My Fathers Son
Although it hasn’t altered the nature of our relationship in any way I can see, and I don’t expect it to, my father passed away last Wednesday. Or maybe it was Tuesday. The rumors are still dribbling in. My first thought upon learning of his death was this: I hope they have jai alai in Hell. Then I remembered that I don’t believe in an afterlife. Still, I’m confident that jai alai would be a prominent feature in any Hell created by God, Man, Microsoft, or Amazon.
When my brother Eric called to deliver the news, he explained that Dan—we all seem unable to call him Father or Dad—had been unable to “go to the bathroom” for over a week, and that it looked as though that ailment might have somehow precipitated his demise. That was the entirety of the initial report. I have since learned from my brother Keith that our father was indeed suffering from some type of intestinal blockage, and that Charlotte, a woman he’d befriended in his retirement community, had been caring for him. For a week she had been cooking his meals and helping him stumble around his trailer. When she finally became overwhelmed, she suggested that he go to a nursing home. After some weary resistance, my father reluctantly acquiesced. On the bus, en route to the home, he succumbed. Because of his Christian Science faith (though he did believe in God, I’ve always believed “Christian Science faith” was his private code for “stark terror”) my father didn’t go to doctors, and he certainly didn’t consult anyone in the medical profession about his extended bout of constipation. Apparently Charlotte is also a Christian Scientist, or was pretending to be, so she made no attempt to urge him to see a doctor. Thanks, Charlotte.
My father’s will stipulated that there be no funeral, no memorial service, no funny-hat contest. No ceremony of any kind. Perhaps he didn’t want money “wasted” (that would have been his word) on him. It may be that he feared no one would show up. It might have been his final “fuck you” to the children who’d had the audacity to resent his shortcomings as a parent, and to repay his cold detachment with resentful disengagement. Stalemate! As with so many of my father’s actions, I’ll never know his true motivation.
Still, my father was a consistent man. Every time we spoke, he grumbled about boredom until he’d talked me into it. And he would not end any conversation without uttering this phrase: “Well … I’m ready to go whenever the good Lord wants to take me.” I once suggested that the good Lord might not be interested, and that perhaps he ought to pack for a warmer climate. Wherever he is, he finally got what he said he wanted. Perhaps whatever killed him could have been diagnosed and easily addressed if he’d visited a doctor, but I believe the prospect of having someone poke and prod and peer into his bodily cavities was far more terrifying to him than death. So maybe in the end his religion did save him from what he feared the most. Yes, folks, if dying’s what you’re after, Christian Science could expedite your journey.
* * *
It has been over a week now and my father is still dead, although a few other things have changed. My brother Keith’s second or third wife moved out. On their first night back from a European tour, just days after my father’s death, while Keith spent the night in New York City, his wife drove to their home in New Jersey. At 3 the following morning, she loaded a truck with all her belongings, wrote him a seven-page letter, and drove off. Poof. And, despite my father’s request, there was a memorial ceremony in Pennsylvania. I did not go. Nor did any of my brothers. What would I say to relatives I never see about a man I never knew? Keith’s wife has since returned. Perhaps he learned his lesson regarding emotional absence. I doubt it. He, too, is our father’s son.
Eric recently revealed that Dan’s friend Charlotte said he felt he’d failed his children. Keith told me my father had confessed years ago that he’d never loved our mother. Never. This certainly fits my image of him. My aunt Joan told me Dan admitted to her that at least once he went out to shovel snow in hopes of prompting a fatal heart attack. Dear old Dad sent my wife and I a check for 10 dollars to celebrate the birth of our son, whose name he didn’t care enough to recall, and there are rumors that he hadn’t purchased a new tie, pair of shoes, or toothbrush since the Eisenhower administration. I know from speaking with my father a few years ago that he was never comfortable around children. Without shame he announced this to me when I asked him why he didn’t spend more time with his own grandchildren. So my depressed, passively suicidal, emotionally absent, terminally parsimonious father didn’t love the wife with whom he had five sons he didn’t know what to do with and ultimately felt he failed. No wonder he was constipated.
A friend asked me if there would be an autopsy. “He was old,” I said. “His heart probably gave out under the strain of all the cheap food that was clogging his rusty old pipes.” And then I thought of the prime-time television autopsies I’d squinted at through my fingers, and I had a fantasy: A grim-faced doctor stands over my father’s open corpse, lowering his mask and holding out his hand. “This is what killed him,” the handsome, dark-eyed surgeon says, his voice a gravelly whisper. “His system just … rejected it.” In his gloved palm is a tiny sliver of emotion. Another version had a lab technician finding infinitesimal traces of humanity in his blood. These fantasies were uncharacteristically hopeful.
Did I ever like my father? Not very much. He never offered me a hint of sympathy or understanding. If he ever felt affection, he hadn’t a clue how to demonstrate it. He was bigoted and judgmental. As far as I could tell, he disliked Blacks and Hispanics and Asians, and just about anyone who wasn’t like him. He wasn’t uncomfortable with the idea of hitting a woman if he felt the situation “called for it.” He didn’t read or go to the movies, and he was afraid of computers. He was someone I never would have communicated with, probably someone I would have actively avoided, had we not been related. I guess I’m judgmental, too. Oh, well. I suppose I tried to like him. It was not easy. I tried. In spite of everything, I tried.
