December 22nd

Was four years ago today that my father passed away, and I wrote a little something about it in one of my e-books, Revenge of the Penmonkey. Thought I’d take a piece out of that introduction and pop it here, talk a little bit about my father’s death and what that meant for me as a writer. It’s still a weird day for me and I guess that’ll never change — my father died during the holidays and so did his father (a grandfather I never met) and I know that troubled him every time this season came sneaking up on us. Well, whatever the case, here’s that thing I wrote. Thanks for reading.

* * *

A lot of stories are, at the heart, Daddy Issue stories. Star Wars. Lost. Hell, remember that scene in Die Hard where John McClane finds out that Hans Gruber is his father? I’m pretty sure I have that right.

This one is no different.

It’s not unique to writers, this story. Everybody’s got someone in their hearts they’re trying to appease. Or live up to. Or blame for their troubles. Often a parent. Or a parental figure. Or even a child.

Even when I’d finally left the day job and concentrated on writing full-time, my Dad never really seemed all that interested in hearing about my work, though he had let go of that old harangue about writing not being a real job. I figured, okay, we’ve reached a peaceful stalemate, here. I’ll keep doing what I do, and he’ll pretend I do something else and never the twain shall meet.

Cut to a couple years later. I was by that point married and the wife and I took a trip to visit my Dad at his new house in Colorado. We fished and drank margaritas and drove ATVs and hit up every lunatic yard sale we could find in the desert and the mountains and all was well.

Then came the day I met George. George, my father’s closest friend out West, maybe all over. I’d met him once before but only briefly. The wife and I returned from an ATV trip out in the BLM lands that adjoined my father’s property and there stood George in the driveway, shootin’ the shit with Dad.

We went up and started talking to George and he jumped right into talking about my writing. Animatedly. About my script work in particular but also the novels and the freelancing. He knew about all of it. Details I wouldn’t have thought my father retained, much less shared with anybody else. Then George said, “Oh, your Dad always talks about all the great things you’re doing, he’s so proud of what you’ve accomplished.”

Blink, blink.

Awestruck.

Now, maybe you get this, maybe you don’t. But to me, a son hearing that his father is proud of him—especially a father who has never been particularly forthcoming with that information—is like trumpets and fireworks and parading elephants and a marching band going through your head oomphing out your favorite song. It’s equal parts epiphany and apotheosis as all the tumblers in your lock fall into place and a big door opens up and inside the frame of that door is your father and, gods and little fishes, he’s actually proud of you. Proud enough to tell his friends about you.

It was a big moment. It was, as alcoholics describe it, a moment of clarity.

Crystalline, clean, revitalizing.

I felt like I was no longer fighting to prove something, but rather, to live up to something.

From that point forward writing became more about the promise than the protest.

 

* * *

 

Dad died about a year later. Prostate cancer that was allowed to get out of control. Got into the lymph and then took off like a shot. They thought they had it under control but it had found its way into an unholy host of his organs and things weren’t looking so hot.

In the hospital, we revisited a lot of the old stories, but I got to hear new ones, too. Like how he was involved in a knife fight at a bar, or how he helped accidentally start a small riot at Veterans Stadium during a Phillies game (and was banned fruitlessly from Phillies games in the future). A theme found its way into those stories: all the fights my father had been in. Because this was another fight, this scrap with cancer, this tangle with Death. He’d won all his skirmishes in the past and, we all imagined he’d win this skirmish, too. Worse for wear, but alive just the same.

It was maybe a week later that they put him on hospice care. My wife, my sister and I went to see him and it was really quite strange because that day everybody and their mother showed up at his house—all uncoordinated, all unbeknownest to one another. Family and co-workers and old friends.

He looked like a ghost. Could barely speak. I don’t know what meds they had him on but they were serious. At a point he lurched upright and decided to go upstairs and my uncle went with him while I waited at the bottom of the stairs. My uncle called my name. I went up. Found my father sitting there in his room, just starting to slump over.

