Two years ago today my father died. It was the first major death I had experienced and my life instantly became the most nauseating of roller coaster rides. Part of that queasy feeling was grief because I loved him, but part was guilt because for a long time I didn’t.
My dad was my hero when I was little. I always wanted to be where he was, and other than work he usually let that happen. He called me Buddy and taught me to play sports. He couldn’t resist getting me a toy whenever we went out. When he went to bed (he rose early for work) I would often watch TV with him in the dark until my mom got tired and would have to transport my sleeping form to my own bed. I was his shadow and the apple of his eye, a boy child he could mould in his own image. And I was a willing participant, soaking in all the time and lessons to be had with my role model. I never wanted to let him down and would do whatever he suggested, and if I broke something or had an accident or did something bad I was mortified about what his reaction would be, both because I didn’t want to disappoint him but also because I didn’t want him to yell. My father had a temper. It was born out of ignorance and fear but of course I didn’t know that in my single digit years. Back then I was just afraid of the volume and the ferocity. He never hit me, and I don’t think that thought ever crossed his mind. In truth he was mostly mad because he wouldn’t want to deal with whatever had occurred, so whoever gave him a problem to deal with became the recipient of his verbal ire.
Luckily I didn’t see my dad’s angry side too often in my formative years. My mother was quick to deal with things so he wouldn’t have to (which would solve the immediate problem but not the bigger issue of my dad’s temper), because she didn’t want to hear him yell either. Still, that served as my first lesson that Dad wasn’t perfect, and that’s a hard lesson for a kid to learn. But we soldiered on, father and son, and as I got close to double digit age we were going out to the store every weekend and getting haircuts once a month at the crack of dawn (which is where I learned to be early to everything, a trait I still employ). I began playing organized baseball in the youth leagues and Dad was there every step of the way. We were, indeed, buddies, but then a larger crack formed in his armor when he tricked me into quitting baseball. The truth is that he didn’t want to invest the time into bringing me to practice and games anymore. He wanted more time to relax and do other things. He couldn’t say that, though. Instead he told me that he’d understand if I wanted to quit because of my asthma. I had never even thought that, but I understood what he was suggesting, and since I couldn’t let him down, even though I didn’t quite understand, I quit.
From there we were still tight, still going shopping on the weekend and going to Pawtucket Red Sox games and occasionally going to pick up my sister from college for a visit. She went to school in Newton, and as we got into the area and saw the nice homes my dad would start making jokes about Jewish people. I was introduced to new slurs and they sounded funny so he kept saying them and then it became a thing (my sister was disgusted, I should point out). And that’s how racism is spread. I had heard him say things against Jewish and African American people in the past, but this was now some kind of routine and I’m ashamed I was a part of it.
That was the thing about my father’s death leaving me so conflicted. I learned so much from him in my life, but half of it was to do the opposite of what he did.
When I was a freshman in high school my dad had a heart attack, and a lot changed. He was already starting to pull away from the family, but this was the catalyst for him to expedite the process. To be fair, all four of us were changing. My sister was in college and trying to start her life. I was in the throes of puberty. My mom was perfectly content to spend her time at home doing puzzles and watching TV. My dad, for his part, got even more involved in taking care of horses. He had always loved horses and began helping out one of my mom’s coworkers, who competed in shows. He got along smashingly with her and her husband, going over every weekend to tend to the stable needs. He was soon promoted to be the manager of the barn and would accompany them to some very important competitions. He was doing well and we were all doing our thing. I became much closer to my mother as we both were very similar in mindset. My sister was back home to get a job and further her studies. We were all there in the same home, but whereas my mom, sister and I would still talk and hang out we all felt like Dad was more of a roommate than a family member. He’d say hello and we still got along but work and horses was his thing and that was about it, to the extent that my mother even commented that his only contribution to the house was his paycheck.
