This morning, I woke up and wrote the first thing that popped into my head, which was this:
My dad would have been
seventy-five today, but
after some consideration
he decided to end his contract early.
Some melt slowly,
at twice the speed of light,
Bummer huh? And as far as poems go, it sucks. It’s not even really a poem. But it’s how I was feeling, on this, the 75th anniversary of my father’s birth. And you know, I want to commemorate him somehow.
He was only fifty-seven when he died, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I’ve written a lot about him over the years. About his craziness, his temper, the damage he caused to others. He was one of the most selfish men I’ve known, and certainly the most tormented. He hurt a lot of people. But today, I want to tell you some good things. I want to honor him. It’ll probably sound pathetic–these are probably things that normal fathers do as a matter of course. But my dad was far from normal, and I’m incredibly thankful for every kindness he was able to show me.
So here goes:
We shared a weird bond–it seemed his genes swam a bit deeper in my pool than in my sister or brother’s. It wasn’t just that I looked like him, although I do. There was an invisible, powerful connection that ran between us, some sort of simpatico. I was his eldest, and he lost his enthusiasm for parenting by the time the others arrived. But I was the baby he held once or twice, the one he fed once, the one who pooped all over him. Once. He was proud of these paternal efforts, and reminisced about them until the end of his life.
He could make me laugh until my sides nearly ruptured. I inherited his silly sense of humor. If I stood near him during a solemn occasion–a religious service or a funeral–I was a goner. He’d be there beside me, our heads bowed in respect, and before long, he’d start vibrating with repressed, inappropriate laughter. It was horribly contagious, and soon, I’d start shaking too. We’d turn red as bricks, tears rolling down our faces as we struggled to stay silent and respectful. Occasionally, we blew it and made snortling noises, which caused the more reverent to give us the evil eye (and rightly so). It was awful at the time, but I now look back on our looniness very fondly.
He co-signed on not one, but two cars for me. In fact, he even picked out my first one. This is akin to saying that he parted water for me, or gave me busload of doubloons. Dad wasn’t magnanimous as a rule, and these were huge gestures, especially in light of the fact that I burned the engine up on the first one within a few months and abandoned it on the side of the road (no one told me that cars needed oil). Of course, he never let me forget that he’d done these nice things–not for years and years, or ever. But that was okay.
Between his marriages, we hung out as friends a bit. He was drinking a lot then, blacking out and falling down and taking who-knows-what kind of pills. I worked up the courage to tell him he had a problem, and offered to attend an AA meeting with him. He took me up on it and stayed with the program until the end of his life.
When I became pregnant at twenty-five, Dad was the person I feared telling most. I wasn’t married, and he disliked the baby daddy (later, my husband). I broke the news as we sat across from each other in a crowded restaurant. Not only was he not angry, he seemed to really care. He asked questions about due dates and finances and by the end of the conversation, he was happy for me.
After my son arrived, Dad and I went shopping. He sat on a bench and ordered me to go pick out things I’d need for the baby. I was unused to such gestures (it had been years since the co-signing). Timidly, I selected a little package of t-shirts and brought it to him. “More,” Dad said. I kept putting things into the basket, one by one, and he kept saying, “More.” This went on for quite a while, until he was satisfied that his grandson had enough.
A year later, I moved away and married my son’s father. My dad was the only family member in attendance on my side of the family. He drove six hours to get there, and I was proud to have him standing by my side.
Okay, all of this is making me cry. I’m going to have to stop soon, because the more I add to this list, the more I miss him. It’s been eighteen years since he killed himself, and though I understand and respect his reasoning, I often find myself still wishing he was here. He was a huge presence, and he left a big rip in my universe.
He’d like Amadeus. He’d be proud of my kids and me. He’d be older and calmer, and the fire that blazed in his brain would be, by now, just softly glowing embers. Maybe he’d have found some happiness. Maybe he’d have bitten the bullet (no pun intended) and gone to physical therapy and regained the dignity he lost when they amputated his leg. I imagine him discovering the joys of the Internet, finding a community of people he could relate to, looking up information on Post-Polio Syndrome, traveling the world from the comfort of his wheelchair.
As I was growing up, he was always more of a buddy than a father, and we kids were more of a burden than any sort of pride and joy. In fact, he found it difficult to even say the word “Dad,” and instead referred to himself jokingly as “Da-Da.” He just couldn’t do the parenting thing. My mother had remarried a despicable man, and for the better part of eight years, we kids were on our own. I never shared my problems with my father during weekend visits to his house, and he never seemed to want to know. We were a horribly fractured family.
When I was eighteen, a freshman in college, my world began to fall apart. I don’t want to go into the details right now, but trust me, it was a bad time, the worst of my life.
Even my father noticed, and in a weird show of concern, he sent a friend, an emissary, to talk to me and find out what was going on. She and I met at a restaurant, two rather awkward, uncomfortable strangers. As we chatted over coffee, she began to quiz me a bit, I guess in order to report back to Dad on my well-being. It was beginning to get on my nerves. In fact, it ticked me off. Finally, I looked her in the eye and said something like, “Listen. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I don’t want to talk about it. And I sure as hell don’t want to talk to my father about it. He’s never been involved in my life. He’s never given a shit about me. I’ve been handling things on my own for ten years–I’ll handle this too.” I considered myself very tough at the time, although in reality I was quite lost.
Just then, I looked up, through the large, plate glass window across from us. There was my father, sitting in his car, blocking other drivers, trying to get my attention. His window was down, he was waving his arm, he was saying something.
“I love you.”
Those were the words he formed as he slowly drove by, ignoring the honks of the people behind him. He circled that restaurant at least ten times, and with each rotation, he’d ride that brake and mouth, “I love you.” And at that moment, I knew that he truly did love me, probably more than anyone in the world. He seemed so helpless as he rolled by, looking through the glass, moving his lips like a fish in an aquarium. He wanted to be there for me, he wanted to fix things, he just had no idea how to do it. How could he? He was broken himself. But I knew he cared. I knew that someone gave a shit after all.
So here’s to my dad on his 75th birthday. I loved him dearly. I still do. I hope that you’ll send some good wishes his way, if you believe in that sort of thing. He probably gets lonely.
Here’s an old post that lists more nice things about my father. And here’s one of his favorite tunes: