I’m five years old; I’m laying in bed in Salem, Oregon with a silly-big teddy bear that, in retrospect, must have reeked of little boy and pee. My dad comes in to tuck me in and to give me a hug and kiss goodnight. I have somehow through the dim fuzziness of childhood cognition picked up something subconscious about men and women, something related to women being for affection and softness and men being for friends and rough-and-tumble play, or something. His big beard is to rough, or something. It isn’t a fleshed out thought, but I tell my dad that I don’t want the hug and the kiss; that’s for mom to do. He says “Oh, ok”. He never gives me a hug and kiss goodnight again.
I’m five years old and I find what in retrospect must have been a tampon applicator in the garbage; somewhere in my child’s cognition I recognize it as a potential toy boat. I am found playing with it by my older sister, who takes it away. I’m upset by this, and my dad says he will soon buy me another toy boat, an actual toy boat. I don’t lack for toys, but I do lack for a sense of what “soon” is and ask him again later that night when he’s going to get it. It’s probably 7:00 PM. I think there are guests over, but at the very least he’s watching TV and having his evening, and he gets up and goes and spends a couple bucks and 30 minutes of his time on a toy. I don’t lack for toys; he just wants me to have this particular one and to be happy.
That Christmas I’m asked what I want. I say a ruby ring; the better of the two enchanted rings in Zelda is red, and I think it’s a ruby. My dad buys me what I believe to this day was an actual gold ring with an actual small ruby but in the days leading up to Christmas tells me that the small ring-box sized present actually contains rabbit poop. I open the present in secret to verify it’s a ring; I am almost immediately found out and am not allowed to have the ring until the day after Christmas. I later lose the ring in a floor vent in the house re-enacting a scene from the movie Space Balls. I do not realize until later that this story means that we are, at that time, rich.
I’m six years old, and I’m the fifth of six children. Two of these children aren’t children, really; one is over 18 and hasn’t left yet, and the other one is not yet ready to leave for the Navy. Things are busy around the house and I have no concept of death or danger, so words like “double bypass” don’t really register for me any more than the week-long absence of my father does. Somewhere in the middle of that week my mom drives us all down to the hospital; my dad has them put me on the hospital bed with him and shows me how to play a solitaire game with playing cards you don’t need a table for. Nothing is wrong; dads do not get hurt.
I’m still six, and I eat some ant granules on the ground by the back door. My mom informs me that at this stage she used to find me in the garden eating root vegetables that still had a good deal of heavy Willamette Valley soil clinging to them. My mom freaks out; I have eaten poison. My dad asks me if I feel bad; I don’t, since the LD50 of octaborate tetrahydrate might be something, but it’s not “two crumbs of ant bait”. He doesn’t know this, but he informs me that most of the time you shouldn’t go to the doctor unless you actually feel sick; if I start feeling sick I should tell him, but otherwise we will hang out and he will keep an eye on me. I do not die, and I begin a lifetime of subconsciously not going to the doctor.
I’m STILL six, and we are moving. Irv, the man my father sold his business to, has gone bankrupt. This means the payments on the business have stop coming and my dad is no longer retired. The school year ends; I have finished first grade, which is the highest level of education I will ever officially achieve. We move to Estes Park, Colorado, where my Aunt runs a bed and breakfast. My dad rents a house that always has a herd of Elk in the yard. Always a salesman, he buys several VCRs and someone’s very extensive VHS collection; that summer he runs a delivery service bringing people staying at the local hotels VCRs and VHS tapes on-demand. It isn’t successful enough to keep doing, but the rest of my childhood we have hundreds and hundreds of VHS tapes, spotty in the way a personal VHS collection is. I have seen Ghostbusters 2 hundreds of times; I have seen Ghostbusters 1 twice.
I do not realize until later that this means that we were, at that time, poor.
I’m seven, and the summer in Colorado is over; my dad has either sued Irv or convinced him he would and Irv has given him a half-finished house in Phoenix. The house has an upstairs and a basement, but perhaps more notably does not have a ground floor; there’s a 4’x20’ landing that feeds in to both floors, but nothing else. We are homeschooled here; not in the “my parents do drugs and don’t want truancy charges” way but in the conservative Christian way with a room set up for class inside the house and Bob Jones University press history books. We do Hake Saxon Math and my mom tries and fails to teach a single one of us how to draw.
It’s Christmas, and we are doing better financially; my dad has bought a bunch of rugs from the LA garment district and is selling them on street corners. He makes good money doing this, which does not surprise us because the old man had always been a salesman. He brings all our presents downstairs in a big hefty trash bag. We never believed in Santa; this was no loss because the old man never failed to look exactly like Santa.