My dad lost his role as barn manager when he started spending too much time there. The barn was at the house of the woman who owned the horse, and it had gotten to where Dad was there before they even got out of bed in the morning. It was making them uncomfortable and she and my mom were still friends so she felt like she was in the middle of a bigger issue, so as hard as it was she had to relieve him of his duty. I have no doubt my dad did a great job, but sometimes an ice skater enjoys skating so much they stop looking at how thin the ice has gotten.
Dad moved on and started working with the VFW. He had been a marine and was very supportive of the military, and at first he would just go there to hang out with vets, perhaps looking for people to understand him in a way that we didn’t, but before too long he started taking on projects and had worked his way up to the Commander of the post. I was very proud of him and his dedication to the job, as he really did work hard. Unfortunately, though, this is where the armor he’d worn since I was a small child finally broke apart and showed me the withered man within. First came the drinking. My dad was in his glory there with all his military buddies and they had a very tight bond right up until his death, so of course Dad felt bulletproof, half his age, and he drank like the outside world didn’t exist. Then he would come home. First, he would drive home drunk early in the morning, sometimes even nodding off in the driveway and coming in a half hour or hour later. Despite the late hour I would usually wake up when he got in because we lived in a mobile home and the word “quiet” does not exist. He no doubt hated having to come home and I was always angry that he had driven home in such a state. From there I would lay in bed, growing more angry as I heard him talk to the cat in the bathroom, complaining about how no one understood him in the family. One time he even told the cat that he loved his kids but his rotten wife had turned them against him. It was all I could do not to go in there and give him a verbal bashing the likes of which I was always afraid of him doing. My mother was the rock of the family, taking care of the bills and the shopping and her children and her job, not to mention the laundry and cooking. My dad hated his job and then went to play with his vet buddies on the weekends. He did a great deal of work for them, absolutely, but we were still a struggling family who had gone through bankruptcy and he was working harder at his unpaid second job than anything else. I wanted to say all that and more, but of course, as I had known for so many years, you don’t argue with Dad. Nothing would’ve helped or changed in that situation. Instead I continued spending my Friday and Saturday nights being woken up by his drunken idiocy and praying he wouldn’t talk to the cat.
And then it got worse.
One night I was woken up by my sister, who had snuck into my room to tell me my father was cheating on my mother. She was furious as she told me how she’d heard him talking on the house phone so, given the late hour and the way he was talking, she picked up the phone in her room and heard him talking to a woman he professed his love for, complete with all the sweet nothings that are said to signify that this was not a platonic love. She told my mother the next day and my mother confronted him, which must’ve taken all her strength because, again, you don’t confront Dad. But she did and he withered and she threw him out. I was not there for that, but I was there for that weekend when he came to get some of his things. He said hi sheepishly, friendly as he passed my bedroom, and as disgusted as I was I said hello in a returned friendly tone. He got his things and said he’d see me later and I said good bye and he was gone. Then a couple weeks later he was back. My sister and I were not happy with this but my mother said we could not get by financially without him, and his new girlfriend was already tired of him and wanting him to leave so she agreed to let him come back. Soon after that my sister got her own place and my mother moved into her bedroom.
Life in our home was civil for some time after that. I remained devoted to my mother and cordial to my father. My mother enjoyed time to herself. I stayed in my bedroom if I was home. My father continued working for the VFW. My mother retired and was looking forward to having a few years to enjoy a house without my dad while he was at work, and then he took early retirement less than a year later and somehow she didn’t murder him.
