You learn something when your estranged father passes. It’s like losing sight of something from your peripheral – you understand that something is missing in your field of vision, but you can’t place just what it is. And the more you look around, the more you realize its absence. The more you begin to comprehend that this random item in your life meant more to you than you were willing to admit.
I think about my father more these days than in the years before his death. He remained in the edges of my life – estranged, always there, but never present. In those days, there was an option to reach out and grow a relationship. Though, there is little regret in the way I handled our relationship – it was a two-way street after all.
There isn’t a doubt in mind that my life might have taken a different path had my father just tried a little harder. Or if I had in my adult years. However, it’s a life I cannot envision. Javier may have not been the best father figure in my childhood, but I will no longer dwell on that. Why mourn what I never had instead of being grateful for the days I did?
A little over a year ago, I made my father smile. It’s the first smile I’ve seen on his face in a long time. He lay in a hospital bed, recovering from an amputation. At least trying to recover from an amputation. The doctors, try as they might, cannot get his heart to climb up to a normal rate.
He didn’t have a good heart before the surgery. I recalled the scar that ran up his sternum from when he lounged around shirtless in the house.
“Javier, mira quien vino a visitarte,” my mother told him as we entered. Her voice soft, sweet. It was moments ago when she told me that it was only a matter of time.
His face, weak, scrunched up in confusion. How long had it been since we last saw each other?
“Hey Dad,” I said because nothing better came to mind.
“Es Willie. No lo reconoces?”
And there. At that moment, a smile. It started with his eyes. Life being brought back to them. His thin lips stretched. He smiled. And though I’m sure my eyes betrayed my emotions, I smiled back.
My father was scheduled to enter a rehab center after recovering in ICU. Because of his heart rate, those plans were changed. Instead, he was admitted to Amara Hospice – a stone’s throw from Bert Ogden dealership where my father worked for most of my life.
(Side note: The year previous, I visited Jeanna in that ICU after the car accident. The rehab my father was to attend was the same Jeanna spent her the last months of her recovery. The same facility her mother, who lost her life in the accident, worked.)
I visited my father on July 8th at the hospice. His weak voice managed, “They lied to me.” He was told he’d learn how to walk again; instead, he was moved to a hospice. And understood what all that meant.
I sat on the couch and just tried to talk to him. I wanted him to know me in his last days, but I couldn’t muster up the words or courage. Instead, we watched TV.
With each passing day, his voice grew to a whisper. Until he said nothing at all. I bought him Ensure because he wasn’t taking in any foods. I split my attention between work and him until he dominated my thoughts.
On July 14th, I was given an opportunity to say my goodbyes.
“I could have made an effort just as much as you could have. But we’re just so goddamn stubborn, I guess. Just don’t think for a second that I didn’t love you. That I didn’t want you there, because I did. And I’m sorry you never met Shaun before all this. That’s on me and I’ll have to live with that. But look, I’m not mad anymore. I forgive you for going when you did; I don’t think I’d be the man I am now if you hadn’t. And I won’t contemplate if I’d be a better one or a worse one because all that doesn’t matter, you know? What matters is now. If you have to go, it’s okay. I understand. I’ll be okay. Mom will be okay. Jay and Martin will be okay. We’ll be okay. I just needed you to know that I’m not angry anymore, and I forgive you, and I love you. And you can leave if you have to. We’ll all be okay.”
I intended on visiting him the next morning, but drained from emotions and work, I opted to stay instead. I had a 4-hr shift that day, so visiting him after work was probably for the best. While Mom and the girls signed in at the front desk, I walked to my father’s room to say hello.
You won’t understand silence until you notice how loud it can be. The breathing machine that pumped oxygen into my father’s lungs for the last days of his life had become commonplace. Part of the background. Ignored but noticeable when missing.
I stood by the door understanding what my mind didn’t want to process. As my mother approached, I turned to her and said, “His breathing machine. Why would they turn off his breathing machine?”
My father died an hour before we arrived to the hospice. I settled down in the visitor’s kitchen and made an attempt to eat my burger. There were phone calls that needed to happen. We called my older brother who had power of attorney. I called my aunt, my father’s sister.