I’m eight, and my great-grandfather has died. Part of why we came back to Arizona was because Grandpa was in his mid-90’s and my dad didn’t want to miss seeing him some more. Someone calls my dad and lets him know that grandpa was lifted out of his bath that day and indicated to my aunt and grandmother that it was time for him to go and that he passed away to the voices of two people singing Amazing Grace. My father weeps. I haven’t seen this happen before. He sees me looking and tells me “I’m crying because someone died. It’s not wrong to cry. It’s especially not wrong when someone dies.” Later on I try to cry, but can’t; death isn’t real to me and I didn’t know my great-grandfather well enough for his passing to make it so.
I’m eight-almost-nine and my father has purchased a ‘83 Fleetwood Pace Arrow motorhome, and we are going travel the country. By we, I mean my mother, my father, the three of my siblings who remain at home, and myself. It’s not a huge motorhome by any means. He builds some bunks into the back of it and him and my mom sleep on a pull-out couch. We travel to Salem, where my sister still is and summer there. The motorhome pulls a trailer with the rugs. My dad figures out that moving town to town allows him to do more business per day and we slowly see most of the western United States.
During this time my dad asks us questions. Sometimes these quizzes - state capitols, doing quick mental math off word problems, that kind of thing. Sometimes the questions are more philosophical in nature. He asks us what side we’d be on during the civil war, if we lived in those times. My brothers and sisters all quickly claim allegiance to The North; I say it would probably depend where I was born, since everyone I’d know would be fighting for that side. My siblings object that they wouldn’t do that, but my dad explains that this is exactly how approximately everybody chose their side during the civil war. He approves of me. I decide to be smart.
I’m nine and I want a baseball mitt; my dad finds a second-baseman’s glove somewhere, the kind with the exaggerated lip on the blade of the hand, and he buys a few baseballs. I go chuck the baseballs at trees; we do not play catch. My oldest brother was the jock, and my dad was his coach in a lot of sports through high school, so he’s pretty over the sports thing. I had somehow got my hands on a bunch of 70’s era sports books with names like “Mr. Quarterback” and, in proper nerd fashion, had fixated on the idea of scholarships stemming from sports allowing me to go to college for free. I am convinced I can do this, despite being demonstrably bad at any kind of athletic effort whatsoever.
My dad takes me aside at some point and says “Listen, son. You aren’t going to beat them that way; that’s not what you are good at. You are going to beat them; just not like that. Focus on what you can do.” I give up on the idea a lot sooner than I otherwise would have, in a healthy way that causes no damage.
I’m 10 and I bust my eyebrow open on a table re-enacting a scene from the very worst Rocky movie. My dad takes me to the hospital and makes a lot of jokes about me losing a fight. He tells me his dad had a crippled leg and thus had learned to end fights in one hit; he says he was the only person to ever knock him out with a jab, and he jabbed good enough that my dad never figured out what to do about this. I do not reflect that this level of tactical knowledge of one’s father meant that my grandfather had on more than one occasion punched my father in the face, or what that might mean. My father wouldn’t have told me the story if he thought I would have.
I don’t remember when he told me this, but my father used to steal newspapers and sell them door to door, until someone saw him doing it and told him to sell the avocados from their orchard door to door instead. This story was always related to him talking about his sales skill. It was never related to what it meant to be seven or eight years old in the 50’s, selling things door to door so his family could eat during one of the many absences of his father.
I’m 12 and we are back in Estes Park, this time to take care of my Aunt and her bed and breakfast while she dies of cancer. My dad has us spend a lot of time taking care of the cabins and fishing and chasing down rabbits so we don’t spend a lot of time watching my Aunt slowly succumb to her illness.
During the summer when he’s not taking care of her, my dad slowly converts a Bluebird flat-nose diesel-pusher bus into a much larger motorhome than what we had. He does not know how to do this; he is not a craftsman. He catches himself several times with an angle grinder, somehow never severely injuring himself. He frequently works with hot wires and shocks himself, sitting down each time and explaining that when you shock yourself with house voltage you should sit down so you don’t give yourself a heart attack. I do not think about the fact that at this point he has actually had two heart attacks; he’s fine. Dads do not actually die. He eventually gets the bus livable; that is home for a year or so more.
