Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Wednesday, February 2, 1977

The blizzard was over, save for the digging.

And I had had enough of that.

School had indeed been cancelled for the week. No one was going anywhere.

Except Mom & Dad--who trekked their way back north to get my brother back to college on Sunday.

Once again, I stayed home. It was a boring, four-hour round trip in the best of weather. I was supposed to do it in bad weather? When I would get an additional hour or so each way of staring out the window at boring stuff, only now it was boring stuff covered in several feet of snow?

I had had enough of that, too.

Can you tell that I was a teenager?

Mom wasn't making things any easier--harping about me not wanting to be together with my family yada yackity schmackity.

Well, she was right. I didn't.

Lemme tell you 'bout my brother.

He's one year, five months and one day older than me. His greatest joy in life--as far as I could tell--was tormenting me. He was good at it. He had a knack. If we were both doing something loud and possibly against Mom's wishes, he knew how to stop it just before Mom came into the room.

I didn't have that gift.

Like younger siblings everywhere, I was sure that he was the favorite.

What he was, was older, and had the engineering skill-sets necessary to get to do stuff with Dad, while I lifted and carried.

I didn't get to hang with them. But I got strong. I did get strong.

I got bigger and stronger than my brother in about the ninth grade. And boy, was I going to give it to him. I was gonna do all the crap to him that he had done for me for the previous thirteen years.

Except I never did. Not in ninth grade, tenth, eleventh...and now here he was, Mister College, and I still held a grudge.

Years later, we ended up talking about I never seemed to be able to get back at him. He told me, "I knew that if you ever got your hands on me, you'd kill me. But I also knew that the angrier you got, the less control you had. So when you started to get mad at me, I would just keep pushing your buttons until you were so furious that you couldn't do anything. Then I'd just put a chair between you and me, and rather than go around it, you'd try to go through it."

Fucking engineers and their fucking logic.

That's why I wasn't all jazzed about going with them to take him back to school.

Mom and I weren't getting along all that well either, as you could guess.

I even thought about hitting her. Once. It happened that week.

But first, a bit about our house...

Our house was a colonial, with a front door leading to a foyer, and straight back to a breakfast nook. That nook was a dividing line in the house: to the east, the kitchen, dining room and living room, to the west, the family room and garage. East of the breakfast nook was Mom's territory. West was ours. The nook was no man's land.

The nook actually opened up to the family room and the kitchen, so that if you were standing in the kitchen (as Mom usually would) , you could see clear through to the family room. There was, also, for some reason, a step down from the breakfast nook into the family room.

The layout's important, because much of the family dynamic was centered around that step.

You see, Mom's not too tall. 5' 2", nine inches shorter than my brother, ten inches shorter than my dad, and eleven inches shorter than me.

But she made up for that lack of height with that step. She directed much of life in the living room from that 10 inch vantage point.

I'm pretty sure it was on the Monday or Tuesday of that week that I had The Thought. I forget what prompted it. Probably me not doing what she wanted. As usual. Most likely something to do with snow, and my lack of enthusiasm in its removal from the driving and walking areas around the house.

Mostly what I did that week was eat, sleep, and read.

So there was some friction, what with me being underfoot all week, and not being productive. Mom was on my case, and I was giving it back as good as I could, which wasn't all that good. Tempers flared (remember what my brother said), and I remember standing in the living room, thinking I could take her. She's nothing. She's tiny. I could just...


She was standing right there, on the step of the breakfast nook. She covered the ground from the kitchen to the step in zero time, eyes flaming, hands on her hips, reading my mind like the poorly written book it was, drawing herself up to her full height, and looking me straight in the eyes.

"I am your mother!" she said. "You will not hit me! You will not even think about it! Do you understand me?"


Yeah. OK.

At first I wondered if I had actually said the words. I hadn't. I was just that stupid and that transparent.

The step was also a place of hugs and kisses, too. The door to the garage was right there, and so our comings and our goings were there too. There were lots of hugs and kisses in the family too.


Dad would always arrive home at 5:15. We would hear the car pull into the garage, and Mom would come and stand at the step, and greet Dad with a hug and a kiss. Every night. Mom and Dad hugged and kissed a lot. Mom's best friend Grace used to say "That's the huggiest, kissiest couple I've ever met!"

On Wednesday, February 2, 1977, the car was pulled into the garage, as always. Mom stood on the step, as always, and met Dad with a hug and a kiss, horizontally equivilent thanks to that step. For some reason I know not why, I got up off the couch, and joined in on the hug. I stood behind my father, and wrapped my arms around him. Dad's camelhair coat smelled cold. There were a few flakes melting on it. Dad was surprised, but pleased. We stood that way for a while, a peaceful hugging family.

We didn't hug long enough.

During dinner, Dad asked me if I wanted to go to choir rehearsal with him. He had it every Wednesday night, at the church, at 8. As I had mentioned earlier, sometimes I would go and sing with him.

Dad was 54, but he was trim, in shape, with long dark hair and a salt-and-pepper beard. Our family took a six-week camping trip out west in 1971, and we had convinced Dad to not shave during the trip. He left looking like a Company Man, and came back looking like a Hippie.

His beard was the talk of the small town we lived in, and brought him quite some notoriety at his company. Pretty soon, lots of men started growing beards.

But none looked as good as Dad. He still had it, six years later.

At 54, he looked and acted twenty years younger. He was the captain and one of the better players of his volleyball team, which played on Tuesday nights. Every other person in the league was at least 10 years younger. When he took me to choir rehearsals, some of the younger women in the choir actually thought I was his younger brother! He ate that up with a spoon.

But this Wednesday night, two things were different: 1) Mom had a meeting at the church as well, and 2)HBO had an R-Rated movie playing.