I wasn’t angry at myself for missing my last moment with my father. I made my peace the night before. And my being there may have just prolonged his pain. Maybe he would’ve continued to fight as to not let any of us see him slip into that good night.
Before they took him away, I returned to his room and told him one final farewell.
Few years ago, I wrote a letter to Javier and never meant to send it. A vent. Something written out of anger. As much as I say I practice certain Buddhist philosophies and practices, I can never put the anger behind me. Even after all these years of growing up, I’m still the angry child inside.
Whenever I write about fathers and sons, I think about the worse. A son watches his father courting other women. A son knowingly speaks to his father without the latter knowing who sits before him. A father splattering his brains on the walls. A drunk beating his son. A drunk driving his son to murder. A drunk. A father. A failure. Words that are synonymous in my dictionary. But not all fathers are drunks and not all drunks are fathers. And not all fathers are failures and not all failures are fathers. Though, in my eyes, not all failures are drunks, but all drunks are failures.
When Javier was admitted to the hospital, my at-the-time girlfriend, Jessica, asked if I was one of those guys who grow up hating their dads and suddenly love them when they’re dying. Because, socially, we accept that feeling sad when someone passes as a sign of affection. I can’t honestly say I hate my father, because for me to truly hate someone you have to love them first. Sure, I say I hate a lot of people, but I dislike them at best. And I can’t recall a time when I loved my father. He was there sporadically in my childhood. Most of my memories are of him being angry, being drunk, hung over, or forgetting to drive us to school.
To answer your question, Jessica, after all these years, I can’t say that I am. I might cry when he does. And I might have this feeling of emptiness inside me when I learn he’s in his final days. But do not mistake that sadness as a sign of affection. Recognize it for what it is: the sadness of not knowing why I wasn’t good enough to stick around.
I haven’t felt comfortable in my skin for almost a year now. And now the stranger I see is not one I fear. Thank you.
I cleaned the mess I call a room this week. While doing so, I found two short stories that never made it passed the first draft. Both were, oddly enough, titled after Bob Dylan songs. “Not Dark Yet” is about a man who flashes back to his childhood on his way to his father’s funeral. On the journey home, he attempts to rationalize the betrayal he felt. He attempts to understand his father’s actions, while never fully forgiving him. In “Things Have Changed,” I introduced a college aged man whose long-term relationship is falling apart, and all he can do is remember is his father’s infidelity. These stories were written a year apart, but there’s a clear message of both. Homie’s got daddy issues.
“David” is the first and last story I have ever published. It appeared, of all else, in a student literary magazine that’s put out once a year. It received an honorable mention by the issue’s staff. It’s about man whose relationship with his son is so broken, he doesn’t realize the person he’s talking to is his flesh and blood. And while the narrator – whose name is never revealed in any of the stories he’s featured in – never mentions the man is his father, I hoped that the subtle hints would present themselves. Very few people understood, which is understandable. Most people thought I was paying homage to Ernest Hemingway and William S. Burroughs, which was only half-true.
I wrote the story the year after my failed attempt to reconnect with Javier, whom David is loosely based on. In the end, I fantasized the father figure so broken, he returns home and shoots himself – Hemingway reference to the point that I even made him a writer, which my father, to my knowledge, never was.
With a little big of maturity under my belt, I’ve retired “David” from my reading list.
My brother, Jay, remembers one incident about my father. When I was just a baby, my parents got into a fight that led to my father grabbing me and a knife and threatened anyone who got near. Thing is, my brother repeated the act with his own child several years later. A desperate need to prove how important father is? To show the world how much one cares by threatening anyone that gets near? I’ll never know.
My father was two men: the sick man recovering from surgery who used to paint wooden animals to pass the time and the abusive alcoholic who gave up his family for his addiction. After my father left, I saw him sporadically. There were the typical broken promises, missed birthdays, etc. In the end, I learned that I didn’t need him in my life, despite the emptiness. I grew up just fine without him.
On two occasions, I stood in front of my father without realizing who he was.
