Father of Mine

There’s a windstorm tonight, specifically Santa Ana winds, and they’re blowing furiously over and around our house. It started about the time it got dark, and although I was able to fall asleep around midnight, it’s now 3:00 a.m. and they’re still gusting. Our potted plants are tipped over, the branches of our palm tree are thrashing about, and heaven knows what we’ll discover in the morning has been upended or blown away.

Aside from the wind noise there’s an alarm of some kind, house or car, I don’t know, set off by the wind. I think I could sleep if not for that. The sound of the wind isn’t really disturbing, as powerful and dangerous as it may be. I trust the house to withstand it, it’s not a hurricane, but that damned irrational screaming grates on me. Once in a while it stops and you hear blessed silence. Which of course is not silence at all, it’s a howling wind, but I can sleep to a howling wind.

For several years I had a habit of waking up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep and suddenly aware of how horrible something was in my life, which somehow I was never able to realize in the daytime. Largely it was about my kids … God, how you worry about your kids. I never had a notion, when I was growing up, how much my mom must have worried about me. But tonight I woke up worrying about my dad.

He’s dead, killed himself with pills about — ten years ago? I was at work, received a phone call, a woman’s voice: “Hi, I’m with the Salt Lake County coroner’s office. I’m sorry to bother you but we’ve had the body almost thirty days and our policy is …” I realized with dread who she must be talking about, although she hadn’t said his name. I said, with a parched throat (that’s how I imagine it now anyway): “I didn’t even know he was dead.”

Silence for a few beats. “Oh … I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you didn’t know. I’m really very sorry.” “Please, don’t worry about it.” Just tell me what’s going on so I can figure out what to do.

My dad had been in and out of my life as long as I could remember. For the past several years I would get a phone call from him once every couple of months. They were excruciating. He would talk and talk and talk and talk, and every word about himself and his schemes and his projects, but mostly about his purchases. “Well, I got me a 1972 Gran Torino!” “No kidding!” I replied, feigning enthusiasm. Knowing him it was a piece of junk that you would be embarrassed to ride in. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, people buy junk cars and fix them up and get a lot of enjoyment out of them. But my dad bought junk cars and let them sit in his driveway till the tires went flat, while he spent his days telling anyone who would listen what he planned to do with it, in excruciating detail. Over and over.

My mom said he was a good guy. She told a story of her and him early in their marriage, poor as churchmice and with a couple of babies (my older sisters). A man came up to him at a gas station and asked for money for gas, or to buy a new tire, or something. Not homeless or anything, just a motorist in a tight spot, apparently. He promised to pay him back through the mail by a certain date. My dad was suspicious, he always was; but he gave the guy $20, which was worth more than it is now of course, and wrote down his address. Later in the car he told my mom, “We can kiss that money goodbye.”

Darned if the money didn’t show up in the mail a couple weeks later. But my mom’s point was, yeah he was a loser and a bad father, but he had a good heart. She told me this after we found out he had killed himself, and I was worried about the state of his soul. She was sure he must have done other, similar acts of charity in his life, but if so I never saw them.

He left her and his kids, including his only boy, the youngest, who was about four years old at the time. It started out as a separation, and he was going to come visit us on weekends. Before long he had a girlfriend, and another and another, over time. (He was a good looking guy.) Finally he married a woman from Utah and decided to pack up and move there with her and her young daughter. I remember him coming to our house in the evening to say goodbye. That’s when I really felt it, what a hole he was going to leave in my life. The bastard.

My mom struggled valiantly to raise us four kids on her own, and eventually met another guy, who eventually moved in and became our stepdad. He was a great guy and, really, more of a dad than my dad; but not really a dad, which I realized when I had my own kids. He definitely never woke up with a cold knot in the pit of his stomach, worrying about my welfare.

So we grew up relatively poor, in a Southern California neighborhood that was gang-infested, and became more so over time. Later I would hear the Everclear song “Father of Mine” and take it as my personal anthem: “It wasn’t easy being a scared white boy in a black neighborhood.” Except it was a Latino neighborhood. “My daddy gave me a name! And then he walked away!”

I hated life. Started smoking pot in the summer between 7th and 8th grade. Smoked cigarettes throughout high school and until my mid-20s. Low self-esteem, no one to mentor me, no plans for the future, no idea how I would support myself. The idea of a job scared me. I would have to somehow snap out of my pot-induced stupor and make a respectable presentation in an interview, show myself to be articulate and smart in my unkempt hair, unshaven face and worn-out clothes.

I couldn’t face that. Actually I could, it would just take some courage, but no one told me anything about courage and what you need it for, or how to get it. And it’s hard to figure out such things for yourself, especially when your brain is drug-addled.

I’m a conservative now but I have a lot of sympathy for kids who grow up poor. It’s not about race, it’s about culture. My dad was descended from poor people in rural Kentucky, presumably farmers of some kind. Before he was born his family moved to Gary, Indiana, a suburb, or rather sort of a continuation of Chicago, not the nice part, but the industrial part. His dad was killed when he was about two years old. No one could tell me how exactly, there were various rumors and theories involving drinking and falling out of a hospital bed after surgery. His mom remarried and her new husband beat him throughout his childhood and teenage years.

He married my mom, who was also being abused in a different way and was desperate to get out of the house, and used my dad to accomplish that by getting pregnant at the age of 17. It’s a wonder I wasn’t abused myself, an absolute miracle and a wonder. Which of course saved my kids from abuse, since that stuff tends to perpetuate itself; though they’ve suffered from my other defects, no doubt.

