I’ve been thinking about my dad a little bit lately.
He suffered a traumatic brain injury on Christmas Eve, 2011, and died the day before New Years Eve, so it’s not surprising, I guess.
I never got to grieve for him. My mom is – I’ll be charitable – mentally ill. I have no siblings, no close relatives nearby, so keeping her functional and arranging the funeral and delivering the eulogy and all that stuff fell upon me. I did a good job, I say with no small amount of pride. I don’t take compliments well, and I compliment myself even less, but being thrown in cold into a trauma like that, I think I genuinely did good.
Life got worse after he was gone and, as I said, I never got time to grieve. I almost would, but people were counting on me. I couldn’t afford to let myself to fall apart. There were taxes to settle, corporations to dis-incorporate, estates to settle, things to re-title to my mom, finances to shift. None of this unique, everyone has to do it at some point, I suppose, but in my case if tell on me. I did adequately. I’m great in a crisis, merely ok in an ongoing state of duress. Barely-functional under normal circumstances.
As a result of all this, I feel oddly numb when I think about him. I packed it down so tight, suppressed it so thoroughly, even banishing him from my daydreams. (I daydream a lot). I was very afraid that if I wrote down the things I was feeling – like how it’s been years and I still can’t bring myself to sit in his chair – it would all come flooding out, and I’d be a basket case, and life would get worse for everyone, particularly my mentally-ill mother. And me. I definitely feared it would roll back on me.
A week or so ago my dad turned up in my dreams. Because it was a dream I didn’t remember that he was dead. I just said, “Oh, hi dad,” and he nodded and sat down while I went on about whatever nonsense was going on in the story. Eventually I woke up to go to the bathroom (Because I’m 50), and when I laid back down again, I realized he’d been there. I was suddenly sorry I missed him. Not sad, oddly, but just sorry. I tried to will him back as I drifted off again, but, no luck, he was gone.
Now, I know it wasn’t him. My belief in the supernatural is…measured… at best. I believe in God and an afterlife, but not ghosts or sleepytime messages from beyond the grave. That stuff doesn’t happen. I know full well that whatever goes on in my unconscious mind is a product of my unconscious mind, something I’m telling myself, sometimes with a reason, but mostly just random. I know all that. More importantly, I believe it.
Still, the next morning I was sorry that I had largely ignored him in the dream. Even if it was my own subconscious speaking to me in his voice, it would have been nice to hear his voice again. It’s been so damn long.
Now, anyone who knew my dad could tell you he was a great guy. I called him “A living saint,” and he always bristled at that out of humility, but it’s really hard to stress how great a guy he was, and what a long shadow he’s cast as a result. He was a living Horatio Alger story, only without the creepy understated homoerotic elements.
His family was poor in the Great Depression. His mom ran off when he was three. He was homeless, but managed to survive and be a normal kid. Played with the kids with houses, went to school, slept in a coal cellar. Eventually the state picked him up and put him in an orphanage, which he hated. My grandfather eventually re-married so he could get custody of his kids back, then the entire family moved to Florida, where the Child Welfare laws were unreasonably lax even then.
They were still dirt poor, but they had a house. My dad took odd jobs, mostly as a delivery boy on his bike, and the family frequently lived off of stuff that washed up on the beach. Eventually he graduated high school, joined the USAF, served out the Korean War, GI Billed his way through college, became an Aerospace engineer, and ended up working for NASA in the Apollo/Skylab glory days.
Then he lost everything because Congress effectively shut down NASA in 1973/4.
He started over again. This time he went into business, and my mom went nuts, and we moved, and working – no joke – sixteen hours a day he managed to build a successful career for himself capable of supporting all of us in nearly-patrician fashion. He could easily have been a millionaire, but his opinion was, “What do you need all that money for? As long as you’re comfortable, isn’t that enough?” He was a deacon at the church, honest to a fault, a great guy. He built his life from scratch *Twice.* The second time in middle age.
He died at Eighty. He looked 60 or 65. He took care of my mom, and he took care of me (I’m mentally ill too, just in a more entertaining fashion than my mom) and while that wasn’t the life he wanted – come on, everyone wants a *normal* family – he never once complained. It was just his lot in life, and he accepted it and worked to make it better.
the impressive details of his life aren’t really why I’m thinking of him, though. I’m thinking of the “Living Saint” quality that he had, and it struck me today that really, he made it through life uncorrupted. He didn’t lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who did. He didn’t hate anyone, and he held true to his values even when they were unpopular. He treated people of all races equally long before that was the norm. He made it through life assuming the best of everyone, and because he so clearly assumed that, most people tried to live up to it. He made life better for the people around him, just by merely being him.
I mean, yeah, he had some negative qualities too, everyone does, but in his case they were trivial.
I’m told the definition of “Saint” comes from the latin word meaning “Set Apart.” If so, that’s definitely my dad. Somehow he made it from one side of life to the other still pure of heart like a child, still full of faith for all the good stuff in life, and still believing in the future. So many people don’t. So many people, like me, just kind of give up. My dad, though? He was a good man from start to finish.
I miss him. I feel numb about him, but when I think about his fundamental goodness, I can feel…something? I’m not sure what, but something more vital than the little glimmerings of all the memories I’ve compressed into a little ball in my soul. I can’t take him out of that ball and look at him, or think about him. It’s been too long. I couldn’t grieve now even if I had the option to. I’ve grown coarse and gnarled and complicated and sad and self-loathing in ways he never did. That opportunity is shot, and will not return.
But when I think about how good he was, it always makes me smile.
That’s not much, I know. It’s enough, though. For now, anyway.