It’s been quite a while since I wrote here. Once again, I failed at continuing something that is probably beneficial to me. What’s new, right? I’ve thought about this post for weeks, trying to push it aside. It just kept coming back to me like a damn fly buzzing in your ear that you can’t catch up to with the swatter. I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe if I put it in words I can try to move on. Writing this stuff down almost feels like a physical exercise that you dread, but you know you must do.
I’ve lived most of my life with walls built up around me. I wasn’t aware of them, but others were. These walls were built by my subconscious to try to emotionally protect me from harm. The walls were deployed by anger, emotional vacancy, and primarily humor. Anything to keep a distance from real emotional investment. Previous posts on this blog explain some of the causation of these walls and internal protections.
What brought me to writing this post is the recurring images I have of the day my father died. I received a call at about 7am on the day after Easter as I was about to head to work. I was notified that I should probably drive up to Green Bay as quickly as possible if I wanted to see my father alive one last time. Mary and I quickly made arrangements with our work schedules and headed up. I don’t remember anything about that drive. Upon arrival we found my dad in the living room on a hospital bed lying on his back laboring to breathe. I hardly recognized him. It was shocking. Mary, in her bottomless bottle of compassion, immediately grabbed his hand and stroked his forehead talking quietly to him. I remember trying to walk towards him, but instinctively retreating. Slowly backing away.
In my head I immediately started to reprimand myself for not saying what I needed to weeks earlier when I had visited him. Once again, my walls prevented any “closure” ( I hate that word). At one point, I was left alone with him so I could try to say a few last words to him. I grabbed his guitar that was sitting nearby and strummed a little Johnny Cash and my mind tricked me into seeing a change in his breathing pattern. For a second, I felt like I had penetrated his consciousness. I set the guitar to the side and tried to say something to him. Tried to put my feelings into words. My mouth wouldn’t move. I felt ridiculous. I felt like an actor in a made for TV movie. I felt like I was being watched and judged. I thought to myself you should have said something when he could still comprehend you. We spent the entire day with him, later joined by my Mom and my sister, Jill.
My mom told me back in September the prior year that Jeni and Jill (my twin sisters) had seen my dad at his store, Native Clarity, which sold Native American products. They said he looked terrible and thin and unhealthy. I thought back to when I had last seen him a year or two earlier. I had invited him to come to my house for Christmas. He showed up late (as usual), but happily he was sober. We re-warmed dinner for him and he gave the boys gifts from his store. The thing I remember most is listening to his cough, which was ever-present, and seeing him light another cigarette. I told him “those things are going to kill you”. He kind of just nodded his head and said nothing. I remember feeling sad and helpless. You just can’t change people.
After hearing about his condition from my Mom, I didn’t reach out to him. I talked about it and thought about it, but couldn’t pull the trigger. (this is becoming a common theme in this story, isn’t it?) I told myself it wouldn’t kill him to call me once. (he probably was thinking the same thing about me)
Thanksgiving of 2003 was soon here and I recall going to Milwaukee that weekend and coming home with a copy of the new U2 Cd that my brother-in-law burned for me. I vividly remember sitting in the room where the XBOX was playing Tiger Woods golf with Bryce and Nate sitting there watching. I had the U2 Cd on and the song “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” just about knocked me off the couch. I put it on repeat and listened to it over and over as the rest of the family had gone off to bed. It tore my heart out. It made me feel both guilty and justified in my relationship with dad. I finally tried to put it out of my mind.
Over the next few weeks that song haunted me and kept gnawing at me. I thought about my dad a lot. I was debating calling him and inviting him to see the boys for Christmas. I don’t think I had spoken to him for over two years at this point. Well, before I got the chance to call him, I received a call from him. I’ll never forget it. December 17, 2003 about 630pm. Mary answered the phone and looked rattled and said it was my dad. She had trouble hearing his voice. I took the phone and he basically told me he was terminal. I went up the stairs with the phone and sat on the floor in a side room in case I got emotional. I don’t remember much of what I said to him, but I gave the phone back to Mary. I immediately went to the kitchen and washed the dishes, because, damn it the dishes needed to be washed. After that point I was pretty much numb and, of course, wracked with guilt. I had held out hope for a reconciled relationship with him. I wanted him to be able to play the guitar and fish with my boys. To be a Grandpa to them. So, naturally my guilt turned to anger. Anger that he abused himself for decades with alcohol and nicotine. This was his fault.