Dad began to feel weak and was constantly tired for several days. He still went to the VFW, just for fun now as he had relinquished his position as Commander, but otherwise he didn’t get out of bed. They tried to convince him to go to the hospital, as did we, but he kept wanting to give it another day to see how he felt. The truth is, he was deathly (poor word choice) afraid of the hospital. When he was growing up in the 1940s, people often went in and didn’t come out (or at least that was his reasoning), and that fear rose up over any evidence of medical advancement. So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that I decided to investigate after Dad had been in the bathroom a long time only to find him on the floor next to the toilet. I assumed he was dead, but he had passed out and fallen off the seat. I called 911 and got him to a chair, and he was adamant that I pull his underwear back up and get his robe on so no one would see him as he was. I kissed him on the side of the head and told him I loved him. After all that had happened and how much our relationship had nosedived since my childhood, that was still my gut reaction. It’s important to state here that we did not touch each other in my family. Physical affection went away in childhood and did not return. The only hugs I gave or received after the age of perhaps seven was when I briefly moved to Baltimore in 2001, and both parents hugged me then, which shocked me so much I cried. And so there it was, in the bathroom with an ambulance on the way and my dad as vulnerable as could be, I kissed him and was once again shocked. He told me that he loved me too and I got his robe on in time to hear the thunderous engines of fire/rescue and ambulance alike. Of course my dad knew the first responders. He knew most of them, no matter the branch, from various VFW sponsored functions. I got dressed and woke my mother (wondering how someone could sleep through all that noise, especially in a mobile home) and told her I was going to the hospital. I arrived in time for the doctor to do a fecal check and discover he had internal bleeding. A nurse came in to get some blood pumped into him and he told her to make sure he got the right color blood. It was one of the most awkward experiences I’ve ever had, and the nurse was immediately tired of him. I knew, though, that he was trying to bond with me, not because of the racist remark but because that was a line a racist soldier had said on an episode of M*A*S*H, which was the first TV show we both loved when I was little. Despite the poor execution, it was an attempt at tenderness. From there the doctors closed a hole in my father’s gut and three days later he was back home, and I wish that could’ve served as proof that hospitals had come a long way since 1942.
As more darkness began to creep into the house my relationship with my dad continued to improve. My mother’s dementia worsened to a point where she was leaving the house, needing to go to “work.” As such, someone needed to be there with her all the time. Since I worked full time it was usually Dad. This was difficult for him. He still wanted time to be with his friends at the VFW. He wanted some kind of independence. At the same time, he wanted me to be able to have a life outside of work. Also, he was having difficulty breathing. This had been going on for a couple of years, and he had started to pursue the issue with his doctor but then stopped, canceling appointments and avoiding the issue. He could still get around but would have to go slower than he was used to and stop to catch his breath. So he had all of that swirling in his head. At first he didn’t do well with it. I would be at work and he would run up to the VFW for a short time. My mother would then call me at work, multiple times, and say the frightening and infuriating things that people with dementia say, which would cause me to call my father and tell him he needed to go home immediately. It was a bizarre Freaky Friday situation where I had become the parent to my parents. We struck up a deal where he could go out whenever I was home and if I was at work he had to be home, and if we both had a pressing need my sister could come down and watch her but she lived too far away to be able to do it regularly. It was an excruciating way to live for all of us, my mother in a faraway world of imagined memory mixed with reality and us watching her corrode while we gave up our own sanity to be with her, and my sister on the outside looking in and feeling guilty for living the life she had established years prior. And we all continued to worsen. A year to the day before my dad died I came down with shingles, probably from the stress in my situation. My father tried to get more active to improve his cardio and breathing but it wasn’t working. My sister developed breast cancer. My mother finally reached a point where we couldn’t help her anymore and I got her into a nursing home. It was a nightmare swirl of the darkest colors, but through it all we made it work. My dad and I weren’t happy and he wasn’t healthy, but we were a team and neither could’ve done it without the other. We didn’t have long talks it we would tell each other a little about what was going on. The communication was there, partly because it had to be but we would also offer information we didn’t need to, just to share. I gave him occasional pep talks about getting to the doctors again to help with his breathing. It had gotten so bad that, even with my mother in the nursing home he still rarely went to the VFW. Instead he moved out of his bedroom and into the living room, which was frustrating but in hindsight I understand.
