Happy Birthday, Daddy
July 29, 2020 Were he alive today, my father would be turning a hundred nine. He has been dead thirty-seven years. I have been fatherless for more than half my life. It’s hard not to think of him today. On the day he died, he was exactly the same age as I am today, and he left so abruptly there was no chance to say good-by. He simply got up one morning and stepped into the stall to take his morning shower. Before he had time to rinse, still holding the soap he was lathering, he dropped dead of an arterial sclerotic heart attack.
At first, I counted myself lucky. No lingering illness, no accrued resentments, no relief that it’s finally over. Over the years, however, I have accumulated a few regrets. When his birthday rolls around, on Father’s Day, at odd moments when a smell or a taste will remind me of his smile or his red-faced anger, I envy my friends whose parents lay dying long enough for each to recognize the love that binds.
When my father died, I hated him.
Or so I thought. The deep fissures between us had broadened as he aged. He increasingly mistreated my mother, remained aloof of my life. He was a difficult man to love. But I did.
When I awake in the middle of the night filled with desire for a rapprochement, or when I feel crestfallen that the voice I hear in a crowded area cannot be his, I am certain I loved him. I just failed to show it.
In fact, I could be downright nasty. Especially when he insisted on bringing me rotten vegetables.
In his final years, as his arteries closed and his eccentricities hardened to madness, my father developed a close personal relationship with the produce manager at the north Phoenix Basha’s Grocery Store, halfway between his home and mine. Each morning, before he began his salesman’s rounds, he would visit the store, where said manager gave him access to all the greens and dairy products scheduled for the garbage heap that day. Dad made it his mission to liberate all that seemed remotely edible, salvageable, usable, and he would bring them to me — some, he thought, to feed to my kids, some to nourish their pet rabbits. Unable to avoid my mother’s vitriolic protestations, he could take none of it home.
In the late spring weeks preceding his death, as the temperatures in Phoenix grew increasingly toxic to anything trying to breathe or remain green, I believed that I had finally managed to convince him that I did not appreciate the gifts. I was only intermittently at home and could not rescue them from the heat.
I was surprised, then, when, after a two-week hiatus, he knocked on my door one morning just as I was about to leave for work. By the time I opened the door, he was already driving away. At my feet lay a particularly pungent assortment of goods already surrounded by a swarm of bees, gnats, and flies: wilted parsley and limpid carrots mingled with yellowing broccoli, viscous cauliflower, oozing melons and swollen yogurt cups.
I knew even then that he meant no malice. The not-yet-totally-rotted offerings were an expression of fatherly devotion. He had come of age at the height of the depression and could not tolerate waste. Regardless, I screamed at his open car window, “Dad, don’t you get it? I don’t want your shit!”
I was a most unaffable offspring, a daughter born in an age of rebellion, which I embraced. I rejected every truth he held to be self-evident from the sacrosanctity of our nation to the salvation in his religion. I forced him to accept that I would never be a lady, never be the kind of daughter-wife-mother he wished I could be. Still, he loved me. I never doubted that. Nothing I ever did caused his him to cease loving me. He gave me life then saved it.
In the misty fog of my earliest memories, we lived in a small trailer parked next to a ranch at the base of Sandia Mountain, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The owner of the ranch was a Native man with kindly, rheumy eyes, who loved his horses and loved my father, who also loved the horses. Dad was on the road much of the time, but when he was home, he proved himself a horse whisperer. He’d speak softly to a wild stallion, offer his hand and perhaps a treat, and in no time anyone could ride that horse. One day, when I was still new to walking, I wobbled into the paddock and fell down at the feet of a newly-corralled yearling. My mother was about to scream when the ranchman silenced her and tapped my father’s shoulder. Dad got down on all fours and crawled, softly humming a gentle tune, then easily grabbed me from the danger zone and flung me back to my mother. The horse never so much as snorted.
Maybe the woman I was, who treated him so abominably, just wanted the protector daddy back. That daddy was long gone.
He was never easy. Incapable of honoring simple conventions, he broke my schoolgirl’s heart over and over, when he failed to materialize at a school function, a play performance, a concert, an award ceremony. I learned to hate the Protestant work ethic that kept him away. I wanted a present daddy. Conversely, when, as a young adult, I repeatedly failed to thrive, I always found the revolving door unlocked. He offered no welcome hugs or words of encouragement, but my bed and three meals a day were mine until I was ready to leave again.
As he aged, he grew ever more socially inept. He had a penchant for dressing like a character in a no-budget production of any play by Beckett, presenting himself as destitute and alone. One morning, while filling our jugs at a water machine near Safeway, my son cried, “Mommy, what’s that old bum doing by that dumpster? He’s going to fall in.” Alarmed, I investigated and to my horror found my father about to lose his grip and fall headlong into a pond of decomposition.
On the road, he was a menace. I often saw the old man at the wheel of his car, careening down the highway writing in his accounts book. My children thought it was funny. I was horrified.
Why was it harder for me to accept the eccentricities of his aging than it was for him to accept my iconoclasm? I was 36 when he died, and I had somehow evolved into the kind of judgmental shrew I loathed in my youth and abhor today.
Why could I not extend to him the comfort he once gave me?
A traveling salesman, he was often away for days at a time. He’d return in the night, and before he shrugged out of his houndstooth plaid overcoat, he would enter my room to say hello and goodnight. Then the combined smells of motor oil, cigarettes, coffee, and winter cold wrapped me in reassurance as he sang me to sleep in his tremulous tenor. “The Old Rugged Cross.” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
At Sunday dinner, which he never missed, his April blue eyes would water with pleasure as he recited the Canterbury Tales Prologue in its original Middle High English.
Mostly, though, he was grimly serious, a kind of Calvinist Sisyphus. The moment he sensed his rock might reach the top of the hill, he shoved it back down so he could start again. Such a daddy is not fun. But he deserves unconditional love.
He didn’t live long enough for me to grow out of my narcissistic cynicism. I know, as I should have always known , that he could never be what I wished for. That he was a damned sight better than the fantasy. A walking paradox, he made my life, my heart, my emotions complex and compelling.
My kids were his most grateful beneficiaries. They always appreciated how lucky they were to be his grandchildren.
A few months after Dad died, on our way across the desert from Phoenix to San Diego, we stopped to use a toilet at a dilapidated stand-alone gas station in the middle of a wind-blown, desolate field. It was gruesome, filthy. As I held my younger daughter over the toilet so her bottom would not touch the seat, I heard my older daughter scream, and I nearly dropped the child. Somehow, I managed to finesse it so that I neither disrupted one child’s business nor ignored the other chilld’s anguish.
“Mommy, look,” she yelled, pointing to the figure of a man heading into the vast emptiness that surrounded us. “That’s Papa.”
Sure enough, bent and angular, rather like an anglo Kachina doll, the man my child pointed to could be no one else but my father. On his back, he carried a large bag from which the jangling of empty cans echoed abrasively, and he walked deliberately forward until he simply evaporated into the dusty horizon.
“Where’s Papa going?” my youngest asked. “Why doesn’t he come talk to us?”
“How can it be Papa?” worried my son. “He’s dead. It‘s not Papa.”
“Can it be him, Mommy?” My first daughter asked. “Can it?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It sure looks like him.”
“I think it is, Mommy. I think he just wants us to wave goodbye.”