I went to one side of him, my uncle on the other. I held the old man. Touched his neck. Felt his pulse literally stop. And then he lurched up, took a great big heaving intake of breath, as if he were emerging from the bracing waters of a frozen pond—

And that was it. Last breath. He was gone. We lifted him up and carried him to his bed and… you could tell that he wasn’t in there anymore.

 

* * *

 

Kind of fucked me up for a while, his death. It came on the heels of other deaths, too—both grandmothers, a beloved aunt. I channeled it into my writing, though not necessarily consciously. I just know that in my 20s I was only peripherally aware of death but suddenly it was something I was forced to deal with in a very big and very real way, and further, was forced to realize that I, too, was going to die some day.

I don’t want to create some kind of object lesson out of my father’s passing—it should be enough that he led and left this life, but just the same, I can’t help but find some kind of truth in there. Dad was a man who lived for his retirement. He always had his eye on that prize, always looking to the end game, and willing to endure whatever career miseries he had to endure because at the end of the tunnel was pension and social security and Colorado and hunting whenever he wanted to and the freedom to travel. And the real shame of it is, he only made it a couple-few years into that retirement, and that was that. Game over.

That’s a telling thing, a sad lesson not just for writers, but for anybody. And I recognize that it’s a lesson of some privelege, but the lesson remains true just the same: you can’t live for what’s coming, you have to live for what’s going on now. Because you don’t have any guarantees that tomorrow you won’t fall down a sinkhole or catch pneumonia or be crushed beneath a chunk of frozen shit falling off the underside of a 747 passing overhead. Life is sometimes long, but it’s also short at the same time. We only get one turn on the carousel. And so it behooves you to try to be the best person you can right now. It demands you try to go out and do the things that make you happy—not tomorrow, but today.

Because nobody knows what tomorrow may bring, or if it will come at all.

26 comments

  • Something my dad told me was that you’re not fully a grown up until your parents have passed away. I believed him, and I thought I understood, but not until he was gone.
    My father passed away in 2007. So what is that? Four years? Almost five now, it was in late March.
    Barring accidents and other incidences, we are at the stage in our life where going to a funeral home is much too common a thing.
    My dad, too, at one point told me he was proud of me as well. Not about the writing–no, I was never that ambitious. But just about life in general. After I flunked out of college, I took a minimum wage grunt job delivering pizza, worked my way into management, and managed to support myself and my family on my own terms.
    My dad was a story teller, so I know that I come by it honestly. Even his stories that are bullshit tell a higher truth about the man himself. He was a happy guy, full of life and gusto and had many friends, all over. I didn’t know it but he went into the hospital the very night I attempted stand up for the first time. He was there for two weeks. He never came home.
    At his funeral, my sister was supposed to speak–give a eulogy. She had something prepared…and didn’t bring it with her. It might have been subconsciously intentional; she was too distraught to stand up and speak. As the older brother, I had to do something. “I got this,” I said.
    I stood up at the podium and spoke, off the cuff, for about 15 minutes, about my father’s life, in the only format I knew: I did comedy.
    People that knew him knew it was appropriate, and there were as many laughs as there were tears. His sisters hugged me afterward and said, “This is what Bud would have wanted.”
    But that was the impetus for me to…I don’t know–be a grown up? I began to pursue my dreams with a little more fervor, and a little more gusto. Not just writing, because not everything is about writing–
    But to carry on the name, and make him proud. And I still have the stories he told me that I need to write and flesh out, because there is a story there, the story of my dad.

    God Bless you, brother, and I hope the good memories help to warm your heart this Christmas. Be sure to pass them on to your child. It’s important.
    At his

  • Daddy issues…it’s funny, because it’s true. If there’s one theme that keeps creeping up in my own stories, it’s daddy issues, although I hardly realize they’re there until someone points them out. I have a great relationship with my father, but I know he’s living on borrowed time. He has a rare, degenerative disease that by rights should have killed him 30 years ago; I’ve never known much else. It’s a weird social dynamic to grow up in. I’d like to say I’m prepared for the inevitability of his death, but I know I’m not. I don’t think I ever can be.

