Friday, April 3, 2009

I really needed this.

So I guess it's time for me to finish the post(s) about my dad. I keep opening new blog windows in hopes that I'll be inspired by a new found wave of bravery or enlightenment, but the blinking cursor has nothing to offer but a steady pulse counting the thousands of other ideas I have in my head. Ideas that don't require me to sit with a box of tissues at the ready or lead to a marathon session of me digging through shoe boxes of old photos for the one picture where I can see his face as clearly as I can in my head.

Here we go.

My father didn't die when everyone thought he would. I've read stories about friends who thought they were losing a loved-one and then were miraculously spared the certainty death promises long enough to make more memories. To me, getting the call that he was going to "be okay" somehow was different from those stories. There was no orchestra playing triumphant music in the background or family near by me to hug and celebrate with. I hadn't expected the news and didn't have a sigh of relief at the ready or a floodgate of thankful tears holding steady for their cue.

Disappointed, I was not. Elated and relieved, I was not. It was just news. News that meant I had more choices to make, a new road unblocked. I was now free to tell my father the story of my life after he left. To open up my own ears to his life. To mend. Forgive. Forget. Remember. Or I could just not.

I thought so many times about the day in my dorm room when I clenched my eyes and face and fists hoping he wouldn't recognize my voice. Hiding. Like from a stranger. It's what I did. But, I didn't have to hide, really. I never heard his voice after the day in my dorm. My half-sister called me twice to give me updates on his status. The first time things were fine. He didn't walk well after the stroke and was hard to understand when he spoke. I politely declined offers to talk to him on the phone hiding my fears with the "poor reception" excuse. The second time she called, he was being moved to a home after making a pass at her as if she were a nurse. Understandably, it made her uneasy and probably pissed her off royally.

So he was moved to a home near her house. I assumed she visited frequently with her family since I am too selfish to let myself picture him lonesome and ornery eating peas and mashed potatoes from a can. It's what I always imagine nursing homes like. Cold, fluorescing, cafeteria food-serving lonesomeness. With mean nurses.

I went on with my life over the next year or so. I moved in with a musician and quit going to classes at the university after having been put on academic probation for poor grades. I started drinking coffee and made friends with people at rock shows in too dark, too smoky clubs downtown. People were interested in music and poetry and working jobs at restaurants to pay for motor scooters and tickets to see bands. Nobody asked about my parents. Nobody knew I was hiding from a second chance to know my father. And so, eventually, it was like I wasn't. I just let my life go back to how it was before he first fell ill. Pretending I didn't care what he did while he was gone was easier than grabbing him by his collar and shaking him. Or hugging him. So I just forgot again. And the phone was easier to answer as time went on. I didn't worry he'd find me. He didn't.

Because my Aunt Daisy is the favorite of the family, she called to let everyone know when he actually died. Or maybe she's the favorite because she was the only one who would've wanted to do it and who would call you "sugar" and send you a card, too. My boyfriend's band was rehearsing in the garage and I had to close the door to my room and shut myself in the bathroom to hear her molassesy, southern voice clearly. I waited to cry until after we hung up.

I went to the garage and since I still had the phone in my hand, the boyfriend thought he had a call because he put down his guitar and came up into the house, which is something he wouldn't do if I had just come to the door empty-handed. He noticed my tears and patted my back when I told him about Daisy's call. (He was the worst companion I can think of in all my history to be dating at this time in my life.) He insensitively went back to his rehearsal and took me to dinner later, but I'm pretty sure I paid and he talked about an upcoming tour the whole time.

I just skipped over the whole telling someone about my dad time that I think you're supposed to have immediately following the news. That's what they do in the movies. Someone asks, right? And you cry and laugh and tell them stories about catching frogs on the side of his double-wide trailer and smashing your toe in the car door of his Sapporo. And they smile with you or cry and hold your hand and hug you. I missed out on the only good part of losing someone.

My mother arranged for me to fly to DC, where his ashes would be shelved in a niche at Arlington Cemetery. She wrote me a letter to read on the flight, since we have never been great communicators, but she wanted me to know she was grieving as well. Sometimes I wonder how it is I can convey feelings at all, coming from parents who drank their emotions or wrote them down for private reading later.

Before the funeral I was surrounded by the family again. Just like at the hospital, it was wet blue-eyes all weekend. But this time there was relief on everyone's face. And it was easier to talk now that it was all really over. No more fake-outs. The man who had drank his way into and out of all of our lives over and over had finally done what we all had been expecting. Nobody said so, but every sister and brother that showed up was glad it was over. And I was finally granted the wish of knowing who else out there he had hurt and left and forgotten.

My half-sister regretted she couldn't give me any kind of dad memorabilia, but the only thing she had was a pair of striped pajamas he had worn while staying with her. She gave them to my nephew. I was jealous of an eleven year old boy wearing a pair of pajamas. Where was my souvenir? I had been clinging to the few blurry photos and trinkets I saved from random encounters over the years and there was this kid that barely knew my father lounging around in too-big pajamas playing Playstation the night before the funeral. I'm laughing now, but it pissed me off then.

I didn't ask how he got an honored place in Arlington National Cemetery. I knew he was in the army, and had guessed he was a war veteran. My mother never gave me much to go on and I didn't ever ask his family when they called or held reunions he didn't show up to. There were guns and a crisply folded flag. And snow. The whole show was really quite beautiful and touching in a disconnected way. I cried more than my nephew, but less than my aunts and half-sister. A bird pooped on the windshield on the drive away and everyone laughed. We ate lunch at Olive Garden and then I boarded a flight home. I got on with my life. Again. Having lost my father for the third and final time.

I keep thinking I should write about him. Put down what little I have onto paper and see how much I remember. Maybe even call up my relatives and ask them to tell me some stories so I can write those down, too. I'm just afraid of the sadness. Because I know that not all the stories are happy. In between learning how to use a blow-dart gun and eating MRE's out of little brown plastic bags on the back porch, I know there was a lot of drinking and maybe drugs. I know my mother cautioned me never to get into the car with him if he had been drinking out of the paper bag under his seat and that he owed countless relatives money. I know that he smelled like Brut aftershave and Old Spice mixed with auto-grease, but all they found in his motel room the day he had a stroke was an empty bottle of vodka and a government check.

I'm not ready to know what I missed. I'm not even ready to know what I know. I just hope that one day it will be OK to write down everything and eventually read it all without feeling guilty for having remembered it all too late.

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