Tears For A Good Father – Harlan Coben

Below is a great article by my favorite author, Harlan Coben, that appeared in Parade in 2010. Happy Father’s Day!

Harlan Coben at 7, with his father, Carl Gerald Coben, 40, in 1969.

Harlan Coben at 7, with his father, Carl Gerald Coben, 40, in 1969.

This may seem like a sad story, but it’s not.

“I found this upstairs.” My 16-year-old daughter Charlotte, the oldest of my four kids, enters the kitchen and hands me the 40-year-old photograph. “Is that you?”

“Yep,” I say. “I had hair once.”

It is a picture of my father and me standing on the front lawn at our house in Livingston, N.J. I look at my father in this photograph. My mom used to say that he was a dead ringer for Victor Mature, Dean Martin (“If only your father would get his teeth fixed”), and, mostly, Jerry Orbach. He was a big man, and in this photograph, with his smile wide, he looks strong and confident. I don’t remember the picture being taken. I wish I did, because I look pretty darned happy snuggled against him.

Then, without warning—still holding the old photograph, Charlotte by my shoulder—I burst into tears. I don’t mean well up or sniffle or feel tears running down my face or even cry. I mean head-down, body-wracking sobs. My daughter backs away for a moment, probably scared. I don’t think she has seen me cry before. Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever saw my father cry either.

I flash to the little things about him. The polyester double-knit shorts that were always too snug, like he was competing at Wimbledon in 1978. The too-big sunglasses that looked like he might have stolen them from Sophia Loren. I remember when he tried a fanny pack (that was a big no), the smell of his Old Spice, the way he steered the car with his wrists and whistled off-key, the AM news station playing in the steamed bathroom when he shaved, the white tube socks pulled up too high, the CB radio he loved for maybe four months. I remember how bad he was with tools and how that still didn’t stop him from taking on home projects best left to professionals or how every Sunday he would walk to Livingston Bagel or take me to Seymour’s Luncheonette for a milkshake and a pack of baseball cards. And I remember the way his cheek felt when I kissed him hello or goodbye, as I always did, no matter who was around, because that’s what we did.

I look at the 40-year-old photograph and see him so young, but of course he would never have a chance to grow old. I remember buying him an oversize Father’s Day card in 1988. For some odd reason, I bought it early. It was sitting near me when my mother called to tell me that my father had just called from his hotel room in Florida. He was there on business, and he felt chest pains. When I get him on the line, he puts on a brave front and tells me not to worry, he is fine.

That would be the last time I ever talked to him.

So what lessons did I learn when he died of a heart attack at 59? Unfortunately, the great insights are often the great clichés: Life goes by fast, don’t waste a moment, tell the ones you love how you feel, show affection every chance you get—because I would give anything to kiss that cheek just one more time.

I am still gripping the photograph and sobbing. I should make myself stop, but this feels, if not good, right. It’s been too long. My daughter, not sure what to do, tentatively approaches. She puts her arms around my shoulders and tries to quiet me.

“I know you miss him,” she says to me.

And I do. Still. Every day.

Wait. Didn’t I say this wasn’t a sad story?

So here’s the uplifting part: It’s okay to feel this pain. In fact, when you’ve been as lucky as I was in the father department, it would be an outrage not to cry. You can’t have an up without a down, a right without a left, a back without a front—or a happy without a sad. This is the price you pay for having a great father. You get the wonder, the joy, the tender moments—and you get the tears at the end, too.

My father, Carl Gerald Coben, is worth the tears. I hope that one day, to my children, I’ll be worth them, too. And if your father is worth them, let him know.

As the old proverb says, “When a father gives to his son, they both laugh. When a son gives to his father, they both cry.”

Happy Father’s Day, everyone.


The original version of this story can be found here.

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