Friday, November 6, 2015

Phase Two: Life is Messy

Michael Dean Lacopo and Dean William Lacopo, Jr.
South Bend, Indiana, 1998


On the evening of 04 October 2015, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, my father put a 9mm handgun to his left temple and pulled the trigger. The intended result was not instantaneous. The short and speedy path of the bullet fractured the base of his skull and exited his upper right eyelid, sparing any structures that would have caused his immediate demise. He was still breathing when emergency personnel arrived.

He died shortly after his hospital arrival. He was 69 years old.

I was informed of his death the following afternoon by his half-sister who heard it from his sister who heard it from his brother who heard it from his wife. None of his three sons were directly notified; apparently this was not a priority. It is not entirely surprising. None of his three sons had a functional relationship with the man.

Dean William Lacopo, Jr., was born in South Bend, Indiana, on 25 February 1946, to an alcoholic father, and a mother who would abandon him and his siblings just three years later. While his father worked as a shoe repairer between drinking binges, Dino (as everyone but my mother called him) and his siblings were largely raised by his paternal grandparents. Three generations of Lacopos lived under one roof in the small house at 727 North Eddy Street in South Bend. His grandfather, Domenico Salvatore "Dominick" Lacopo, was an Italian immigrant who taught his grandson the power of a strong work ethic. He regrettably also instilled into him the Italian machismo that involved keeping a woman in her place while freely pursuing sexual conquests. Male superiority was a common theme to my father, forever expressing his prowess at producing three male heirs, while berating his youngest son for only siring daughters.

Briefly, these are the circumstances surrounding my father's upbringing. He mimicked all the negative traits and interpersonal skills learned from his parents and grandparents and brought them into his adult relationships with others. 

As a high school student, Dean was repeatedly expelled from South Bend schools for his aggressive behavior -- a trait that was magnified exponentially when he drank, which was often and continual. He moved in with his father's sister in Mishawaka in 1964 so that he could attend Penn High School in that city. 

It was here that Dean met my mother, Carol Sue DePrato. She was the good Catholic girl who had been adopted and spoiled by the parents who could have no children of their own. He was the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks. The attraction was obvious, plucked from every clich├ęd good-girl-bad-boy B-movie plot line. 

When Dean quit high school to join the Marines, he left Carol behind. She took up with her previous boyfriend who bored her, but who offered stability and took her to her High School Senior Prom. When Dean returned home for the holidays from Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia in 1965, the attraction was still strong. Being a good Catholic girl, Carol resisted his persistent physical advances. He asked her to marry him. That worked wonders.

Two months later, Carol's disappointed father and morally-outraged mother promptly put their pregnant teenage daughter on a train to San Diego, California, where she met up with Dean, now stationed at Camp Pendleton, and they were hurriedly married on 25 February 1966. Their eldest son was born there seven months later.

My mother was not the only woman calling my father with shocking news. The girl he dated while stationed in Quantico had done so at nearly the exact time. She too was pregnant with his child. The girl born in Washington, D.C., just forty days before my brother's birth, was given up for adoption. This perpetual string of women and juggling relationships would continue until my father's death. At no time during his marriages would Dean adhere to monogamy, having numerous dalliances that a marriage certificate was powerless to prevent. But in 1966, having just turned twenty years old, he was suddenly saddled with a lonely bride living in cockroach-infested base housing caring for a newborn son far away from home. He was ill-prepared for the inconvenient burdens of fatherhood. Her options were limited, more so after discovering almost immediately that she was pregnant again by her already unfaithful husband. They returned to the South Bend area after my father's discharge from the Marines, where I was born nine months and four days after my brother.

The house I grew up in was located on the north side of Mishawaka, Indiana. It was a post-war prefab two-bedroom, one-bathroom ranch on a concrete slab. Purchased for $9,000 in 1967, we moved into it when I was just two months old. Shortly thereafter, my father gained employment with the Mishawaka Police Department. These two things would remain constant until I left home for college in 1985.

I have no positive memories of my father during this time. In the wake of his death, I tried to search my mind for them, but I came up empty. I know he was present at a handful of family events and holidays, but I know this only by looking at photographs. School events were largely attended by my mother and my maternal grandparents. I do not recall his attendance at any of them. For many years, my father worked the night shift, so his presence often was precluded by the need to report to work, or to sleep during the day. It was 1970s, an era of very hands-off parenting. The hovering and catering and nurturing techniques of child-rearing experienced later by the Millennials would have seemed ludicrous to my parents a generation prior.

