i am / am not my father…
Originally published December 20, 2013
Twenty-two years ago today, my father passed away due to a malignant brain tumor.
For me, the holidays bring up conflicting emotions that often take the remainder of the calendar for me to reconcile and sort out. I can’t really admit to getting used to this process — but, with each passing year, I try to accept it.
He told me the news of his diagnosis during a telephone conversation on or about the evening of December 27, 1990. I can recall him nervously explaining it to me while I could hear ice cubes being thrown into a rocks glass in the background. Being the bearer of the family legacy, I followed suit.
In reflecting upon my father’s death, I reflect on his life. He was the product of late 1940’s, early 1950’s America, of a once-esteemed Yankee family name, broken and battered by alcoholism, to the degree that the facade of normalcy could not hide. I can recall about ten years back, when I was serendipitously introduced to the woman who purchased the family home in Beverly Farms. She drunkenly (which I found to be both ironic and slightly humorous in a dark way) proceeded to tell me all about their misdeeds over the years.
According to my father, my grandparents could be cruel people. They waged a subtle and insidious war of manipulation and neglect upon each other and their six children. I have heard of times when one child, was chosen to not receive any Christmas gifts on any given year. That, I can imagine is not the least of it. The kids learned to cope in their own ways, with various degrees of success in the years to come.
Shortly after the day my father graduated from boarding school, informed that he was not “college material” by his parents, “not smart enough” which is what I believe they told him, he enlisted in the United States Army. Upon hearing this news, Mr. Sargent ordered his wife Gertrude to run her son down with the family Jeep. Par for the course.
With a gleam in his eye, wistfully, my father had often told me that his military years were the best of his life. India, Japan, safaris… I’m sure that many of his stories were embellished, but he (as am I) was of the school of thought that says, “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good tale”.
We shared a strained relationship, to say the least, over the years. His demeanor, at times, terrified me as a young boy. Conversely, during this period, I was the fortunate beneficiary of the rare heart-to-hearts that the severely depressed will sometimes initiate with one of their few confidantes. I was just a boy, but I “got” it. I knew instinctively of the dark burden he carried. Some may say that I was too young to be invited to look into the recesses of a parent’s disjointed ramble, but I disagree. I know the intent, and it was not to scare, but an attempt to explain his feelings on his place in the world and his love for me. I’ve no regrets in this area, and the talks have served me well.
As I got older, after my parent’s divorce and my had father moved out, I was able to take the proverbial breather, to have a welcomed respite from the day-in and day-out tension that is felt by so many households afflicted with alcoholism and clinical depression. Our continued relationship, between the divorce and his death, ran the gamut. He and I were cut from the same cloth, so I think it only appropriate at this point that I accept part of the blame, if not the shame, of my behavior.
The last months of his life, I will carry with me to my dying day. I take no pride in my actions, or better said my lack of actions. Prior to my father’s death, the last time I saw him was in the Spaulding Rehab. Banged up beyond my belief, a husk of what he once was, he suffered a seizure soon after I arrived and took my seat by his bedside. Under the best of circumstances, that is a scary thing to witness. As the days progressed to weeks, I withdrew into myself, fearful of the inevitable. To my undying shame, I could not speak to him, see him, make any contact. All would be well if I ignored it.
I received a phone call from my step mother on the evening of December 19. “Chris. Your father is not doing well….” So I knew. And for one reason or another, after the two months of hiding away, I hopped into my car and drove to his home at the Cape. The carpets were marred with cigarette burns. He insisted on smoking, even while deathly ill (but so would I), but every time he lit one, it would drop from his hand, and he would instantly forget what had just transpired. When I arrived, he and I spoke briefly. He was nowhere near being “with it”… I took my seat with a bottle, and soon passed out.
When I awoke the next morning, my step mother informed me that he had had a particularly rough night. To this day, I am afraid to ask, as I imagine it was excruciating for him. I wheeled my father to the kitchen table, and I will be goddamned to this very moment: he was lucid, peaceful, funny, and insightful. It had been months since he made that uptick. Our talk was great, and we actually made brief amends with each other, although our respective upper lips remained stiff.
As noon approached, it was time for me to head to work. I told him I loved him and to take it easy. He said he would and that he loved me too. Forty-five minutes later, after a massive seizure, he was dead. He waited for me, I’ve no other rationale. Did I extend his suffering? Was it meant to be? I don’t know. I often wonder, so at the very least, I take from it that we as humans have an unbreakable bond, a bond knotted by will and love.
As time passed, I realized that what I was given was a gift, insight into that bond. He waited. He waited for me. My regret is that I made him wait longer than he should have. Yes. I’ll carry the shame, but as a lesson…. I’ve no other choice. I can add it to the pile.
Post Script, re: 2013:
It’s been a long year, with its fair and reasonable share of debits and credits to the ledger of all of our lives (not just mine), marked and splattered in inks of red and black. We love hard, and we hurt hard, most every one of us. Some of us talk about it and share it; some of us hide it with physical walls, and others, behind the metas of such… I am as susceptible to playing this selfish and dirty trick upon myself as is anyone, maybe even more so….
We’ve all the dents and dings that life brings us — caused when the gods direct us to intertwine; sometimes we dance gracefully with each other, and other times we fumble and flounder, bruised, halfway in the spotlight, grasping to pull ourselves into the whole of it. This will make us complete, we whisper, listening all of the while to our private love songs.
Others will hide on the bleachers, within the thick of the grays and blacks, hoping to be asked, desperately afraid to make the first move, and sometimes, a few of us will dare to step onto the floor, future regrets be damned, knowing full well the consequences that may arise…
Nothing matters but love and devotion, in whatever forms they take, despite our earthly possessions and wealth. Life has meaning. I learned that from my father’s last breaths. It’s a fucking shame that for me, it takes the ennui caused by the holidays to remember this.
You know, I feel like stepping out on to the floor, in spite of my dents dings, bruises and scars, literal and figurative. My life, whatever the timeframe, will be too short not to. Maybe I’ll see you out there.