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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there & back

April 15, 2011

I’m back from the shortest trip home I’ve ever taken. It was kind of intense and much sadder than I had expected, although I’m not really sure what I was thinking would happen. The sadness stems from lots of things, but mostly I think it’s about getting older and time passing and living a couple thousand miles away from my family and being part of how some people cope with some things and being totally apart from how other people cope with other things. And of course there’s just plain old grief over someone I loved so much dying.

The funeral was sincere and straightforward and heartfelt. The songs were perfect. Heartbreaking but perfect. I could barely sing for crying. And the eulogies were so personal and moving. My uncles and my mom did an amazing job of planning a service that was about all of us and my grandmother, which is really hard to do and I’m incredibly grateful they did it. They made  rituals matter in a personal way. For instance, I was one of the pall bearers and it meant a lot to me that my family was willing to break with tradition to include me in that. I can’t articulate why, but I really wanted to help carry my grandmother’s casket to her burial plot.

Other things happened too while I was home. Even when someone dies there’s not just death. There was the sound of thunder and seeing lightening from the plane and the sunny skies the next day, with the temperature rising to almost 80 degrees. My mom and I got to spend a big chunk of time alone together and it’s been a while since we’ve done that. We ate at Steak and Shake and did errands and we laughed at ourselves a lot. I also got to go to my Aunt and Uncles 50th wedding anniversary and see all my cousins on my mom’s side and hang out with Ty and have lunch with my dad’s oldest cousin, Pattie and her son John and his wife Becky. Pattie called everyone deary, which seemed very sweet. We talked about family history and they told some stories I’d not heard before.

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2 years + 2 weddings + 2 funerals

April 6, 2011

About 3 weeks ago my grandmother died. I’m coming home for a very short trip to see my family and attend the funeral and burial.

My grandmother, who we called Mammaw, turned 100 this past December. There was a big family party. My sister and I sent flowers. Mammaw lived for a couple months after that and then passed away on the eve of my mom’s 79th birthday.

Mammaw helped raise me and my sister, along with a whole group of people, most of whom are dead now. Growing up I would say that Mammaw had backbone. That’s the best way I can explain it. She gave us structure and order and consistency. That’s the big umbrella under which everything else with her existed — all the summer trips, all the holidays, all the dinners and the desserts — everything she did for us and she did a lot.

“C’mere kiddo.”  I just remembered how Mammaw used to say that to me or my sister or one of my cousins.  Even when we were grown. She’d say it and pat the arm of her chair or the spot beside her on the couch.

With her gone I feel a little more untethered, a little more ungrounded, and less like myself. Which may explain why last night as I was trying to fall asleep, I thought about dying. Usually, when I think about dying I think about who gets left behind and how really fucking hard that can be. But last night I just got so scared of dying myself, that I shot up out of bed. I slept horribly after that and all day at work I couldn’t quite shake the sadness or fear. Riding the tram up to OHSU this morning I thought this is the weirdest fucking thing, riding this tram up a hill to go to a job.

I know that alot of my fear of dying comes from not knowing what’s going to happen and not trusting that it will turn out to be anything good. For the last ten years or so I’ve been working on trying not to take that line of thinking so seriously.

On the way home I made myself look at the river and the grass and the trees, especially all the ones that are blossoming right now. I remember going for a hike once with Ty when I was feeling really sad and he kept saying things like look there’s the sky and look there the trees or there’s a bird or there’s a flower.

When I’m feeling optimistic or a little enlightened I like to think that nature is telling us something about living and dying. We talk to mystics and repent and pray and do tarot and augury and gather data and do science experiments and conduct research, but maybe it’s really as obvious as the cycle of life and death, as hard as that is to say without wincing because of how the term got commodified by Disney and Elton John. But it is always happening in the natural world around us. Maybe we are all just like leaves. Leaves that can kill and torture each other, but still leaves. Or maybe we are more like volcanoes. Or big gay rainbows. I don’t know. It’s a pretty simple view, but I’ve been wondering for a while now if we just make things too complicated with our big and under-used human brains.

We have a guest at our house this week, a Buddhist nun, which is different story, but I’m bringing it up here because when I got home from work I was surprised to discover our guest had set out a treat for me — a small tart with a note telling me to “enjoy,”  accentuated by a little hand drawn smiley face. It was such a really nice surprise that I forgot my angst long enough to think of something else besides dying and being sad and wishing I didn’t waste so much time.

I thought about the last time I went home and how it was warm and sunny and Becky and Jeremy were getting married and I met PJ and Nash and ran into Ty in Indy and how I got to spend time with so many people who are so dear to me. And I thought about about how the time before that, I’d come home for Ned and Kristy’s wedding and how I loved being with everyone there and seeing fall again in Indiana and how sweet it was that Rachel and Pat let me tag along with them flying home and getting around Indy and down to Bloomington and back to the airport.