But it is not my father's parenting techniques or work absences that causes my lack of memories. There are plenty of memories, just none of them are pleasant.

At the most benign, the smell of a man drunk on bourbon, mixed with the stench of cigarette smoke, immediately reminds me of my father and takes me back to my childhood.

At the worst, the memories include the time we had to throw out all of the toys we loved, because my father had come home drunk and urinated in our toy box, thinking it was the toilet. 

Or the time he came home after work with a strange man following in a pick up truck. Without notice to anyone in his family, he packed up the dog house from the back yard and gave this man my beloved dog, a Doberman named Caesar. Mother and children just cried in stunned disbelief. I was devastated.

Or the wrath that would ensue if you didn't clean your room when told. This would usually result in a fit of cursing anger followed by the furiously crazed dismantling and destruction of shelves, dressers, and closets; the breaking of toys, lamps, and knick-knacks, and the final statement "NOW you have a room to clean! Clean it!" You didn't dare cry at the destruction left in his wake. If you did, you were taken from the room to really be "given something to cry about."

And the beatings. The cursing. The fighting. The violence. The fear. The snapping of his belt when you knew he meant business, or the feel of it against your bare lower back or upper thighs that invariably came from bad aim meant for your buttocks. The level of my father's anger and drunkenness was usually measurable by whether the welts he left behind from his beatings bled or not.

I ran into an old neighbor from my childhood when I was in my 30s. He marveled at how successful I had become: a college graduate with a doctorate and working at a thriving veterinary practice. He just stared at me silently with a wistful teary-eyed smile. After an uncomfortable silence, I asked him what was wrong.

"Nobody in the neighborhood expected you to live through your childhood. Your father's alcohol-fueled temper was notorious. And he carried a gun for a living. We all waited for it to reach its eventual climax."

My father would beat my mother into unconsciousness, while we would usually run to the back yard or the neighbor's house shrieking in abject terror. This played out numerous times for the neighborhood to see, so it was no deep, dark family secret. My mother called the police once. They laughed at her. They were certainly not going to send out a squad car on one of their own. Sorry. Not our problem. Deal with it.

Like most police officers, my father supplemented his income by working security at other businesses. He started at First National Bank, then for many years at the local K-Mart, and then as head of security at University Park Mall - all in Mishawaka, Indiana. More than two decades have passed since his retirement from the Mishawaka Police Department, yet I still hear his name used as the illustration for "the bad cop." The cop that would confiscate drugs or other illegal goods from a perpetrator, then pocket them. The cop that would let a female prisoner go in exchange for sexual favors. The cop that once cut a prisoner's finger off by slamming a jail door onto it, then laughed when the man screamed and writhed in pain, all the while taunting him on the other side of the locked cell with his dismembered digit.

Still, when people hear my name and ask, "Are you Dino's son?" my response is never an immediate "Yes." It is usually a wary "Why?"

To my father, these were the things that defined a man: strength, power, violence, control, money, sex.

Once I reached an age of rationality and reasoning, I became well aware of the dysfunction around me. Unlike my father, I did not allow my childhood upbringing to define me and doom me to the repetition of the same faults and behaviors. I was all the things my father was not, and did not understand, and for that, I was spared most of the physical violence doled out upon my mother and brothers.

My father wanted three strapping, lady-killing, smooth-talking jocks for sons. By that measuring stick, I failed miserably. I was well-behaved and quiet. I rarely defied my father's authority, or that of my teachers or anyone who held power over me. I was a sickly child with a host of orthopedic, gastrointestinal, and ocular problems. I was not the jock my father wanted, but somehow health issues beyond my control gave me an excuse. It wasn't an entirely acceptable one, but it was futile to try to make me be something I physically could not. And I was smart and bookish. Somewhere this must have registered with my father as a positive trait, but again, it was unfamiliar territory.

So I was largely ignored.

When I started my genealogical research and made my first foray into the civil court records at the St. Joseph County Clerk's office, I was surprisingly shocked to see that my father filed for divorce in almost every year beginning in 1968. The court filing, moving out to shack up with the girlfriend du jour, and the moving back in once his fling lost its appeal, had finally taken its toll on my mother. Seventeen years into their marriage, she was done. She was determined  to make my father's divorce filing in June 1983 his last.

My father would show up at the house frequently after the divorce, asking my mother to remarry him. I think he missed the control more than the marriage. When she steadfastly refused his final offer, he angrily told her that she would be sorry. He married his second wife the following week as his revenge.

