Friday, January 25, 2008


What do you say to a dying man?

What do you say, indeed, to the man who raised you, as he lay helpless in a hospital bed, only able to moan and huff? Do you recount the years of lost childhood? The memories of violent nights? The chair broken on mom's back, or the toy record player thrown down the basement stairs because my sister and I argued over it? The fight over the silk screened jean jacket when I was 17? No, there's no time for anger or bitterness.

Are you supposed to keep it light, sticking only to the topic of what the kids are doing? Are you supposed to reaffirm the promises made two months ago, that we will go fishing together this summer, and work on that fence? Are you supposed to make up for lost time, years upon years of not talking, even over mundane topics? Are you supposed to lay the sap on as thick as it will go? No, this is not a time for falseness.

Are you supposed to take out your shopping list of emotional needs and guilts, unloading each one to a man who cannot respond, and wouldn't know what to say if he could, for the sake of clearing the air? Are you supposed to be serious and dark and of formidable emotional stamina as you discuss the deep meanings of your relationship even as it comes to an untimely end? No, this is not a time for business.

Are you supposed to...?

How many of these questions I've run though my mind in the last 24 hours I'll never know. And more are coming. I don't have any answers to any of them. My conclusions are guesses, arrived at from a combination of gut feeling and TV drama. The conversations I am having with my dad are one way, and I'm not much of a talker. There are almost 35 years of baggage to mull over between us. Both of us are regretful of what we've ignored, and there's no time to remedy any of it, except for me to say that I enjoyed spending time with him this summer, and know he enjoyed it, too.

I spent--we all spent--every visit to my parents' house dreading the leaving moment, watching the time bomb in the easy chair tick tick tick with every red-white-and-blue can to his inevitable breaking point. We even had a signal when the invisible line had been crossed, when the point of no return had been breached, when nothing we said or did or told the kids would change his reactions. We knew then we had only so long to get out of the house before the next time Brendan screamed or Sophia played the piano over the TV audio he'd snap. This is how we always handled things, and when Dad got confused or mad or threw a fit over it we just rolled our eyes and talked about him later at sibling get-togethers.

So now, what do say to this man, after years of circling the threatening fire, daring not to take a burning branch and call it what it was? Sure, I did love him all along, and I learned to accept him the way he was, and (eventually) live a healthy life despite his unhealthy influence. In the last year, I made significantly more effort to get to know him, to not just avoid or work around his addiction and anger, but to stand stalwart as it passed through and around me, in hopes of getting a glimpse of its originator. I am thankful that I made the decision to do this, not because he was dying (even though he was at the time, and none of us knew it), but because it was necessary to finally create a real bond with my father, if not between father and son, then between men. I am both thankful and bitter, because I intended the effort, 100%, to be the beginning of some healing years, not as a requiem to a life of misunderstanding this man who did everything he knew how as best he could, but still came off as a failed and abusive parent.

I am mad as hell that this chance has been taken away from me.

Maybe that's what I need to say, for starters at least.

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