“Walks on his own, with thoughts he can’t help thinking.
Future’s above, but in the past he’s slow and sinking.
Caught a bolt of lightning.
Cursed the day he let it go.”
On this the 22st anniversary of my father’s death, I’m thinking of him. Truth be told, I’ve probably been thinking about him for weeks, subconsciously, which explains why I’ve been listening to so much 90s Pearl Jam lately.
My father was a brilliant man. He’d dropped out of high school, but he had educated himself largely through reading. Our attic was full of years’ worth of National Geographic, Popular Mechanics, and Popular Science. I have good memories of sitting at the dinner table telling him what I was learning in science class, and he knew as much or more than my lessons that day. It was cool that my dad already knew about things that were holding my attention in school.
He was a tinkerer, too. He could build things out of spare scraps of wood, metal, and wire. Decades before Gameboy, he built an electronic game of skill—a homemade version of Operation. It was a rectangular wooden box, the size of a small jewelry box, with a single sturdy gauge wire set into the box in two places and a light bulb. The wire was crudely bent into the shape of a dog and was rigged up as an electrical circuit. A short piece of round wood with an eyebolt in the top was the handle. The eyebolt encircled the dog wire. If the two metals made contact, the circuit would close, and the light bulb would turn on. The point of the game was to move the handle around the dog from one end to the other without touching metal to metal—without making the light turn on. It was very cool.
He was into anything technological. I can’t readily prove it, but I’ve always believed that he came up with the gaming console first (or at least contemporaneously.) We had a Home Pong game as soon as it was released. My memory is that at first we controlled our paddles with the arrow keys on a standard computer keyboard. But then Dad fashioned a console out of a plank of wood with buttons. Later he installed a joystick. Mom told him he should patent it. Either he was too lazy, or too unsure of himself, so he didn’t. And, alas, I am not the heiress to a gaming fortune.
He was Nothingman. Sparks brilliance snuffed out by the crippling fear of failure, pressures of a family, and the demon of mental illness. And so he failed by default. He was nothing—by default. He was either in a state of blind, violent fury, or staring dead-eyed at the wall, trapped in a room full of his demons. It was only rarely that he came up for air and out of the haze, and talked science with his daughter, and invented neat little toys that filled me with wonder and regret.
My father died on May 6, 1996, a week before my 28th birthday. My sister had called late that night to tell me the news. I had rehearsed his death in my mind so many times, with so many different scenarios, and so may different players. Ever since I was a little girl. For as long as I could remember, I had imagined the moment in time when my father would cease to be, usually because that’s what I wanted—an end to him. And in that moment when he really had ceased to be, it felt unreal, as though it had happened so many times before in my imagination that it was still my imagination.
But it was real. My father was dead. I had always wondered what my reaction would be. Would I feel loss or sadness? Would I cry or break down? Would I feel relief or at peace? Would I be glad?
I felt nothing. I didn’t cry. I didn’t break down. I didn’t feel sad or a sense of loss or emotional at all. I wasn’t happy he was dead, I just didn’t care that he was. I sat up late into that night trying to feel something, anything. But I couldn’t. I didn’t feel anything.
For all my life, my emotions with regard to him had ranged from hatred, disappointment, and fear, to wonder, pride, and love. My feelings for him had always been so complicated. Until he died.
He had had a printing business in the cellar of our house, and I think the business and the cellar were his sanctuaries. He could be alone down there and work on his printing jobs or tinker about at his workbench. The intricacy that is involved with typesetting might have been a meditation for him.
He had two presses and the big one looked a lot like the picture above. It was antique and manual, with the operator spinning the flywheel to keep it in motion through inertia. But he rigged the flywheel to a motor so he didn’t have to keep the wheel going while he printed, and could use both hands to load and unload the paper stock. He could run that press so fast that he averaged two pressings per second, and that filled me with a sense of awe and wonder.
He once tried to teach me how to print on the big press, but there was no way I could work at his speed. I could print perfect pieces at a rate of about one per ten or twenty seconds. And he certainly didn’t have the patience to allow me to enough time on the press to master it. That’s what made him so disappointing. He had great knowledge and considerable skill. He could imagine things and then build them. He could draw and sketch. But he didn’t try to share or develop those talents with me. He had no patience. He had no tolerance for screwing up, so he just didn’t bother to give me a chance. He didn’t generally know how to be a dad or a mentor or someone I could look up to.
And yet, there were times when he was the coolest dad ever. My brother and his friend decided to build a tree house in the back yard with scrap wood. It would not have been much more than a few planks nailed to the trunk. But Dad was having none of it. Off to the lumberyard we all went, and he built us not a tree house but a house in a tree, with Redwood siding, a shingled roof, shutters, and fold-down beds so we could camp out.
