My dad Anthony (Tony) Louis Passaro Jr. was born on August 23, 1950 over a month premature. He was the only child of my grandmother Mary and grandfather Anthony L Passaro Sr. My grandma had several prior miscarriages before the birth of her only child. From the little I know of his birth, I know he was small. I don’t know if there were any additional complications or considerations. What I do know from his stories is his childhood did not get easier.
He always spoke fondly of his friendships with the guys he played baseball with growing up. Myron and Louie were friends for life growing up together in Jersey City. They remained close throughout my own childhood as my family frequented the Jersey Shore and spent time with their families as well as with my Godfaher Jimi Beam and his wife Bernie.
My dad loved telling stories of his childhood on Poplar Street and remembering good times in Jersey City. I also remember the other stories, of a very difficult childhood, one in which he was physically abused by his father, an alcoholic, for being left-handed, seeing the way my grandfather harshly treated my grandmother, and my dads own difficulty with how the nuns treated him growing up in Catholic School.
Sometimes it is hard to know if it was this environment that shaped his personality as an adult or if he was already a mischievous child in Catholic school that warranted being hit with rulers and kneeling on rice. The stories from his Catholic schooling to me never sounded awful in comparison to my father’s home life, yet his journey within the context of Catholocism seems to be one that was not filled with thoughts of God as a loving Father and forgiving advocate. It could just be that a place meant to be full of solace and salvation brought more confused pain to my dad who as a child was probably just scared. My grandmother though, found a sense of peace and purpose serving the Catholic Church despite them not approving her eventual divorce from my grandfather when my father was well into adulthood.
It was not until recently I heard more of the stories about my dad’s college years and his early to mid 20’s and his first marriage to Holly. Maybe it was because St. Peter’s made their run in the March Madness tournament, that I was reminded he could not pass an accounting class in his college in Massachusetts so he transferred to St. Peter’s and attended classes in the evening for several years while working during the day, I think for the Jonathan Logan.
My dad worked most of his life in government social services settings, the Hudson County Welfare Board and then The State Child Support Office of New Jersey. While I do believe it made him a diligent public servant, I don’t know how much bureacratic government work did for his perspective on humanity. My dad was not politically correct nor would waste an opportunity to make an inappropriate joke. It is good he retired when he did because while I have never felt my dad was a malicious person, I don’t think he would thrive in the current cultural climate.
I know little of my dad’s first marriage; I know there was a slight age gap and they enjoyed watching hockey. Until I was an adult I often did not comprehend that my dad had lived a life before me. I was not born until he was 37, only 3 years older than I am now. As far as his second marriage to my mother, there is both much and little I could write about that, but it hardly seems necessary now. I think my parents would agree that the best thing that came of their marriage was me and my brother (which is what I imagine even couples who are happily in love might also say of their children).
In many ways, my reflection of my dad as a father has much more substance in the years that he raised me and my brother alone beginning in a third floor, two bedroom apartment in Briarwood when I was in 5th grade, roughly 1999. I shared a room with my brother and at that time myself being 10/11, my brother 16/17; I have fond memories of that living arrangement.
Thankfully, we lived down the street from my grandmother who fed us twice a week and who I often spent time with on the weekends. As a single father, I cannot imagine what he thought or felt during that time. I remember distinctly the things that felt normal, our weekly routine of meals that consisted of either tuna and tomato soup or ramen noodles, our medley of pizza rolls, potato skins, taquitos, and other frozen delicacies, and a weekly order from Vito’s pizza of either pizza or subs, always paid for with a coupon.
What I remember most though in those years was going to his softball games behind Pullens, a gas station that was right down the street from Taco Bell. Sometimes I would watch my dad with admiration playing the outfield. Other times I would disinterestedly play with GI Joes in his van. Either way I remember often going to Taco Bell after those games which truth be told is where my love for Taco Bell began. That Taco Bell on Sloan avenue is probably the place I have eaten more meals at than many places I’ve lived.
