… on death and peace
February 03, 2016
A very long time ago, Little Me approached the front door of my father’s house. I’ve mentioned this before.
He had missed a few visits…
And a few child support payments.
This was the 1970s, when a lot of mothers didn’t work. Didn’t have skills. Got a little frantic when an ex-husband didn’t come through with the check.
No check meant no food.
And eventually no heat, or lights…
Or roof over your children’s heads.
My mother ushered my sister and I into the old, unreliable rusted Dodge Dart, and drove to the next town. To the house my father now lived in with his new family, in scandal. He had moved in with a divorcee, with three of her own kids, and they had a newborn son.
I remember my sister and I just hopped into the back, seat belts be damned. We probably sat on the floor playing jacks with glass shards, using the hump as a make-shift table.
The seventies were tough.
We got to my father’s house, a small ranch-style in the middle of a yard that was larger than ours, in a neighborhood that was nicer than ours, and my mother told me to go to the front door and ask him to come out to the car. I got out, marched up the front steps and knocked.
A stranger answered the door.
I was confused, and asked for my Dad.
The stranger was confused, and said my Dad didn’t live there.
And the man must have realized something was up, because he gently asked if my mother was in the car, and he went to talk to her and the words were quiet and I didn’t hear them.
We drove away from the curb, and my mother had to sit with the fact that my father had, pretty much literally, run away in the middle of the night two weeks before. She had to sit with that, for twenty minutes, while two confused little girls asked questions from the back seat.
And then she had to sit with that for the rest of her life.
And so did my sister.
And so do I.
My mother and sister both died, tragically, within a week of each other about fifteen years ago.
And, this past Sunday night, I got word that my father died.
Still working as a long haul trucker, he had just filled up his rig at a stop on the Idaho-Oregon border, and collapsed climbing back into the cab. His sister, my aunt, called that day to let me know. It was immediate, she said, no pain.
I knew, barring an illness or accident on my part, that one day this news would show up.
I didn’t know if it would pound brutishly on the door, or softly knock. But I knew it would come.
The thing is, after he left, some things broke even more. The possibility of losing our house was always a clear and present danger. Money was scarce enough to make food scarce, as well as stuff like heat. My mother, who most likely dealt with mental illness, was both stronger and weaker than she imagined. And we all succeeded some and failed some through the years, as we struggled over and past and through our respective and collective obstacles and perspectives.
And some of them were doozies.
And suddenly one day I was married, and about 26 years old, and a business trip was taking me to the west coast, and it was possible for me to hop on a little plane and head over to where my father’s side of my family lived.
He had never reached out, and I hadn’t seen or spoken to him since my brain was eleven years old. I thought I’d like to meet him with my newly grown-up one.
And I am not kidding you, not one little bit, when I tell you that my very first impression of this man who loomed so large in my head for so many years was:
“Huh. He’s shorter than I expected.”
It was the strangest thing.
He paraded me around as if I was his proudest achievement – to everyone. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, step sibs, half sib, work friends, seedy people he didn’t really identify…
And he made me breakfast on a Sunday with his special hash browns ‘just the way I remembered’ and his wife, who it turns out was super nice and sweet (and they divorced pretty much right after my visit (can’t make this shit up)) made me her famous chili.
And it sounds super nice, like he was trying to make things up to me, right?
But it actually didn’t feel that way.
I felt like a prop.
I am telling you, it was wHeird.
And I could tell you all sorts of stories about how interested he was in how I managed to go to and pay for college, and what exactly my job was and where I lived and what I owned and… but it all boiled down to one thing.
He turned out to be a con artist.
A short one.
If I had any doubt that this was true, the call a month or so later telling me his new girlfriend – Tiffany (nope, not kidding) – had cancer and ‘where oh where were they going to get the thousands of dollars to get her the life saving treatments she needed’ kind of sealed the deal.
I didn’t send a dime.
She miraculously recovered without treatment.
There were more attempts at swindling money, once even from prison, and there were many other things that had me feeling that I needed to protect my own family, especially my children. Finally I told him not to call anymore. His narcissism was so evident, along with so many other super charming character traits including pathological lying.
But I was firm, and he didn’t call again… oh except he kind of did.
Just after my mother and sister died in 2001. He’d heard about it through a local friend and had that friend call me to tell me my father was very concerned about me. But, sure enough, and not too deftly I might add, the friend managed to ask about the value of my mother’s home. The one she nearly lost, many times, trying to pay the $221 a month mortgage for 30 years.
I know. Ick.
I have not seen my father in more than 24 years, and haven’t talked to him in probably 20.
And he is gone.
It turns out that, not only did the news of his death knock very softly on my door, it then went and sat quietly on the front stoop and patiently waited for me to sit down nearby.
And I did. I turned to examine the news closely, as it gazed unselfconsciously into the distance.
I found that it did not stir feelings buried, or ignored, or unresolved.
Globs of emotional detritus had not been shoved into some overflowing closet in the back of my brain, waiting to burst forth with toxic cranial ooze.
Actually, as the news shape-shifted into reality, I found a small smile had found its way to my face.
Because the realization I stumbled upon? It was a really good one.
For better or worse, on my side of the family, we tote our baggage around, pretty much out in the open. And ours is not Louis Vuitton, I’m telling you. It’s a little more Army thrift shop, with big holes in those duffel bags, trailing embarrassing bits of family lore all over the sidewalk behind us.
Oh sure, we might not lead with it at a cocktail party, but we don’t hide it either. Especially with each other. This tends to take the power away from the toughest of stuff, preventing it from backing up on us later on.
Today I am grateful for the crazy, wHacky, ‘my side of the family’ – my Aunt P, and my three cousins who know a lot of what I’ve lived with and grown through, and have taught me so much about living in the light. It is a credit to them that I came to a conclusion long ago. Later, I would stumble across it in a quote (Hannah Arendt, quoting Karen Blixen (who is the real ‘Isak Dinesen’)):
“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story, or tell a story about them.”
We are a family of stories, new and old, told with shaking heads, smiles through tears, and face palms, often in the company of delicious food and drink at Easter and Thanksgiving and Christmas tables (and occasionally on docks and screen porches).
And I am grateful that some of the toughest times of my life have been framed with perspective and laughter, and are openly displayed along the walls of my memory, rather than hidden behind fear’s door with the hope that the key is never found.
Rest in peace, Dad.
I’m happy, and feel so very fortunate, to say that this is my true wish for you.
Thanks for readin’.
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