Six days before my dad died we had an electrical problem. An electrician came out and my dad, rather than let him work, talked his ear off about living here for over forty years and this and that. It was night and winter and we had no heat, and the man had to get to Home Depot for a part before they closed, but my dad needed the guy to know that he was living here when there weren’t any streets behind us. At work we call people like that Time Vampires, and he was vamping this guy hard and I was so mad. When the electrician got free I sternly told my father not to talk on and on when he got back. He could see how mad I was and asked me not to yell at him. I felt terrible. He knew how I felt as a kid and I knew how he felt when he would get mad. My anger was truly there because I couldn’t fix the situation, was inconvenienced and facing a night without heat. Our comfort was in the hands of a random electrician, and my lack of knowledge was frustrating. It was how I had analyzed most of my dad’s outbursts for the past few decades. To push it further out, I was frustrated because my dad was weak and old and I could do nothing to stop it, so I took it out on him because he was there, the one aging and ailing and needing my help. He was weak and was supposed to be strong, because he was my dad. I was so wrong in that moment to vent my frustration on him.
(If you are a Star Wars fan, this was the part where Luke is soundly battering Vader and cuts his hand off, and at that moment realizes he is becoming the negative side of his father.)
We spent the night in the cold because the electrician couldn’t fix the problem. In the morning I had to go to work but I brought my dad a hot coffee to help warm him and because I felt terrible. I can’t remember if I apologized. I hope I did.
Two days before dad died (a Friday) he had an appointment about his breathing. The tests were done in advance of his Monday appointment with his cardiologist (the same one he’d had since his initial heart attack in the 1990s). Dad asked the technician about the results, and the tech, who had also known my dad since the 90s, told him he wasn’t supposed to say anything, and he knew my dad wouldn’t follow his advice, but he should go next door to the hospital and check himself in now because it looked like congestive heart failure and the doctor was no doubt going to have him admitted on Monday anyway. My dad, despite only being able to walk very short distances before stopping, still not over his fear of hospitals, said he’d see them on Monday but would take it very easy, then called me to come pick him up.
The day my father died (Sunday) I had a lot on my agenda. I had to drive an hour to act in a film by the maestro, Skip Shea. Then I was to go to my friend Scott’s house to watch the annual Royal Rumble wrestling event. In the morning all I was trying to do was remember my lines. I respected Skip a great deal and did not want to mess up. As I was getting ready to leave my dad started talking to me about rock salt. A blizzard was coming in the next day and he didn’t think we had enough. My dad used rock salt like it was skin lotion for the earth. He was also obsessed with the weather, and as soon as he heard foul weather was coming I would get constant updates. He also felt guilty because he wouldn’t be able to help me shovel. As his breathing had worsened over the past couple years he would always force himself to go out and help me, even though I kept telling him to go inside. He even pushed to get a snowblower so he could help without straining, which I agreed to even though I didn’t want one and didn’t want him outside (I spent more time watching out for him than shoveling). Anyway, he asked me to pick up rock salt if there was any left. All I wanted to do was remember my lines. I was so nervous and keyed up. I told him I had to go film and then go to my friend’s house and might not have time. I stopped myself at the door, about to leave, and realized I was being snippy. I told him I’d probably have a chance to stop between locations and I’d try to pick some up. He thanked me and we exchanged goodbyes. I’m fairly certain the last words I said to him were either “see you later” or “you too” in response to him wishing me a good day. Whatever they were I’m extraordinarily grateful I turned my attitude around and left on a good note because I wouldn’t see him alive again.