Dad moved us into a condo still in Briarwood around the time when my brother went off to college at Penn State. Then, it was just me and my dad throughout my teenage years. Sure he had girlfriends during various seasons, Barbara, whose children were my great friends and who I spent much time backyard wrestling with, and then Linda who was quite eccentric but showed kindness to me and my friend Ben. But many days it was just me and dad with our routine, school/work (him smoking on my way to school always having to ride there with the window down no matter what season), being picked up from a baby sitters, homework or going to softball games, watching tv on the couch or going to sports practices. My dad was great about normalizing our home life and never making me feel like we were struggling to get by.
One of my fondest memories that I had as a child was a trip we took to visit my Godfather Jimi when we went to Manhattan. My Godfather made me and many others laugh harder than anyone I knew and I felt like the luckiest boy in the world going to the city with my dad and godfather and hanging out for the whole day. I remember driving home and telling my dad we have to do that again. That was the only time we ever did something like that, but I can still vividly remember standing between them laughing on some street in Manhattan completely delighted.
We always had a vacation, usually to Wildwood where I got to bring a friend or was with friends, Scott Francis or Ben to the Poconos, unless it was with Barbara and her kids Billy and Timmy. We had plenty of daytrips to Lavalette to see Louie and Nancy and Myron and Debbie and their families. I could write a blog just of all the memories I have from those daytrips to the beach. Holidays had routines; every thanksgiving we spent with Patty Ann, Aunt Francis and Joey. Christmas and birthdays always had a consisted of a ton of gifts. Well into adulthood, my dad was still buying me wrestling figures and DVD’s even as I was selling a lot of childhood toys and trying to declutter. Dad liked the idea of getting stuff.
Whether or not my dad was intentional about it, he provided me with so many opportunites for memories and enjoyment even though I have some lingering echo of hearing him say I was never satisfied. I think in part because there was an emotional disconnect with him throughout my teenager years. I think being a father was not easy for him in every aspect because of his own childhood. I don’t know if he ever desired or tried or felt like working through his own trauma with his father would be helpful. I know before I was born, there were several years in which my dad was having to come to the rescue of his own his father because of alcoholism and debt which eventually led to his death. I imagine it was very difficult for my father to balance caring for his own father who had caused him so much pain.
As such, I don’t know if he ever entirely knew how to help me process life with the strong degree of emotions I felt. I don’t recall any conversations as a teenager that were particularly filled with wise fatherly advice. He did not talk to me about girls or my hopes or dream or vocation aside from perhaps listening when I said I wanted to be a professional wrestler. He allowed me to be largely indpendent in the process of applying to colleges. He certainly took me to visit schools and as I have mentioned made sure I had no substantial debt after college, but I felt very lost throughout my teenage years.
I have no memories of being disciplined by my dad. I never was punished, never had a curfew, would often stay out past midnight on the weekends before I could drive. He often would say, “He’s never given me a reason not to trust him.” And for the most part I believe that holds entirely true. I believe there was a grace on my life that kept me entirely disinterested in drugs, alcohol, being promiscuous or anything that could have led to getting into serious trouble. But I don’t know if he saw or recognized the things that actually troubled me because of maybe his own emotional threshold. I talked to a teddy bear into my teenage years. I played with GI Joes for hours some weekend nights up until I was 18, and I don’t think my dad saw or noticed that as being worrisome.
Largely because my dad liked to tinker with toys, his pinball machine, his records, his collectibles, his stuff. If anyone knows my dad, they know that his basement is enshrined with collectibles and things that entertained himself. Every night for over a decade he would lie on the basement floor listening to one of his 13,000 album. When we had cats, our cat Dwarf would sit on my dads back resting with him as they listened together to classic rock albums. My dad was good about routine and ritual and actually was pretty easily contented in some areas. Maybe that was how he coped.
In other areas, usually in regards to his health he could be stubborn. He never really quit smoking. He kept active playing softball all the way up to the day after his leukemia diagnosis. He loved softball. He has a shrine of softballs with his batting averages from each season written on them dating back to 70’s. He enjoyed inuendo and cursing which I shared with him up until the end of high school.
