Family Circus Circus

It’s been an interesting few days at Casa Blockhead. First, I got this swollen spot on my right cheek—nothing too Elephant Mannish, just kind of an extra ridge above the cheekbone—and after some tests and bloodwork my doctor told me last week that I have Hepatitis C. An ultrasound on the 16th will reveal the extent of liver damage, and depending on those results I’ll either have a maintainable problem or a big problem; the doc, for what it’s worth, sounds optimistic, saying I’d be showing more signs if I had advanced cirrhosis. The news means I’m almost certainly done with booze—the best-case scenario would be “one or two, every so often”. That’s less than a big deal, though—my drinking’s been nose-diving on its own for 2-3 years now. I still haven’t opened the bottles of scotch or Beaujolais I got last Christmas, and I really don’t miss any of drinking’s attendant bummers, especially the crippling-ass hangovers that gobble up half a sodding day. How I contracted the hep, though, that remains a mystery. Dr. Dave seems sure it was from some rather stupid behavior I indulged in circa 1978, and that might well be the case, but I’d swear on a stack of Tibetan Books of the Dead that I’ve tested negative since then. I can even hear some doctor telling me I was clear of hep—I just can’t put a name or place to the occasion.

Anyway—so there’s that.

Then, this last Sunday morning, I checked my mail and found a letter from my dad. We haven’t spoken since ’87, when he came out to visit for a couple days and we got into a booze-fueled argument over the way he was treating the wait staff in the various bars and restaurants we happened to hit that day. (It was in the middle of a freezing winter, and in one deserted bar he gave the bartender so much grief over the heat being out that when he asked, “Do you know somewhere warm we can go?”, the bartender shot back, “Try Hell.”) Communication blackouts lasting 23 years would be pretty weird in most father-son relationships, but in our case there was actually a precedent for it: we also went from 1961 to ‘83 without any contact. ’61 is when he ditched my family—told my mom he was going on a business trip and disappeared into the Chicago night, leaving her with an eight-year old daughter and six-year old son. “What if he had stayed?” turned out to be the great what-if of our lives. But he didn’t, of course, and because he didn’t, we were all in for a very long and fantastically fucked up ride.

That ride got infinitely trickier in ’83. I was in Houston, where I’d been working for Shell Oil, and hating it, for a few years, when Shell announced a layoff program. They were suddenly willing to pay me $10,000 to get out of their face, a dream situation ranking even higher on my wish-list than a world of universal brotherhood, and I immediately started making plans to move to San Francisco. A major snag was that I was going to have to tell my family (also in Houston) that I was leaving, and I’d pretty much cut off contact with them a couple years earlier. My mom, who was fairly heroic in the early years after Dad’s departure, transferred more and more of her bitterness onto my sister and me as we got older. She couldn’t separate her kids growing up and leaving the nest from her husband having abandoned her—to her they were just different forms of desertion. She was a funny and well-read woman, and our house was always filled with smart, productive people, and for a few years in the mid ’60s she held a deeply gratifying job as a community organizer in LBJ’s poverty program, but none of it could ease the pain of what that sonofabitch did to her in 1961. Everything was personal to her (she nursed childhood grudges against her siblings to the end of her life), plus she’d been a lush forever, so as she got older she grew angrier and angrier, more histrionic and destructive. She pored over books like Eric Berne’s Games People Play, not for self-awareness, but for tips, the way West Point cadets study the tactics of Sun Tzu, and to salve her ego she employed gambits so emotionally monstrous that Tennessee Williams would’ve been stunned by them. The manipulation and the constant drama ultimately  grew too much for me; the guilt of cutting off one’s own mother had become easier to deal with than the pain of going through life with her.

But just as I was plotting out how best to drop the news that I was moving to a far-off city, and getting away for good, word came through that she was dying of lung cancer. (Salem cigarettes, three packs a day.) You’d think that that would’ve provided fun enough for good ol’ God, but no, He was just getting started. About ten days later my phone rang, and it was my sister calling to say she’d just gotten an interesting call—from our father. It was the first we’d heard from him since John-John Kennedy was crawling around the Oval Office. He was in bad shape: flat broke, both arms broken (from maybe a fall, maybe a beating), sleeping in Vegas hotel lobbies, and down to the last tooth or two in his mouth. Sis was sending him a one-way ticket to Houston and offered to put him up until he could get back on his feet. Thinking about it now, his arrival let escape town unscathed; with that circus going on, no one noticed me slipping out the back flap of the tent. I got away to San Francisco while he spent the last few months of ’83 trying to make things up to my mom. There was an initial reunion between them, and after that a series of visits where, if I understand right, they sat and talked about everything under the sun—even joked together. He managed her finances while my sister dealt with the live-in nurse, and together they ran her household.