I had a good time filming but we had to wait in thirty degree weather for over an hour because the person who was supposed to come unlock our location forgot. I was in shorts too, because that’s what I wear, so between that and my worry about nailing my lines and doing a good job, I left there around 1:30 absolutely exhausted. I texted Scott and said I wasn’t going to go to his house and would watch at my house and we could text. I got back to Taunton and went to the store but the only salt they had left was for around swimming pools. I declined and went to get a sandwich to bring home. I arrived and my neighbor yelled over to me from her front door. I always tried to keep my neighbor at a distance because she liked to talk and was a bit nosy, and I was way too tired to get into a conversation. I looked over to her and she said she had my dad’s hat and keys. “Okay…can I have them?” I said, not knowing why she had them. She gave them to me and told me she had looked out the window and my dad was on the ground in the driveway. She called an ambulance and gave him CPR until they arrived. I am thankful that I don’t panic in these situations. I asked if he was alive. Her eyes dropped, contemplating, and she said in a low tone, “it didn’t look good, Mike.” I thanked her and went in the house. In my heart I knew he was dead. I knew he had gone out to run his truck because he was old fashioned and thought if you don’t drive your vehicle every few days it won’t start. So unnecessary but it wasn’t really a big deal…until then. He went to start his truck and couldn’t breathe and his heart worked too hard and gave out and he died right where I had just parked my car. I breathed. I went to the bathroom, assuming I’d be at the hospital for a long time, especially if somehow he was alive. As I passed the washer/dryer I saw he had clothes out for a wash, the clothes he was going to pack for when he was admitted to the hospital the next day. One day away from getting help. Damn it, Dad, why didn’t you admit yourself on Friday? I finished in the bathroom, then ate my sandwich. I wondered if I should. I mean, shouldn’t I be on my way to the hospital? No. I was starving and exhausted and if I was going to be there for a while I would need food for strength and proper thinking. And still, I knew he was dead. I debated on and off, but I knew inside, and each station at the hospital confirmed that. As I drove I got a call and didn’t answer. I parked and played the voicemail, which was from the doctor that worked on him. He asked me to call him ASAP. I quickly texted friends, one with medical knowledge and one who had gone through something similar, to make them aware. I went to the emergency room desk and told them my name. The woman’s voice softened and asked me to have a seat. Confirmation. A nurse came to get me and led me to the Family Room. Confirmation. That’s the room where you get told bad news. I texted me friends again, telling them that. The doctor came in and told me what I already knew. “I’m sorry to say…your father…has died.” I don’t cry in public or show sorrow to strangers. I’m just not built that way. He said it was a heart attack and he felt no pain. I was thankful that the tech broke the rules and told my dad about the congestive heart failure because it was more of a thorough reason the ER doc couldn’t have given. And I don’t believe that he felt no pain. Maybe it was massive and he was dead fast but I bet it hurt and telling me otherwise didn’t make me feel better. I asked what to do now and he said I’d get a call about arrangements and a funeral home consultation. He asked if I wanted to see the body and I said yes. I was brought in by a nurse, who showed me where his belongings were. It was so surreal being in the room with his dead body while the nurse went through his stuff with me. She left and I sat next to his bed. You never understand the spark of life in a person until you see it missing in a corpse. His eyes were closed, mouth open, dentures removed. He had a splotch of purple blood under the skin on the side of his head. He was just a husk. The important part was gone. I talked to him in my head and said goodbye, that I hoped I’d been a good enough son and made him proud. I looked around the room, at the machines that could do him no good and the curtain shielding him from the world that used to be. I told him I loved him and picked up his belongings. I went through the curtain and the nurse asked if she could do anything and I again asked what to do now and she said the same thing the doctor had. I walked out of the hospital with bags of clothes, a phone, a wallet, a watch. But no Dad. Memories flooded my brain, many of which are written here, many that aren’t, both good and bad. Guilt arrived for how much I hated him at times, and I felt like a hypocrite for being sad. I drove home somehow. My neighbor yelled out the window asking how he was. “He’s dead,” I responded, breaking down as I continued, “thank you for your help.” I texted coworkers and my boss at the office and said I wouldn’t be in that week and said why. I texted friends. I texted my sister because I could not tell her with my voice. I assumed her reaction upon finding out would be more emotional than mine. It was hours of texting. I put on the wrestling event and of course couldn’t pay attention. There was no diversion of attention to be had. The house phone rang and I didn’t answer. Dad’s phone rang and I knew it was going to haunt me but I let it go unanswered. If I couldn’t talk to my sister I wasn’t going to talk to his friends. And I cried, a lot, my face moving in ways I couldn’t imagine, my sobs silent but powerful. At 11:30 that night the house phone rang and I was so mad that someone would call so late I answered. It was the hospital. They wanted to know if I would donate his tissue, corneas, etc. I understood the time press and forgave the late call. I agreed and they asked questions. Eventually I got a card in the mail saying how many people his donations helped, which was wonderful.
