Category Archives: Family

The Problem With Explaining Grief

I’ve been looking for a way to explain how I feel about my father dying. It’s as if I were born on a continent, and I played there, and I grew up falling, and getting back up, and figuring out how I fell. I went back there when I was proud. I went back there when I was miserable, and it was always home.

That continent has fallen and disappeared into the ocean. That’s how I feel.

You May As Well Laugh

There is a giant hole in the world shaped like my father. I can walk around it, but I can never fill it. He died this morning in his sleep, in his own bed, and without pain. Dying piles indignities on us, but he held on to more dignity than most.

At age eighty-six he liked to say, “Old age ain’t for sissies.” He grew up hunting and wandering around in the woods, and he spent most of his career outside. His favorite parts of himself didn’t thrive indoors. Past injuries and illnesses kept him inside during too much of his final twenty-nine years. During twenty-three of those years he spent most days sitting next to my mother in matching recliners, talking about a whole lot of enjoyable nothing. The next six years he sat next to her empty chair.

He built things on all scales. He managed projects that built schools, manufacturing plants, and a nice chunk of DFW Airport. One year for my mother’s birthday he built her an organ.

I have never talked to a person who knew him and didn’t think highly of him. That includes people he fired.

A few slices of my father’s life sketch him with unavoidable imperfection:

One day when he was six years old he was haranguing his mother about someplace he wanted to go with his dog, while she stood in the kitchen holding his little sister. She kept saying no. He finally said, “If you weren’t holding that baby, I’d throw this dog at you.”

At age nineteen he joined the Marine Corps, and they sent him to the war in Korea. Not long afterwards his platoon was attacked by massed waves of Chinese soldiers. At the end he was the last man standing on either side, and he blocked that memory for the next fifty years. Seven months later, his company was split up so that half could be sent home to help form a new company. He volunteered to stay, but his commander refused, saying, “No, you’ve seen enough of this shit already. You’re coming home with me.” Within a month the men who stayed were nearly wiped out.

My father never smoked, even though cigarettes came in his rations in Korea. After the war, he and my uncle would go to rough places in the river bottom to play quarter-limit poker and lose a bunch of money. Everybody smoked. Once in a while he would reach over to the ashtray and mash out all the cigarettes with his finger. Nobody objected, they all just lit up a new one.

My father only spanked me once, a single swat with a switch I cut. It didn’t hurt, but I was devastated. I don’t remember him ever yelling at me. I would have crawled over broken glass for him.

When I was about eight I was helping him with a project in our shop at home. I got distracted and let something drop. He frowned and said, “He who hesitates is lost.” Then he smiled and said, “All things come to he who waits.” Then he said, “Both of those sayings were probably made up by the same man.”

I don’t remember my father giving me much instruction on how to live life. He did what he thought was the right thing and admitted it when he did the wrong thing. He told me the Bible must have been written by a con man. The idea that you can hurt people your whole life and then profess faith on your deathbed to be forgiven was ridiculous to him.

In these past years my father has often told me he’s ready for death when it comes. He said he’d had a good life, done about everything he wanted to do, and had no regrets. He sometimes said you may as well laugh, because it does no good to cry. I saw no sign that he changed his mind at the end. Even when he became too weak to talk, he still smiled when we talked to him.

Celebrating Mom the Destroyer

My mom passed away exactly 2.54 years ago today. To mark this anniversary I’m sharing a brief anecdote from her life, one involving violence, drunkenness, profanity, and murder. Incidentally, this explains a lot about my behavior.

Mom always detested one of her brothers, mainly because of all his lying, mooching, drinking, and screwing around. The rest of the family apologized for him and said it was because he’d been in the war. Mom said no, he’d always been a mean, no good bastard.

As a young man, this lying brother suckered someone into loaning him money to build a beer joint. A beer joint was a little bar where people drank beer, danced and engaged in unfortunate shenanigans. There weren’t many places in town to socialize, and the alternative was church. Most everybody hung out at beer joints.

One night Mom and some friends were hanging out at her brother’s beer joint. My not-yet-married father was absent, but he heard plenty of first-hand accounts later. My lying uncle got as plastered as Versailles, and he started knocking his wife around. Mom picked up some object (no one remembers what) and cold-cocked her brother with it. He was not entirely flattened, so turned and slapped his assailant. Then he saw who he’d slapped.

In my father’s words, “That’s when he knew he’d made a fatal mistake.”

Although petite, my mom proceeded to excoriate not just her brother but every other person in the building. She employed screaming, obscenities, moral outrage and physical intimidation to ruin everyone’s good time, followed the whole way by her brother who was crying and begging to be forgiven.

Dad arrived at the beer joint a little while after the calamitous blow had landed. There were no cars in the parking lot. The lights were off, and the door was locked. Mom had chased everyone out and closed the place down. It didn’t open the next day. In fact, her brother left town for a while, and his beer joint never opened again.