Rumors of a Broken Family
My ex-girlfriend, whose family is possibly the most stable – though far from sane (a joke, sorta) – once asked if I was going to be insistent about family portraits because most people who come from broken homes are. I never thought about it. Mostly because I’m not too photogenic. A lot of people say that, but seriously – I don’t do well in pictures. I have a nervous twitch that causes me to make a face.
Now with the new era of my life in the horizon, I’m asking myself the same question. Will I become the father who puts so much importance in family things? While I’ve never been very good at it as a son and brother, what happens with the third title is bestowed on me? Every year, I’ve been the host of the familial Thanksgiving dinner. And every year, I say it will be the last. And last year’s promise might just be kept.
My mother plans to go to San Antonio this Thanksgiving to see my cousin get married. Jyg has offered me her family – my brand spanking new family. And while I love them to death, I have this nervous twitch in which I’m forced to judge everything that is not conventional in my family. And it’s not silent judgement, it’s more of a passive-aggressive thing. And I’m not doing it because I disagree with it, or even hate it. I do it because it’s a nervous twitch. Like tearing paper into tiny bits. Or bouncing on one’s legs while sitting down during an important meeting where you’re forced to make some sort of public statement that will be the growth or death of your goals.
I’m reassured by several friends and family that I’m going to do great with this. But the nagging critic in the back of my head is reminding me of all my fuck-ups. And I begin to wonder how much different life would be had Javier stuck around and been a dad. But life’s too short to focus on this what-if. And if anything happens, I could always write a story to make sense of it, couldn’t I?
As a kid, when my cats vanished, my family would tell it was because they went looking for their home. In no way was this an euphemism for death. It was an euphemism for sex.
Hope in November: Sitting on the bus from Chapin to Boroughs listening to the flavor of the month, a band named Anberlin. On her way to visit her dying grandfather, the patriarch of the Queener family, Hope – or as her friends call her, HQ – prays her grandfather will allow her and give his blessing to her idea of leaving the state – and the college she is attending – to attend an internship.
Jyg: Don’t you hate it when…Never mind. I forgot who I’m talking to.
Jyg: I was gonna ask, “Don’t you hate it when you’re sad for no reason?”
Me: You monkey.
Me: “Never mind. I forgot who I’m talking to.”
Jyg: Well, you’re always sad.
“You have to hear the entire story before jumping into conclusions.”
Javier’s lied before. It’s hard for me to trust him. When you’re raised knowing a father who can only disappoint you, you’re conditioned into always believing he’ll disappoint you, no matter your age. I feel childish holding on to imaginary grudges. And while I’ve allowed him human status for the past, it was current events that put me back into my funk. And now, I’m told he actually gave real, fatherly advice…Well, it’s hard to believe.
My niece, several years ago, sits with me at the table. I do my best to help her with a homework assignment. “Why don’t you talk to your father? He asks about you.”
“Your grandfather and my father aren’t the same man. You know a man who attempts to make an effort. I only know a stranger who made promises he couldn’t keep.”
Now she’s detaching herself from her father. Granted I don’t endorse or condone my brother‘s behavior or actions, he’s still my brother. And while I feel no attachment to most things human, a sense of fraternity is overwhelming. I love my family because they’re my family. They’re the people I can turn to no matter what, even though I don’t choose to. So in a sense, I – most times reluctantly – live up to my obligations as a son and a brother. I’m not blinded though. My brother is my brother. His actions, in no way, reflect those of my father. And while my niece is allowed to have a grudge against his leaving, I feel it’s unfair for her to do so. My brother, unlike our father, is attempting to be a father even though he’s no longer there. It’s not complete and utter abandonment.
“I’m gonna go back to bed. I’ll sleep until the world stops being ugly.” After a moment’s thought, “It’s never gonna stop being ugly, hu?”
The problem with me is I was too smart for my own good. In high school, I did my best to hide it. I aimed for average. When you’re average no one cares. No one expects you to accomplish many goals, they just expect you to get by. Had effort played a role in my studies, I might have been something else. Might have given a fuck about it.