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.”
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.