Terra Sigillata

Dear Dad, With Love

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.

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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.

“David!”

I finally stopped, wondering perhaps if she was trying to tell me her flight was canceled.

“Daddy died.”

I felt like a ski had caught an edge on my heart.

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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.

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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.

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Comments

  1. #1 pharmsis
    March 12, 2009

    thank you.

  2. #2 ScienceWoman
    March 12, 2009

    This is a beautiful tribute to your father, Abel. I feel like I know him, and I can tell how much he is missed. Hugs.

  3. #3 PalMD
    March 12, 2009

    speechless

  4. #4 John S. Wilkins
    March 12, 2009

    Me too

  5. #5 DrugMonkey
    March 12, 2009

    That was beautiful Abel. Thanks for sharing this man with us. Condolences on your loss, clearly still heartfelt and painful even after many years.

  6. #6 Kevin Z
    March 13, 2009

    Beautifully done Abel. It was the paragraph after the image of you playing guitar outside where I choked. It is writing such as this that makes me wonder how I will honor my parents and grandparents memories when that time comes. Peace Man.

  7. #7 sweet pea
    March 13, 2009

    thank you for letting us into your heart in this beautiful tribute.

    my Dad was far from perfect, in different ways, but boy do I miss him and wish that he’d gotten to meet Erleichda- they would have enjoyed each other

  8. #8 Tara C. Smith
    March 13, 2009

    You sure know how to make me tear up…

  9. #9 Tony P
    March 13, 2009

    A very touching reminiscence.

    My mother died when I was 13 years old. Back then I knew it was metastatic cancer that did her in. I just didn’t know the extent or rather, my suspicions were never confirmed.

    A couple years back my father sent me a bunch of family pictures, papers and things of that nature. In that was my moms death certificate and autopsy report.

    Put it this way, watching my mom die derailed me from ever going into medicine. And reading that report, I’m so glad I live in a more enlightened age where medicine is becoming less art and very much more science.

  10. #10 Evil Monkey
    March 13, 2009

    I feel you, man.

  11. #11 Zuska
    March 13, 2009

    Ah, Abel. Thank you for sharing this beautiful tribute with us. A heartfelt hug to you on this very sad anniversary. I am sure your dad was proud of you, and would be proud to see the way you’ve negotiated life’s challenges in recent years, just as many of us are proud to call you friend.

  12. #12 Jack
    March 13, 2009

    Wow. This really hit me hard. My dad was an alcoholic, probably the same age as your dad (b. April 1939) and died July 1997 at the age of 58 from heart failure due to electrolyte imbalance (he stopped eating and was only drinking at the end). I admire you for being able to reflect on so many positive memories; I could feel your love for your dad. I wish we were also similar in that way. Thanks for sharing.

  13. #13 bioephemera
    March 13, 2009

    Thank you for this beautiful piece. I lost my dad five years ago and it took me several years to get to the point where I could write the anger and hurt out of my system. I never did get to the point where I could share what I wrote with others. I am so impressed with your bravery and sensitivity right now.

    I’m envious of one thing: after my dad died, a friend told me that – like you – he’d had one last conversation with his father in a dream, some time after his death. He told me I’d eventually have that same chance to talk with my dad. But I never have. I’ve seen my dad a lot in dreams, but never like that: I’ve never had the chance to tell him how very much I miss him, and how angry I am, and hurt I am, and full of love, all at once. Perhaps it has to do with your process of acceptance that you got that dream. Perhaps my dream is still to come. I can hope so.

    Time to go wipe off tears now.

  14. #14 bill
    March 13, 2009

    snif… not crying… got something in my eye…

  15. #15 Mike Dunford
    March 13, 2009

    Beautiful. Simply beautiful.

  16. #16 Daniel MacArthur
    March 13, 2009

    astonishing – thank you.

  17. #17 Kiera
    March 13, 2009

    Beautiful and teajerking. Thank you for sharing

  18. #18 Nat
    March 13, 2009

    That was very touching Abel.

  19. #19 Julie Stahlhut
    March 13, 2009

    That was absolutely beautiful, Abel. Your description of your father’s early life bowled me over — you could have been describing my own father, who grew up in a Polish immigrant family in a Northeastern factory town, dropped out of school in his early teens to work in a carpet mill, and was very proud of his Army Air Corps service during World War II. And I went on to college and grad school despite neither of my parents’ having finished high school.