I never understood what brought on those fleeting sparks of fatherhood. Most of the time, he was sullen and withdrawn, with little interest in me except when I was loud or walked too heavily across the dining room, showering dust onto his wet ink. His voice would bellow up from below the floor, and I’d stand stock-still, too afraid to move.
I grew up terribly afraid to be too loud, cry, be too heavy in the foot, yell when my brother picked on me, chew gum, break something, screw up his printing, or touch his desk. One day after kindergarten, I stood on a stool at the kitchen sink helping Mom dry dishes and asked her, “Is Dad in a bad mood?” That’s what we called it—a bad mood.
More times than not, he was. It was like living with an active and incredibly unstable volcano. Almost always sending up puffs of smoke but erupting without warning, almost always for reasons that I didn’t understand.
A Burning House
When I was about ten, he tried to burn the house down. My brother had not come home right after school one day. Mom and Dad were scared, and I watched them frantically call around to his friends’ houses. He had gone home from school with a friend without asking or telling them.
Whatever fear for his son’s well being Dad had felt had turned into cold, hard, insane fury. I watched him stack paper grocery bags on the end of the kitchen table. I watched him light them on fire. I saw them go up with a blaze and catch the chair—his chair—at the head of the table. I stood staring and motionless from the dining room, not six feet away. It was terrifying.
He was mad—his eyes blazing, his jaw rigid, nothing but his rage, consuming him like the fire consuming the kitchen table. He shouted, “If he’s not going to come home when he’s supposed to, he’s not going to have a home to come home to!” Then he turned to me. “If you want anything out of the house, you’d better get it now.”
Whatever slight and frayed tethers my father had had on sanity and reality and rational thought had snapped when he found out that his fear for his son’s life had not been necessary. I think that is what it was. He had wanted a family, but didn’t know what to do with it once he got it. Being a father, having a wife, and children meant he would have to put others before himself. It meant responsibility. He once told me he put food on the table and a roof over my head and that was all he owed me. I know that somewhere deep down, he knew he owed me more. The truth was that he was woefully unprepared to share his life—good, bad, or ugly—with other human beings.
And he hated us for it. He hated that our mere presence in the house put demands, and bounds, on his moods, his social skills, his ability to love and be loved, his ability and willingness to be mentally healthy and emotionally stable. Without us, he could have easily and lazily slipped the bonds of sanity and spent his life feeling sorry for himself, and being miserable because it was the only thing that felt normal to him. In the end, he did live that way, but we added feelings of guilt and inadequacy for—and because of—his family.
A few years before he died, he wrote me a letter, trying to apologize for my childhood. He wrote, “…as the twig is bent the tree will grow.” He’d grown up with parents who fought all the time. He described it as “…unpleasant and miserable and I was not happy.” He hadn’t realized he was duplicating his unhappiness in his own family. He had learned how to be mean. He told me he was sorry, but I could not forgive him. On the night he died, I had stopped being angry with him. I had stopped hating him. But I wasn’t ready yet to forgive him.
My Kingdom for a Tardis
If I had my own time machine, I wouldn’t go very far. I’d go back far enough to forgive my father while he was alive. I would go back far enough so that on the night he died, I would feel the loss and sorrow and sadness that I feel now when I think of him, even of the times when he was scary and violent and very, very humanly flawed.
He was weak. He had no courage. He could be mean and distant and self absorbed. But he was still my father and in, and for, the moments when he was actually my dad, I loved him. Eventually, I forgave him his flaws and his faults and his human errs.
A month after we buried him, I went back to our hometown for my ten-year high school reunion. Late after the party, I found myself alone at the cemetery. I looked for his grave in the dark and high heels, but could not find it. It didn’t matter though. It was then, in the darkness of that graveyard, that I forgave him. I had wanted so much to stand at his grave, and say the good bye I had not been able to say a month before. I wanted to cry and tell him that I had loved him, regardless. In the end, he was just a man, a man who ended up ashes in the ground. Not a monster. Not evil. Just a man. Not a great father—but still—just a man.
My Father’s Grave
I stood on my father’s grave
And tried to say good-bye.
But the wind being high,
And the air being cool,
I was certain he would not hear me.
So, I knelt on my father’s grave
And tried to say, “I loved you.”
But the light being dim,
And the earth being black,
I was certain he would not see me.
So, I lay on my father’s grave
And tried to say, “I forgive you.”
But my heart being heavy,
And my soul being low,
I was certain he would not believe me.
So, I cried on my father’s grave
And asked, “Why did you not love me?”
But the grave being deep,
And the grave being final,
I was certain I would not hear him.
FMJ March 26, 1997
Music – Vitalogy, Pearl Jam (1994)