My father is not a good man. If you ask him, that’s what he’ll tell you.
I had a strange nightmare the other night. My mother and father were back together, which I found shocking even in my dream. My parents split up when I was five, and my mother died on Christmas morning 2014, so yeah. I was confused. My mother was standing before my seated father, and was holding out a letter written in my father’s hand. It was clearly a love letter, and it wasn’t to her.
For a moment, I thought she was angry, but when she said, “Oh, I’m so glad you’ve found another love!” I knew it was sincere compersion. I was stunned to realize they were nonmonogamous, plus still confused they were back together, and y’know, in my mom’s case, alive.
My father was leaned back in the couch, both arms spread wide along the back, pointedly avoiding my mother’s gaze for all he was worth.
“No I haven’t,” he said. “I don’t know her, that’s not mine.” My father, despite his protestations, has always had beautiful handwriting, and it’s very distinctive. I remember clearly the letters he wrote me from prison, and this was clearly his.
I was further confused because I’d just been out with him and his new love just two nights before, on a double date. Under the circumstances, why would he lie? My father is a lot of things, but a liar isn’t one of them. In my 51 years, I’ve never known my father to tell a single lie, not to me, not to anyone, or even be accused of it.
Wait. That’s not true. During the divorce proceedings from my wicked former step-monster, she accused him of lying in court about a coffee table leg, but that was an obvious fabrication on her part. But that’s a story for another day.
The dream either skipped ahead, as dreams sometimes do in that weird surrealistic way, or I don’t remember the next part.
What I do remember is my father had died. I don’t specifically remember how, but I have the impression it was by natural means. I needed, for reasons unclear to me now, to tell my former person, and reach out to her for support and comfort. I looked everywhere for her, but only spotted her once, dancing in a club full of bubbles, a scene ripped straight from my memories of when we first met at Woodhull, and this photo I took of her on Bubbles and Burlesque night that year. We’d just met earlier that day, now that I think about it, and I confess I was infatuated from the start, though I was in another relationship at the time.
In any event, I couldn’t find her, but I did find her best friend, who has also become a dear friend of mine. I asked her where my former person was, I needed to talk to her.
“Dude, she hates your fucking guts. Why are you looking for her? Stop looking for her!”
I woke up, sweating and shaking.
It was a few hours before I could lie back down, but finally managed a few hours of fitful sleep.
My daughter called me about noon that day. She’d stopped to see my father along the course of her work day. He’d been sitting outside as she drove by, so she thought she’d just pop in and check on him for a minute. He was happy to see her, asked how she was, asked how her kids were doing.
My daughter doesn’t have any kids.
Pop was born in December of 1939, third of five kids and the elder of two boys. His father went to Germany to fight in the war in ’43, which was just as well, really. My grandfather was a verbally and physically abusive drunk, and their relationship was never a good one. (I inherited the distinction of my grandfather’s worst despite by virtue of no offence greater than being born the oldest son of his hated oldest son. He didn’t much care for any of his grandsons, but I definitely got the worst of his verbal abuse.) I suspect this might be a good chunk of the reason my father is not a good man.
At eighteen, my father joined the army, and wound up stationed at Fort Greely, Alaska, as part of the Yukon Command. He learned to ski, he drove a truck, he defended not-so-secret NIKE bases up there. He sometimes tells stories about his time in Alaska with the wistful longing of an old man remembering a long-lost flame. Alaska was his first and only true love, geographically.
And then one day the First Sergeant came in and told the company to pack their gear, they were going to Laos (two syllables and long vowels, as he tells the story). “Where the fuck is Laos? Will we need our skis?”
It’s there that his army stories stop, on hiatus until his return to Fort Meade, Maryland, some indefinite period of time later. One can only wonder about events in the interregnum. These were the years between(ish) Korea and Vietnam, and it’s probably nothing good or wholesome that the U.S. was up to in Laos at the time.
He’d started working at 14 as a coal man, delivering 110lb sacks of coal from the coal truck (which he was driving) up to people’s porches, where he dumped them in their coal bins. The coal bin was a chest-high cinderblock box with wooden doors on top, built into people’s porches, with an inside door that opened into their furnace rooms so they could shovel the coal into their coal stoves to heat their homes. Physical labor was my father’s gig from an early age.
When he left the army after three years, he took up carpentry, eventually becoming a master of his craft over the course of fifty years. He went from rough work – framing houses and such – to hand-crafting the finest staircases, bannisters, bookcases, bow and rifle racks, and furniture that you ever might see.
