I had just turned 15 when my dad died, and I remember walking along the red and yellow curbs of St. Joseph Hospital feeling as if a bolt of lightning had just struck off the top of my head and splattered the boiling remnants of my brain onto my new denim jacket (it had leather shoulder pads). And despite the wounds, I felt like I could walk through fire.
I repeated the facts over and over in my head: Dad was dead. Jerry had ceased to be. Pops had gone the way of the weasel.
It was one of those moments in your life when you understand: Despite your usual heady conviction that you know just about everything, you really don’t know shit.
But I did at least know that something massive and permanent had just blinked off for me, and the rest of my life — perhaps — might be spent trying to piece through how all of those scenes and explosions, the expletives and clobbered feather pillows over the past several years, were to permanently affect me.
It took place over a series of nights.
Two nights before, one of my aunts has arranged things so that it was just her and me out for a meal. I don’t remember where, although I do remember none of it seemed appetizing — I speared something here, mashed something there, made it all appear as if I was making some kind of modest overall progress in feeding myself so that when my aunt finished her food, she’d let it be done. Primarily, I was trying avoid The Subject. Those few weeks after Dad’s cancer had gone seriously haywire, I remember every adult I knew suddenly wanted to plumb the deep depths of me. To ask how I felt. How I was sleeping. Had I had a chance to make peace with the old man in these last few fleeting days? I’d sputter this or that non sequitur in response, shake my head, avoid eye contact, and hope they’d get the message: I’d rather rip all my fingernails off with a camp knife than figure out how I actually felt, much less communicate those feelings.
I don’t think much else was said that night as we drove around town, until we got to her confession.
“James, I hope this doesn’t bother you, and I understand how it might, but your mom and I have been worried about you these last few weeks as your dad has gotten sicker and sicker,” she started. Immediately alarms bells were clanging in my head like a washing machine with a brick thrown in for explosive effect. “We found it taped to the underside of your sock drawer and your mom wouldn’t look at it. I did.”
The contraband of which she spoke probably took an almost an hour to peel free from the drawer above, and I knew what it contained by heart. By now, as I realized had always been the plan, we were pulling into the hospital lot. She had slipped into the first available parking spot off the entrance.
The little black book of hate, as I’d taken to calling it, was a collection of suitably dark teenage rants, diatribes about my parents, early attempts at erotica, and that was mostly it. The last few pages, however, were a barely legible declaration of the rights of a teenage man. I had just found out that my dad’s cancer was terminal, that I’d soon be without a father, that my mother and I would have to brave the world alone, and I was jubilant.
At the time, it wasn’t something I wanted a lot of people to read.
If a young man could have hopped and down, pumped his fists, clicked his heels and waved his Tricorne hat at the fleeing British Army — all in barely legible print, mind you — that was my mission in the final pages of that journal.
To be real, even as I wrote them, I knew that these feelings didn’t express the entirety of my emotional reaction, and that even setting them down on paper presented a danger that they might somehow be read and misconstrued by nosey old Polish ladies, or others, as the first psychotic meanderings of a full-bore maniacal manifesto.
But they were, at the moment they were written, absolutely true. I’d lived for decades under the thumb of a man with paranoid schizophrenia, whose behaviors could be random, violent, chaotic and bizarre. It was especially bad when he drank, and he drank several times a week. I remember spending nights hidden under the covers in my dark bedroom with a flashlight reading some Stephen King novel to get away from the all-too-real monster who paced aggressively back and forth between the living and dining rooms of our small house.
As I stomped away from my aunt that night, she shouted to me, “Talk to him, James, Just talk to him.”
That seemed like the last place I’d end up. I had four quarters and there was a vending machine on the bottom floor with my name on it. But sometimes gravity works in ways I don’t understand. A few short minutes later I pushed open the hospital room door, and the clicks and buzzes and huffing machinery wafted out after me and disappeared again as the door closed.
Here he was, half propped up on a pillow watching “Bonanza,” his favorite television show. But all sensory awareness had left his eyes. There was a cup of ice on the table next to him, the only thing he’d been allowed to eat or drink for several days, and that only at other people’s whim.
I opened my eyes and just tried to let as much light in as possible. The sky-blue gown, the curtain that made his half of the room somehow more intimate than otherwise, the empty bed next door, the vacant stare on his face and the sheen that formed on his eyeballs, presumably because his body had forgotten to blink. I felt nauseous, cold, lonely, but not afraid. I knew that this man on this bed in the room in this moment couldn’t hurt me.
And that this would be the last time I could say something to my living father in a way he might hear it.
I remember talking about our last fishing trip. Planned months in advance, we stowed everything we could into a yellow Ford Pinto — including our dog Rusty and my pregnant sister — and drove hundreds of miles into the mountains and trees on a barely recollected route from my dad’s childhood. Even now, it’s one of my favorite vacations. After we’d arrived, unpacked our tent, rambled about the landscape a bit, and got our lines wet, it was clear the Rusty wasn’t happy. He’d limp a few feet, smell the air, whine piteously, then bury his head in the first available lap he could find. Dad, befuddled at the dog’s lack of energy, finally crumbled under family pressure. He sent the dog, the car, the sister — all the niceties, he said — home early.
We went on to have a fantastic trip. The dog, meanwhile, keep up the rouse only until they arrived back at home. Once the car door opened in our driveway, he took off for the hills.
I said, I love you.
Leaving my half-full can of warm Dr. Pepper on the otherwise empty table, I walked out of the room, down the hall, out into the parking lot and back into my aunt’s truck. She took me home without saying another word.
The next day in class, as all the kids got ready to hit the exits for their snack-time hangouts, I suddenly lost interest. It’s been so long since that day, it’s hard to describe the feeling I had. But suddenly, I knew I wanted to be home, with people who knew me, and loved me, and with whom I had some kind of real investment.
The attendance office was well aware of how things were unfolding for my family, so they called my aunt right away. I sat out on the brick stoop for no less than a minute before the blaring, muffler-less howl of her Ford Ranger pulled up.
“Was in the neighborhood,” she said, and that was all. She took the straight route down J Street to Fifth Street, and then out over the Sequoia Bridge to Manila, where we were living at the time. No birds had shown up for this matinee crossing of the arches, but down below, in a dinghy, there was a man in a yellow slicker fighting hard to get his crab gear in proper order.
We pulled up in front of our house. Only my mother’s car was there, which is pretty much what I’d expected. My aunt came in with me, and the thin plastic door of the trailer banged once, and then had to be slammed tight.
There was a beat of silence. No one said a word. The phone rang. Dad was dead.
James Faulk is a writer, family man, and cemetery worker. You can reach him at email@example.com