This is a tough one. In the next few days, it could be meaningless. It could also be timely. I don’t know.
The thing is, my dad’s in the hospital right now. And things aren’t good. The words being tossed around – backflow, heart failure, aneurysm – are all guesses referring to what may or may not be wrong with him. But the way I’m guessing, when your guesses go from the realm of “stubbed toe” and end up in the neighborhood of “heart failure”, it’s not a good thing. Then again, it could be nothing - see how this just fucks with your head?
I’m supposed to know something this afternoon so I could put this off and write it later. But I decided not to because I’ve been spending that past couple of days driving myself absolutely crazy, eulogizing a man who is still alive. Odds are, I’ll probably drive out to Arizona this weekend to see him. It may be to grieve him. I don’t know – and it’s the “not knowing” that’s the worst part.
So, my thoughts today are with my father. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you about my father so I thought I’d do that now. There are some stories you may have heard before but, honestly, when has that ever stopped me?
My father was born just before the outbreak of World War II, on June 8th… or 18th… um… 20th? Okay, so I have his birthday at home; I just can’t remember off the top of my head! That’s what happens when you live apart from your dad for most of your life… but I’m getting ahead of myself. He grew up in the forties but I think his formative time – the time to which he really belonged – was the fifties. Sure, in the forties, he listened to those old, radio shows he loved so much. But it was in the fifties that he got that slicked-back, Elvis Presley hair style he had for so many years, the way I remember him from my childhood. It was the fifties that helped turn him into a right-wing nutjob, that made him think right and wrong meant conformity over individuality, “Better Red Than Dead”, ideas that became so out of place and out of time that he became an anachronism to me more than just an absent parent. These things made him more of a mystery than a father.
He was bold, too. He wanted to be a musician. He wanted to be an actor. He joined the air force and went AWOL. He told me it wasn’t because he was rebellious but because of a girl, which was even better as far as I was concerned. He met my mom in the 50’s and took her to California. They started a new life with no friends or relatives, all on their own, and they had three kids. Eventually, he had to leave. I won’t assign blame but I will observe that my father suffered from the same, chronic dissatisfaction that I, too, have experienced and, on the other side, my mom could drive any man crazy.
I still remember the day he left. It is seared into my mind. I was five years old, not a bad kid but I blamed myself for that day just like we all do. That, and the years after, killed a part of me but they also gave birth to the actor and the writer and, even, the man who I am. So, as hard as it may sound, I can't fault him for leaving. I turned out fine. (Notice how I am not soliticing opinions?)
He left behind a couple of comedy records, one by the Smothers Brothers and another by Don Adams (pre-Get Smart). These were the basis for my sense of humor. I listened to them so much that I can still quote them from memory.
He tried to come back several times, as a father but not as a husband. My mom didn’t really want that and that’s understandable; she wanted back the man she loved. I am left with only a few memories of my dad after he left. I remember him bringing me a race-car set as a child and helping me put it together. I recall the many movies he took us (my brother, sister, and me) to see. Get this, they were always Disney movies and he hated Disney movies. He must have thought that these were the kinds of films you took kids to see, so he did. This is why I had to suffer through Bedknobs & Broomsticks, Herbie goes to Monte Carlo, and That Darned Cat, which is nearly unforgivable all by itself… but I’ll try.
My mom couldn’t have her husband back because the man who was her husband was in love with someone else. Her name was Blanche. The first memory I have of Blanche was at Disneyland. (Not a bad memory.) She amazed me. Here was a woman who laughed and smiled – You gotta understand, my mom wasn’t the same because she was on the other end of it. She was raising three kids on her own after having the man she loved leave her. Dad rarely paid child support – he was no saint, don’t get me wrong. Meanwhile, Blanche received his love and, yes, his money, so… I guess I’m guilty of putting Blanche over my mom. That was wrong. But, you know, the parent who is gone is always the cooler one. He never punishes you or gets angry with you or doesn’t understand you – there’s a certain benefit to not being there.
When he had an aneurysm, I was too young to go inside of his hospital room to visit. My brother and sister could go in, so I was often left outside and only heard about how my dad nearly died that time.
Then, came the time when I saw something I’d never seen before. I was 14. Dad and Blanche brought the three of us (my brother, sister, and me) to spend the weekend at their home. Here, I saw new furniture, a fridge filled with food, and “luxuries” like a TV and a VCR. For those of you who don’t know, I grew up poor. I have no problem with that; it’s the truth. Dad and Blanche’s home looked like heaven. So, being a teenager, I tried to ostracize my mom and live with my dad and Blanche.
But enough about what an ass I was.
Dad and Blanche had two children, one in the late 1970’s and one in the early 1980’s. Two boys. I used to call them my “half-brothers” but, in the end, they became full brothers to me. What I learned was remarkable. Dad was just as much of an enigma to them as he was to me. Nobody understood him. So, in 1988, when Rosa and I got married and Dad invited us up to Washington to get married there – and he arranged and paid for everything – we agreed (why not? We were going to elope!) and I used the opportunity to ask him questions, to try and get to know him better.
Rosa and I disembarked from our train in Seattle around May 19th, 1988, and found Dad and Blanche, Dwight and Richard, waiting. I hadn’t seen my dad in nearly a decade. My first words to this man with white hair was, “Dad! You look so old!” Did I mention that my middle name is “Tact”? He didn’t leave me at the station, thankfully. They took us back to their home in Redmond and I sequestered myself with my dad and started asking questions.