So I woke up at 3:00 a.m. tonight with the wind howling and my neighbor’s electronic alarm screeching and whining, and suddenly I saw clearly how my dad saw his own life just before he killed himself. How could I have been so oblivious to it at the time? Caught up in my own life, of course, and not feeling a terribly strong obligation to one who felt so little obligation to me as a kid.

He had bought a house, and 20 years later or so sold it, mainly to cash out the equity. He bought a cheaper house with part of the equity as a down payment. Then he spent the rest on restoring a 1936 Plymouth coupe. He had told me about this Plymouth on one of my rare visits to Utah, showed me the rusted out hulk that was the frame and body. Just another project, blah blah blah. But darned if he didn’t actually do it this time, as I found out over the next several months during our occasional phone calls.

Actually he didn’t do it, he paid people to do it. But to his mind it was the same since it was all his idea, and his money. I suppose he realized he was never going to finish one of these things doing the work himself. He was a very handy guy, just undisciplined and prone to self-indulgence. (I know the type very well.)

He got it done and mailed me pictures. Then he mailed me a calendar he had had made, with a different photo of the car for each month. Then a picture frame with a photo of the car on one side and a clock on the other. A few months later we went to visit him and he took us to a car show that he had entered. He had been in shows previously and won a couple of awards. Dream come true.

But when he killed himself he left a note on his computer monitor: “I’m an old man and I’m out of money.” He was 71 and had no retirement savings. He had managed to build up one valuable asset in his life, his house, but he sold it and blew the money on his car. The car cost him about $60,000. After owning it and showing it off for a couple of years he sold it, but could only get $20,000 for it (which of course is typical as anyone could tell you who knows about these things; you do it for enjoyment, not to make a profit). He blew the $20,000 on tools and musical instruments which he rarely used, and suddenly found himself broke. Then he started selling and pawning the things he had bought. His Social Security was just enough to make the house payment. But worse, he had no money with which to buy things. What is life when you can’t buy things?

He might have realized, if you asked him, that buying things was a salve for his loneliness; that the way to be happy was to have people around you who care about you, and whom you care about. But he didn’t have that. I cared about him, sure. But not enough to put myself out. And in any case, he didn’t know how to care about others. He would call and spend an hour and a half talking about his new tools and his projects and his memories, and never ask how my kids were doing in school.

So he ended up alone, addicted to buying things but no longer able to feed the habit, about to slide into a life of bare subsistence, and decided to end it. No one had taught him about courage either.

After he died, and I found out in a roundabout way from the coroner’s office, and after my wife and I had driven to Utah to see what belongings of his we could sell to pay for his burial, and the arrangements had been made and a little time had passed, I found out from my mom that separating from my dad was her idea. This was surprising, but it brought back to my mind something he had said years earlier: That she was the one who wanted to separate, because she wanted to “find herself.” He said the words bitterly: “‘Find herself’! She had to go ‘find herself’! What the f*ck does that even mean?!” I paid little heed at the time, it was the kind of self-serving, judgmental thing he would say. Plus it made no sense to me: My mom preferred to raise us kids by herself?

But yes, said my mom, that was true. She had gone straight from her parents’ home into the arms of my father, and they started their family, but she had never been on her own before. The “zeitgeist” of the time was to decide for yourself who and what you wanted to be, not fall into a dull, boring routine, but to explore life and go “find yourself.” To her at the time, having abandoned the faith and having no other source of meaning in life, it was convincing.

Years later, when she saw the effect it had on me and my sisters (all of whom had kids out of wedlock), the heartbreak we suffered and the deficits to family life that inevitably accrue from divorce, she knew it was a huge mistake and regretted it terribly. But her I could forgive, because in “finding herself” she didn’t find it necessary to abandon us kids. And she turned out to be a wonderful mother, very much interested in us and our families, and integral to some of us coming to the faith, after returning to it herself a decade or so after the divorce (when she finally did find herself).

Lord, we’re all so feeble and silly and stupid in our natural state. Modern Catholics talk a lot about the dignity of the individual person. I find it true, I think, in a different way than is usually meant. The faith lends dignity, it confers dignity on the individual. It’s a thing none of us could find on our own. But once you have a firm grasp on it, you’re equipped for life. It helps you overcome your fear, it gives you hope. It tells you what virtue is and how to get it; and when you’re virtuous you can get through life without needing to salve your unhappiness with hollow pleasures and worthless possessions.

When lived rightly it keeps families together, and they raise children that know how to work and persevere and are conscientious and decent. None of which I could have experienced without the faith. The faith saved me even before it saved me. The faith is about eternal salvation, but that’s attained as a result of the life you live here, a life of order, and patience, and fortitude, and longsuffering, and trust and love for God. All of these are graciously conferred on us and make our lives, at times, like heaven on earth.

The hell I found myself sunk into as a young man, with no plans and no hope and no courage, and a clouded, intoxicated mind, quite likely this is the hell my dad found himself in, but never found the way out of on this earth. With all his obvious faults, nevertheless he was proud for some reason, and didn’t think he needed the faith to tell him how to live his life, or God’s grace to make himself better; even when the way he had lived brought him to the brink of suicide: “I’m an old man and I’m out of money.” No money, no life. And no dignity.

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” (Is. 55:1-2.)

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