    My dad lived a long life, and wasn’t an alcoholic — but HIS father was alcoholic, and died in his sixties. The family secret really scarred Dad and his siblings; all of them had a reclusive streak that made them difficult to know. If anything, I’m grateful that people can talk more openly now about the effects of addiction on whole families. If it had been easier to do fifty or sixty or seventy years ago, I’d have known my father, aunts, and uncles a lot better.

  20. #20 Isis the Scientist
    March 13, 2009

    This is beautiful, Abel and I know how hard it must have been to write it. It’s not easy to watch a parent who was once the protector of your world become frail and die.

    My mother had the same prayer card.

  21. #21 drdrA
    March 13, 2009

    Abel- Incredibly touching. I’m so sorry for your loss. You are a kind, wonderful, and thoughtful individual and we are all better for knowing you!

  22. #22 Professor in Training
    March 13, 2009

    Dude, you made me cry. I’m sorry for your loss but glad that you are able to appreciate the positive role your dad played in your life.

  23. #23 leigh
    March 13, 2009

    that was so touching.

    i’m glad you still feel love for him after all the alcohol did to him- it sounds like his influence was very strong in your formative early life, and you never let yourself forget that. that’s a good characteristic in you, because it’s easy to overlook the good in favor of the awful. it’s never easy dealing with alcoholism- i know that first hand, but necessarily from different shoes than your own.

  24. #24 Liz
    March 13, 2009

    Wow.

    This is so beautiful and powerful – thank you for sharing it.

  25. #25 Catharine Zivkovic
    March 13, 2009

    Extremely well written. Beautiful and heartbreaking. May you move from strength to strength.

  26. #26 Barn Owl
    March 13, 2009

    Thanks, Abel, for sharing such a wonderful, touching tribute to your father. You never cease to amaze me with your courage, honesty, and wisdom in your blogging. I struggle with finding empathy for those with substance abuse problems, and your tribute is right up there with Verghese’s The Tennis Partner, in helping me to start to understand what it must be like for those who face addiction issues in their lives, and in those of their loved ones.

  27. #27 arvind
    March 13, 2009

    This was a brutally honest post Abel. Written with wonderful tenderness. I can clearly see the benefit you gained from the time that has passed since, allowing you to look back and really explore the nuances of the complicated relationship.

    I lost my father just two years back, and I can completely relate to that feeling of being sucker-punched to deflation immediately on learning. My relationship with my father was far more straightforward, since he was a very happy, laid-back person with whom I didn’t have any conflicts. Yet I have very strong regrets for staying back in the US for several years because of some immigration related issues, and returning to India only on hearing he was on his deathbed in a coma. I have a lot of anger at my old self, at my misplaced priorities, and at the chance I lost of spending time with him in his last years. I wish I would meet him in a dream one day too – just to tell him how sorry I am.

  28. #28 Propter Doc
    March 13, 2009

    Mostly speechless, but this post is beautiful, thanks for sharing.

  29. #29 Mo
    March 13, 2009

    I can only echo what everyone else said – very beautiful, and all the more touching for me because I too lost my father 8 years ago.

    I love the first three photographs of you as a little boy (5/6 years old?) with your father, probably because my son and I are now roughly the same age as you and your dad were when they were taken.

    I really wish that my father was still alive to see my children, and can only imagine how much joy they would have brought him. He is, of course, still with me, and always will be. I have my memories of him; I see him in my own childrens’ gestures and expressions; and I occassionally hear his voice, as I drift in and out of sleep, as vividly as if he were standing right next to me.

    Thanks.

  30. #30 Anonymoustache
    March 13, 2009

    AP,
    I am in tears man. There is something incredibly powerful and moving in there that I think every one of us connects with. Thanks for sharing one of the most wonderful tributes I have ever read.

  31. #31 Lab Cat
    March 13, 2009

    Very moving story. Thank you for sharing.

  32. #32 Joe
    March 13, 2009

    You have proved that, despite me being a curmudgeonly old bastard, I am emotional. Congratulations on an excellent tribute.

  33. #33 Greg Shields
    March 13, 2009

    Abel,
    While I know you from our North Jersey beginnings, you are truly Abel! My father died in 1997 also and it has taken so long to mend. Your touching care for your less-than-perfect Dad teaches me. And your willingness to touch those feelings that I’d rather not visit too often teaches me.

