four years ago today

January 18, 2013

My dad died. His dog, Ben, died with him. January 18th, 2009. It was a house fire. Probably smoke inhalation. No working smoke detectors in his house. There wasn’t much working in his house, except electricity, and it was likely a frayed lamp cord that started the fire. The best guess is the smoke eventually woke him up and he tried to find his phone to call 911 or tried to get down on the floor. The firefighters discovered him kneeling against his bed with his head on the mattress and his phone on the floor near his side table. You can easily imagine that he was panicking and knocked the phone to the floor and then was consumed by the smoke, which was so thick that the firefighters had to use a special infrared light to find his body. The whole thing sucked and so did everything that came after it except spending time with my family, most especially my sister, and getting to finally meet and become friends with my dad’s best friends, most especially his best friend, Joe.

I have no idea about the long arc of grief, specifically grief for someone with whom I had complicated relationship, at best, estranged, at worst. I suppose I could google “arc of grief.” It doesn’t really matter. Its still the case that I will be writing about something unrelated to my dad and and the next thing I know I’ll find myself writing him anyway. And it’s still true that when I’m  getting to know someone I want to be close to, I end up talking about my dad and my dad dying. This year I got slightly panicked that I had forgotten the date of his death. And I had to go back and look it up here on my blog. The forgetting part, not just of his death, but of him, is strange and unsettling. I’ve always had to kind of remind myself that he existed and that he was actually my dad, and that’s even more so true since he died. I think I finally realize why my Grandmother and Mom and uncles talk so much about my Grandfather — so they won’t forget him.

I’ve still not read Billy Budd. But it continues to sit in a pile of books on my bedside table. I did remove his dog tag from my key chain. It was loud and I think I wanted to take a break from trying to be close to the experience that impacted my dad’s life more than anything else. The thing I’ve noticed this year is that sometimes it feels weird to say I loved or love my dad, because loving him became such an exercise in abstraction, so separate from concrete expressions of love, like birthday phone calls or ever hanging out at his house or going with him to his favorite festival. But George Saunders said “Grief is, in a sense, the bill that comes due for love.” (his eulogy for David Foster Wallace). So by that measure I clearly did, love him that is.

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sad dad stuff with an unexpected gay twist at the end

October 15, 2012

Should I have read Billy Budd when my dad was alive? Did I fuck up? I hope not. I really don’t think so. It is hard to imagine it would made any difference, really, that it wouldn’t have changed our relationship, right?! He never asked me about the book after he gave it to me for Christmas however many years ago.  I don’t even know when that was. Is that significant that I can’t remember that? This is maybe the most open hearted I’ve been since he died. So is this new bout of sadness and anger all just the normal long tail of grief and it feels different because I am in a different place? Heather? What do you think? Kath? (There’s some other names I’d post here, but I want to respect your all’s privacy.)  I keep thinking about Dad’s friends, Joe and his brother, Patrick, and that guy, Gary, and Delbert and his sons and how they all knew Dad loved them. And how they knew Dad would do anything for them because Dad did do so much for them. He was a wonderful friend. The best. ( Also, Mom, you can’t pipe in here and say how much Dad loved us because it was an abstract thing — all idea and no action.) God, I just don’t want to be this person anymore with these sad-ass Dad abandonment feelings. It sucks. It really does. I know I will be fine. I know these current feelings or sadness and anger and rejection will pass. But the stuff in my psyche – man, dude, not the legacy I was hoping for. (Mom, you also can’t tell me about all the great things I got from Dad, right now. I know how much we are alike. I wouldn’t trade that in, either.)