Mary and I visited him at his apartment in Green Bay the weekend following the phone call. I brought him a few gifts and we sat uncomfortably. Thankfully Mary was there to keep the conversation flowing. He gave me a hug as we left and it felt so sad. He had lost so much weight. I felt helpless. I vowed that I would finally open up to him before he died. I needed to clear the air and move on.
The next visit was in early March, three weeks before his death. He wanted us to bring a pizza up there. We grabbed a take n bake which his “girlfriend”(not sure how to categorize her) proceeded to burn. She then didn’t know how to cut it and found an old scissors to butcher it with. Thank God for a little comedy in this nightmare. I remember that he had such a good appetite and ate two pieces of lemon pie. It gave me false hope about his longevity. Well, he had given us all false hope telling us that he had a long time before he would be put in the ground. It was a nice spring day and snow was melting and the sun was out. Things were pleasant up to that point.
At some point Mary and “girlfriend” decided they had to run together to Walgreens for something. I started panicking inside. What was I going to say to my dad with nobody around? I didn’t have time to think about it as they were quickly out the door. The tv was on and my dad had a manilla envelope on his lap with his notes written on it. He talked a little about how he wanted to split up his 401k. I didn’t want to hear it because it basically just confirmed the inevitable. So after about two minutes of that we stared at the television. I remember a wildlife show being on and we made small comments about the color changing iguana (or whatever the hell it was). That was that. We both had an uninterrupted opportunity to say what we needed to say and we sat there marveling about a lizard. What the hell was wrong with him? What was wrong with me? What creates a situation where a father and son can not speak to each other?
This wasn’t the first time. Back when I was about 18 or 19 I remember my dad coming to the house in the late afternoon and telling me he needed to talk to me. I recall Lisa and her boyfriend were in the living room and Mary joined them. My dad sat at the kitchen table and I sat across from him. He told me he was going to Depaul Rehabilitation for alcohol addiction. This was his second trip. Five or six years earlier he was sent to another facility in Northern Wisconsin by his employer for treatment. I know now that this was another employer ordered treatment. Well, for about a half hour he sat there talking, rambling about how he was a terrible parent and husband. I could hardly hear him talking. I was confused at why he was telling me this. Why dump this shit on me? Why wasn’t he telling anybody else? Instead of feeling sorry for him, I was feeling angry inside. I don’t think I uttered a word. When he was done, there was an awkward uncomfortable silence and then we both got up from the table. That is all I recall. I know that I told Mary about it and instead of being happy he was going to treatment, I was angry about how he handled it. Right then and there I could have had the conversation that could have changed our relationship and I failed miserably. The walls were erected and healing was prevented. Twenty years later a color changing lizard summed up our progress. So now, because of these walls, I have to deal with the guilt and anger that still rage inside me. That still prevent freedom.
So back to that day, March 28 2005. We stayed until about 9pm and tried to decide what to do. Dad was still breathing. We didn’t know if we should stay or go and come back in the morning. We finally decided to go home (a little over an hour drive) and come back early in the morning. We didn’t make it halfway home before he died. We spent the entire day there and he waited until we left to die. I’m going to tell myself that he didn’t want to die while I was there. It may not be true, but it is something that I can hold onto. I got the call five minutes after arriving home. I didn’t hear my cell phone while I was driving. I called my brother, Steve, and told him. I felt bad because he was out of town in a hotel room without his family. I then hung up and just sat there. No tears, no emotion. I remember pulling out the futon downstairs for some reason. Mary and I slept there. The kids were at her sister’s house. They had picked them up from school and took them back to Milwaukee. I tried to put the moves on Mary, but that didn’t work either. I didn’t know what to do…..I guess I still don’t.
I was scrolling through channels on TV the other day and stopped at a preacher talking about anger holding us back. He said “Anger kills its Landlord”. What a profound statement. It really makes sense. So, I write these words down and hope to deflate the anger bubble before it bursts….. again.