    It’s really brave of you to be able to talk openly and beautifully about your father. I hope the holidays manage to bring up as many good memories as bad sot hat you can reflect on the whole, beautiful picture.

  • I rather suspect that this comment thread is going to get depressing very quickly.

    My father died the day pitchers and catchers reported in 2000. Yes, that’s how I remember it. I think it was February 18th but it could have been the 16th and I don’t have my wallet here to check.

    There was a calendar in his hospital room. One of those page a day calendars. That page has been in my wallet ever since.

    We occasionally talked about writing a book together but we never did anything about it. Truth be told, not doing anything about it is something he and I did a lot. I am starting to write a novel now and I often think about putting his name on it with mine.

  • In times past you’ve made me laugh, wince, slap my forehead in realisation, and fist pump in solidarity. This is the first time you’ve made me cry like a little girl.

    Thank you for sharing this piece of prose. Now, allow me to raise a drink (or 6) in your honour.

    Here’s to you. Here’s to your father. And here’s to the wisdom that can’t be taught or traded, but must be won through age and experience.

  • Thanks for posting that. Lovely post.

    My dad is dying right now of bladder/bowel/spinal cancer. We’d hoped that he could last long enough for one last big Christmas with all of my sisters and all the kids, but I don’t think he’s up to it now. He remains upbeat, but I think he’s tired now – tired of the pain, the various indignities caused by disease, and just tired of fighting an impossible battle.

    I was always so close to my dad, and I know that he was proud of what I’ve achieved. Living up to that pride has been one of my main incentives and inspirations. I just finished my first book manuscript, and the driving force behind finally getting it done was the hope that I could have something for him to read before he dies.

  • My father died when I was seven on December 14th. Just before christmas. My older brother is the one who found him. Sometimes I wonder what life would have been if he lad lived.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Beautiful post, and I feel for your loss and what it meant to you.

    My father died August 15, 2005. I wrote my first novel later that year.

    I could no longer wait until the job allowed me more time to write. I couldn’t wait until I could afford the time. I. Just. Couldn’t. Wait.

    It’s been a bit of an off an on trial since then, dealing with some depression, but I’m taking it seriously now, working on my third novel, which yep you nailed it, has a few daddy issues.

    Best wishes.

  • I came uncomfortably close to losing my father this summer. He’s fine now, and it let me spend more time with him than I have since I was very small. We’re more comfortable with each other now than we were when I was growing up. I hope I can be with him when the end does come, but I’m not ready for that yet. Neither is he.

  • Oh, Chuck. You have my greatest sympathy AND empathy. I lost my father on July 21, and my mother died seven years later on July 20. My mother died here, in my home, surrounded by those she loved. Dad died in hospice, with Mom and me by his side. “Take care, pretty ladies.” Those were his last words.

    They haunt me to this day.

    Like you, the deaths of so many have left their mark. And, like all writers in this situation, I wrote about it.

    Don’t Fear the Reaper is the result, a book I was afraid to put out ‘there’ and is probably my best writing yet.

    Write what you know, right? Funny how time heals, but leaves such scars. On certain days, especially on a some Tuesday afternoon when you’re blind sighted by some memory, the pain resurfaces.

    Thinking of you and your family. Take care, Chuck. Thanks for sharing. Beautiful post.

  • Oh, daddy issues. I have whole family issues… a sister who believes she’s the sun and the rest of us are merely planets that revolve around her, a terminally ill mom, and a dad who thinks he’s still a playboy. Maybe he is.

    Our time on this world is sadly limited. We all know this yet we continue to treat the people closest to us as if they don’t matter. Both of my parents largely ignored their grandsons… there were always other things to do. My boys are 19 and 16 now and wouldn’t blink at the funerals, as cold as that sounds. There won’t be stories. There won’t be many memories.

