I. Girl Still Alive
When I was 19 years old I saw my father for the last time.
It was summer (it was always summer). He had scrounged up enough gas money and convinced someone to let him rent a car. Three hours later he showed up at my mother’s house with crushed beer cans in the backseat. I remember how awkward it felt trying to talk to him like we still knew each other. The real truth was, he hadn’t remembered my birthday since I turned 12. The real truth was I saw nothing familiar in the brown of his eyes. I wanted to burst into flames when the old man he had become asked me to show him my bedroom. Imagine how obvious it was that we were strangers.
The day of my 13th birthday I waited for my dad to call my mom’s landline in my pink and yellow elephant pajamas so I could tell him all about becoming a teenager. If you don’t remember, when you turn 13, it’s kind of a big deal, or at least it was for me. Eventually I overheard my mom on the phone with him in her bedroom with the door shut, demanding that he call me. “She’s been waiting for you all day Mark.” My heart sank but I tiptoed back down the stairs and swept it under the rug with a lifetime of other disappointments and micro-betrayals. When he called a few minutes later, I played it cool, like I didn’t know the truth, because God forbid I embarrass him for forgetting about me.
“So how old are you again?” he asked nonchalantly, like it was as insignificant as the weather in a faraway country no one’s ever heard of and no one would ever care about. Imagine, suddenly being a teenager meant nothing.
When I was 23 I was in the thick of a three year series of breakups with the same boyfriend. This time I had discovered he was doing what they used to call “cyber sex” (this was a pre-sexting era) with some chick who he had gone to college with before he dropped out. He told me in a familiar “can’t be bothered” tone that it’s the same as watching porn and I was overreacting. No big deal. So I decided to stop overreacting and instead blacked out on whiskey and Xanax for a week straight. That lil stunt got me sent home from work and straight on an emergency flight back to my mother in Pennsylvania, after my boyfriend pleaded with her on the phone at 3am. “She’s crazy”, he hissed.
My mother immediately took me shopping at the mall. While trying on a pair of shoes and debating how best to get revenge on my boyfriend for not loving me enough, I got a call from a dreaded 570 area code. I knew better than to answer it, but I answered it anyway, because sometimes the longing beats the logic. It was my dad. He had disappeared off the face of the Earth months ago, like he tended to do.
“I just hit the streets!” he told me in a feigned lighthearted, activated voice I barely recognized. I knew that this meant he had been in jail again, though he never said why, always playing it off like it was a mistake or a joke instead of a crime he committed. Before I could say anything he had to get off the phone, because it wasn’t even his phone he said. Imagine, if you just hit the streets.
I pretended my dad was dead long before he actually died. It was easier for me to tell people he was dead than to admit he was alive and couldn’t get his shit together enough to be in my life in any meaningful way.
When I was 16 my dad signed away his legal custody in court. He had lost physical custody years before that. He looked me in the eyes and told me with sour alcohol breath that he couldn’t afford child support due to his “beer and butts fund”. My dad, who was no longer legally my dad, had money for cigarettes and alcohol but not me, and I was old enough to know none of this was my fault. But still. He cried until my mom dropped the thousands of dollars he owed in child support in court, so that he could get approved for Disability benefits. He promised he’d pay her back once he got on Disability, but he never paid a dime. Imagine, then he died penniless.
For over 10 years I slept with a box of my dad’s jail cell letters under my bed, bullshit promises from the ghost of a father who I never, ever got back. The father who liked British prog rock music. The father who liked to bake himself in the sun and slather himself in tanning oil and sit in chairs made for the beach, with a fly-swatter in one hand and a non-alcoholic beer in the other. The father who let me stay up late on Friday nights and watched TV with me til I drifted asleep on the couch and then carried me up to my bed without waking me. The father who loved to mow the lawn and adored his tomato plants in the backyard. The father who loved to make me laugh. That guy.
Since my dad died I’ve tried as hard as I can to remember everything good I can about him, before he disappeared in his demons. But the real truth is, I’m grasping at straws. His absence is all I can remember. How he wasn’t there. How he failed me. How he always said things would be different. Imagine if things could have been different.
My mom tells me he was a charismatic guy, that he could always command a room, was always the center of attention, making people light up, how he always knew what to say next. She says I’m like that too, but I wonder. Growing up, I felt a lot of things but mostly I just felt invisible.
II. Dying Man
Last night I visited a dying young man in the hospital.