I both make jokes and serious comments about my longing, as in how much I love to long. I say things like I am a “longing junkie” and I date women on the other side of the continent. I write sad songs and neurotic poems and then listen to even sadder songs and read even more neurotic poems. Longing is just so much a part of me. I cannot imagine myself without it. And the irony, and irony is not even the right word (but lots of right words don’t even exist) is that it comes from this hard and messed up place of not really having a dad and then being this little baby gender queer butch who never thought she would . . . I don’t know . . . get to thrive in this world. Thrive sounds so fucking therapeutic. I mean get the chance to have as meaningful life as everyone else around me who was not a baby gender queer butch. Sometimes, when I think of my life now I am amazed, really, that it has been possible. Right up to this very minute, I am amazed to always be becoming more myself. It seemed like the most secret dream I had when I was kid – that I would be myself in this world. I guess I am posting some belated coming out commentary and potentially ending on an unexpected up note, which is not something I predicted when I started writing tonight.


another amazing sunrise which somehow led to me thinking about my dad

October 4, 2012

Looking at the Cascade range silhouetted against the sunrise this morning made me think of looking at a picture in a book or a travel magazine. it was a very “this is the northwest – it is stunning” moment. It is amazing that sunrises on the tram, even with 70 people crowded in the cabin, can be so amazing to look at. I know I am repeating myself writing about this, but I can’t help it. How does one stop talking about an amazing thing?

Sometimes, during the thick of rainy season I will try to remind myself that all the amazing sunshine is still right there; it’s just behind the cloud cover. Occasionally, the trick works and this idea makes me feel less desperate for the sun. Other times it makes me feel all “dead duck,” inf act, I’d say almost wretched if I inclined to be dramatic about it, and I want jump on a plane as fast as I can and top the clouds so I can finally see the blue sky again.

There are still times I think of flying home after my dad died, leaving Portland early on a grey and cloudy February morning, falling asleep and then waking up somewhere over the upper midwest. The sky was so clear, which felt bittersweet, and I stared out of the window, looking down at the typical patchwork of farmland that makes up so much of the midwestern landscape. It was both a sad and comforting thing to look at because I had been ruminating on and writing about that landscape for many months before my dad’s death, re-remembering everything I loved about the Indiana as a place and how it was almost like this metaphor for who I am and how I go about being in the world. I had even gone that summer before my dad died, in large part, because I was worried I was just imagining that I loved the landscape and was kinda scared that I had fallen into a deep and delusional bout of nostalgia, as opposed to having real and true insight. And I’d felt so relieved and affirmed and so like, “yes, I do actually know myself,” to get home and discover that the all the places and things I had been re-remembering still did blow me away in my heart. And that quest, so to speak, was why I saw my dad alive for the last time, about 6 months before the fire.

I don’t know why stuff about my dad is coming up. I don’t feel sad and there’s nothing happening that would trigger it – no special dates, no dreams, no recent contacts with his friends or his other family. I’m not working on the his ww2 letter project. I don’t purposefully look at his photo every day. I even removed his dog tag from my key chain several months ago and as of right this second, I’m not even sure where I put it and strangely, I don’t feel panicked about that. So, I don’t know what’s going. Could it be as simple as the facts that 1) I am amazed that amazing things still happen, and 2) I am truely in my heart amazed by the amazing things? How long does grief last anyway? Do you know you’re done grieving because you cry at your desk over an email from another writer and you can’t stop talking on your blog about sunrises? I thought I was done grieving a year ago, but I can’t figure out why I’m talking about my dead dad now, in the same breath as wonderful stuff, like getting to see the sunrise.

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and then i wake up

February 14, 2011

A week ago or so, I had the worst dream about my dad. He was alive. He hadn’t actually died in the fire two years ago, but he’d let us believe that he had. And all this time he’d been hiding from us. On purpose.

Somehow my mom  found out – maybe he finally called her or maybe she just caught wind of it. I don’t know. In my dream, it wasn’t important how she knew, just that somehow she did and she was going with me to see him because she knew where he lived. He’d moved into an apartment complex that looked pretty similar to the complex where Mom lives now.

