Today marks 12 years since you died.
Well, it might have been today, possibly yesterday, I hope not too many days ago.
You see, you died alone in your apartment you rented from your sister downstairs. Yet no one checked on you as your mail accumulated Monday and Tuesday. One of your drinking buddies from the Disabled American Veterans post told me proudly at your funeral that he probably had with you your last beer that Saturday night. So, maybe it was the 8th or 9th?
When I think back, though, I believe you died some eight years earlier, just after your 50th birthday party. For your wife, my Mom, it was even long before that – she is a saint for staying with you as long as she did – no offense, Dad – and I know she still loves you no matter what.
Our family runs rich with depression and alcoholism but you died exceptionally early; my Dad – the young, fit, handsome fella you were in those pictures with little me at the Jersey shore, at home, or with me in that horrible Easter outfit – had died back then and was replaced for the last eight, ten, fourteen years by someone else.
A different sort of people came to love you then – the leeches who saw you had a decent retirement account and that you were a kind and generous man. Actually, I take that back from the previous paragraph; you never stopped being kind and generous.
I became aware of this when we got the call from the hospital in Erie, Pennsylvania, where you had taken your buddies on a fishing trip. On a long drive without any alcohol available, you had a grand mal seizure and freaked out your buddies. They dumped you in the hospital, but not first without asking to sign out a last $250 from your stash of cash – your signature of approval on the release form was barely readable, but understandable given the amount of phenytoin and diazepam you were given to prevent further subsequent seizures.
My sister, your beloved little girl, absorbed the brunt of those last eight years – she was only about two hours away while I escaped two time zones and 1,600 miles west. I had a postdoc offer – a great one – at the drug company near home where I thought I would work ever since I was a kid. Your brother worked there as a maintenance man but I was to be the one to work there as a scientist. But I flew the next day to Arizona, then Colorado – I knew I couldn’t come home.
But I did fly back to Erie. The social worker told me you needed new clothes because your seizure left you incontinent of bladder and bowel. I was to be prepared that you probably couldn’t walk without assistance, between the combination of drugs and cerebellar degeneration. But, I was really happy to finally be able to do at least one thing to help my sister during this last stage of your life. It was the one time that I could do something after relying on her for so long.
When I got up to the floor, you were no longer my Dad and I was no longer the professor you always hoped I’d be.
According to the attending physician, one who had probably dealt with hundreds like us, you were The Drunk and I was The Drunk’s Kid.
I was told, frankly and in a tone closer to disgust than compassion, that I should expect another one of these traveling episodes to happen but that the next call would be to “retrieve the body.”
We flew you home and brought you back to your apartment. You sat out back for a barbecue with your family while my sister and I stood at the sink, washing a wad of urine-soaked hundred dollar bills given to me when I checked you out of the hospital. The dark humor of hanging freshly washed benjis on the kitchen dish rack kept me and my sis more laughing than crying.
When we tried to walk you back upstairs, you asked how you had gotten home, in utter disbelief that I had joined you in Erie, flew with you, wheeled you through two airports, and back home just that morning. You just wanted to go to sleep. I looked in on you to say goodbye but you were not to be awakened.
Even when one expects a parent to die – from cancer, from heart disease – there is no preparation for when one first hears the news.
Your departure came seven months later at what was to be a break for some of us. My multitasking sister had planned to visit with you at the law office to be assigned power of attorney; you’d been giving out loans of five, ten, thirty thousand dollars from the retirement funds that were supposed to buy the lake cabin where my Dad had intended to retire. Then, sis and brother-in-law were to fly out to my digs for a few days of powder skiing.
The phone rang at 4:30 am and it was my sister – I knew they had to wake early to get down to your place and then to the airport. I apologized profusely that I hadn’t been in touch about their flight because I’d been writing some brand new lectures and, oddly, celebrating receipt of my first big grant. She said, “David.”
I blathered on with my apologies.
I finally stopped, wondering perhaps if she was trying to tell me her flight was canceled.
I felt like a ski had caught an edge on my heart.
Your brother had found you that morning, lying on the floor with your hands folded across an afghan like the dozens Granny had knitted for all of us, just like we all used to do when watching TV. Was it the knowing that you had reached such rock bottom that you were going to have to sign off to your little girl all of your adult responsibilities?
But, one more time, my sister had to pick up the slack and make all the arrangements while I traveled back.
I wish you could’ve seen all the people who turned out for your viewing. I forgot that we had actually grown up in a small town, a Polish factory town with former farmland, despite being right next to New York City. Everyone knew you. And everyone showed up. News traveled fast. Even when I called the insurance agency to cancel your SUV insurance, the agent was in tears because she had already seen your obituary in that day’s paper.
Mom said something awhile back. Sometime after my sister and I graduated college, you told her you had done your job and weren’t needed any longer. You had worked hard – 34 years – and I got my first scholarship from your company so that I could go to college. You helped me a ton, with all the resources you had, and all the sacrifices you had made. But you were still very much needed. And, now that I am a father, you are even more needed – it’s amazing how wise you’ve grown over the last 20 years. I had no idea how much you fought to maintain your pride and presence in an oppressive work environment, how you negotiated marriage and parenting, and how you kept your chin up during adversity. I could’ve used your advice when I faced these things, things I never saw coming.