    Because neither of my parents cared enough to make them. I used to beg them to visit, to stay with us, to watch the boys’ faces on Christmas morning. They were too busy. Dad had a new wife and family, mom was tangled up in her own mother’s issues.

    There was never time for me.

    In my twenties, this used to disturb me. Hell, it still pisses me off. But I can’t force people to love me – you either do or you don’t and if you don’t, fuck you. I continue to put up with all the dysfunctional bull shit because it’s all I’ve got.

    Now that my mom is accepting her imminent end, she’s full of regrets. All those times I invited her to stay with us but she “couldn’t” when she really meant she “wouldn’t”. She craves our company, needs time, as much of it as she can get.

    The lesson here? You can’t cram a lifetime of missed opportunities into a few months.

    Live while you’re alive, people. Don’t waste the time.

  • I think Oldestgenxer’s dad was on to something about losing a parent bringing one into a certain level of adulthood. As friends started having kids, they seemed so…adult to me. Sure, we all had goofy haircuts and were still geeks, but they passed their DNA forward for another generation while I worked odd jobs and started writing. My dad died 20 years ago this month, and somehow, my sister and I put together a damn good funeral despite the shock of it all.

    Years later, I was chatting with one of those adult-in-my-mind friends with kids about how I didn’t feel like an adult. I was the first among my close friends to lose a parent, and this friend told me how amazed he was–and all my other friends were–about how “adult” I seemed to them while dealing with all that came from losing a father. Another friend said it would make me a better writer, and he was right.

    The stuff you write about your father’s beautiful, Chuck. The entry about seeing your father in your child’s little grin–and the other entries about your father–are some of my favorite things you’ve written. I hate that you have reason to write them, but I’m sure he’d feel a sense of pride knowing his son is keeping him alive in his writing and that he lives in his grandson’s smile 🙂

  • That was beautiful. I post the picture of my father and me because he meant so much. It was a couple of years before he died, and he’d lost sight in one eye. I still had my crooked tooth and Harpo hair.

    Dad was never in the military, but he’d had an amazing life just the same. He had been a truck driver, mechanic, cat skinner (not animals, lol), cowboy, bronco buster, expert shot, skater and many other things in addition to being a farmer. He was also a master storyteller.

    The last years of his life he lived with a dog and semi wild house cats, and loved every minute. He’d had a miserable marriage, but all that was over, and those last years were golden to him.

    Thanks for reminding me.

  • I am jealous of you.
    You had George to join the gap between what your father thought and didn’t say and what you thought he thought of you.
    Most of us don’t have that.
    My father died in 1994 and never met any of his grandchildren.
    He was only 69.
    He missed out on great big chunks of family life.
    We miss him

  • I still have both parents and 2 grandparents. I’ve lost an uncle this year and my soul sister. I know that since she died I keep a running tally in my head. It will be 8 weeks on Christmas day. It’s still raw and at times not real… I’ve been channeling it into the work in progress and I admit that I’m scared to do that even though it’s a safe forum and release. It’s hard to be vulnerable on the page. Thank you for sharing this with truth and vulnerability.

  • You have my sympathies, Chuck. From one cancer hater to another, I feel you. My family has the breast cancer gene, BRCA1, and in the last 10 years the family has dropped like flies. We joke that we have an account at the funeral home, and we “catch up” whenever we see them there. My generation (myself and 3 cousins) has yet to be touched, but three of us are now in our 30’s, the other younger. I myself tested positive for the gene. Tis only a matter of time.

    So here here! To living every fucking day!!!

  • Wonderful post.

    There was a really really bad sci movie once, and we’re all going to know the one, that had an antagonist who won people over by taking away their ‘pain.’ And one character who refused, saying he needed his. And, I hate that such a true message was buried in such a crappy film, but that’s just how it goes.

    There are certain things that hurt us, but help to make us who and what we are. Certain moments and memories that will always cut us at any moment without warning, but we need them.

    And writers tap into those moments. One way or another, they’re in everything that we set down on the page.