I left for college. There were no letters from my father. There were no cards or gifts at the holidays or my birthday.  He did not congratulate me when I made Dean's List. He did not attend my graduation from veterinary school. As I entered into adulthood, the father who terrorized my childhood became the father who just didn't care.

And as I write that, I am terribly saddened by it. There were many reasons for me to hate my father. I did not. I craved his approval, and I longed for his attention. These are things I would never get. His death means that they are no longer options.

For Christmas, 1979, my father bought all three of his sons sterling silver St. Christopher medals on long chains. I am sitting her with mine in front of me, encased in the blue velvet box in which it was presented. On the back is engraved, "Mike from Dad 12-25-79." My father never played a role in birthday or holiday gift buying, and I recall even my mother being perplexed by the purchasing and presenting of these gifts. I wore it continuously for years, and it is exposed and visible in my 8th grade school pictures, worn outside my faux-silk disco shirt. I meticulously preserved the medal and its casing, because it showed me that on some level my father loved me.

After my father retired from the Mishawaka Police Department, he took on a full-time position as a regional loss prevention and security manager for K-Mart stores. This required a move to New Mexico, and then to Colorado. His physical absence from the state made any meaningful attempt at connection nearly impossible. If I failed to call my father within what he deemed to be an appropriate amount of time, I could usually expect a drunken, profanity-laden message on my answering machine reminding me how undeserving I was to carry the surname Lacopo. The rants would usually last for several minutes.

It was seldom an incentive to call back.

And still, I waited for some moment of clarity or reflection when my father would grow up and realize that he needed to connect with the son he failed to raise. I recall one birthday afternoon sometime in the late 1990s when I was working as a veterinarian. I was paged by one of our receptionists:

"Your father is on Line 1."

I was shocked and ecstatic at the same time. My father really remembered my birthday? Maybe he really did care after all!

When I picked up the phone, there was no small talk, just a simple question.

"Hey, do you have Greg's number? I think today is his birthday."

Right day, wrong son. 

Crestfallen, I corrected him. He did not offer me any birthday wishes. He just apologized for the error and hung up.

For all the preaching I do about learning the stories of our ancestors and of our families, I failed to learn my father's story. I tried intermittently over the years to really talk to the man and understand him. As I learned more from other family members and through my research about his upbringing and the dysfunctional generations that preceded him, I had a better sense of how he was started down the path he had chosen. As I got older, I realized how terribly difficult it would be for me to have three children by the age of twenty-three, and how his selfish, narcissistic mentality would be most incompatible to raising them. I don't excuse the errors people choose to make, but at least I try to understand the origins of them. Somewhat.

I visited Colorado a couple times. Time with my father was not horrible, but it was not comfortable either. I always expected more. I got less. When he returned to Indiana for visits, he rarely stayed with his children, and more often he stayed with his stepdaughter. When he asked to stay with me in the summer of 2008, I was, again, overjoyed. While he had other options to choose from, he chose me. Maybe on the cusp of my 41st birthday, I would finally begin to have a relationship with my father... or at least some adult facsimile thereof.

As it turned out, he had arranged to stay with me, because he had also arranged to have an Indiana fling -- something you cannot do when you are staying with your wife's daughter. I was livid, equal parts at him, as to myself, for being a grown man still seeking his Daddy's approval. And for being so gullible to think he would supply it.

His defense? "It's okay. I cheated on your mother with her too."

Dean W. Lacopo, Jr.,  rarely did anything that did not directly benefit Dean W. Lacopo, Jr.

An occasional email or phone call followed in 2009, but after my computer account was hacked and phantom messages were repeatedly sent from to my entire address book selling Viagra and other such nonsense, it was met with this response from my father, ironically delivered on Father's Day, 2010.

"Michael, Take me off your email address book, I do not need the garbage you're sending to everyone. I fully understand you have no love for me, and trust me, I really don't care. You are a looser [sic]. You think you are so much better than everyone else, trust me you are not, so forget about me because I have forgot about you. Maybe if you ask, your mother might tell you who your real father is, because I know I'm not."

I quit trying after this email.

And then came DNA.

On 25 August 2013, I sent my father an email asking if he would be willing to spit in a tube for my genealogical research. It was met with as much venom as the 2010 email. His willingness to submit to a DNA test was based on a list of requirements I would have to meet before he would do so.

I declined the offer.

Several days later, my father contacted me and told me he was coming to Indiana. He would do my DNA test. He wanted to call a truce.