I've already mentioned how much I enjoyed riding alone with Dad. On that day, I had quite enough of Mom already. If Mom came along, it wasn't the same. So the allure was gone, plus the promise of tits on TV made me decide I needed some alone time.

Mom didn't like it, and didn't like my lack of help, and we got into it again. At the end of dinner, she yelled and screamed and stormed her way out the door to sit in the car and wait for Dad.

Dad usually took her side. But with her out of earshot, Dad talked to me. As I loaded up the dishwasher, he told me that we were just on each other's nerves, and it was natural for teenagers to rebel. He put his hand on my shoulder, and smiled at me gently and kindly, said I was a good kid, and said we'd talk more later. It was the best talk my Dad ever gave me.
The phone rang about 8:15. The woman on the line was asking for my mother. "She's at the church," I told her, "Can I take a message?"

"This is the hospital, and I need to speak to your mother."

Then the front doorbell rang.

No one came to our front door. I asked the woman to hang on a second, and I went to see who it was. It was Mr. Mack, the father of a friend of mine who lived down the hill. He worked at the same company as Dad, but in the personnel department. He had come to our house for parties on occasion, but never stopped by unnanounced.

"Is your Mom home?" he asked.

"No, she's at church." What the hell was going on?

"Your Dad's had a heart attack."

Suddenly the earth had no center.

"But he's at church with Mom," I said...

"Apparently, he stopped by the gym to get his sneakers from yesterday, and had an attack. I'm here to take you and your mother to the hospital..."

I ran back to the phone "Is this about Dad? Is he OK?"

"...I'm sorry, but I need to speak to your Mother..."

"She's at the church. We're going to go get her and we'll be right there." I hung up the phone and grabbed my coat. We left for the church.

For some unknown reason, Mr. Mack thought it was important to obey traffic laws. I pressed him for information.

"All heart attacks are serious when they first happen," he was telling me. "It's a very dangerous time."

I talked about another family friend, who had a triple bypass the previous year. He walked a lot more slowly, but he was ok. Dad would be ok, too, right?

"If you survive the first few minutes, there's been great progress in heart therapies."

I looked up at the traffic light and cursed all red lights to hell.

When we got to the church, I could see inside the annex, where the meetings were held. I saw all the men and women from the meeting mom was to attend, standing in a circle, holding hands. I didn't see Mom. Mr. Mack ran inside, and then came back out.

"She's already at the hospital," he told me.

Forever later, we pull into the emergency room parking lot. I sprint out of the car and into the hospital.

"Dad!" I yelled. "Where's my Dad?"

A nurse asked me my name, and told me where he was. She took me outside the room, and told me I couldn't enter just yet, and went inside.

It was a big brown door. It had a two-way hinge, in order to let gurneys pass in and out. She did her best to slip through the door, but I saw inside.

I saw a doctor, standing in his lab coat, doing nothing but holding a large syringe and talking.

I saw my mother, standing next to the doctor, looking very small, and very old.

I saw my father, lying on the table, looking very grey, and very dead.


He had dropped Mom off for her meeting, which started before his rehearsal, so he had gone to the gym to get the sneakers he left there the day before. There was a pickup volleyball game, and they asked him if he wanted to play.

He always wanted to play.

One of the guys on his side said he just dropped. They tried CPR, the ambulance was there in minutes, but he was dead before his body hit the floor. The autopsy revealed he had suffered a minor heart attack a few days before.

Probably on January 28.

I wandered around, looking for a pay phone. I needed to call my brother. He needed to know. You don't understand. He needed to know. He had got him for all the years before this, and the few fucking months I had him alone and he said we'd talk later He said we'd talk later! and ups and dies on me, and now my world sucks and he's at school and his world doesn't. He needed to know.

In the end, the Pastor drove the four hours in the snow up to his dorm room, notified the Head resident, and called my mother when he was on his floor. She called him sometime well after midnight. He was up, studying. How do you break this news? What did she say? I was standing right next to her when she called, but I don't remember her words.

I do remember that the Pastor said he opened the door and collapsed into his arms.

Five days earlier, as Mom and Dad drove that boring two hour trip on a brilliant blue morning to get my brother for the weekend, my mother had turned to my father and said, "My life is perfect. I have everything I have ever wanted."

On Thursday, February 2, 2006, I look back at that remark in wonder.

For a very long time after that day, I made my Dad into a saint. He was perfect. He could do so much.

As I get older, I start to see my father for what he really was. Not a saint. A man with flaws. He was often distant, and he did favor my brother. But that didn't mean he didn't love me. He just hadn't figured me out yet.

Hell, I haven't figured me out yet, either.

Dad never talked to me later, but I still talk to my Dad. I tell him about stuff. I tell him about his grandkids. I tell him that I miss him. I tell him I love him.

I talk to my kids, too. I teach them that bad things don't just happen to other people. I tell them about their grandfather. I tell them I love them. I tell them that now is enough, because it's really all we have.



Blogger Jessica said...

You make me miss my own dad.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Notsocranky Yankee said...

Very moving. I was holding my dad's hand when he died at age 57. His name was Robert Brendt - Bob for short.

I talk to him a lot too.

7:40 AM  
Blogger mal said...

my Dads life is winding down and I cherish what time I can get with him.
Very moving post


9:00 AM  
Blogger FDF said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:37 PM  
Blogger Lars said...

I've been reading most of your blog tonight. Three hours worth of unsurpassed thoughtfulness, entertainment and wisdom. This post threw me. Your father died on my mother's birthday 34 days before I lost my father to a heartattack at 54. Are we somehow related?

5:00 PM  
Blogger Balloon Pirate said...

Yes, Lars, we are.


5:48 PM  

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