He’s been dying in the hospital for 12 days now. That’s 288 hours and counting. It doesn’t matter what he’s dying from, because death doesn’t care how you get there. Death just wants you dead. This dying man is a husband and a father. But even that won’t save him, cuz death doesn’t give a fuck about that either. Sitting there by his bedside, staring his death in the face, watching his breath stagger, his yellow skin, I wondered what he’s possibly thinking about on his 12th day still alive. Has his life been slowly flashing before his eyes for 288 hours? Was he thinking of all his mistakes? All his regrets? All the things he should have done and all the things he wished he’d said? Was he stuck in memories? Memories that made him feel warm and safe and free? Or memories that made him feel cold and already dead inside?
I sat there by this dying man, by this stranger’s bedside, thinking about my own father. My father had been dying in the hospital for 16 days before his heart finally stopped beating. I didn’t sit by his bedside. I didn’t hold his hand. I didn’t get to tell him that despite it all, I still loved him. It’s a saga you’ve heard before, a tale as old as time, the one where I didn’t get to say goodbye.
My dad died on Black Friday and when he died, he died alone. His lungs were infected with cancer, he had only one kidney left, and his liver had betrayed him. He had a wet brain full of ammonia and irreversible brain damage. He was only 56 years old.
My dad’s last words to me on August 21st were: “I want to blow my brains out with a .38 but I’m too scared”. We were on the phone for the first time in two years. My dad had been experiencing amnesia, confusion, slurred speech, loss of motor coordination, deep depression–a part of him knew he was dying and that it was too late. But like I said, to me he was already dead.
I was in a Hyatt hotel just outside Salt Lake City, Utah with a guy I barely knew who was already calling me his girlfriend. We were temporarily stranded because his car had broken down. Again. His muffler fell off before we left San Francisco. His radiator exploded in Marin. His brakes went out in Reno. I told him this is what happens when you buy a 1993 Mercedes Benz from a desperate cokehead for $1,000 cash, no questions asked. Now the alternator had failed and it was only a matter of time before this whole thing blew up in our faces. And when I say that, I’m talking about so much more than just that piece of junk car.
It was summer (it was always summer). The sun was shining but the hotel room air conditioner was turned down to 50 degrees. I was shivering but covered in hot sweat. I could barely breathe. Since summer started I had somehow gotten swindled by gangsters in Cambodia, gotten a job trimming pot on a farm, neglected finding an actual place to live, and now had somehow fallen into a precarious infatuation with a guy who was an Aquarius just like my dad.
One day on the pot farm, a woman who I didn’t know called me to tell me my dad had lung cancer. Again. The first time he got lung cancer, he had to be put into a medically-induced coma for a few weeks so that he didn’t die from alcohol withdrawal before they could remove the cancer.
The phone call was bizarre, not only because there was no cell reception on the farm, but because the woman claimed to be my dad’s girlfriend (even though he was still married to someone else). She said they thought the cancer had spread to his brain because he was having balance and memory problems. He was experiencing a loss of brain functioning. I guess they never bothered to Google symptoms of liver failure. Turns out alcoholics thrive on denial. I hadn’t heard from my dad since Easter two years ago and I immediately panicked from hearing this woman’s advice, that maybe I should let bygones be bygones and just accept my dad for who he was. But I couldn’t.
I was covered in weed pollen and it was itchy in the 90 degree sunshine. An older lady I had met on the pot farm gave me a set of runes to consult. I knew she was a healer, if you believe in that sort of thing. She had watery blue eyes, her hands were cold to the touch but warm to the feel as they gently took mine. In this moment I was unraveling and a bunch of stones with the ancient Nordic alphabet carved on them were all I could hold on to.
I pulled the rune called ‘Nauthiz’. It lay there reversed in the sun on the wooden picnic table. Nauthiz: the great teacher disguised as the bringer of pain and limitation. I was being told that I needed to find the restraint to cleanse my past with my father. She said I was being challenged to turn the darkness into light.
I was disowned and I was wreaking havoc. That same week I met my new boyfriend on the same day he bought the busted up Benz. Within in a few weeks we decided we must be in love. He told me it was fate that we’d met because he was going to take me to my father to make amends. It just so happened he was about to drive back East.
IT WAS FATE he said. So off we went.
It just so happened that on the day we got stranded outside Salt Lake City, I decided to call my dad’s girlfriend’s phone number, the one who had shattered my reality on the pot farm. I demanded to speak to Mark. I didn’t call him my dad.
My last words to Mark were, “maybe you should just do it Dad, just do it, be free.” Click. (when I remember this moment I always hear the deafening sound of a dial tone, ringing on endlessly, but there was none because I was using a cell phone–my memory just has a flair for the dramatic)
Before our last words to each other my dad kept crying, “I’m never going to see you again”. He must have said it at least 10 times. I didn’t know how true it was at the time. But I never saw him again. I never spoke to him again. I never even made it back to my dad’s hometown.
IT WAS FATE I guess.
Want More? Read: Good Mourning