    AB,this is twice now I’ve been so touched by you writing of your experience of loss. The other was when you wrote of our boyhood friend John who perished Sept.11, 2001. I have never thanked you for that posting and never let you know what your writing has meant.

    Now as the father of two little ones I see how precious it ALL is.Thanks,AB.

  34. #34 Italo M. R. Guedes
    March 13, 2009

    Beautiful and touching. I lost my father in very similar circumstances. I think I know how you feel.

  35. #35 Erleichda
    March 13, 2009

    Amazing how our perspective changes with the passing of years. We may not forget the hurt and pain, but we no longer dwell on it, and we begin to realize and appreciate the love that was there, sometimes hidden. Nicely done, Pharmboy.

  36. #36 PharmMom
    March 13, 2009

    Thanks for remembering and writing such a lovely tribute. Had he been alive, he probably would have printed this and taken it into work to show how fine his son writes. Thank you also for remembering the good times, and there were many. I loved the pictures. You continue to make me proud. I love you. Mom

  37. #37 ayse
    March 13, 2009

    A beautiful and moving tribute, AP. Your father’s generosity of spirit clearly lives on in you. xo

  38. #38 Isis the Scientist
    March 14, 2009

    I remained relatively tear free until I saw PharmMom comment. Your mom reads your blog That’s beautiful.

  39. #39 jc
    March 14, 2009

    your story is my story. hugs.

  40. #40 Stiefvater
    March 15, 2009

    I admire you for being so open and honest with yourself and the readers of your blog. I probably could not put anything even close into writing. Do you think that when my time comes you’ll find a few nice words to say about me?
    I love you big guy. Opa

  41. #41 thalarctos
    March 15, 2009

    thank you, Abel. I hope someday to find your generosity and kindness myself.

  42. #42 Denise
    March 15, 2009

    God Bless you and yours! You will see your Dad one day and I know without a doubt you are his best accomplishment here on earth…To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord!

  43. #43 Vijay
    March 16, 2009

    Beautiful & touching.
    As a son with a troubled relationship with my father, I can so understand this essay.
    Thank you.

  44. #44 Abel Pharmboy
    March 16, 2009

    Without derailing all of your wonderful sentiments and shared experiences, please know that you have my gratitude.

  45. #45 Shell
    March 16, 2009

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am holding back the tears.

  46. #46 Candid Engineer
    March 17, 2009

    What a touching remembrance of your father. You captured him beautifully- kind, fatherly, yet human. Imperfect, yet perfect enough. My thoughts are with you as you remember him.

  47. #47 S. Rivlin
    March 17, 2009

    Abel, what one can say, but let the tears run down one’s cheeks, while remembering one’s own parted dad 33 years ago.
    No matter how old one gets, losing a parent always leaves one an orphan.

  48. #48 Heather
    March 19, 2009

    Well done, Abel! Thank you for this wonderful piece. I found much of my own relationship with my dead mother in it, as well as what we lived through at the time of her death. With the comments above, it makes me think that you have simply touched on a universal nerve, lightly, truthfully, and made us readers think. This is why we want to thank you. It may have been your catharsis, but it was ours as well. You did the work and you shared it too.

  49. #49 Arlenna
    March 19, 2009

    Beautiful, bittersweet.

  50. #50 Chuck Butcher
    March 22, 2009

    I’m 21 yrs clean and sober in May, aged 55 and I’d not have made it this far at the rate I was going down. A few days ago I lost my son to suicide at almost 21 – I’m still clean and sober. I posted a piece to my blog to keep the grief from killing me and to help anyone else it might. Your post reminds me once again why I live my life without chemical support, so no one in my life will have the lacks you express and so that the love can be expressed.

    My son had faults and I loved him and now all that remains is the love and the loss, so it goes.

  51. #51 Pam
    March 23, 2009

    How beautifully told. I lost my Mother about 11 months ago, and it is amazing what clarity there seems to be now with respect to our relationship. Neither of my parents went to college, and here they have a dentist for a son and me, the scientist. They gave us gifts, indeed, even if they were sometimes disguised – his generosity, for one. I have a feeling that your Father would have loved having a cell phone…

  52. #52 Mallory Bierl
    June 21, 2009

    I found this as i was looking for information on my own dad who died 3 years ago, when I was 13. This is so beautifully written, thank you for taking the time and sharing.

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