The next day, blizzard day, my sister came down and we faxed paperwork somewhere and I got supplies for the storm and we got lunch. I made her leave because the storm was starting and she had pets and I wanted isolation. Well, I wanted contact, lots of it, but not in person. I needed to process things (which you never really stop doing, of course, as this proves). My coworker, knowing I had no money for funeral expenses and Dad had no insurance, told me I could donate the body to a school with a mortuary science program, and they would use the body to teach the students and then cremate the body and give you the remains for no cost. It was my only choice, and the college ended up being the same one my sister attended (though for a different major). I also finally answered my dad’s phone and spoke to a woman from the VFW. I confirmed the fears of all his friends from there that had been calling. When she said she didn’t get to say goodbye I said “neither did I.” She apologized but in truth I was the rude one there.
The week I was away from work was a grand mixture of emotions. The storm was enormous, and I did not touch the snowblower (I ended up giving it away). It was Dad’s and I never really liked it. I cleaned a great deal of his things out of the house, in every room except his bedroom (which I would not get to for a few months). I felt if I didn’t do it then the belongings would haunt me for years. My friends stayed in touch, and my coworkers sent me an Edible Arrangements bouquet which served me much better than flowers. On Wednesday I had to go to work to use the printer so I could fax more things, so I told those who were working what happened. When Friday came I had tickets to a small, local independent wrestling show. I had spent the day cleaning, remembering, and I was in no shape to go to this little show. I told myself I needed to get out of the house, so I did. I invited people at the last minute but no one could come. I am never afraid to be alone at an event but that day I was. I don’t remember much of it. I shouldn’t have gone. The day after there was a large wrestling event and several of my friends were going. That served to be the temporary relief I needed, and I pushed forward from there.
My dad didn’t want to be cremated. He had written out a list of requests years ago, probably after his first heart attack, and I found them while cleaning. He didn’t want a service but wanted to be buried. In all caps he wrote DO NOT CREMATE ME! I had already talked to the school before I found that, but even if I hadn’t, I had no choice. I still feel guilty about it, denying a dead man’s wish, but I had no money for a casket and all the fixings. Neither did he.
While it is much less frequent now, dreaming that he is alive is hard to deal with. I also dream that my mom is here, without dementia, and sometimes they are in the same dream. I always wake up thinking they’re here and have to convince myself otherwise.
My dad was a man who probably shouldn’t have had kids. He probably should’ve remained a bachelor. He was just a guy who ultimately wanted to do his own thing. But then other events changed that and while he was a great father for many years, eventually his “me” time became more important. I know he loved my sister and me. He just forgot how to show it. I hope he loved my mom. I think he knew she put us first and the selfishness he felt made him mad at her, but I think he loved who she was as a person. He made some very bad choices in search of his own sense of independence, but in the end when he had to be around he was, and that made up for a lot. I knew writing this would be hard, airing a dead man’s dirty laundry, but I wanted to show both sides, because there were fresh sheets there among the soiled. Relationships, families, they aren’t always happy, and I still get mad at my dad two years after he died for things he did decades ago. But I still love him too, and I am a better man for the things he taught me, whether it was to follow his example or sometimes do the opposite.
January 25th, 2017