To understand my dad is like studying nuclear physics. He was as complex as he was hilarious. I suppose a little back story is needed here to understand the kind of man he was.
My dad, sometime in the 1970's, surfing San Diego's famed Imperial Beach
My dad's full name was Dante Alejandro Esparza. He was born and raised in San Diego. He loved sports, especially track and football, and thrived in both sports. To this day, he's still regarded as Montgomery High School's best football player, even winning the Golden Helmet Award in 1974 as San Diego's top high school football player. After high school, he worked construction and surfed. He loved surfing. It was about the only time he ever seemed to be at peace with life when he was out riding the waves. He was one of Imperial Beach's most popular surfers and amassed a large collection of custom boards from legendary IB board maker, Jay Novak. The art at the top of this page features a take on his trademark board. He loved it so much, he often referred to it as his third son. From there, he got married and started a family. He was often called "Big" Dante by friends and family, especially after my older brother was born and named Dante as well. Things pretty much went south from there.
My dad with his granddaughter, Kristen, in 2008
At some point in his teens, my dad got hooked on drugs. Like most addicts, he started small and worked his way up. For a while, he seemed to have somewhat of a grip on things, but then his dad passed away, and depression hit him hard. Soon after, he lost all drive and ambition. After several years, my mom could no longer take his antics. As more time passed and more bridges were burned, he sunk to new lows and worse habits. For the rest of his life, he'd never be the dad I knew as a kid.
"Big" Dante with my brother, "Little" Dante behind him and his grandson, "Littlest" Dante, on his shoulders, in 2008
As my brother and I got older, we remembered the good days with our dad. His funny stories. His insane practical jokes. His ability to make any situation, no matter how bad it was, fun. We saw the good that was still hidden deep within and wanted to help him. Sadly, it just wasn't meant to be. Years and years of drug abuse took their toll on him, both physically and mentally. He often thought we were keeping him locked up when in reality, his multiple conditions just didn't allow for him to do anything. It was heartbreaking to go through. He'd already suffered one serious stroke prior to the big one. When the second stroke hit, we knew it was over. After 20 months of suffering, he finally passed on.
My dad and I front and center, with my Uncle Bruno beside my dad and my Uncle Victor beside me, in 2002
Could have, would have, should have will always be the sad tale that was my dad's life. In the end, it's not gonna change anything that happened. I know I loved him. He knew I loved him. My brother and I did everything humanly possible to help him. You just can't win them all. These days, I do think of the bad times. That can't be helped. But I think of the good times too. Thankfully, there are many to remember. When I think of my dad, I think of a funny fat man who wore rainbow suspenders and knee-high socks, despite looking ridiculous. I think of an avid Chargers fan who stuck with them no matter what. I think of the great cook who barbecued better than anyone. I think of a man who even at nearly 300lbs at one point could still outrun and out-surf anyone who challenged him. But more than that, I think of a man who was generous to a fault that would not hesitate to give you the shirt off his back if you asked him. When my first car died, he gave me a fairly new one without even asking him. When my brother needed a home, dad gave him his. If that's doesn't count for a good heart, I don't know what does.
Father and sons, May 1987
Alexander Pope once said "To err is human." If there's any truth in that quote, my dad was certainly the most human of us all. He wasn't perfect, but who is? He was simply human, as fragile and frail as any. Dante Alejandro Esparza was called many things during his lifetime. I just called him dad.