mercredi 20 mai 2009

Surviving

my father

June 17, 1933 - July 27, 1989

In addition to his wife, [Î remove the names], and daughter, [name removed]are his daughter [name removed] of Connecticut, and grandson, [name removed], 1 1/2.

I didn't consider his obituary. I knew that it was not desired that we know our father had died. Our presence was not wished for at his funeral, but I didn't think about printed words in a newspaper that cut us out. Erased us from his life, from existence.

His death was sudden. She knew he was ill for some time. How long, exactly, I don't know. He coughed, but that was normal for someone who smoked as heavily as he did. He coughed blood, if I can remember what my sister told me on the phone when I finally got to ask how he died. I had imagined lung cancer. It had to have been lung cancer. I knew he was dead because I had searched for his brother, his surviving sibling -- our aunt had died of breast cancer at 40, maybe 42 --, and found him the year before. I hadn't seen him since I was 6. I said, "I need to know how Dad is."

"I never thought I would hear from you again," he said. My mother always liked him, maybe better than her husband. There were issues, she let me know. There had always been tension between them. It always felt like my mother took my uncle's side.

"I have been afraid," I told him on the phone, "that he would die and we would never know."

"I haven't been in touch with your father in years," he said. There were, he told me, ugly things It didn't matter what the details were. They are nothing.

He wrote to me two weeks after Dad was buried to tell us our stepmother had forbidden him, but he couldn't not tell us. Dad had died and was buried. I didn't know where until recently. He is buried near his second wife's family home, where he passed my grandparents' home on his way up there over the years and stopped to see them, when he didn't see us anymore.

He sat in his garage, watching television. Maybe because it was cool there, or maybe because it was quiet. Maybe because it was his space. They used the garage in their first home together as a family room. We ate there sometimes, paper plates set into wicker plate holders. Potato chips and potato and macaroni salads, hot dogs. Lemonade. The things of summer suppers in America, before it discovered "pasta" and espresso, arugula and parmesan cheese in blocks, and not in round cardboard canisters with shaker tops.

She called my sister one day and asked her how he was.

"He's coughing a lot."

"Get his bag packed with his toiletries," she instructed their daughter. "I am coming home to take him to the hospital."

He died two weeks later, in July of 1989.

She had noticed at the Cape, only the month before, that he had seemed weak, unable to do his usual swim off Newcombe Hollow Beach, where he had vacationed for years with my mother and us, before. They had just celebrated their 19th anniversary there. Tired. Pale. But dying? No.

"He told me that he had spells, when he passed out in the kitchen."

"When?" she had asked me on that first phone call. "When was that?"

"It was in 1983." She thought a moment.

"That makes sense now. I remember that my mother had just replaced the linoleum of the kitchen floor, and one day, there was a burn mark in it. Like a cigarette burn. She asked Dad how that had happened, and he didn't know. He must have fallen and not remembered." Or chose not to tell. "He used to get up during the night and go downstairs to sit and smoke in the kitchen."

What did he think during those nights, the gentle man who thought people, and not things, were important? Who believed in service, and who was loyal above all. What did he think about those nights, alone in his kitchen, a cigarette, and maybe another two or three, burning down to his fingertips, ground into the ashtray in front of him, before he fell, the cigarette in his hand burning his wife's new linoleum floor. He knew he was sick. He told me. He knew I still thought about him and cared, that I was still his daughter. I called him. What did his wife think he thought about in the kitchen at night, while she lay in their bed? He didn't tell her. I knew he was passing out. He told me. I knew he was going to die soon. He told me. He died, and no one told them we were his daughters.

Did he think of us? When he wrote the pages and pages in his hospital bed as he prepared to die, not mentioning us, were we in his thoughts?

"Cape Cod was important," she told me.

"Cape Cod?"

"Yes. We went there in the summers."

"I see. So did we. Do you remember where you stayed? Was it near a big white frame house on a bluff overlooking the bay?"

"Yes, it was in a cottage next door."

"Was it off the main route, a left across from the general store, where you could buy cotton body surfers and flip flops, up a winding road to the top?" I still get weak with yearning for the smells of that parking lot, the first place we'd go for the stuff of our vacation, sand under our sneakers again after months in suburban central New York. I longed for our two weeks in South Wellfleet all year.

"Yes. Yes, that sounds right."

"We stayed in that house. The big white house." Maybe it wasn't so big, but it was to me. It had two floors, unlike our small ranch house, with sun streaming through the windows of a glassed in veranda and our bedroom above, white sheers billowing in the sea breeze. There was a sink in a tiny bath off the kitchen entrance. It made a terrible gargling noise as the water went down. We called it "Charlie". "Dad was remarkable for being able to head out to swim powerfully in the surf, even in the coldest water temperatures, off Marconi State Beach and Newcombe Hollow Beach."

"That's where we went, too," she said. "One day, Dad looked over and saw my sister looking up the beach. He and Mom looked where she was looking, and there was her father. He asked her if she wanted him to go to him and ask him to talk to her. She said no."

Did he think of us, wishing we were on the beach with him in Newcombe Hollow, like we used to be, running up and down those dunes, brown as berries?

"There's a photo of Dad with a huge fish he caught when I was little. I don't know what kind of fish it is, or if he caught it in the ocean or on a lake."

"It's a striped bass. He caught it out deep-sea fishing off Wellfleet. It was in 1969. We had it for dinner that night. Dad cleaned it, and we were 13, Mom and Dad, my sister and I, our grandparents and my grandmother's sister and her husband, and my Mom's sister and youngest brother. That's only 10, but I remember 13. My childhood mistaken for her own. My father having replaced us with them.

She brought me a CD of his photos, given to her over the years, scanned with care to make albums for our sister and me, and the back of the photo tells the story in my father's sharp, slanted handwriting, "With my 32 lb stripped (sic) bass taken summer of 1969, So. Wellfleet, Mass. Cape Cod. Aboard the 'Viking', with skipper Capt. Al Larsen." Summer of 1969.

My parents were divorced by January of 1970, both soon to love elsewhere, my mother already determined to move on in her life by that summer in her white convertible on the Cape, Dad gone home before us, top down and the radio playing the songs that marked a year that would be my last with my family. Such a family as it was, as it had become. Not much of one, at all. He found a better one for him, even if something caused him pain. Even if he sat up in the kitchen and smoked the cigarettes that would let him die soon as he "knew [he] would".

"I have a mole somewhere," her hands moving to the skin at the base of her throat, searching for what she couldn't see, but Dad had. "He told me it meant that I would be rich. I was in the bath; I must have been young enough that he still toweled me dry. I was very excited," her eyes grew wide as she remembered how she felt when he told her she would be rich in life, "and I asked, 'Really! I'm going to be rich?' and he answered, laughing, 'Well, no, I don't mean that kind of 'rich'. I mean more like full.'"

I remember. I remember, being bathed by him when I was very little, too, but what did he say to me? I want to remember like she can, every word, and I can't. They're all gone. The only words I can remember are "Your mother and I are going to be divorced. I don't want this. She does."

And my own, after he took me in his arms, where I lay in the dark of my bed, hearing him cry softly, "Dad, we all want this. We want peace and quiet and to be happy." He let me go.
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