I’ve not posted for a while because I’ve not known what to say about anything. There has been so much destruction and upheaval and so much suffering these last several months. And there seems to be a mean spirited climate taking over US culture, at least when it comes to looking out for each other. And I want to say something meaningful about all of it, about how life is precious and how there is so much pain in the world and how if you can do something for someone that will make things better, then do it.

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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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November 23, 2010

An old friend in Indiana lost her mom recently. I wish I could have come home to attend the memorial. Mrs. Ridley was always so kind to me and we’ve all known Kathi since she and my sister met in first grade. I remember tagging along sometimes with Kathi and Kathy (which is what we called my sister back then) when they’d walk over from St. Richards to Shortridge High School, where Mrs. Ridley taught math. She had the way about her that good teachers have, that firmness mixed with nurturing. I feel lucky to have to have known her.

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veterans day 2010

November 12, 2010

Of course Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday is on Veterans Day. I’d never put that together until now. Wow.

Kurt Vonnegut went to Shortridge High School, the same high school my dad went to, but Dad is 4 years younger than KV so they didn’t really know each other. I’ve heard a family story, though, that KV might have based a character in one of his books on an older cousin of Dad’s, named Mig. It’s plausible and I imagine Mig cut quite the figure in her high school days. Listening to KV give interviews in the last  couple years of his life always made me thing of Dad. I don’t know if it was something in his voice and his tone or his humor and his dark perspective, or all of the above. There was definitely some old veteran thing going on. Or I think there was. I don’t know for sure, of course, but that’s how it seemed and it made me like Kurt Vonnegut disproportionate to liking anything he wrote or anything he said. Happy birthday Kurt Vonnegut. It never feels right to me to say happy Veteran’s Day, but I don’t know what to say instead.  Maybe just salute.

Like Kurt Vonnegut, Dad’s cousin LeRoy, or Little Roy as I’ve always heard him called, fought at the Battle of the Bulge. Unlike KV, Little Roy was killed there. It happened after Dad had already shipped out to the Pacific. I’ve tried, but I can’t imagine how Dad must have felt when he heard the news. Little Roy and he were like brothers and I don’t know how Dad could manage that loss while being in combat himself.

Dad served in an artillery battalion in the 1st Marine Division. If you’ve ever heard anyone talk about the “Old Breed” they are talking about the 1st Marines . It’s the most decorated unit of its size in the Corps and its battalions were on the front lines of some of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific, including Peleliu and Okinawa, which is where Dad fought. For a long time I thought Dad fought on Guadalcanal too, but I’m thinking now that I was just confused by the 1st Marine patch he wore on his National Guard uniform.

On Okinawa Dad became a forward observer. All the other observers had been killed and his highers ups were looking for volunteers who could read instruments. Dad said he jumped at the chance. The observer serves as the eyes of the gunners, going out with the infantry and directing artillery fire and close air support onto enemy positions. According to Wikipedia Artillery observers are considered high-priority targets by enemy forces, as they control a great amount of firepower, are within visual range of the enemy, and are often located deep within enemy territory. Dad said he loved the excitement, danger and adventure of it, even though he knows that loving it was bad side effect of war.

I have a box of letters that Dad wrote home to his grandparents and they cover the duration of his enlistment, from the train trip to San Diego, where he went to basic training, to the 35 day voyage back to the states from China, which is where his division was stationed after Japan surrendered. There must be more than 50 letters in that box, but there’s only one letter where Dad talks about being in combat. It’s pretty painful in parts and someone in his family typed it up, made copies and passed around among the clan, as Dad called his family. I’ve got 2 copies and I’ve seen another copy at a cousin’s house.

Dad’s tone is so detached in the letter and at times or in parts, it almost sounds touristy. When I read it I remind myself that he was only 19 and I don’t think he knew how or what to tell his family about what he was experiencing. He’s filtered out all the horrible stuff in all the other letters and I don’t know what got him to turn filter off to write this one. I can guess, but I don’t want to do arm chair analysis right now. What I want to do is include part of that letter here in my blog. I’m so sorry my dad suffered for so long with some of the horrible things he saw and did and I guess I want to witness that for him even though he’s dead now. And I also want to remember that even though we’re in a different war, people are still suffering over the same horrible stuff, which is just insane really and I wish we had it in us to make this insanity stop.

From my dad: One morning we found a woman who had tied her kids to her and then cut her throat. When we found her she was still alive and the kids were screaming and crying. After we got the kids still they were just sobbing instead of screaming. The doctor gave the woman some morphine and they carried her away. She was the worst mess I’ve ever seen. Her hair was stuck in her wound and she was gasping and carrying on and the blood was squirting out of her throat like a fountain. That particular incident upset me more than anything else I saw during the whole shellings.

