were never his strong suit. A single diaper was not changed by those hands. We weren’t waking up on a Saturday morning to papi with a mop in hand, listening to merengue. He’s someone who honks the horn as soon as the light turns green. If you commit to picking him up from the airport, you better be there the second he walks out the door—otherwise, he will blow up your cellphone. Despues se pasa el dia con una cara de aburrido.
Occasionally, he seemed more consumed with life and politics back in DR than things going on in the home. When Hurricane Georges struck DR in 1998, he was involved with the local relief effort. He was so absorbed with his humanitarian efforts that he forgot Mami’s birthday. I could hear them arguing when he strolled in at 11 pm.
There was an unfulfilled dream of living back in DR. He envisioned making something of himself, his life, and returning home as a conqueror. A growing family here and the political turmoil back forced those plans to the back burner. “Cuando me retiré quizás las cosas están mejor allá. Me voy a vivir mis últimos días en el campo.”
I don’t believe in celebrating a father that does the absolute minimum or praising them just for showing up. I looked around at my friends and even within my family, and I didn’t see other dads doing the things my father did, such as dedicated family time. We never had to wait for our dad to pick us up for visitations. He was equally consistent in surprising us with ice cream if we received good grades, as he was to busting down our bedroom door at 8 am during the weekend, insisting we get up and do something constructive (then returning a moment later to point out that our room smelled like a horse stable).
Once while getting a haircut, the barber stopped to answer a call. After hanging up he said, “Yo no me voy a poner loco con eso muchachos. Tu nunca a visto un hombre parir un chamaquito. Eso son problemas de la mama.” Sure enough, that was the last cut I got from that contemptible low-life, and I have tried to keep haircut convo to a minimum since. I recognized how flawed this statement was even before having kids of my own because I was reminded daily of what a gift it was to have an engaged father.
There are times I doubt myself and my performance as a parent, even though I recognize that it’s impossible to be a perfect parent. Mine was far from it, and that’s just fine. Seeing and recognizing the flaws of others helps me to see what some of my limitations are. At the very least, I’m more accepting when others point them out to me.
Papi is a perfect example de que becoming a grandparent changes you.
Papi, who loves to read, was not a fan of fantastical tales but appreciated books related to practical matters and politics. Creativity and imagination weren’t encouraged in our home. I had a knack for storytelling and making people laugh, always watching stand-up and wanting to emulate what they did. I remember telling Papi that when I grew up, I wanted to continue telling stories and entertaining; I dreamed of being on TV. He said there’s no future in that; it was better to focus my energy on something concrete like being a doctor or a lawyer.
“¿Tu cree que uno se mata trabajando, dique pa que tu te haciendo chistes?”
The rules were simple. “Aqui se vino a trabajar, dejense de esas ilusiones y ponganse pa lo suyo.”
Suddenly, he’s a grand champion of the arts and culture. When I started writing, I was surprised at how encouraging he was. I imagined he would insist it was a waste of time. Instead, he provided me with suggestions on topics to write about.
“La escritura es muy importante. Una parte esencial de mantener la historia de la familia.”
I’ve come home to find him rolling around on the front lawn while my daughters cover him in leaves and grass. He becomes their negotiator when I say it’s time to go inside and do homework.
“Déjala que juegan un ratito.”
Y este tipo? What happened to the guy that insisted nothing came before homework? All of a sudden, the rules have become noticeably relaxed.
All these years later still present and engaged. He remains skilled at pulling me aside, although now it’s when he sees I’m too strict with the girls. He loves giving advice that he won’t follow himself.
“Coge la cosa con calma mi hijo. Aprende ahora antes que sea muy tarde.”
It’s great to see his development in these later stages of life. I’m thankful to have his guidance. Tengo fe que sere un buen padre, asi como mi viejo.
Henry Suarez is a Dominican-American writer, born and raised in Corona, Queens. He now resides in Westchester, NY, with his wife and daughters. His writing focuses mainly on the immigrant experience, growing up bicultural/bilingual, and his journey through fatherhood.