When we pulled up Dad was getting out of this 90’s sedan, something like a Cutlass supreme from the 1990’s. This detail struck me as significant, because for so, so long my dad drove a truck. He was a carpenter, so it made sense. Anyway, in the dream, he gets out of this car, goes around to the back, opens the trunk and starts rummaging through a couple trash bags he’s using to carry around his stuff. He pulls out some clothes and puts them aside and then he holds up a couple books. And all the time I’m saying something to him like, “How could you do this to us?”  “Do you know what you put us through?” “Do you care what it was like?” But he doesn’t say anything; he just keeps pulling things out of the trash bags that he wants to take in the apartment.

Then all of the sudden Mom and I are standing inside the door of Dad’s apartment. It’s pretty bare inside, like it would be after losing so much of his stuff in the fire. There’s a couple folding chairs, some TV trays for side tables, and an open hide-a bed couch, which he immediately goes over and sits on. I look around and see there’s a few stacks of books on the floor and a couple more trash bags of  his stuff.  He starts thumbing through some books he had left sitting out on the sofa bed and I’m still talking about how I don’t get it – how he could have left us to clean up his mess. He looks up at me and shrugs his shoulders. I notice a couple bathrobes hanging from some hooks on the bedroom door and I ask him if he’s living with these two women from his church. (In real life, these are the women this insensitive priest told me were just like daughter’s to my dad.). And Dad tells me no, but they know he’s alive and they come over and check on him every few days or so.

And  then I wake up.

Ever since my dad died, I’ve wanted to dream about him. As much as I hate to admit it, deep down I’ve wanted to get some kind of sign from him that though it never seemed like it, he thought about me and my sister all the time and that he really loved us – with all his heart he loved us. He knew our birthdays and color of our eyes.

But that’s not the dream I got and the one I did dream says volumes about all this shit that is unresolved in my heart. I thought because I was able to put the shitty dad thing aside 12 years ago, so I could get to know him as a person, and because we’d had a relationship in the last 12 years, that I was over the shitty dad thing. And I’m a little shocked to find out that I’m not over it.

One of the most bittersweet things I learned about my dad after he died is that he was a really good and loyal friend and that he was cherished by people, including a step daughter. In so many ways, he gave up on ever being that to me or my sister. We never go to cherish him or be cherished by him. At last not in a pragmatic way that made any real difference in every day life. In my brain I know better than to take it personally, but it appears that my heart is not a reasonable partner to my head.

So when I talk about my dad’s death, which I do a fair amount here on my blog (a feed of which I pull into Facebook) it’s as much about trying to work through how it’s kind of fucked up to be his child, as it is about his dying. And for some reason it works for me to do it in this format.

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i’m ok

October 30, 2010

I don’t know how to talk about my dad without it sounding terribly sad, even though I’m not feeling terribly sad anymore. I still cry sometimes, like last week when I watched these movies where one of the main characters was dealing the death of a parent, but in general, I don’t feel weighed down or numbed out by grief any more. Yay. It’s like writing those lists – I didn’t mean for it to be read as sad as it came off. Sometimes I think I normalized a lot of stuff that was kind of tragic about my dad and tragic about being my dad’s kid. But that’s what kids do to cope and you don’t just turn off those coping skills when you get to be an adult, even when you’ve been an adult for a while. I want to post these couple poems I wrote about Dad’s death, in part because I never thought I’d be able to write about it without getting sentimental and over wrought. But I did and I’d love to have read and for anyone who reads them to know I’m ok. American culture is funny about grief. We’re expected to keep it to ourselves. We’ve not developed a great skillset to talk about it. Or to talk about anything that profoundly changes your life, at least not if it’s about profound loss.

I’m not sure that it’s related, but thinking about that made me think of my grandmother, who is 99 and in a nursing home. The few times I’ve seen her there she either seems checked out or so sad. I saw her when I was home in October and she cried most of the time we were there. Not sobbed, but visibly teared up. We grow old and things go backwards kind of – our bodies don’t do the things we want them to do, our minds don’t always work right, and we usually need some extra help and then we die. And that whole process is another huge part of life we try and push away. We get born and most of the time it’s a celebration for the first couple years, but we get ready to leave the world and who even comes around to see us?!