In early April of ’84 he called and said that it was time to make my goodbyes to her. I was booked to fly back on a Friday, and on the Thursday night before the phone rang—it was Mom. Her voice was a dim velvety rasp in between gasps for air. She said a lot of nice, conciliatory things which a day or two later I’d understand were actually veiled goodbyes, but I wasn’t thinking that way at the time, so I just kept saying, “I’ll see you tomorrow, I’ll see you tomorrow.” After we hung up, she waited until the nurse left the room, then somehow made it out of bed to where the morphine was sitting. When the nurse returned, she was already curled up on the floor, and she died while my plane was in the air the next day.

I’ll skip the memorial service, and I’ll also skip the visit to Houston a year later, by which time Dad had magically moved into a new condo, bought a new car, and gotten new dentures, all by selling rare coins for a company operating out of a grimy little storefront. (His knack for finding money has always lagged one crucial step behind his talent for losing it.) That was also the trip where I met my younger half-brother—another mess, resulting from yet another busted marriage. In ’87 my pop came out to San Francisco with a “Doris” type—a big-haired, aging floozy; he installed her in a motel room, then took me out to get drunk. Then we’d had that fight, and the silence, until last Sunday.

This new letter—it only runs a few typed lines—merely says that he’s been searching for me and that he has “a number of things” he wants to talk about, and scrawled at the bottom in some giant, shaky handwriting is his phone number. A pre-printed line at the top asks the reader to excuse any spelling errors since he’s suffering from macular degeneration, and indeed the last line reads: “P.S.S. Please Sall.” I actually did an Internet search for him a couple years ago, and found a listing for someone with his name in Arizona. I’d figured it might be him (and it was), but I could never pull the trigger and call him. On the one hand I felt like whatever was done was done, and there was no reason to reopen such a miserable can of worms, while another voice kept whispering in my head that he’s, you know, my fucking father, and we aren’t going to be around forever, and how am I going to feel if I let this last chance go by without even trying to talk to him?

It took him a while but he made up my mind for me with that letter. I spent a couple of hours reading and rereading it, and playing my World War II videogame and staring blankly at the TV, while I tried to Zen it all out. He picked up on the second ring when I finally dialed the number. He sounds strong and lucid; more importantly—to me, anyway—he sounds like he finally gets it. Where he’d always dodged the subject of his deserting the family, he brought it up himself this time, and said he’d spent a lot of time thinking about the question I asked him in ’87: “Why’d you do it?” The answer he gave me goes back to his own upbringing—he was adopted and raised in the Bronx by a pair of Lithuanian Jews, a wonderful man who, sadly, worked far too many hours and a loveless woman who was no day in the park even when I knew her. The specifics of his answer mattered less than the fact that he’d remembered and thought about my question; whenever I’d raised the subject before, he’d only discuss it in vague theoretical terms, as if everything that happened back then was so hazy and penumbral that mere language could never serve to unlock its mystery. We blathered on for a bit about various topics—he likes Obama, for one thing, which is almost more shocking than his thinking about the past—before I finally asked him what he had on his mind.

It was what you imagine. He’s 83, practically blind, and hasn’t got much time left, or at least he thinks he hasn’t. He wants to settle his estate and, incidentally, make whatever amends he can in the process. He doesn’t have much—a few thousand bucks in Social Security payments, an apartment that sounds loaded with old TVs. I told him like an automaton that, yes, I’d take care of it; I still don’t know what other answer I could give. The only thing left to say to him now  is: “It’s all right, Dad.” I’m ready to say most anything else, but that one’s just stuck in my throat. At least, from the sound of things, I don’t have to figure it out tonight. We still have some soldiering on to do.

2 Responses to “Family Circus Circus”

  1. Jason L. Brown Says:

    Jesus . . . I, uh, damn, man.

    Tom, I have two friends who beat hep C. It was a tough course of treatment but they’re both clear of it. I’m sure your doc has told you about the method – and from what I hear it’s not as radical now as it was for them. So there’s that – a few short years ago it couldn’t be cured at all.

  2. John James Says:

    Amazing post, Tom.

    My wife helped check her father into a hospice facility yesterday; he has maybe a few weeks to live. And all this is making me think that tonight I’ll finally pick up the phone and call my father (it’s only been a few months in my case).

    Be well.

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