My father on August 1, 2008
“This is beyond you.”
It was one of those rare epiphanies, the sobering realization that I had no control over the situation, my involvement was purely peripheral. My father died on September 4 at eighty-nine, an unpopular and mean old man now dormant in a box under a statue of Jesus. And it was either Jesus or my conscience who was telling me it was beyond anything I felt, said or did.
My father’s church service was my sister’s idea. The last time he set foot in a church was about fifteen years ago when my mother died…some twenty-five years after their bitter divorce. I had asked him if he’d go with me, a chance for us to mend fences. But his insides had turned mostly hollow, there was little to mend, no fences but several walls.
“This is beyond you” came rushing in with about a million other thoughts all at once. It was like absorbing the entirety of Finnegans Wake in a matter of seconds, the mind bottle-necking thought upon thought…like an acid trip. A troublesome acid trip.
After the divorce he had a stroke. His lover left him. His well-paying gig as a civil engineer was for a company which went bust and offered no pension, no 401k. Broke, without property or the full use of his body, his last residence was in a HUD facility in New Jersey. Truth be told, it wasn’t a bad place.
The way my father secretly looked at times when I didn’t see him
But he’d grown nasty and undisciplined (a lot of his HUD neighbors hated him) and allowed his personal hygiene to slip entirely. Like late-period Howard Hughes, this once-dashing man about town, ever vain and mindful of appearance, let himself go. He didn’t shave, bathe or cut his hair. I never saw him in these times as he’d always clean up just before I’d visit. But I found out that his oily locks were often tied in a ponytail. His nails grew as far as they could and needed to be trimmed by some unfortunate healthcare worker.
I hung out with him a month ago at the wedding of my niece, his granddaughter. He’d cleaned up for the occasion but had a hard time getting around, his legs were shot. I got him into the bar at the reception, where there was air conditioning and a feisty Argentinean barmaid who acted like a beer nazi. “What’ll you have?” she barked. “Beer,” he said. “What kind? What kind?” Better make it snappy, old man.
He eyed her over. She was lean with decent breast implants. Her top was unbuttoned to reveal the sides of their artificial splendor. He couldn’t get it up anymore, but he was licking his chops. “Honey,” he said, “when I get my next Social Security check, I’m gonna buy you a drink!”
And here we were a few weeks later, one of us alive, the other dead. In front of an Indian priest reciting words none of us could make out. He reminded me of Peter Sellers in The Party. And before they closed the box for good, I thought of another Blake Edwards moment, of William Holden saying “So long pal” to Richard Mulligan in S.O.B. For the first time in ages, I began to cry. Where was Julie Andrews singing “Oh Promise Me” when I needed her most?
We’d been estranged off and on for years. My family knew too much hate, bitterness, the things of dysfunction, the roots of my upbringing. But now the voice saying things were “beyond” me offered some peace. The big green dragon was gone. The only ones left of our generation are my sister and I, and we’re okay. Indeed, everything else was and is beyond me.
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