Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Dear Hallmark, Have I Got a Challenge For You

I'm in a weird mood. Sorry for this.

Language just fails me when I try to describe remembrances of my father. Even the word "remember" seems to want to constrain my recollections to a laundry list of characteristics and shared experiences: He had dark hair, He took me to a Phillies game, and so on. Yeah, there certainly were enough of those line items to give anyone an idea of what he was like, but what bonded us was so far beyond any words I can conjure. My father created a physical wake as he passed through a room and I could feel him in our house. He had a palpable energy. And his energy fed mine without depleting. Whether or not we shared world views (we didn't), we were tethered to each other in such a way that is beyond my ability to fully describe, save to say we were like different points along the same lightning strike. And within that tether our differences did not matter. We were in perfect union, dancing as only lightning can.

As I mentioned in earlier posts, I'm the youngest of 7 kids -- 5 boys, 2 girls, 2 sets of fraternal twins in the mix. My dad was 47 when I was born -- my age now. Ask me how I'd handle having a newborn in my life right now and if I use any word that is not a synonym for "poorly," punch me hard in the face for lying. As it is, many are the days when I feel guilty for not giving my 5- and 6-year-old sons the energy they deserve. I worry that they'll view me as I viewed my father: Uninvested. Apathetic. Rehearsed. Spent. When he and I played catch it seemed like a task to him, like mandatory sexual harassment training hosted by the Human Resources department. He clearly didn't want to be there -- counting the minutes until it was over -- but obliged because such things were part of his job description. The argument that maybe he was spent from having to go through those same motions 6 times before isn't anything a child on the receiving end is willing or able to accept. Do you have any idea how many times the cast of Cats has had to perform? Yeah, well I don't either but I know it's more than 6.
When my older brother and sister, twins 7 years my senior, moved out of the house, I lost the 2 most important people in my daily life -- the people I truly credit with having raised me. My father and I spent most of the following years avoiding each other. My mother died of cancer 2 days short of my birthday during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at college. After that it was he and I, thrust together in silence. We shared his house and the chores and we stayed out of each others' way. So removed was he that when I told him I wanted to go to art school he asked me in a not so nice way if I was gay. Which was pretty gutsy considering I dwarfed him since I'd turned 14, and pretty out of touch considering I'd knocked up the first girl I ever had sex with a few year earlier, and had been dating the woman who would become my first wife for more than a year. And so went our ballet as we tried our darnedest not to break each other. But he wouldn't remain unbroken for long. He began to drink.
My laundry list of shared experiences is packed with memories of coming home to find him passed out in his chair, empty fifth of vodka on the floor. Trips to the emergency room to sew him up after he'd stumbled through the sliding glass door. Re-parking his car so that he wouldn't feel shame when he woke and realized that he'd completely missed the driveway.
I found his body three days after he died. He was to come to dinner at our apartment the Saturday before but didn't show. When I called that night to ask if he was coming he laughed a knowing laugh and said, "Oh, I don't think so," as if he knew he was dead. Part of me likes to entertain the fantasy that I was talking with his ghost on the phone that night.
I had just started a new job and was in a probationary stage, so I didn't have the flexibility to take off and visit him. However, a few days of unreturned calls lead me to make the 2-hour drive that grim Wednesday morning. I was greeted by a full mailbox and a dozen newspapers in varying stages of yellow scattered on the front porch. Telltale. I let myself in and called for him. No answer. I searched the downstairs. Nothing. I walked upstairs and saw his legs through the open door of the hall bathroom. He had died on the toilet. Heart attack. Lurched slightly forward and against the wall, very purple for all the broken capillaries. The look on his face could have easily passed for disdain -- one last silent chastisement.
In my panic I lifted him from the toilet and carried him to his bed. I called the police. I have no idea how long it took for anyone to arrive, but I do recall a responding officer apologizing for having to ask me questions about whether or not we had fought. Apparently the moving of a dead body is fairly common in crimes of passion. I told him not to worry, that I understood he was only doing his job. I was summarily cleared of any suspicion, woohoo. I began to make the phone calls and was struck by how surreal it seemed to be watching the bag containing my dad's dead body being wheeled from the house as my sister's phone rang on the other end. The circle of life. Strung with barbs and sitting atop a fence.
I didn't sleep well for quite a few months after that. Every time I closed my eyes I saw the picture of my father's body. I can still see it in amazing detail to this day some 20 years later. I suspect this is a mild form of PTSD. I remember one very vivid dream of him coming back to visit me to tell me I had done very well the day I found him. He seemed to be trying to explain something in a roundabout fashion about how in death he'd learned the truth of life and the universe. I remember waking thinking that the underlying message was that the power to mold my own reality was in my hands. My dad and Sartre. Who would have guessed.
He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to my mom. Full Honor Guard, 21-gun salute, overhead fly-by with one plane missing from formation. Aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors all shared stories of how great a man he was. He was just great before I got there is all.

Every once in a while the universe affords us the opportunity to take inventory of our lives. As I look around me and see the amazingly dense beauty that saturates my daily life, I wonder how I got here. I wonder how I created such a lush, rewarding reality and to what degree my decisions were influenced by my dad. I cherish the intimacy my sons and I share -- a closeness he and I could never have dreamed of. I wonder if my father had the emotional capacity to be moved to tears by the beauty of his children's laughter like I often am. I wonder if he sensed relief that it was over. If he flashed back to his warrior/hero days. If he thought about his father.
I am in awe of the underlying power and I marvel at the lightning bolt as I look down the line at the next points in the surge. Thomas and Ethan, you have inherited such a pure, strong, fleeting energy. Use it wisely and please be mindful to occasionally look back up the lightning bolt and give your grandfather a nod.

Happy birthday dad. Miss you. We're cool.

"Earth and sky, why you and I have an electric attraction is understood.
I danced around until you found me reaching out like a great redwood
to lightning." -- Maia Sharp


  1. Holy shit. Jesus Christ. You need to WARN me before you write stuff like that.

    Just. Wow. You amaze me.

    In a good way, I mean.

  2. You're nice. I like you.
    And I'm bringing funny back. This gratuitous upheaval of the soul shit is very draining.


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