And still, the little boy in me basked in the tiniest ray of attention bestowed upon him by his father.

The last time I saw my father was on the day he spit into a 23andMe autosomal DNA test kit. He took me to brunch. We chatted about work, the weather, the house... safe topics. When he left, I again felt the same familiar pangs of sadness and emptiness that accompanied his visits. I didn't know my father, and he didn't know me. He said he wanted to take me to dinner before he returned to Colorado. He never called me back to arrange such a thing. He left without a word.

But while he was spitting in a tube, he spied a program I had lying on my desk from a recent "VIP FamilySearch Breakfast" I had attended in Fort Wayne, Indiana, during a national genealogical conference. He read my biography within, and he flipped through the remainder of the program.

"You're a VIP, huh?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"So you're really good at this? People recognize this? That's impressive."

After 46 years, this is the most praise I had ever received from my father.

A haphazard exchange of emails occurred after that. I sent him a synopsis of his DNA results on 24 November 2013. I jokingly told him that, "like it or not, it does confirm you are my father."

His response on 28 November 2013:

"Thanks for the information, and yes, I'm happy you are my son. I love you."

As I write that, I am crying for the first time since my father's death. 

That was our last communication. I do not know why. He came back to Indiana a number of times, yet I only knew about it after he had come and gone. My father loved me in whatever way he was capable of loving a son, but paired with the "I love you" in the email were reports of him ridiculing his "faggot" of a son to others when it behooved him to play the macho card. Perhaps I should have accepted what little I received and been happy with it. Perhaps I wanted him to try harder. Perhaps I wanted him to fall to his knees and beg forgiveness for being a shitty husband and father. Perhaps I was just weary of being perpetually disappointed and feeling used when I did try harder. 

He didn't understand me, nor could I understand him.

The one thing we both recognized was that the singular, and most powerful, trait we held in common was our obstinacy and stubbornness. I failed to succumb to his charm and wit like so many others did, and I never hesitated to call him out on his bullshit. He did the same. When you place two identical poles of powerful magnets next to each other, they repel each other violently. Among a million other variables that I haven't the space to detail, I accept my share of blame in failing to truly know my father. Many time I was just trying to out-stubborn his stubbornness. 

Now I will never have that chance.

And it makes me terribly sad.

So why post this long, personal, soul-bearing assessment of my father's role in my life after his unexpected suicide? It has nothing at all to do with DNA or Harold James "Brighton" Daugherty or flooded office basements or tearful reunions of missing fathers and grandfathers.

Or does it?

So much has happened since my last blog post. Life has been challenging in 2015. The title of this post, and the content therein, is an indication of things to come. I call it "Phase Two," because it is no longer a story about DNA analysis and computation. It is no longer a genealogical journey.

It is a personal journey.

And much like the contents of this blog post, it is messy. It will be difficult to read. It will tickle you and make you smile. It will make you angry. It will make you cry. It may even disgust you to the point of no longer reading. But it is MY story, and I will tell it. For over a year you have read about the "dirty laundry" I have revealed about those in my past and in my research. In fairness, you get to hear some of mine.

And much like the story of my father, I can only tell this story from my own point of view. I can only tell the story of the things I know and how they affected me. I do not know what motivated my father. I do not know his joys, his loves, his regrets, his feelings, his thoughts, his reminisces. He never shared those with me. The story of the life of Dean W. Lacopo, Jr., told by his brother, or his ex-wife, his wife, or his nieces, or his coworkers, or his fellow police officers, would be markedly different from each other. Many would extoll his virtues. After all, it is not polite to speak ill of the dead, right? 

Everyone that comes into our lives knows only the smallest facet of who we are and what we think and what makes us tick. Likewise, we know only the tiniest fragment of the lives of those we encounter. Some of us are blessed with loved ones, spouses, family, or good friends who truly know us quite well. But can a spouse really know you as a parent? Can your best friend know you as a child? Can your parents fathom you as a romantic interest?

No.

Our stories are complex and multifaceted, and they are uniquely our own. This is my story. Nobody will know it unless I write it. 

Likewise, I do not claim to know the story of Harold James "Brighton" Daugherty, the man who surprisingly became my grandfather at the age of eighty-seven. When I found a living, breathing human being, rather than a name to enter onto my pedigree chart, the story was no longer genealogical. It became intensely personal.

This, then, will be my story; the story about the grandfather who helped me understand where I fit into this crazy, dysfunctional family.

This will be the story of Brighton Daugherty as I perceive it.