My Aunt eventually dies; I am not present to see my dad cry this time. He later tells me that shortly before her death, the pastor of the small church she attended came over and sang her a hymn. She told the pastor “Jess, I once heard a dirty song set to the tune of that hymn!” and proceeded to sing it for him. The pastor smiled, and continued his visit. After he left, my Aunt told my father that “the best part about being on morphine is you can sing a dirty song to your pastor, and he just smiles”. My dad liked happy stories, especially when speaking of the dead.
I’m 13 and my oldest brother has asked my dad to start a business that he can be a part of. My dad returns to Phoenix with all of us in tow and starts another pest control business, this time probably internally aware of the idea that selling it to Irv would be a bad idea. He is immediately successful; this is not weird to any of us, since the old man can sell anything. I start going to church, woefully behind on social skills but by this point much, much smarter than I should have been at 13. It takes me about a year to establish a friend group that I still maintain today.
My dad is always proud of me for having friends, and always happy when we have friends over; he doesn’t get in the way, he’s just glad it’s happening. My dad had two or three friends that I was aware of growing up; as they died or grew away he didn’t replace them. I didn’t know and still don’t know if that was intentional; in his later life all his friends were relatives. He was, for what it’s worth, very proud of us for fitting in with the other kids, for being popular.
I’m 15 and I want to go to public school. I think I wanted to go because I thought this would help me find a girlfriend (at the time, it would not have helped me do that). My dad and mom agree that this is not going to happen. The vocalized reason for this was that there wasn’t any great reason for me to go to school; this may or may not have been true. The unspoken reason, since confirmed by friends who knew me at the time, was that the US school system would have brutalized me emotionally. One of my closer friends says it would have “dimmed my light”. I am blissfully unaware of any of this.
My dad is building a Y2K bunker in a small town in northern Arizona. He’s stockpiling food and buys a 2000 gallon water tank. He does not fully expect Y2K to happen, though he mostly says he does. In a more candid moment, he tells me that it’s no loss if it doesn’t happen; he has always wanted to build a bunker. I begin my lifelong dream of owning a defensible building in the woods with arable soil and a reliable water source.
I’m being kind of a jerk about the school thing, though. To the extent I rebelled as a teenager, this was it; I was insufferable about it. At some point he takes me out in front of the bunker (actually a mobile home) and shoves me several times, telling me to cut it out, to stop being an asshole about it. I say shove, but he barely touches me. He visibly scares himself doing this, and stops. I stop whining about the school thing forever, and continue on course to be me instead of someone else.
The old man never talks about this again, but he’s noticeably on eggshells around me for a while. I never reflect that this might have anything to do with how thoroughly aware he as of his own father’s punching power and speed.
I’m 16 and it’s time for the Senior Banquet, a sort of sexless prom substitute put on by the very large Baptist church I attend. I’m at my Aunt’s house surrounded by my 100 or so local relatives, which means it’s either thanksgiving or a wake; I don’t remember which. My eldest brother and my brother-in-law are asking me if I feel confident I can find a girl to take. I inform them I could find five girls to take, if I wanted to. This quickly becomes a bet; terms are negotiated in which if I bring ten girls to the prom my brother and brother-in-law will go halfsies on a limo to transport them; if I fail, then my humiliation will be their reward. My only-slightly-older brother is observing this and desperately trying to warn them that this is a bad idea.
My dad walks through and gets wind of what’s happening and asks my brother and brother in law if they had already shook hands on the bet; on finding they had, he grunted out a laugh and went into the other room.
I picked up my gigantic Sprint touch-to-talk walkie-talkie phone and pinned down commitments from four or five girls in the next half hour or so. Later on I was walking through the room my father was in and someone asked him if he had heard I already had four girls; he had. They asked him how that was possible (which is less insulting than it sounds; I was a bizarre looking kid). He didn’t know I was there, and said “RC has something none of the rest of us have.” For the rest of my life, I had something nobody else had.
He never said anything nice about me when I could hear him. He’d laugh at jokes; he liked me, but he never said “RC, you are smart. I’m proud of you”. For a very short while I was worried about this. I once told John, an adoptive grandfather figure I loved and named my son after about this worry, that my father would have rather had a more normal son, one who was more standard and dealt with the world in more standard ways. John and I both worked for my father at the time to keep busy in his old age. He had known my dad as a young man, and thought of him when he needed work.
John heard my worry, looked at me and said “You idiot. A day or two after I started working here, your dad called me into the office. Do you know what he said? He asked me if I had met you yet. I said ‘Sure, I’ve talked to him’. Your dad asked me what I thought of you, I said you seemed fine. He leaned in to me and said ‘He’s brilliant, John. He’s brilliant.’” I never cried about this until now.