One day a fellow lost his leg and some other people got hurt which was too bad. The next place was where we got rained out so much I finally gave up trying to stay dry and went around barefoot with just a pair of shorts or nothing on at all. We went through Naha on a rainy day and you could see arms and legs sticking out of buildings. The whole place smelt so bad it nearly knocked you out. There was was one nice little gruesome sight. There was a dead Jap buried underneath mud and water except for his arm. His hand had turned yellow and all the veins stuck out. When we set up outside Naha some sniper would shoot at us when we went to the head, he never hit anybody, but he was harassing to say the least.

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lists: things i cleaning out my dad’s room

October 28, 2010

My dad died in a house fire and he also horded stuff, including trash. Going in his house was kind of nightmare. The week my sister K and I came home to deal with everything, we went over to his house almost every day, but I only went in it twice. One of those times was with K. She stayed about 5 minutes before the horror of the whole thing got to her.

The other night I was thinking of the things I found when I went through his dresser drawers and his closet. I was thinking of what I didn’t find too.

Things I found:

  • black and white photos of the girl he fell in love with when he was stationed in China after Japan surrendered in WW2
  • three Indiana National Guard dog tags
  • color photos of artillery guns, maybe howitzers
  • notices from the IRS
  • expired Life Insurance policies
  • Indiana National Guard service medals and certificates
  • A letter from his half brother written in 1973 telling him his dad had died
  • His Marine Service Uniform which dates back to 1946
  • His Indiana National Gaurd which dates back to the mid-80’s
  • A photo of his dog
  • A roll of film he had developed with lots of photos of horses in a corral, especially this one grayish white horse and a couple shots of some ducks
  • A handful of books on sailing and building boats
  • Medals from races he completed and some where he won his age group

Things I didn’t find:

  • a wedding ring
  • photos of me or my sister
  • photos of his last wife or her kids
  • bank statements
  • extra car keys
  • checkbook
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all the way gone

September 15, 2010

The other night I watched Man On Wire, the documentary about Phillipe Petit, the Frenchman who strung a high wire between the twin towers and then danced across the sky, as they say. It wasn’t as great a film as I’d heard it was, but it was magical. And while I hadn’t planned to commemorate 9/11, it seemed as fitting a way to do so as any. As you can imagine there was lots and lots of footage of the towers. Quite a bit of it was of the towers being constructed, which looking back seems like such an optimistic act. And a joyful one too, which I hadn’t expected. But those buildings seemed to have captured some of exuberance of America in the early 70’s. I suppose that’s obvious, but I’d never thought of it before. I think I liked best the lack of irony in the towers. They were massive structures and straight forward about the statement they made. No nonsense in their macho stance. I was surprised to find myself smiling at the scenes of the construction workers and cranes putting all that steel and glass into place up to a quarter mile above ground. There was also a fair amount of interior footage. Shots of the revolving doors at the entrance to the lobby of the towers, the lobby itself and the bank of escalators that rose up from there – all full of people going to work. Busy. Crowded. Alive. All things we will never see or experience in those buildings ever again. Never. Ever. Which feels a little silly to say because that fact has been obvious since 9/11. I don’t know why but something hit me in watching that footage that made me mournful in a way I’ve not been mournful before about 9/11. It was like a wake up call to remember something else about tower’s besides their destruction, the images of which seemed to have wiped out any other pictures of the towers I’d previously stored in my mind. Seeing the footage of the towers being built and full of people and knowing what’s happened since that footage was shot reminded me of all the stuff we lost on 9/11 and how we can’t get back so much of it. The permanence of absence is an awful and amazing thing. When things get all the way gone, their nonexistence is intractable. I don’t think I’d understood on a deeper level just how much does not exist anymore.

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To Be Hopeful for Howard

January 28, 2010

I read Howard Zinn‘s The People’s History of the United States the year I quit the Youth Shelter, when everything in my life was all topsy-turvy and I was dealing with it by recording music down in the basement at Chateau Drink More and reading books I borrowed from Ned and Jim. After I finished the The History, I thought, wow, this Zinn guy is brilliant. How come I haven’t heard of him before? And I felt an urgent need to recommend him and his book to anyone who would listen.

When I’m feeling cynical, like I just was tonight, I like to remind myself that even in my relatively short life I have seen things change on an epic scale – the passage of the civil rights and the dismantling of apartheid – and Howard Zinn played a part in that. And when I think about that I am reminded that I won’t get the chance to play even the tiniest of parts in working for change now, if I give into the lure of cynicism.

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory. – Howard Zinn


hanging in

March 1, 2009

I am much more tired than I’d anticipated. I can’t express how tired I am. So I’ve sleeping extra. At the same time, in my gut I feel it’s important to keep working at things – go through the stuff I brought back from Indiana, make calls about sorting through my dad’s estate, talk candidly about my family and the experience of growing up with them. The secrets, the privacy, the disassociation has not served me. Not sure it served anyone, really. My dad had a second family after he divorced and he was in fact a pretty good step dad. I want to get that in the mix of how I understand my dad. There are other things too, but things best left off the blog. The point is . . . well what is my point . . . hm . . . it’s a mess, but it’s my mess and one I’d like to figure out how to negotiate with.

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