Along the way, he was a biker for a while in the early ‘70s, a husband a couple of times, a father of at least seven children by at least four different women (that we know of), a drug addict and a major drug dealer, an inmate at a maximum security state penitentiary, an over-the-road truck driver for a couple of years while on hiatus from working with wood, a student at a couple of community colleges, and in his mid-seventies, finally relented to the demands of his aging body and became a chauffeur in limousines and driver of hearses, leaving carpentry behind for good (so far, but don’t bet the farm on that just yet).
All that is to say that far as long as I can remember, my father has always been this 5’10” solid brick mass of humanity, for all his flaws impenetrable, solid, hard physically and emotionally.
I was thinking about all this last night when it came to me that I’ve always seen my father as nearly immortal – he is the Zeus of my universe in many ways, both good and bad. Zeus, the god of the gods, the hero sometimes, but more often the villain, the lover of women, not above disguising himself as a prize bull or an unwittingly absent husband, the sire of many children by many women, always half a step ahead of his justifiably angry wife, Hera. But even moreso than Zeus himself, my father is a larger-than-life statue of Zeus. He’s more physical in form than an effervescent tale of mythology, more concrete, more solid, ancient, hard, weathered, chipped, broken by the millennia. But still standing, still towering, still immortal. He is a colossus.
And yet I also knew that someday I would bury my father. On the occasions it’s crossed my mind, my mental picture was one of his quiet, sedate, dignified funeral, he laid out in his casket in the size and shape I’ve always known him, perhaps not unlike the effigies of ancient British kings atop their sarcophagi in Westminster Abbey, portrayed in their grandest, strongest youth, silent in repose, sleeping the sleep of the dead, but still royal and beautiful. The Sergeant of the Guard would hand me my father’s tri-folded flag, and I’d stoically receive the gratitude of the United States, and I’d save the few tears for later, in private, in the arms of a lover.
I called him a week or two ago, randomly, something I’m not given to doing, just to check on him. He relayed the most recent details of his comings and goings, mostly things he’s already told me. I don’t usually think much about this habit he has. He’s older, and not remembering to whom he’s told what isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Hell, I know I do that shit all the time, a 78 year old man doing it isn’t terribly notable. He asked me how I was, what I’d been up to in the week or so since we’d last talked, how my kids were doing. The usual.
Then he asked how my daughter’s kid was doing.
My daughter and my father, though they live pretty close to each other in the Philly ‘burbs, don’t talk much. Their worldviews are nearly diametrically opposed on most topics, and I did not raise my daughter to sit quietly and politely when someone, especially a male authority figure, says something awful or stupid or wrong. Because of their lack of close interaction, I assumed he’d seen her out and about with her niece, upon whom she dotes with reckless abandon, and had a senior moment while talking to me, thinking her niece was her own. I clarified the relationship, just to be sure.
He was genuinely disappointed that he’d not become a great-grandfather. And then he was genuinely surprised when I reminded him that he was, in fact, a great-grandfather, by my little brother’s daughter, just not by mine.
I was deeply troubled by his surprise. Not only was this rather important bit of information a fact of which he should be aware, it’s one of which I absolutely know he is, or was, aware. This should not have been news to him in any way.
“Yes, Pop. Twins.”
“I didn’t know that.”
Yes. Yes, Pop, you did. I didn’t say that out loud, but I was concerned.
He told me he’d just returned from the hospital. The air conditioner in his apartment had quit, and in the heat wave it was fortunate his neighbor had stopped to check on him, and summoned the landlady when he didn’t come to the door. They found him unconscious and unresponsive on his couch, and called an ambulance. He’d suffered heat exhaustion, and the hospital was able to fix him up and send him home.
I chalked the conversation about great-grandchildren up to the medical episode. He’d be fine in a day or two.
“He asked me how my kids are. He looks old, Dad. He looks… frail.”
My heart sank.
The first few days I was there, he seemed fine, mentally. His memory about specific events was on point, and when I prompted him to recount some detail of his life, it all fit within the timeline I know well. I was relieved, though still concerned about his physical appearance. He’d lost 50 pounds since I’d seen him last, he walked hunched over in that way of very old people. My daughter’s assessment was accurate.
It was on my last afternoon at his place that his memory failed in some extraordinary ways, confusing two large eras in his life separated by a decade, and insisting his timeline was correct. Given that I was a 10 or 11 year old kid during the one, and a young adult during the other, I remember both pretty well. Walking him through the events in order didn’t help. Eventually, we dropped the subject and just went back to spending time together. It suddenly seems like there isn’t much left.
The colossus was damaged, and I couldn’t deny it, ignore it, or make mental excuses for it any longer. Yesterday was the day my Zeus became mortal. Yesterday was the day Olympus crumbled.