I once told my dad something to the effect of “This brother has a thing - he plays sports. And I have the whole funny and weird thing. But this brother, I’m not sure if he has a thing.” My dad said “Never say that again. Your brother is a sharp dresser, he’s a good salesman; people like him. He’s good looking, and he’s good to people. He has a thing. He’s a good person.” I never thought about what it meant that my dad couldn’t say these things directly to us, that he believed them and would defend them to death but that he couldn’t say it to us. I never thought about what it meant that he loved me but couldn’t hug me except with great difficulty.
I’m 17 and I’m explaining to my dad that my friend has some emotional damage, that something he did that was a little off is probably because his dad had left his mother for his secretary and it put a big scar on his heart. My dad says “My dad left, lots of times. He cheated, lots of times. It hurts you. But you have a choice about how you treat people after that.” My dad never once fails to take care of me or to help me when I need it.
One time I come home from some Church event or something, I haven’t slept much in a few days and I’m hysterical. I don’t remember why; there might not have even been a reason besides the horrifying loneliness of being young. My dad hears me come in the back door (the front was locked) and sees that I’m crying and asks me what’s wrong. I say it’s nothing, and he doesn’t ask again. He couldn’t deal with crying very well; he spent most of his time trying to prevent it.
That year I’m in a car wreck. My friend falls asleep driving us home, and we crash into a yard a few doors down from my house. I’m not horribly injured, but the seatbelt gives me a bad scrape down my side and the airbag splits my lip. I wasn’t supposed to be out that late; he had told me to come home earlier than that. He takes me home and wipes the blood off the doorknobs I had touched and tells me we will deal with it in the morning.
The next morning my mom drives me into work, and she’s hysterical - she almost lost her son. She says I’m going to have to deal with my dad, that he’s pissed. I get to work and go into his office. He says “Sit down.” and points at a chair. I do. He stares at me. The silence is heavy. He says “you look like shit.” I laugh, and my lip splits open again and starts bleeding. He laughs and says I’m already punished, and I can go.
I’m 20 and I’ve met my wife, although we aren’t married yet; I take her to meet my parents, and my dad suggest that her eyeglasses prescription is probably out of date; she can do better. He’s incorrect on the former point but correct on the latter. He never fails to treat my wife well; he never says a single negative thing about her.
I’m 22 and I’m getting married; my dad is at my wedding. One of my groomsman has secured permission from my wife to wear cowboy boots. My dad walks in, sees the boots, and tells him to wear normal shoes. My friend immediately and without question changes shoes, because “Mr. Contrarian said I should”. My dad loves all my friends. My friends all love my dad.
My dad had supplied my wife’s engagement ring and wedding ring, because I was dead broke. He gives her a beautiful necklace to wear. She wears it as we swear our vows. She’s beautiful. He loves her; she is his daughter now.
We visit him and mom in Kentucky shortly after we get married; he looks in the rearview mirror and says “Val, you are incredibly beautiful”. I say “You should have seen her last night - she was naked”. He laughs for a solid 15 minutes, then calls me an asshole. Getting called an asshole was how you knew it was a genuinely funny joke, one he just couldn’t deal with in any other way.
I’m 25; I have two kids. He’s met both of them and loves both of them. Him and mom have moved back to Arizona to be closer to us; I don’t know that this is because the damage to his heart and some minor strokes are starting to build up and he wants to see us more. I don’t visit him enough.
He watches our kids here and there; he loves both of them, but for whatever reason loves the smaller one more; he lets him ride on his lap in his electric wheelchair which he has despite being invincible and strong and lets him use the controls, running into walls and things. He loves him especially much compared to most of the grandkids, my mom tells me; she never thought to ask why and neither did I.
He calls me one day and tells me his TV is broken, that he is confident I can probably figure out how to fix a broken TV and I’m welcome to try if I want it. I get the TV, pop the cover off the back and quickly diagnose it as a $2 repair, which I then perform. I call him to let him know it wasn’t really broken and he can have it back; he tells me it WAS broken, that he couldn’t have fixed it, that it’s weird that I can and that it’s mine now. I don’t realize until later he just needed an excuse to give me the TV and the fuse was a convenient excuse to have; it’s later on that I realize he never actually doubted that I could fix a mysteriously broken television with little effort.
I’m 25 and I talk a lot about how my mom and my dad are always together, almost 24 hours a day. I never reflect that this isn’t how marriages usually are, except as an exceptional positive, or that this might reflect controlling behavior. I never think about what it meant to be a person with an abusive father who built his whole life around his family, or what fear of abandonment is. I live most of my life with my wife nearby, and it’s a problem we occasionally have to talk about because in my mind it’s normal to have her nearby at all times.