… he answered every one.
… and I still didn’t know him. I didn’t realize at the time that’s not how it works.
My dad loved being a part of my first wedding. He even walked Rosa down the aisle – as strange as that might sound. We were married in front of just over half a dozen people and the one crying, the one you could still hear on the video tape (if I still had the video tape), was my dad. Go figure.
But that got us talking again and building a shaky relationship. Not a house of cards. More like a Jenga.
I don’t think he ever understood why I left Rosa the way I did, which makes two of us. I had Blanche’s blessing but he remained quiet – and I could really respect that. And as the years afterwards passed, hearing him say, “Hi, son,” and ask how I was doing really started to mean something. I don’t know what he felt when he left my mom but, although I know he didn’t understand my divorce, I got the feeling he understood my singleness. He became something of a fan of my acting, but he wouldn’t watch anything with swear words – and that became a juggling act, let me tell you! So, he never saw my plays – the ones I wrote. And he never read my books.
When I was a teenager, after I had decided I wanted to write, I remember telling him, “Dad, I want to be a writer.” My dad’s reply was, “If you want to write, write.” It was a Yoda-like moment, so pithy and wise. What I had blocked from my memory was what a nuisance about it I was being and how he was probably trying to get me to shut up. That’s a good memory, though. I clutch it tight. I think it says a lot about my sense of self, my need for approval, my father’s understanding – both of what I needed to hear and what would shut me the hell up.
Around the same time, he drove down to see a show I was in. It was a show for choir (yes, I was one of those people!) and, as we were getting ready, we found out that Tammy Philbrick couldn’t get a ride to the show. My dad offered to pick her up, so off we went. On the way there, he asked me, “Is this the girl?” The girl? “The one you like?” I told him she was and you could see the smile in his eyes as I introduced them. Maybe he thought we would get married or that we would date or kiss or hold hands, for fuck’s sake! Okay, she wasn’t “the girl”. She was just “a girl”.
“The girl” turned out to be Vicky. After I met her, all my dad and Blanche could tell me was how happy they were that I was happy again. They made me sick. I was fine! Get off my back! I was really afraid for a while, though, that he wouldn’t like Vicky as much as he liked Rosa. I mean, this was my dad, after all. He wasn’t Mr. Sensitive; he was my dad. My dad could be a real jerk sometimes. The first time they met was at our house. Dad and Blanche had come into town and we were all going out to dinner together. And he was so happy to see her! He beamed! And I was glad because that went according to plan: Vicky should never, ever feel like she’s less than Rosa in any way, because she isn’t.
Vicky thought my dad was funny. This just goes to show how FAR OUT OF TOUCH WITH REALITY my bride is. She doesn’t get my jokes but she thinks my dad’s funny? Wrong! Just plain wrong! Wrong in other flavors, too! Filled with great wrongnessitude!
I’m just saying.
There’s a moment I want to tell you about. It occurred at the ending of the rehearsal dinner for our wedding. Everyone moved out of the room where the dinner was held. (For those who know the Hacienda, it’s the large room adjacent to the smoking section and the bridal suite.) I was picking up the check and my dad came out of nowhere.
“What are you doing, son?”
“I’m just getting this.”
He took the check from me and said, “No. I’ve got this.”
I said, “You don’t have to.”
And he replied, looking straight into my eyes, “I know. I love you.”
Which pretty much broke my heart. How could I hold any of the crap he pulled against him now? Oh well. So, he came to the wedding and he danced with my new bride and that was a year and a half ago.
I still don’t understand him. He’s still a mystery. But, you know, every time I’ve tried to pierce that veil he puts up, it ends in failure. I remember one time he came to visit Rosa and me, I put on “St. Louis Toodle”, which was a jazz piece from the 1940’s. I thought he’d get it. He didn’t. He kinda hated it. Every time I tried to bond with him, it just didn’t work.
Then, about a year ago, I was picking up some audio books. I love audio books. I found some old radio shows, which I just love. I mentioned them to my dad, in passing, and found out that he loved them, too. Recently, visiting their home, I found out he loves silent films; I do, too! He asked me about a month ago if I’ve ever heard of Allan Sherman. What? Are you kidding?
Here I am at
Camp is very entertaining
And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining
I practically grew up on that song!
So, I’m just beginning to pierce that veil just the tiniest bit... and now, I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s infuriating.
But I do know this – this is what I get. Whatever relationship I can extract from my dad, is all I get. Nobody gets forever, no matter what relationship you are in. You only have so much time. So, you try to work around the crap and see the good. The greatest sin of all is waste and, as time is all you get in any relationship, wasting that time is the worst thing you can do.
I don’t know if my father is going to heaven. I don’t know if my father is going to hell. I don’t know if my father will be reincarnated. An educated guess would be: None of the above. And that makes this time we have all the more precious and worthwhile and important. But, if I had to chose one such fate, I think my father deserves reincarnation. My father’s life was filled with disappointments and missed opportunities and dreams too big to carry. What goodness he found is to be applauded and the sins he committed are to be forgiven.
Normally, I’d look for some catchy way to end this, but I can’t seem to find one. But that’s okay, too. It keeps going