My father would have turned 80 on Jan. 3. It’s hard for me to imagine him at that age, deeply ensconced in the winter of his life.
I’m sure he would have been active, opinionated, at the center of his own universe. That red hair might be threaded with silver but it would have been as thick and wavy as I remember it, and while his Jimmy Cagney swagger might have slowed the slightest bit, he would have retained the power to strike fear in the heart of his eldest child who wouldn’t, couldn’t disappoint.
Daddy died at 43, so those descriptions are all hypothetical. But the hypotheticals and possibilities of life are just as important as the concrete facts, because they define who we hope to be, at our best. We never wish for mediocrity, or to be despised, or to be abandoned. We wish for good things, for the brass ring. And so when I think of Ted Flowers, I think of all the things that he could have been, had he been given those four extra decades. Based upon who he was, it isn’t really hard.
You might wonder why I’m talking about something so personal. I’ve written about my brother, who took his own life, and you could see the linkage with the deaths of famous people like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade and Robin Williams. I’ve written about my immigration practice, and that makes sense with the current crises at the border. I’ve written about my Catholic faith, and the priestly scandals justify my personal perspective.
But to write about a parent who has been dead for many years and who was neither famous nor notorious, who didn’t found a tech empire like Steve Jobs or spend years of hell at the Hanoi Hilton like John McCain or, with his words, tear down the Berlin Wall like Ronald Reagan, might seem indulgent.
It is, except for the fact that Ted Flowers was the type of man who is in short supply today, and it might help us to look at his life as an example of what we need to recapture.
My father was born poor, to a mother who had three children by three different men. Just after World War II, that was uncommon, and a source of shame. My father’s elder sister was biracial, the product of my grandmother’s relationship with a man whose name and memory are blocked from the family narrative. My aunt was a beautiful child, but when you are 7 years old with almond shaped eyes of your Asian father in the waning years of the war, children and their angry parents are cruel. My father, her Irish half brother, was a fighter at the age of 6, and defended his sister’s honor on the streets of West Philadelphia. Broken arms, broken noses and broken spirits were common among the Flowers children in those days.
Daddy loved to learn, was a voracious reader at St. Tommy (Forever) More, and then signed up for the Army after graduation. At the age of 18 he shipped off to Thule Greenland for two years, then came home and married my Italian mother. Both families opposed the match, and boycotted the wedding. Ted and Lucy had the last laugh, though, because they were together for 22 years. He died in her arms.
He didn’t have a pedigree or a trust fund, didn’t have a father who stayed around long enough to raise him. He asked for no favors, gave no excuses.
As a young law student in 1967, he went down to Mississippi and registered black voters, and defended indigent black men accused of crimes. He had a run in with the KKK, survived, and came home with the conviction that evil is not something you can fight with prayers, or laws, or fists alone, but with a combination of all three.
Ted Flowers was not humble. My mother called him a peacock, and he did strut through his short but colorful life. But he understood that he was here for a reason, and it wasn’t to glorify himself or to tear down other people, but to make an imprint that would not fade until the last person who knew him took their last breath.
Dylan Thomas wrote, “Do not go gentle.” My father, God bless him, never did.
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and can be reached at email@example.com.