It’s been a while. This is just one very big reason why:
December 11, 2018. 10:08 P.M. Eastern Standard Time:
“Mr. Galat, this is Armando Chavez of the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s office, this is about to be one of the worst phone calls you’ll ever receive…”
Dennis Galat was my dad, but he wasn’t my father. I’ve never met my birth father, who abandoned my pregnant mother before I was born. I’ve never even had a desire to meet the man. My grandfather, who I called “Daddy” from the day I could first talk until the day he passed away at 99-years-old, was my first father figure. My grandparents stepped in and helped my single mom (and me) for many years. But I knew my grandfather, who was only a couple years younger than I am today when I was born, could never really be my dad.
When my mom met Dennis, I was 9 years old. They married when I was almost 11. For the next 47 years, Dennis became my one and only dad – the fulfillment of my many childhood dreams to even have a real dad. He taught me everything, from how to cut my fingernails and keep them clean, to how to shave and to drive, and he showed me by his actions how to be the dad that my boys, Corey and Jason, would want and need me to be. Things my mom just couldn’t, not for a pre-teen boy, or an adolescent teenager, or even a fully-grown man.
I’m sure I drove him crazy. I was a spoiled kid raised in a home surrounded by strong-willed women. My grandfather was amazing, but one of his best qualities was his ability to simply just give in to my grandmother, my mom and her only sister, my aunt. Before Dennis came into my life, that unit of 5 people, a pair of 50-something year-olds, their two single daughters and their young grandson all lived together in a small two-bedroom house. With age comes wisdom, and I now am able to recognize my grandfather’s remarkable survival instincts.
When Dennis married my mom, he also married me. He had no choice. But he embraced me, and he fathered me and turned me from being my mom’s spoiled kid to HIS son. He was an amazing man. I learned so much from him that is instilled in the very fiber of my being.
When I was 14, we moved from L.A. to the Bay Area, at the very beginnings of what is now Silicon Valley. It was a few electronics companies and a lot of cherry, apricot and prune orchards back then. We were driving through our neighborhood one day and I saw farm workers picking apricots off of trees. The workers were all Hispanic. I asked him why they were the only ones picking fruit, and he replied simply “because people like us won’t do it”. A simple comment, but a lifelong lesson.
This was the era of the TV show “All in the Family”. My dad was the least prejudiced person in the world, and he loved the show because of the way it attacked and broke down racial, gender and class stereotypes and biases. We watched it together and I learned to hate prejudice and intolerance myself.
There are so many moments, many of them only recently rising from my subconscious after that awful call from the Medical Examiner.
Our little family was a unique blend thrown together, my mom & I from an ethnically (but not religiously) Jewish background, my step-sister Denyse had a Jewish mother, and dad was raised a Catholic, but was a proud Atheist.
Dad’s brother Larry (and his family) had a very different belief system, which made for some “interesting” conversations at family holiday gatherings. One moment that will always stay with me was when my dad offered to say grace at some family event, might’ve been Christmas, or Easter or Thanksgiving. I’ll never forget the look of shock on my Uncle Larry’s face when he offered to do it, and the looks his youngest brother (my Uncle) Greg and I exchanged in fearful anticipation of what he’d actually do and/or say. And what he did was offer this simple prayer: “Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Thanks for the Grub”.
Or, the time at dinner when Uncle Greg asked if he could pass him the mashed potatoes, and he picked up a handful straight from the bowl and threw them at him across the table.
Or, when I brought home my first girlfriend for dinner and to meet my family for the first time. He didn’t say a word throughout dinner. That was, to say the least, not typical. My mom kept looking at 17-year-old me, just struggling to make small talk in order to impress a 16-year-old (and now terrified of what he was thinking). Denyse and I kept looking at each other wondering what the heck was going on. Finally, Dad finished eating, pushed aside his plate and calmly looked at my girlfriend and said “so, Wendy. Geoff says that for a fat girl, you don’t sweat much.” After Denyse rose back up after spontaneously sliding under the dining room table, and after my mom screeched “DENNIS!!!” at the top of her lungs, and after I regained consciousness after basically blacking out, he calmly smiled and said “just kidding”.
Or, when he, Denyse and I went to the new mall that had opened near our house, which of course was where we hung out all the time as high schoolers did. As we walked through the mall, a good six feet behind him because that’s also what “cool” high schoolers do when with their parents in the vicinity of their friends, he loudly farted. Yes, he farted so loud it was likely heard by alien listening devices in another solar system. It echoed throughout the mall. He immediately turned around and loudly said “DENYSE!!”. Every person we knew laughed and laughed. At least I think those were laughs.
It didn’t end after I “grew up” either. In 1987 or so, my grandmother had a stroke and my mom went down to L.A. from the Bay Area for about a month to help out. I was married, had a one-year-old at home, and was working a lot. We’d often go to my mom & dad’s house on Sunday nights for dinner, but with my mom out of town, we hadn’t gone for a couple of weeks.
The world wasn’t quite as hyper-connected as it is now, we only had regular telephones. So, instead of calling, one day after work I decided to swing by the house on the way home to see how he was doing.
Our house had the garage right in front, and you entered the kitchen through a door from the garage. He worked from the garage in those days, so it was usually open, and we rarely ever used the front door.
I did what I had done thousands of times and walked past his desk and the car and opened the door. What I saw next is hard to envision, so bear with me. I entered the kitchen, but it had been completely encapsulated in aluminum foil. The cabinets were covered. The countertops were covered. The range top was covered. Everything, everywhere. I was breathless and for one of the few times in my life, speechless. He walked around the corner from the family room with a giant grin on his face and saw me frozen, mouth agape. Before I could say “what the hell…….”, he calmly said “it’s awesome, right? Your mom said she is going to be gone all month. I can cook whatever I want, I can splash stuff, splatter grease & oil on everything, and when she calls to tell me she’s coming home, all I have to do is pull it all down, roll it into a big ball, and put it in the recycling bin”.
I learned to love football from him, and cherished our talks about it, even this season. We shared a love of the 49ers – and watched together as they won 5 Super Bowls. I learned a few George Gershwin & Glenn Miller songs and a few 5th Dimension songs from him, and I still get those stuck in my head sometimes. I learned to love biting, irreverent comedy from him. I also learned that despite a background in electronics and some engineering, he was really, really, really bad with computers. And VCRs. And, more recently, iPads.
Uncle Greg and I shared the responsibility of IT support for a lot of years (and my cousin Allie and my dad’s dear friend Dodi got to deal with some of it in the last year, after I bought him an iPad so he’d have computer access in the house instead of just in the garage, where his desktop PC was), thinking maybe he’d cut back on his smoking. Having to use oxygen didn’t make him stop, but the iPad kind of did.
When I first moved away from home, I joked that I’d come home at Christmas and turn the VCR on and come back at Easter and turn it off. It wasn’t that far from the truth. Of all the great days in my life, after the births of my kids, my wedding, etc., maybe my greatest day was the day my parents got their first DVR.
He adored his grandkids, Corey and Jason. Really adored them. When Corey was born, I instantly went from being the son he had gained and raised, to merely being the father of his grandkids. And that was OK with me.
I could go on and on. But I won’t. You all get it.
As my wife Dee Dee likes to say, Dennis Galat was the sweetest man on earth, but he was also an ornery old goat. Yet he always had a twinkle in his eye. Dee Dee says I am just like him, so I guess his grand plan worked out.
Rest In Peace, Dad. I miss you. And I love you.