  • My dad psychologically sabotaged me for most of my life and, as I entered the realm of published author, decreed that my agent and publisher were gonna screw me, among other things. I tried reading my book to him while he was in the hospital, but he made me stop and informed me it was exactly the shit he thought it would be.

    He died a couple of months later, in 2004. I didn’t cry at his funeral. The book went off to win an award and is in its fifth printing.

    I’m still facing my ‘daddy issues’, and they’re invasive. Crushing. Sometimes crippling. And I don’t know if they’ll ever stop.

    Thank you for the beautiful post, Chuck. I’m so, so glad that you got to know your dad a little better, and that you were there for him. {{huggs}

  • I have a weird relationship with my father . . . I’m sixteen, so I still live at home, and he’s gone a lot of the time. Sometimes he’s working overseas or out of state for his job . . . other times, he’s just working on other things and is too busy. And I get that – work keeps him busy enough. I’ve seen him come back at ten at night before. It’s not always easy.
    But:
    He’s gone rock climbing with me. We kayak together and do woodworking together. Every Sunday, he comes with me and my mother for breakfast at a local cafe, and we talk. Sometimes it’s even just the two of us, and we talk. He was the person who told me that my grandmother died, the first personal death I ever had to face. He let me sit in his lap when I cried, and he let me sleep against him when the tears were too much.
    It’s been the little moments, and it’s been the big. And I know not to take my father for granted. I’m thankful for what time I have with him. When I have to lose him . . . it’s hard for me to think of. The idea of losing him is terrible. He has high cholesterol and blood pressure, so I know he’s at risk of a heart attack. It scares me, and it’s why I hope that he stays a long time – not just for me, but for his wife and his two sons. He’s my father.

    Chuck, I’m so sorry for your loss. I know that if the same happened to me, I would never be able to stay in the same room. I know it must have been terrifying. But the memories you have of your father are important, and the bond you had with him is clear through the words you shared. I hope that things are alright now, and I hope that all is well.

  • I am so sorry for your loss. Remember that grief takes its own time and its own path. Two thoughts from this post: First, I understand that moment of clarity. I’ve had two of them in my 48 years on the planet. The first one 11 years ago when I took a spill skiing and found myself face down in the snow, paralyzed from the neck down. I thank all the deities that it was temporary and I’m fine now, but I do remember asking myself if I’d done everything I’d wanted to do in my life. After that, I stopped being afraid.

    My second moment of clarity was a little over a year ago when we were awoken by the smoke detectors and a house filling with black smoke. Standing on the sidewalk in bare feet and pj’s holding my family close while our home burned was a humbling and life-changing moment. It made me realize what was truly important and what no longer mattered.

    I hope the memories you have of your father continue to be a blessing in your life. And thank you for your blog.

  • Thanks for sharing your story.

    3 years ago today, they told me that my dad (who was on life support) was not going to improve and that we should consider taking him off of support.

    On Jan 3, 2009, he passed away.

    The experience of watching the nurses unhook him from his machines and pump him full of drugs to make him “comfortable” is still with me. I’m not sure that I’ll ever forget the sound of his last breaths.

    My novel is largely about him (and me too, really). I didn’t even realize it until a few months ago when I was re-reading the first chapters.

    Point is, I can completely relate to your story and am so grateful that you had the courage to share it. Christmas is still difficult for me (and I think it always will be), but knowing that I’m not the only one who still has some difficulty with this day and the day of his passing, despite the happy season and all the things I have to be thankful for, makes me feel less like an asshole.

  • Love what you say here: “Life is sometimes long, but it’s also short at the same time. We only get one turn on the carousel. And so it behooves you to try to be the best person you can right now. It demands you try to go out and do the things that make you happy—not tomorrow, but today.”

    Words to keep and live by. Thanks much… Wishing you and yours super holidays.

  • I’m sorry for your loss. I also lost my dad at this time, six years ago, though from a heart attack after he had survived cancer. You’re right — We never know when it’s going to come.

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