The education you wanted for me so badly unwittingly drove a chasm between us – you felt I no longer understood you or thought myself superior to you. Your family was so poor that you all had to quit school after 8th grade and get jobs to help the family – just at the end and after World War II. But you got your GED when I was three years old. I can’t imagine how difficult that must’ve been.
But I’m not sure you remembered how you were the first out of anyone to declare that I would be a scientist. You used to take us fishing on the Ramapo River – my sister and me, no misogyny for you, sir – and you’d always tell the story about me catching a sunfish and not wanting to throw it back until I examined its scales, fins, and gills – looked down its mouth.
Today, I am still amazed that the gills of a fish can get enough oxygen out of the water to live.
In fact, I credit you with my love for nature. Despite our growing up among the gray, smoke-belching factories of northern New Jersey, you somehow grasped the beauty and stillness of nature. During the polarizing Vietnam War, you and your brothers first taught me how to fire a rifle. While I never grew to hunt deer like you, I am proud that I can safely load and discharge a firearm. Knowing how to properly dismantle and clean a rifle may come in handy when young suitors come over to court your granddaughter in ten or so years.
Speaking of guns, I never heard or saw you so proud as when you described your time in the United States Marine Corps. You were fortunate, however, to be in during the space between the Korean War and Vietnam. You will not be surprised that your former home of Camp Lejune has been the base of tremendous casualties in the Iraq War.
And reading – you were always reading war books. You encouraged reading by your example. I can’t tell you how much I anticipated your return on Saturday mornings with the holy trinity of print literature: The New York Daily News, The Newark Star-Ledger, and The National Enquirer. For better or for worse, these influences still inform my quirky interests.
Your sacrifices were always made for the benefit of me, my sister, or Mom. I’ll never forget my taking over your freshly-finished basement with a band comprised of my high school history teacher and guidance counselor, girlfriend, and some other friends. For some crazy reason, The Police and Joe Jackson made me think I could be a musician. This you did not understand. However, when we played, “I Think We’re Alone Now,” by Tommy James and The Shondells, I think you appreciated the appeal.
You and Mom were so generous to get me a 1980 Fender Stratocaster for Christmas of my freshman year in college. Again, you didn’t quite understand but you knew that it was important to me. But you told all of your friends that you bought me the Cadillac of guitars. It still is and I still have it – having seen me through 25 years of hacking away with friends over 2/3rds of the US.
But that was you. What the other person needed was what you provided. You were selflessness incarnate. But it came with a cost: you didn’t care enough about yourself. Yes, it was okay to be selfish. But you never had the chance.
The last significant time we spent together, and my last video of you, was at my impromptu wedding, destined for failure before the ceremony even began. When we went down into Denver, it was you who insisted on buying the keg of Wynkoop Railyard Ale. The marriage died, but Railyard is still one of my most favorite beers on the planet and the Wynkoop remains my touchstone. And can you believe that one of the founders of the brewery is now mayor of Denver? You wouldn’t believe how crazy the world has become.
Yeah, so I lost the house in the divorce – quirks of Colorado laws. However, I still have this glorious piece of the American West, thanks to you – a place that you should have enjoyed yourself. Now that I look at this picture, I am reminded that even that 12-string Taylor 855 is owed all to you: when your Uncle Walter died, your siblings got some of the cash but my sister and I split your share. Not a lot, but enough to buy another Cadillac of guitars.
The trees, you can’t tell from the picture but those are piñon pines. Your granddaughter picks cones from those trees to get pine nuts to make pesto sauce. Oh yeah, I got married again – you’d love this girl. She hears these stories and tells me she wishes she had the pleasure of meeting you. Damn, it’s been a long time, hasn’t it?
It was out there, in the darkness between Denver and Albuquerque, that I believe we had our last discussion, maybe a year after you died. I was camping alone, without a tent, in the cool dry Western night marveling at the stars of the Milky Way and a nebula I could see with your old hunting binoculars.
In a dream of myself lying there in my sleeping bag, my sister’s princess phone appeared suddenly on the arid grassland beside me – the very same one with the headset I cracked when a chair fell onto it while I was trying to make time with that postdoc from Edinburgh (that’s a story we’ll exchange offline). They call it a “landline” these days – we now have these wireless phones people carry around everywhere.
The phone rang – I looked around bewildered, but I answered. It was you. You said that you were sorry you couldn’t be there and wished you could be, but you were happy that I was enjoying what you wish you had done yourself.
And you said you missed me.
And I said I missed you, too.
About three-and-a-half years after you left, I got up the nerve to write to the Newark Regional Medical Examiner Officer to get your autopsy report. Like I said, I missed you and that was the last piece of you I could find. Morbid, perhaps, but not for a scientist I’d think.
This document is perhaps my most prized possession.
As with any house death lacking any obvious external trauma, an extensive autopsy was performed the morning you were found and toxicology tests run. The cause of death was listed as bronchopneumonia secondary to chronic ethanolism. A major infection in the lower lobe of your left lung.
The tox screen: 0.01 mg/L phenytoin in the blood, just under the therapeutic concentration for seizure management but reasonable for being between doses.
Ethanol: not detectable in blood or tissue.
You must have really been sick.