Was he always like that? I guess I’ll never know. But he had cause to be distant, to be cold, and to swiftly amputate any emotion that threatened to touch him. His early years were a chronicle of deprivation. A family burdened with too many children, too little room, and too little money. A childless couple living down the street. A formula for compromise. He was the child chosen to live with the other couple. He was the victim of his family’s compromise. And I’m sure there was more. And yet don’t we reach a point, say, before we are well into our second dreary stint in diapers, when we are responsible for what we’ve become and how we affect those for whom we profess to care? And why have children in the first place if you have no interest in children, or in human relationships for that matter? Perhaps my father was unconsciously drawn to what he could not touch. He may have been an unwitting slave to biology, or he may have wanted, for reasons I cannot fathom, to carry on the family name. Perhaps he just did what everyone was doing at that time and place. Perhaps there was no thought or feeling involved whatsoever.
Did I weep when I learned of his death? Yes. Twice.
Why? I’m not certain.
Probably I was mourning how little I’d lost. Perhaps it was the knowledge that my 2-and-a-half-year-old son would never meet his grandfather, and therefore would never understand just how bad it could be. In contrast I’d look pretty good. Maybe I’ll miss him, or perhaps I’ll miss what he could have been to me had there been blood in his veins rather than a toxic compound of apathy and curdled disappointment.
No one wanted the ashes.
At first none of my father’s five sons expressed any interest in his ashes. Then his sister’s daughter, apparently offended by our lack of interest in the man’s gritty remains, decided she wanted them. Then my brother Scott’s wife decided she wanted them, and Scott decided that, by gosh, he did too. A dispute ensued. I suggested splitting the ashes evenly between the interested parties, or giving some other ashes to one of the parties, or giving a mixture of real and fake ashes to both and lying about it. Who would ever know? What would it matter? Isn’t it supposed to be what they represent?
But what the hell do they represent? How little substance we really have? I already know this and consequently don’t need a reminder. And I have no use for ashes. I have no ashtrays and these days it rarely snows enough in New York City for a car to lose traction.
I suppose something happens to the human brain, some complex chemical process occurs when someone you know loses a loved one, a pet, a distant friend, or even a family member. What other explanation is there for the platitudes that leap so easily from the tongues of even the most thoughtful, caring souls?
Here are some examples:
“It’s a rite of passage.” Of course, this means absolutely nothing. It has no more value than any random arrangement of symbols. PlhJ#*f. It’s like dressing a fart in a bowtie and cummerbund. It annoys and offends me. If you’re lucky, your parents will die before you do. That’s how it’s set up. If you are luckier, you will care.
“He’s in a better place now.” My father’s last dwelling was a cramped, musty, poorly lit trailer in a rundown retirement community in a part of Florida that his God forgot, about an hour from Orlando. It was neither attractive nor comfortable and I doubt it ever felt like a home to him. Still, I consider the urn a step or two down in terms of creature comforts. And he would, too. More than anything else, he was a real estate man.
“When someone dies, you aren’t crying for them. You’re really crying for yourself.” First of all, no shit. Second, exactly how does this help me through my grief? Should I feel guilty now for feeling sad? Should I feel foolish? I already feel guilty at least 90 percent of the time for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, and I still behave like a foolhardy felon far too much of the time. In fact, I’m glad I am able to cry about the loss of someone who cared so little for me and for my family—a family he never met, never cared to meet.
And perhaps some of my tears were for him. Perhaps I cried about how little he knew of life, how little he cared, or seemed to care, how terribly, frighteningly distant he must have felt, if he felt anything at all, from everyone around him. As far as I can tell, in his 85 years on this planet, my father never cared enough, was never close enough to anyone, to know the pain I know now, after losing the father I never had. And truly, the pain isn’t all that great. To me he was merely a pale counterfeit, a sullen simulacrum representing only what he could never be. But I am comfortable crying about that, and a little sorry that I won’t cry more. In any case, I am certain I was far more affected by his death than he would have been by mine, and to my way of thinking that is a step in the right direction.
Perhaps everyone fears death, but I think my level of fear is considerably higher than the national average. I am terrified to near paralysis on a regular basis. My legs tremble and I try to think of dancing bunnies and ice cream. This fear was fanned by my father’s demise. Why? My three older brothers are still alive and reasonably healthy, I think, and my mother is still emitting heat and flapdoodle at an alarming rate, and I know that life is not so tidy that we die in chronological order, and yet it feels as though my father’s death shoved me one space forward in the waiting line for doom. At the grocery store checkout or the movie theater, this would be a positive thing, perhaps cause for celebration, but with death at the end of the line I’d be willing to let a few strangers cut in. Hell, I’d let my closest friends push ahead without too much fuss.
But unlike my father, I’d give them a good hug, look them in the eye, and tell them I love them. And I’d mean it. In fact, I’d shed at least a few genuine tears when they were gone. Of course, I wouldn’t really be crying for them.