My senior year, which was an emotionally dark time, gave way to a season in college when my faith grew and potentially changed the way me and my dad related. I became immersed in my faith and dad might have found it hard to reconcile it with the Catholicism he endured growing up. It probably was even more of a challenge when I began pursuing ministry as a vocation. I remember trying to bridge the gap post college. I would regularly have him edit things I was writing, because he majored in English in college, a fiction story about a cheese delivery boy modeled after the life of King David and a nonfiction autobiography of my pastor hoping we would have points of reference for my faith.
At some point in time, probably when I started wrestling in New Jersey, our relationship began to form into something more simple and familiar. I think we both accepted the people we each were. By this point my dad was retired and married to Lorraine, still loving the beach still playing softball and now that I was living in the same state working and wrestling, I think our visits and time together did not diverge much. I loved seeing him at my wrestling events and playing pool in the basement and catching up.
Life in general for him was more routine until August of 2018. About a week before I was about to move to Charleston to work as a hospital chaplain in my first full time job in a ministry context, dad was diagnosed with acute myleoid leukemia. And for the 3 days before I was about to move and work in a hospital every day, I spent it with him in the hospital preparing to get his first round of chemo.
Truth be told I can’t describe his experience in detail because I don’t entirely know it because I was not there. I know his wife Lorraine was there every step of the way, and my brother saw the effects of the chemo. We did not tell my grandmother while she was living of dads condition so as not to distress her. I was spared of some of that distress by living far away for 13 months. He was in remission for a bit and then it came back and so did I, moving back to New Jersey, hoping I could be helpful. But a delayed bone marrow transplant in the midst of a pandemic, eventually led to him having to be in the hospital for 6 weeks without a visitor. I have no idea how he had the mental capacity to endure that.
But my dad did endure a very hard almost 4 years with leukemia. He sought aggressive treatment and it gave him what I hope was meaningful extra time, but it was a fight the whole way. When he went into remission again after the bone marrow transplant I moved again, back to Charleston perhaps naive or just perhaps hopeful that dad would have a lot more time. Though he managed to never get Covid, he had a couple of other complications before the lieukemia came back this past April.
Even with the diagnosis my dad remained hopeful and optimistic and felt he had no choice but to prepare for more aggressive treatment. Another round of chemo that did nothing other than leading to 4 lengthy hospital stays over the course of 7 weeks eventually led to the decision to stop pursuing treatment and come home with hospice. I will not write about those details but I will say, it was difficult to see my dad suffer but not difficult to care for him in the stritctest sense of dealing with him or his body failing. The difficulty lay in seeing my once and at times still vibrant aspects of his personality become dimmer.
That is the difficulty, the choice between the end of suffering and the hope for more out of life and how little power over that choice it actually ends up feeling like we have, like he had. And now as a I write this he is gone. It hits me in waves; I will not hear him again, hear him tell me he loves me, except for his voicemails that I have saved, to visit, to play pool with, to talk about the Rangers with, to listen to music with. I won’t hear is laugh or see his wide smile or the big nose we share.
If I had not at this point been clear because this reflection is too somber, my dad did enjoy laughter and having a good time. He was not a particularly serious person, though he felt things strongly. My large emotions likely come from him, my temper, my humor, my love for storytelling. He did not travel much, largely remaing in Jersey, never lived elsewhere, never waivered in his accent, always found a way to be inappropriate. He was always a breath or two away from a sex joke. Again if you knew my grandmother, it would hardly seem like they could have been mother and son. But I don’t know how much each person is exactly like there parents.
There is much I don’t know. I know I love him, and I will miss him and I know in a lot of ways I am the spitting image of my dad. I know that today. and I will know that tomorrow, and in the days to come, as the grief continues to come. I know it will be hard to think about the things he will have missed or rather I will have missed to share with him.
Our second to last phone conversation on Saturday July 9th, he was more awake and alert for over an hour and half, talking to my brother, and then to me on the phone where he kept commenting on the birds he heard coming through my end of the phone. I was reminded again that our last name Passaro means little bird, particularly a sparrow.
I’m reminded now of this verse from Matthew 10:29-31
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
I am comforted that in my dad raising me, and for the brief time I was able to care for him that ultimately, there is a Heavenly Father responsible for all of our ultimate care. I’m thankful for the dad I was given to enjoy and love even if it has too short of a time.