My father was dead before I started Kindergarten. I can remember my mother telling me, on the morning she was dressing me for my first day at school, that it was a shame that he had not lived long enough to see that. I can remember her hands straightening my collar, but I cannot see her face.
I wonder sometimes if every family in a similar situation reacts like ours did to the death of one parent. I wonder if the time of that death in the lives of the children changes anything. I wonder if it’s different if a mother dies instead of a father. And yet I have no actual desire to sit in a room with other people who lost a parent in their childhood and “deal” with it. I have never had any such desire, to be surrounded exclusively by others who share a pain I live with and revel in our wonderful sameness.
My father worked at King Lumber Company. He was a big man, although perhaps I only remember him that way because I was so small. King Lumber Company had a huge lot filled with forklifts and piles of lumber. You could smell the raw wood, and sometimes smell it burning when the screaming electric teeth of the power saws chewed through. There were boxes of nails on high shelves and rows of silver tools. My dad, whom I called Daddy, would show my brother and I around and I thought it was the best job in the world.
He built a patio onto the back of our house. He built planters next to the driveway. My dad was a real Dad, building things with his hands, working in a lumber yard, driving a huge Dodge home every night to eat the dinner my Mom would cook for us. We’d sit around a dinner table and sometimes go outside into the back yard under the blue skies and pull loquats off the tree he’d planted there, biting through the sweet flesh of the fruit and sucking on the collection of smooth round seeds inside before spitting them to the ground, which was a cool thing to do.
But I didn’t know that my Dad didn’t like his job until he suddenly had a completely different one.
When you’re a little kid you never ask why things happen, they just do. It doesn’t even occur to you that there are such things as reasons because you’re not really part of life, yet. Stuff goes on and that’s just the way it is. You get something for Christmas because you asked for it. If you didn’t get it, you didn’t get it. Someone else decides when you need new clothes. If it were up to you, you’d never get new clothes.
One day my Dad stopped working at King Lumber Company and started working for the local paper. I didn’t know what that meant, exactly, but I was a little unhappy about that. I mean, King Lumber Company had forklifts and tools and big, noisy saws! What could the newspaper possibly have? Desks and… typewriters… and more desks.
But my mom said it was a better job and my dad would be happier there. Turns out my Dad had a creative itch that couldn’t be scratched by forklifts. He wanted to be a writer, he wanted a byline, he wanted to do something that made more of a dent in life than peddling knotty pine.
Everything else kept on the same as it had, as far as I could tell. The other kids would still come over at dusk and my dad would give us all helicopter spins on the front lawn, grabbing one wrist and one ankle and flying us laughing through the air. We’d still go out in the street and play baseball. He was still coming home for dinner, he’d smoke his pipe every once in a while, he’d kiss me goodnight after tucking me in, his whiskers rough and comforting against my cheek.
Less than a year later, he was dying of cancer in a hospital bed with no chance of survival.
My brother told me once that the cancer started from a mole on his neck that had been irritated by his collar. It spread quickly into his bloodstream and it was everywhere in his body before he knew anything was wrong.
My mother asked us all to come into her room. She sat us all down on her bed and told us Daddy would not be coming home again. That Daddy was dead, whatever that meant, and that we should go to our rooms and think about that. So I did what she told me to, like I would be doing less and less as I got older, and waited for someone to tell me when it was okay to come out again.
I never cried. I still haven’t.
After that, my childhood loses focus, for the most part. There are few memories that stand out, and perhaps it is because I designed my life that way. I could not tell you anything in particular that happened when I was 8. I don’t know the difference between 11 and 12. School was not much of a challenge except on the playing field. Why did I stop playing any sports? Why did I not want to be on any teams, or join any clubs, or do anything to stand out?
I don’t know. I know that the same is true today. I know that I don’t enjoy going to parties and when I do go, I have to get drunk pretty fast or I’ll stand in the corner for twenty minutes trying my damnedest to become one with the walls before venturing away without saying goodbye. I know that if I could, I would travel through my personal life in anonymity, and I have mostly succeeded. I know that I have never been in love, and that I never will be.
I know that I am uncomfortable in my own skin. I know that I enjoyed acting because I could become someone else, someone other than myself. I know that I never believed in God, and only said I did at times because I was either scared that I might burn in hell or that the people I was with would want to challenge me and I’d have to explain something that you can’t explain. I know that I spend way too much time thinking and not enough time doing.
I know that I am afraid of nearly everything.
The Hyper-Extended What-If Scenario
And for all those reasons, for the awkwardness of my youth and the darkness of my thoughts and the numbing pain of self-inflicted aloneness that I have assigned myself to, I wonder how it could all have been different but for one small tragedy over which no one had any control. I wonder how my life, my life, how my life would have turned out if my father would have lived.
Life is a strange and horrible wonder. It is something which you believe you can control, which you ache to control, but which spins out of control at all the wrong times. I think some people find it easy to get through, and I both envy and pity those people. The envy is probably easy to understand, so I’ll only explain the pity.
See, even though there are aspects of my life I would change in a heartbeat, I also know two more truths about life. I know that I’m better off by far than most of the people struggling to live through another day in this unforgiving world. I know that no bombs are dropping on my block, I am not starving, I am not suffering from a newly discovered disease, I am not dying, I am not even in pain. And I know that an unexamined life leaves one unsatisfied and ignorant, because it is those times when things go wrong that tests you.
I believe, looking back, that on this test I probably got a 65, which is fairly high but still a failing grade. I accepted things too readily, I didn’t question other things in time for them to make a difference and I believed what people were saying even though I felt they must be wrong. And they were wrong, but I believed them.
I have another test coming up this year. I wish I could say I am prepared for it, but you can’t prepare for what’s to come. That’s the whole problem with the future, isn’t it?
But it’s also the good part.
June 7, 1999