I have two middle names. They’re both on my birth certificate, but for most of my life I only used the first one. The first one makes sense. It’s Garetto. It’s my mom’s maiden name, the surname of my big Italian pizza-making family on the south side of Chicago. The second one is superfluous: who needs two middle names? And it’s anomalous. It isn’t Italian, or Irish; it’s Biblical. Moses.
I’ve often been asked, politely, why? Part of the answer is that my father gave it to me. But he died shortly after I was born, so I never got to know him and I never got to ask him. I’ve asked my mom, but her explanation raises more questions. All she knows is that he thought it was funny.
I recently passed him in age. Knowing his birth date and his death date, I added up the number of days that he lived, and I calculated the exact date, falling in my 33rd year, on which I would reach his max age. Eventually that day came. On the day after that, I was older than he ever was.
The road ahead felt different from the road behind. For my whole life up until that day, he had been the adult, and I was growing up, following in his path. On that day I passed him, and after that day, until the end of my own life, I will be moving away. Growing older, while he stays the same. Eventually, if I’m lucky, I will be the old man and he will be the kid — a youth who fell in love and started a family, and then died, leaving my whole life as a reverberation.
It has been a time to reflect.
For me as a kid, my father was as distant as any historical figure — he was in a category with Abraham Lincoln and John Lennon. He was the protagonist in stories told to me by people who had lived in prehistoric times. He was the bearded man in old photographs, sometimes shown with a pretty girl who would become my mother. The significance of his impact, like that of Lincoln, was something that I accepted based on the assurances of the adults, but which, as with Lincoln, I had no first-hand experience to support. Just stories and photos.
He didn’t leave a video or a letter. He didn’t give an account. I have no memory of a word spoken by him to me. But all my life I’ve had this middle name. This weird Biblical string stuck between my proper middle name and my last name, that he gave to me because he thought it was funny. At this point in my life, the figure in the mirror looks as much as it ever will like the man in the photos. My father and I are at our perigee. The name Moses has felt significant.
He died of hemophilia. It’s a genetic condition that prevented his blood from clotting. The life expectancy for a hemophiliac when he was born was 14. The only treatment was transfusions of healthy blood. A bruise meant a hospital visit or worse. The strategy was extreme caution: no sports, no roughhousing. Be very careful.
Medicine improved, and he made it past 14. So did his brother, John, who also had the condition. The two boys grew up with the shared experience of death looming in the near distance, but they took different paths through life. John partied. He got into drugs. He was a wild child. He went out hot and fast, like a shooting star. My father, the younger brother, didn’t do that. He could have chosen to be careful — to stay at home, under the wing, and stretch it out as long as possible. But he didn’t do that either.
He chose to build. Even as his body broke down around him, he went to college, then to optometry school, and then he opened a practice. He sailed. He scuba dived. He got his pilot’s license, and flew small planes. He played chess. He made deep friendships with people who still wish me a happy birthday three decades later. The girl who grew up around the block came in for an eye check, and he asked her on a date. They got married. They had a kid, and named him Dan. They had another one, and named him Matt. Then he got a cold. It got bad fast. The doctor said if it’s not better in the morning then come in. By morning it was worse. At the hospital my mom asked the nurse when he’d be able to go home. The nurse looked at her and said, “Oh, honey.”
This was the outcome that everyone warned them against. It would be irresponsible to have children. He was too sick. He might die.
But they did it anyway. And here I am as a result, alive, and glad to be here, survivorship bias be damned. From where I sit, it doesn’t look irresponsible. It looks like a bold artistic decision.
And maybe I get the joke. My father came from a Catholic family but was notoriously irreverent. Moses is most famous for his episodes at the Red Sea and the burning bush. But do you remember the story of Moses the baby? The Egyptian Pharaoh was concerned that the Israelites were growing too numerous, so he ordered that all the male newborns be killed. When Moses’s mother had a boy, she had to make a choice. Let him be killed, or take a chance. She chose the latter, and placed baby Moses into a papyrus basket on the Nile. The baby survived, as the legend goes, and had a life worth living.
I believe that my father had a special relationship with the void. Death was always imminent. Time on Earth was a bonus. He made the most of his life and then sent me down the river. If his life was a bonus, then mine is too. Cosmic fist bump, Dad.