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wish it wasn’t raining

October 10, 2010

Second day of rain. Sigh. I think I’ll struggle against it for a little bit. I know it’s futile, but that’s ok. I get some satisfaction out of having something to rail against. Rain’s an easy target. Oh, I know that it’s good for the kale and beets and turnips and collards and herbs in the back yard. And I know all the rain keeps the temperatures milder here. Yay, for those things, right?!

I went to the Karl Marlantes talk at Wordstock yesterday. He wrote Matterhorn – this powerful novel on the Vietnam war. I read it this summer and it sent me into a tailspin of emotions, which apparently are still right there, right under the surface of my skin. Because from the time I sat down at the beginning of his talk, to the time afterward when I stood in line for Karl to sign my book, I thought I was going to cry. It’s like anyone who is intimate with the most profound experience of my dad’s life, that being combat, ends up being a means or a conduit for me to be close to my dad. And I feel like my heart is breaking because maybe that person also knows what it meant to try and be my dad’s child. I wanted to stand there with Karl Marlantes for a couple minutes because he had two daughters too and he dedicated his book to them. A lot of people in the book signing line wanted some kind of connection with Karl. I overhead conversations between former vets and parents of vets and other kids of vets. If you loved someone who served in combat, you catch some shrapnel, so to speak. God, I know that’s a cheesy way of saying it, but I don’t know how else to describe this particular kind of hurt. Or maybe this is grief. Or maybe it’s both – the legacy of PTSD mixed with grief. It’s part of why I wish it weren’t raining right now.



July 13, 2010

I wore a pair of shoes today that I’ve warn exactly twice in the last two years. Once was at my dad’s funeral and once was at Ned and Kristi’s wedding. I don’t know why I thought about that when I looked down at my feet today, but that’s what happened. I was walking down the sidewalk and looking at my feet and remembering how I’d worn these shoes to the funeral and it made me feel sad to think of these shoes as funeral shoes. But then I remembered wearing them to the wedding and it felt like a relief not to have a pair of funeral shoes.

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a year later

June 29, 2010

This time last year I really wanted to get a BB gun so I could set up tin cans on the wall in my bike yard and shoot them. RU vetoed the idea for fear I’d shoot a cat or a bird or a squirrel or neighbor a kid; plus it’s illegal, she argued. At the time, I was sure she just didn’t understand that sitting on the deck and shooting shit was a perfectly reasonable way to express grief. But she’d been so accommodating on almost all the other ways I was dealing with grief that I didn’t begrudge her that veto.

A year later I myself don’t exactly understand the sentiment to shoot shit except as expression of the futility one feels about life in the face dealing with such a crappy death. In fact, I’d forgotten how strong that sentiment was until last night when I was watching an episode form The Wire and they showed a guy in the morgue in a white, plastic body bag with a zipper, which reminded me that we had to keep my dad’s body at the county morgue for at least a week while we were trying to figure out funeral arrangements. I imagine he was in a body bag too. As I was falling asleep I thought to myself “of course” I wanted to shoot crap with a BB gun.

These days I try to talk more casually about my dad dying, the way I talk about going to Paris or moving out here or a breakup, to convey it’s significant, but “hey I’m ok.” Or at least I feel like that’s how I’ve been trying to talk about it recently. Who knows? Maybe I’m not successful. I guess the only thing I can truly identify is that for the most part I don’t feel compelled to talk about his death, at least not at length, which seems about right for right now.