Mom had murdered it.

During her lifetime Mom told me this story two or three times, corroborated by my dad. Not everyone can say they’ve single-handedly slaughtered a place of business, and she told this story with lots of amusement. As well as pride.

And a certain amount of threat.

Artist's conception of Mom and her brother
Artist’s conception of Mom and her brother  (courtesy of cats chasing dogs)

No Misery on Thanksgiving

I have been commanded by faceless internet tyrants to write a post about Thanksgiving. The message just showed up on my Facebook page with no explanation, but containing a hint of threat. Since the people running the internet can now ruin anyone’s life as easily as dropping a towel on their spouse’s nice, clean floor, I’m afraid to say no.

So, here’s the story of the most miserable day in my dad’s life, which he told me about last night as we ate pizza for Thanksgiving. After he came back from the war in Korea, he was stationed with a jillion other marines at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. His superiors decided to stage a big amphibious landing exercise, just to keep everybody from getting bored.

If you’re part of an amphibious landing, that means you start on a ship, then you climb down the ship’s side on a net as if you were a homicidal howler monkey, carrying everything you need to kill people. At the bottom, you drop into a floating metal box called a landing craft, which takes you to shore and forces you to run onto the beach and fight because part of it falls off, rendering it no longer seaworthy.

That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Someone chose to hold this exercise during the winter. Even though San Diego weather is constantly temperate to the point of catatonia, on this day the temperature was in the 40s. However, the marines were dressed appropriately for invading a tropical island held by the Japanese Army, so it was okay.

After all the marines had climbed down into the landing craft for the exercise, the wind blew up some rough seas. That was no fun for anybody, but it really wasn’t fun for the guys on the first two landing craft that reached the beach and flipped over in the surf.

I like to imagine that somebody said, “Everybody back to the boat!” However, unloading marines so they can climb back up those nets is slow work when the landing craft and the ship are both jumping around like frisky dolphins. Every craft had to wait its turn. Steaming in a circle. Tossing around like Satan’s personal carnival ride.

Now comes the really miserable part. The sea water was 18 inches deep in the bottom of my dad’s landing craft, and every man got seasick except him and one other guy. This added a modest quantity of vomit to the sea water. For the next four hours they went around in a circle, as wet as tadpoles in a windy 40 degrees, propping up helpless seasick men so they wouldn’t drown in their own vomit. Once they did reach the ship, my dad helped tie all the seasick men to bosun’s chairs so they could be hoisted up.

At this point my dad said he and the other survivor “ran up that net like squirrels.”

So in the spirit of the holiday, my dad is thankful that shit isn’t happening today. Happy Thanksgiving!

Artist's rendering of the beach in question
Artist’s rendering of the beach in question

My People’s Nonchalant Regard for the Facts

Someone at your memorial will speak the facts. They’ll say you were born then and died now, describe the work you spent your life doing, mention the people you loved who are still alive and the ones who died before you. Everyone in the room will already know those things, but they’ll expect someone to say it all anyway. It’s a declaration that yes, you did live and now it’s all right to say what they remember about you while the memories are as strong as they’ll ever be.

When my people memorialize our dead, first we tell the facts and then we tell the stories, which are far finer than mere truth. We don’t exactly lie. The events really did happen, but a little creative plumping is expected. If the deceased were allowed to attend, he might feel embarrassed, but he’d probably sew on a couple of his own embellishments. Bigger stories make better memories, and this is the time we want the best memories we can get.

After my uncle’s memorial yesterday, my sister lamented that she’d forgotten a story about him until after we had left. My people particularly like stories about what sort of child a person was. It’s as if we think childhood tales show our real selves before life lowers curtains of artifice around us. My sister and I have heard this particular story dozens of times from my mother.

When my uncle was seven years old and my mother was five he took her to the department store to see Santa Claus. It was a different world then, and no one worried about these children tracking down some holiday fun by themselves. At the store they joined the long, long line to see the jolly elf, whom they referred to as “Santy Claus.” The line moved slowly. My uncle, a vocal boy, expressed impatience, especially towards the heavy-set woman just in front of them.

After some length of time that my mother never detailed, my uncle lost patience with the inconvenient facts of his situation. He kicked the woman right in the middle of her backside and said, “Get the hell out of my way, fat lady, I’ve got to go see Santy Claus!”

My mother never described quite what happened next, but we were always laughing too hard for it to matter much.

Now my uncle is gone, my mother’s gone, and certainly the fat lady and Santy Claus are gone as well. But we still have this story that we can share to explain who my people were and how we got this way.

My mother on Santa's lap, experiencing her first PTSD attack.
My mother on Santa’s lap, experiencing her first PTSD attack.

Photo from Buzznet
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