Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I didn't know him, not really

Somewhere along the way today it hit me with raw force that, had he lived this long, today would have been my father's ninetieth birthday.  Of course, I immediately contemplated that given the course of his life and the choices he made in it, it was as near certain as possible that he was not ever going to live to that age.  That he lived to age seventy-one has a whiff of miracle about it.  This domino chain of mental events led me off on an unexpected mental journey for the day.  When I might have spent the day wondering if my bowels are ever going to straighten up and fly right or if I'm going to be a prisoner in my home the rest of my life, I spent the day instead thinking about my father.

He was born rural and fixing things became his gift.  It also became his ticket out of south Georgia, at least for a few years, as a Navy man in World War II, one of those guys in the Pacific who went on shore and built airstrips before our forces had technically, say, occupied the island.  That kind of stuff.

He would not talk about that experience in later years.  In one conversation ("conversation" here, as often it did, meaning "monologue") he let slip a phrase about being at Guadalcanal.  When he realized that it had slipped out, he clammed up more fiercely and irreversibly than I've ever seen another human being do, to the point of leaving the conversation altogether without another word.

He returned to Dublin when the shooting was over, marrying my mother in (I think) 1947 and working through a series of jobs from agricultural to mechanical.  Daughters were born in 1954, 1956, and 1960.  Somewhere along the way the gears began to slip.  Infidelity was involved, on his part for certain (I have no evidence that my mother was ever unfaithful to him).  By the time I was born in 1965 the marriage was for all practical purposes over, though the divorce was not finalized for another two-plus years.

My older siblings had enough investment in that nuclear home to carry degrees of anger or sadness or grief from its demise.  I had none.  For that matter I had just enough friends who were also children of divorce that it took me some years to realize that a one-parent home was "not normal" according to The Powers That Be.  For some years I spent alternate weekends at his home with his new wife (I never called her my stepmother), doing I don't remember what (my main memory is wondering why I was the only one who had to go).  Eventually those faded away, as his ramping alcoholism pushed him away from functionality.  As his descent into the bottle eroded his mechanical skills he slipped into more irrelevant and unsuccessful jobs, trying to manage gas stations or mini-marts.  By my teenage years I was seeing him only sporadically if at all.  He might have made it for a few big events, maybe graduation, but not many at all.

I can't speak for his life at this point, except for knowing that both alcoholism and smoking were doing their work in him that ultimately would not be undoable.  He did eventually quit both, but by that time the emphysema that would eventually end him was a permanent guest in his lungs.

Perhaps the biggest jolt I ever knew in my life was the one evening when, as I was trying to do homework at the kitchen table, he was telling my mother that leaving her was the biggest mistake he ever made in his life.

By the time I got through college we had some form of relationship.  It was grown-up.  It made no pretense that anything was ever going to be "fixed" or made up.  It did eventually result in passing on some family heritage, though never anything about his war years (which I would have given dearly to hear about).

The last I saw him was a week before my wedding.  His health could no way withstand a trip to Fort Myers in June.  So I saw him (he had met her before), we had a good conversation.  The breadth of his marital advice:  "So you're sure she's the right one?  Well, do right by her."

About 12:45 that next Saturday, about the time our wedding was concluding, my father fell ill and couldn't breathe.  An ambulance was called and he was admitted to the hospital.  This had happened many times in recent years; his breathing would fail, he would be treated in the hospital for a few days, and eventually he'd be released.  Except it didn't happen this time.  He held steady for a short time, then went into decline that would not reverse, then he would steady for a short time again.  Under normal circumstances I'd be angry at my sisters for not calling during our honeymoon to let us know, but this had become so normal a pattern I can hardly blame them.  As we spoke on our way down I-75, needing to decide whether to get off at I-16 to Dublin or to continue south and make our way back to Tallahassee, such issues as our complete lack of clean clothes and general fatigue were discussed more than anything.

Even that Monday night, when they finally called to tell me he had died, the mood was largely one of surprise.  You know that eventually one of those episodes will be more than you can handle, but it's still a surprise when it's this one.  We repacked and headed back to Dublin, and my wife met most of my father's relatives at his funeral.

It's hard to put any precise term on this relationship.  "Absence" certainly fits, but absence has its own kind of presence, and in a strange way that seems more accurate.  What did I learn from him?  Some negative lessons, for sure; I've never been remotely tempted to smoke, and I have a pretty severe disdain for drunkenness.  Maybe I learned that even when it's not too late, it's still too late, or that even though it's too late it's not too late.  I don't know and probably never will.

If he had lived that long, he would have been ninety today.

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