This posts marks the second time in less than a year that I’ve had cause to use this particular title; last time regarded Sir Duff’s continuing sobriety. This post is about my father; another male figure of some importance, one might imagine, in my life.
That both anniversaries would call to mind the same title and, as it happens, song, is unsurprising, given that we are dealing in anniversaries, one from a life (though not mine)-changing event in May of 1994, and the other was life-ending event from January of 1995.
On the 21st of January, 1995, I was 19 years old, a mother of a 9 month-old son, a nanny for three boys, and a full-time college student, though I can no longer recall what courses I was taking…possible this was the General Psych, Child Psych, Marriage & Family, American History Semester, but I don’t really recall. It may have been American Lit, Advanced Comp, and assorted other courses. None of that is particularly important, save that I dutifully attended all of my classes in the week after the 21st, a fact that has occasionally made me irritable with students who disappear after local deaths. Just keep moving.
Anyway, by the time that Saturday rolled around, my father had been dying to one degree or another for at least 4 years. He was diagnosed with a nasty, slow-growing brain cancer, Astrocytoma (grade II, I think–but it may have been Anaplastic even from the get-go of his awareness) when I was about 15; he had surgery to remove what they could and radiation to retard further growth. His chances for long-term survival were never particularly good, though I wasn’t completely aware of that at the time, I think. The first surgery and rounds of radiation did the job, and, to his oncologist’s great surprise, the damn tumor began to shrink. Doc planned to write this one up of a journal, according to my father, because the shrinkage was out of left field. As it happens, we can better understand what the tumor was doing as a temporary retreat, because two and a half or so years later, while I was pregnant with Tough Guy, the bastard came back fast, massive, and lethal.
We had not had a good relationship in years, owing to my bitchy teengirl antics, his own discomfort with fatherhood (realizing this 11 years into fatherhood is a bit problematic; later telling his 13 year old, high strung daughter that he didn’t want to be a father? Seriously bad news), and some classically bad divorce politics. Let me put it this way: you know how when people mention the death of a parent, many folks respond with “I can’t imagine what that must be like”? Well, I still have that response even now, largely because he’d not been around for so long before then; I have to remind myself that I do have some insight into the matter. Anyway, he had seen Tough Guy when kiddo was 6 weeks old, and Dad was already looking rough and having serious balance problems by then, but I don’t think I saw him again until 1995, when he asked me to join him and my stepmother for New Years Day 1995 and to bring Tough Guy along; I was a bit fearful of the encounter–what might transpire, but I did join them.
When she extended the invitation, Peggy was quite matter-of-fact. Dad was dying and this was a last opportunity to spend time with him. He had asked her to contact me as a matter of a final request of sorts. The end was nigh, and he had a few things he wanted to say (none of which do I remember–other images having become the most poignant from that day), an item to bequeath, and photos he wanted taken with me and with Tough Guy, who was now walking and beginning to yammer.
Dad looked awful. My Navy Officer father, never a great dresser when let loose from his uniform, looked sallow in the long-sleeved, stained white shirt, the brownish corduroys, and the awful mustard yellow suspenders, which have remained a focal point for me for my last memories of him. He was slow, weak, barely able to hold Tough Guy or to move across the room. His only moments of absolute clarity were in showing me the new trash compactor and the in-ceiling Bose speakers in their newly finished house.
I heir my geekdom honestly.
He died on the 21st of that month, after apparently lapsing into a coma about a week before. My stepmother, perhaps fearing an outburst or some histrionic behavior, did not contact me. I found out only because my grandmother happened to call my father’s house, and his mother-in-law spilled the beans. I saw him on the 21st, there in the VA Hospice, hours before he died. I said my goodbyes, cried while holding his hand, tried to at least maintain a modicum of composure in the face of Peggy’s anger at me and his impending death, and then went home. I wasn’t in the house more than five minutes, when Tough Guy’s paternal grandfather ushered me to the study to answer the phone. It was my grandmother; Dad died while I was driving home on I-64, a road that has tied together so many peculiar moments in my life. I even wrote a poem about the damn thing once upon a time.
I left Tough Guy with his grandparents and returned to Hampton, where I was afforded the opportunity to see my father’s body before the cremation. I had already said my goodbyes, so this was merely a weird moment, not nearly so significant as the yellow suspenders in my memories of him.
Like many people with poor relationships with parents, I have wondered over the years whether we would have been able to come to terms with our mutual disappointments or if he would have been proud of me. I was too young and too disconnected from him to even hazard a guess, and, I suppose, it doesn’t really matter in the end, what he would have thought. Is that just my teenage angst rearing, though–to remain dismissive of his opinions?
In the throes of my teengirl years, I used to write letters to him, including lyrics from various songs that seemed especially meaningful–most of them were about abandonment and anger. As I’ve mentioned before, I spent a great many years in dark places, and those letters, which I hope he burned in order to purge them from his existence, exemplified that darkness. I did not trust my own words to convey my emotions properly, so I relied on the music and lyrics of the bands I had plastered all over my room. I might have even made him a mix tape of some of them; in fact, I am almost positive that I did.
It’s been a good ride so far; I hope you have had an opportunity to see the grandson who looks so much like you. He’s every bit my son–headstrong and obnoxious, and every bit your grandson, for the same reasons. I have less of a clue now on how to address you than I did then, though I believe I’ve managed to accumulate a bit more insight. I hope I have, at any rate.
If you ever have the chance and feel like crossing the mortal veil or what have you, I do have several questions for you. Would like a bit of insight into the photo album with the pictures of Bahrain, which your sister tells me you adored. I never knew that when you were alive; if you ever mentioned it in my presence, I don’t recall what you said. Would have been great if you had labelled any of the pictures, but it does make for an interesting mystery to solve someday, should I ever make it to Bahrain. It’s definitely changed since you were there…I imagine you would be gobstruck by just how much.
I thought you hated travel; how in the world did I get that impression? And Slaughterhouse-5 was your favorite book? I adore Vonnegut…I’d love to know what your take was, exactly. What drew you in?
Anyway, I hope that this note doesn’t constitute some sort of awful post-mortality interruption to whatever. I sincerely hope that where/what/however you are that “well” is a good descriptor. I’d leave with “hang in there,” but I am a child of Hellraiser, and the variety of mental images available to me with that remark tend toward the unpleasant, so let’s just leave with a “stay well,” okay?
Much love. Miss you…can’t believe it’s been 14 years already.