Father Figures: Three Wise Men Who Changed a Life

Overview

The remarkable account of a boy's secret plan to find and emulate three men, a trio of hand-picked father figures, after his own father dies

Kevin Sweeney was three years old when his father died, and only vaguely aware of his family's circumstances. His mother, thirty-four and nearly penniless, would not speak of the loss to her six children, and they, mindful of her fragility, hid their grief. But five years later, Sweeney quietly selected three men from his community to be ...

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Overview

The remarkable account of a boy's secret plan to find and emulate three men, a trio of hand-picked father figures, after his own father dies

Kevin Sweeney was three years old when his father died, and only vaguely aware of his family's circumstances. His mother, thirty-four and nearly penniless, would not speak of the loss to her six children, and they, mindful of her fragility, hid their grief. But five years later, Sweeney quietly selected three men from his community to be his role models. Seized by the notion that he would be a father one day, he carefully planned his education.

None of Sweeney's father figures knew of their surrogacy, even though Sweeney was often on the periphery of their lives. He basked in the attention they occasionally lavished on him at parties or basketball games. Haunted by his own anger, guilt, jealousy, and sadness, Sweeney found relief and inspiration in the men, and in the tight-knit suburb where his family lived. He enjoyed long days of exhilarating normalcy -- learning to hit curveballs, roving on Sting-Ray bikes, and concocting explosives with neighborhood compatriots.

Kevin Sweeney's memoir recalls a childhood of private longing in a community of almost otherworldly simplicity, a place where every neighborhood girl received a curbside ovation on her way to the prom. It is the story of a boy and the three men he wanted to be like when he grew up, men who would pull him, a son at last, to the safety of young adulthood. And it is a story of resiliency, with lessons for all of us about the needs of children, the gift of community, and the nature of fatherhood.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
When environmental consultant Sweeney, who was three when his father died of heart failure, turned eight, he chose three men who were friends of his family to serve as stand-ins. At the time, the men didn't know the role Sweeney had picked for them, but they wound up teaching him invaluable lessons over the course of his life. Part memoir, part tribute and part guide for those who have lost a parent, this book (which is based on a Salon.com article Sweeney wrote shortly after September 11) is a thoughtful, touching and realistic look at how children cope with loss. "I did not feel fatherless," Sweeney writes, "not exactly, even though my mother never remarried. I had a strategy for coping. I was a kid with a plan." In spare, unadorned prose studded with touching details, Sweeney relates what it was like to lean on, and learn from, the men around him as he charted his own path to adulthood. The book is a testament of children's strength and resilience in the face of loss. (May 6) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060511920
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/6/2003
  • Pages: 196
  • Product dimensions: 5.77 (w) x 8.56 (h) x 0.86 (d)

First Chapter

Father Figures
Three Wise Men Who Changed a Life

Chapter One

Boom

"Your daddy has died," Grandma Fallon said. "Your daddy has died."

Four of us kids huddled together on the couch, still in our pajamas, with Grandma kneeling before us and clutching the folds of her dress. Staring at the floor, she said the words slowly, deliberately. We didn't say a thing.

Our sister Aileen was not on the couch with us, nor was she even in the room. She was alone in the hallway, standing over the heating vent -- the dearest, most coveted spot in our house. With both slippers on the small floor register, she stood perfectly still as her nightgown billowed with our house's single strand of warmth. She was very tall for nine years and pretty, with long, straight red hair. Always the most capable one, on this morning when the house was filled with confusion, when something was happening, she withdrew to the one place of comfort, to that one place of perfection. But it came with a cost; she knew that right away. The warmth passed through my sister, through the thin sheet of a ceiling, through the attic, through the shingles and into a cold February. Though not in the room with her brothers and sisters, she had heard enough to know, but not enough to have actually been told. She was aware of this fact, that she was not present when the news of our father's death was announced. It was a useful distraction for a smart, young girl -- a hurt that might obscure a death.

Aileen walked from the hallway, from the warmth and perfection she had found before Grandma had spoken, and into the front room. Terry was the one to tell her.

"Daddy died."

"Your daddy has died," Grandma said again. She was still looking down and began to cry quietly before us. We could not see her face, nor could we see her move at all, but teardrops fell onto her eyeglasses, pooled up, and rolled off the horn-rimmed edges to dampen her dress. It became a stream of giant teardrops, a flood, soaking folds in the fabric, changing its color. Terry cried and Pat cried. Anne and I stared at Grandma's dress.

Kathy was still off in her crib, in the room she shared with Pat and me. Fourteen months old and oblivious, probably, to everything except that she was wet, she was the only one who could breathe deeply enough to cry aloud, the only one to wail.

Everything I know from this day, and from this time, I know from my sister Terry, who was seven when Daddy died. I was too young -- three and a half -- and don't remember, but even the ones who were old enough don't remember. Terry is the one who held onto the details of our daddy, of our home back then, of how he died and of who did what and who went where after he died. If she is not the only one to remember, she is the only one to speak of it. Her memories have become mine.

All that happened back then, or all that we choose to remember, is part of the story of when Daddy died. Things can't be separated out now, nor can we consider the day and what happened without recalling the things that led up to it. The story is loaded with foreshadow, as if to suggest we should have known, even at that age, that it was coming. It feels so obvious in hindsight.

There were months and months of illness and fatigue. Daddy in the hospital with a bad heart. Daddy at home and too tired to pick us up. Whispering, only whispering, for days after Daddy is home from his first heart surgery.

Then there was the day, only two months before Daddy died, when the ambulance came to take our baby sister Kathy. It was at dinner a few days after Thanksgiving, and she was screaming and twisting, flailing around as if uncomfortable in every position. As Daddy held her on his lap, her neck grew stiff and her back arched. She began to stare straight ahead, a blank stare. Mom stood between the kitchen and dining room, talking on the phone to Dr. Bove, one hand on the receiver and one on her waist, her forehead leaning against the cabinets. That was when Pat shouted, "Mom, look at her eyes!" What we didn't know then was the word Mom had whispered to Daddy, the word Dr. Bove had used: meningitis. We did not know then -- even Terry didn't know then -- that our daddy's own little sister had died of meningitis long before, that it was all he could think of as the house was enveloped in Kathy's screams. We also didn't know then that a doctor had told our parents, only days earlier, that Daddy's heart was wearing out, that he needed rest for six to eight weeks so they could do more surgery, this time to open his heart and try new approaches not yet perfected. His fears, all so obvious in hindsight. The ambulance arrived before Mom finished up with the doctor -- he must have been the one to call for it -- and our baby sister was taken to the hospital. The spinal meningitis would not take our sister, not then or ever, but we were fated. "Bad things happen in threes," Grandma Sweeney had said so often. Daddy's surgery and the baby's meningitis. Something else would happen.

There was the day, two months later, when it snowed. Looking back, Terry could see why the two of them, Mom and Daddy, stayed inside that Sunday in January as we played outside in the snow. The doorbell had rung at six that morning, with Buzzy Flick, a neighbor from across the street, screaming "It's snowing, it's snowing!" It had never snowed before in San Bruno, which was new then, a tiny suburb on the peninsula south of San Francisco ...

Father Figures
Three Wise Men Who Changed a Life
. Copyright © by Kevin Sweeney. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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