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swimming, sunshine and memories

February 22, 2010

Great coffee in Palm  Springs. I’d never have guessed it, but every morning RU and I have walked to Koffi for lattes and americanos that rival Portland’s own. Seriously. That’s one thing about traveling and being kind of addicted to coffee. It’s hard to find great stuff on the road. So Koffi’s a terrific find. Way, way better than the Blue Bottle in SF. And makes the beans in NYC not even worth mentioning.

At first we couldn’t find the place. The guys that run the little hotel where we’re staying had called it coffee with a “k” and that’s literally what RU and I looked for as we drove down Palm Canyon, craning our necks at the signage on either side of the road. We shared a collective “doh” when we finally spotted it. Prices run about the same as in Portland, which tells you something about the Rose City’s cost of living. Anyway, it’s just been this nice, unexpected pleasure to have such good coffee every morning.

I’ve been swimming twice since I’ve been here, which seems almost unbelievable to me. It makes a big difference that the pool is heated, for sure, still, I can’t think of the last time I went swimming outside. I don’t go swimming in Portland in the summer. And any time I’ve been to any of the Oregon beaches the water is too cold for me, even in warm weather. I’ve only swum in the Pacific twice. Once when I was visiting Martha and she took me to this semi isolated beach in Malibu and another time in the Bahia de Banderas when RU and I went to Puerto Vallarta.

The last time I was in a pool though was this time last year, when Kath and I went home to bury Dad. We stayed in the suburbs at a hotel with a pool and I brought my swim suit just in case. I swam on the one night that we didn’t have other things to do. I don’t know why. I wanted to do something normal I think. But it was like trying to take respite in my junior high gym after everyone had gone home for the day — if it had had a pool. It was empty and out of place and I wasn’t sure what I was doing there.

I didn’t plan this trip to coincide with last year’s but it’s ok it turned out that way. It doesn’t make Dad’s dying the way he did any worse or any better, but the sun feels good and I got a slight recharge. Which is a lucky thing because I still need to write a letter to the VA appealing their denial of our application for his death benefits. Fucking bureaucratic bullshit. Something I’ve had little energy to deal with for the last year, but time is running out.

I hadn’t planned on writing about Dad. I had no idea how much his death would become part of my life. I’m not surprised that it has, it just wasn’t something I predicted. For so long he wasn’t really part of my life.

Yesterday, after spending the better part of the day by our hotel pool, Rachel and I went on a self-guided MCM architecture tour that took us from one end of Palm Springs to the other. It was late in the afternoon and we were driving on these wide streets that reminded me more of the midwest than of Portland. Something about the traffic and way the sun was shining made me flashback to a teenage summer evening in Indy, riding in the car with my mom over to my cousin’s, window rolled down, pushing my hand against the air, skin a little sun burnt, chlorine rainbows jumping off everything that was shiny, and there was the faintest smell of coconut oil hanging around me. The impossibly sexy smell.

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a year ago

February 13, 2010

This time last year Katherine and I were getting ourselves ready to come home and bury Dad. I’ve been thinking about him more on the anniversary of this trip than I did on the anniversary of his death, which was just a couple weeks ago. It’s not surprising that it took coming home and being immersed in his after-life, to make his death real to me in a way it hadn’t been up to that point. Sadly, I was never as close to Dad as I was that week last year, which probably doesn’t sound that weird to anyone else who’s lost a parent.

As a rule, I’ve not speculated a lot on what exactly happened to Dad. It was a fire. He was found kneeling by his bed with his arms folded over the top of the mattress and his head laying face down in them. His cell phone was on the floor. His dog on the rug beside him. The coroner had Kath identify the tattoos on Dad’s arm via a photo and you can see the redness of burnt skin on the side of his chest. Nothing good in any of that to speculate on.

But this morning, when I was just half awake and the sun wasn’t up yet, I got filled with a kind of palpable imagining of him waking up to a dark room so full of smoke that he couldn’t see and reaching out for the phone, but knocking it off the table. I could feel the fear and confusion, and the disbelief he must have felt, even if only for a split second, when he realized that he wasn’t going to make it.

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