At some point he tells me he’s dying, that the doctors are saying he doesn’t have long to go. I hear him say it but it has zero meaning to me - my mind ignores it, because my father doesn’t lie, but fathers also don’t die. About a week after that, he lowers himself down from his wheelchair and spends an hour weeding my mom’s garden, because it was something he could do for her. I later find out this kind of behavior isn’t uncommon in his situation.
I’m 25, and my dad is driving down the road with my little brother’s wife and my mom in the truck with him when his heart explodes like a grenade inside his chest. He says “Oh, shit”, and somehow pulls the car off the freeway, off the offramp and almost halfway to the closest parking lot before he passes out. My mom can’t shift him; he’s huge and diabetic. She manages to get his leg off the accelerator and steers the car into a Lowes sign. A cop sees this happen, assumes they are on drugs, finds out they aren’t and gets him to the hospital.
I’m 25 and I get a call, but I live in central Phoenix and they live on the western edge. I pack up the kids and the wife and we race down, but I never had a chance. His heart was likely stopped before he got off the freeway, from what I’ve gathered; given how long he controlled the car, there’s a good chance he was trying to protect his family while by most measures he was already dead.
I’m 25 and I’m standing by my father’s corpse, and I can’t cry; death isn’t real and fathers don’t die; people who are important to you can’t die. I go out into the waiting room a bit after and somebody, an Uncle or something, asks me if I’m OK and I tell them my blood sugar is low; they get an apple juice from somewhere. Struggling to talk to me, to see why I’m calm and if I’m ok, they ask me how the apple juice is. I say “It tastes like piss” with perfect comic timing and the kind of face I know sells a joke even when it’s not funny. This is how I will always deal with everything, but especially this.
I’m 25 and I leave the hospital and pull out my cell phone to call my dad and tell him he’s dead. I have no emotions yet but I start to understand on an intellectual level that this is a big deal.
A week later I’m at my dad’s house going through things and I see a belt buckle he had always had, it has bear claws in it, but one is loose and falls out. He had been planning on getting it fixed and had told me so. I realize it’s never going to be fixed, now. I start crying for the first time. My wife is on one side of me and my older sister is on the other and a small noiseless conflict breaks out over whose lap I’m going to collapse on; my sister considered me her belonging long before my wife did, after all. My sister lets my wife win, and I weep. I am unable to cry at the funeral, but at least then I do. I don’t cry again about it for years. I cry at sad things on TV; I don’t cry about that.
I’m 28 I haven’t really dealt with anything for years, but I feel guilty about not visiting more near the end. I feel guilty because he told me to get ready for it, to talk to him about it, and I didn’t; I wouldn’t listen. I make jokes about it. I become more afraid of people I love getting hurt; I become overcautious with my kids and wife to a greater degree than before. I don’t deal with anything.
My dad once told me he didn’t think people in Heaven could observe people on Earth, because if they could they would be sad, and sadness is not a thing for people in Heaven. I tend to agree with him on this point. I’m glad for him; I’m glad I believe the way I believe.
I’m 28 and I have a dream. My dad is in a hospital bed, playing solitaire. I see him, I run over, he has me sit with him on the bed; we talk, we make jokes. I tell him I’m sorry I didn’t see him more at the end; he tells me it’s fine. I don’t think he can see me from Heaven, but I think Heaven has a hand in the dream anyway. I start to deal with things years after the fact.
There’s no real ending to this. I’m not sure if this is the right place to write about this kind of thing in the first place.
Some advice: My brother wrote a letter to my dad telling him what he had meant to him, and gave it to him before my dad passed. They found the letter afterwards it had been folded and unfolded almost to death. My dad had clearly read it hundreds of times. This is my letter, and while it’s certainly longer, it will never have those fold marks. You are a fine reader, and I appreciate you, but you are strictly the wrong audience for this. If you have the chance still, write your letters to your people today; it’s not too early. Early here is good, not bad. Write them for everybody.
Thanks for reading this; I know he wasn’t your father, but he was mine and I miss him. For better or worse this is the only way besides jokes I can deal with anything or talk about anything serious; thanks for helping me do that.
I tried to fight back tears working through this and was unsuccessful, evening having to stop bc my vision was obscured for the last few memories. For better or for worse, fathers have such an enormous impact on shaping their children.
Thanks, RC, for sharing these memories; events from your life that led you to become the amazing man you are today. I shared this blog with a guy friend of mine. He confessed that he wept several times, as the raw honesty of your experiences hit home.