On Meeting Your Heroes

My father saw Rudolph Giuliani speak during a stop “America’s Mayor” made in Colorado, sometime before Dad drank himself to death in 2006. Given the scandals now coming to light, Rudy is a far cry away from the man who so impressed my father almost twenty years ago.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Even though it took place in the week leading up to my eighth birthday, I still remember the September 11 attacks. In fact, I can remember you flying us to Disneyland that summer, because my sister and I were among the last kids allowed to visit the pilots in the cockpit.

But the morning of 9/11, Dad, while you were buttoning up your shirt in front of the TV, I demanded we change the channel to one of my cartoons because I thought the video of the airliner crashing into the World Trade Center was something from one of your movies. You explained to me it was the news we were watching, and the catastrophe unfolding on screen was happening in real time.

“This is history,” you said.

Amidst the uncertainty of when or where the next disaster would take place, Mom, you called us out of school so we could watch the media coverage for the rest of the day. I’ll never forget the crowds who took to the streets outside, brandishing newspapers with the explosions at the Twin Towers splashed across the front page.

I asked you in a panic what was wrong when you started to cry, wondering if it meant the grownups knew something I didn’t, like whether we were in danger.

“It’s nothing,” you wept, “just… all those poor people…”

Given that you and Dad were around the age I am now when the attacks occurred, it isn’t difficult for me to imagine how impactful it must have been for you to understand the scale of the event, to watch your pre-9/11 world give way to our post-9/11 world, to listen to fighter jets patrol the skies overhead that night while your children tried to sleep.

So it comes as little surprise to hear from Grandma and Grandpa how starstruck you were, Dad, to listen to Rudolph Giuliani speak in Denver sometime between 2001 and the Easter Sunday you drank yourself to death in 2006, three weeks to the day after Mom fatally overdosed on her prescription painkillers and benzodiazepines. Yes, even though Mom sat me on her lap in the voting booth to push the button for Al Gore in 2000, even though you both were the most vocal critics I knew of the Bush Administration, even though Giuliani is a Republican, the former Mayor of New York City still commanded your respect with what he had to say, Dad, after 9/11 rocked his city to its foundation.

It goes without saying that I am as disappointed as you would have been to see “America’s Mayor” in such disgrace, what with allegations of predatory and corrupt behavior of the highest order emerging against him in the hours leading up to this post.

Not that Giuliani had much credibility left after attempting to overturn the results of the free and fair election that voted out the indicted, twice-impeached, one-term ex-President Donald J. Trump in 2020, who was found liable for his own accusations of sexual assault and battery not long ago. These bad-faith efforts led to more Americans dying at the January 6 Capitol insurrection in 2021 than those lost in the 2012 Benghazi attacks. As though my voting record were one of your tennis trophies, Dad, I cast my first presidential ballot to reelect Barack Obama in 2012, I was one of the millions of people who helped Hillary Clinton win the popular vote in 2016, and I found myself on the right side of history yet again when I threw my weight behind Joe Biden in 2020. You and Mom brought me up to vote with my ethics, and I laugh to think how you would have reacted to the Trump years.

Still, Dad, I’m sure there’s little vindication in watching a man you admire get cast down from his pedestal, even if he’s a leader of the political party of war criminals that was destined to subscribe to the regressive “MAGA” ideology. Indeed, during the Global War on Terror unit of my Film and Social Change course at Colorado State University, I was one of the only students in my class whose parents hadn’t sheltered him from the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal in 2004.

But I know how disheartening it would have been for you to behold Giuliani’s fall from grace, Dad, because I witnessed the same with you, time and again.

Ours was a contradictory relationship, Dad – it still is, in many ways; from beyond the gave, even. To be honest, since you spent so much time at work to provide us with the stay-at-home mom neither of you got to have, I have fewer memories of you than I do of her, and most of the memories I do have of you reek of vodka. You already had an explosive temper, and the booze only added fuel to the fire – you once penned a letter much like this one before work the next morning to apologize to me after one of these screaming fits the night before. I may have grown up to be even taller than you, but you were taller than your father and he was taller than his, so it would petrify any child to face such a man when he’s in a rage.

All of which is to say, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I worshipped you like a hero – to this day, I still have no idea how you would have responded to me coming out as gay. Regardless, I did sob at Mom not to call the police on you one night as she was wont to do during one of your arguments, insisting you were “a good daddy” while he sat out on the front porch, as if waiting to go to jail. I can’t say if she ultimately didn’t call the cops because she was faced with the reality of her own child growing up without a father like she did, or if she suspected the officers would tell her she “gave as good as she got” like the last time she had sic’d them on you.

Either way, for all your height and all your bluster and all our estrangement, Dad, I knew back then you were the best of a bad situation, the lesser of two evils, that your worst day was better than Mom’s best day. You told me you’d tried to spank me once when I was too young to remember it, but you hit the small of my back on accident instead and so never raised a hand against me again.

The same couldn’t be said for your wife.

I was the most reliant upon her in my early childhood, as any kid would be if their mom was a housewife, but as I got older and became more independent, Dad, and as she descended into greater instability near the end of her life, I grew closer to you. My last and fondest memories of you involve us setting aside our differences and bonding over Star Wars. I wasn’t a young athlete like you were – in fact, the last time you took me to baseball practice, I was in kindergarten, and I cried until I threw up on our way to the diamond. However, The Phantom Menace came out for me at around the same age you were when A New Hope came out for you, and by the time you died, R2-D2 was no longer my favorite character, but rather Anakin Skywalker, who was yours. We would watch and re-watch the movies for as many hours as we would discuss them, because, in a way, we had grown up with them together.

Little did either of us know, though, that less than a year after the release of Revenge of the Sith, you would go down as the Romeo to Mom’s Juliet and join her in death.

I wish we could have been adults together, Dad. I wish I could have heard your opinion on Giuliani’s downfall. I wish you could have lived long enough for me to see you redeem yourself in my eyes like Darth Vader redeemed himself in Luke’s, because I have faith you would have done it. Even the family physician who wrote Mom the prescriptions that killed her, warned you that you would never quit drinking for as long as you stayed with her. You were the only in that marriage who tried.

Now, you two are together forever, having abandoned my sister and me in the pursuit of your own pleasure, and I will spend the rest of my life yearning to listen to what you had to say.

Then again, might that be the most important lesson you could have taught me, Dad – not to idolize anyone, be it Giuliani, be it Anakin, be it my own father? To be sure, you didn’t imbue me with that wisdom on purpose. You staggered into it like one of your drunken tumbles down the stairs. Nevertheless, I am a more insightful person for having known you, one who no longer waits for somebody else to rescue me, and if that’s how I am to steel myself against your loss, Dad, then I owe my vitality and resilience to you.