Sunday, October 27, 2013

My dad died last year. He's not crescent fresh.


So much has happened since I last blogged--I got a new job, I moved to a different city, I got an apartment, I got my home goods delivered from Arizona, autumn has arrived, I took another lover, and then I got a stable Internet connection. That last one is rocking my world. I have not had stable Internet access for 16 months. And as you recall, my blogging habits during those 16 months were atrocious. 

All I can say is that it feels so good to be typing this. I really love picking my psychic wounds on the Internet. It is such a comfort to me.  

I'll soon be updating you on the recent events I mentioned, but to hold you over in the meantime, Ima give you this one about my dad. It's been hanging out with the other drafts on my post list for the past year, and I think this is officially the most late I've ever submitted anything. God. A year late. What is wrong with me? This is why I'm not a professional writer.

Well, the other factor is that I disliked my dad so much that writing about him made me angry, sad, and tired. It was just exhausting trying to make sense of anything he did, trying to weave his actions into some kind of coherent narrative. And my weaving skills are not top-notch to begin with, so it was a pain in the ass to write, the quality of the story still sucks, and thinking about it still makes my head hurt.  

So I said screw it. I'm just gonna post it and it's gonna be imperfect, and whoever reads it is just gonna have to deal with it. Oh well.

I'll start by saying that the death itself was not surprising or shocking. What was shocking was the subsequent uncovering of layers and layers of secrets that further confirmed my previous conclusions that ol' Pops was insane in the membrane. He had some trouble in the brain pan area, as Mr Cheesebrow would say.

You may have read before (in chronological order: here, here, here, here, and here) that I saw Dad a few times in 2011 and exchanged a few letters with him in 2012, and that went over like a lead balloon. Then he died last November, two days before Thanksgiving. 

The death was not shocking because Dad was fucking old. Like, 76. He had the yellow eyeballs and the pacemaker and the jowls and the racism and the homophobia and the "back in my day everything was wonderful" attitude that I can't stand. Then one morning, out at the country house he shared with his longtime girlfriend Shirley, he got up to check his blood pressure, lay down on the couch, covered up with a blanket, went back to sleep, and never woke up. Shirley found him there a few hours later, all dead and shit.

Shirley called the dead people clean-up crew who took him to the funeral home, but she apparently couldn't find my phone number or address, so she sent the authorities to come tell me. I was in the circulation room at the library where I worked at the time, unloading and scanning books about wood carving and dog training, and who comes to the service desk and asks for me by name but the county coroner. 

What would Shirley have done if she'd had only my address? Would she have sent me a letter? A postcard? A telegram? That's how I knew right away that it was my dad, because if it had been any other family member, I would have been informed of the death in a normal way. Like by cellular telephone. 

Anyway, it was the first time a government official had specifically requested my presence anywhere, so that was exciting. For the first time in my life, I was a deceased's nearest-living next of kin. The coroner requested a private area to talk, so we went to one of the library's study rooms, and he was all kind and caring and ready for me to burst into tears, which I did not. He might as well have told me he had a cheese sandwich for lunch, for all the emotion I felt. He gave me his business card (definitely the coolest business card I've ever been given. I kept it as a souvenir "from the time Dad died") and told me to call the funeral home to give them permission to decorate Dad's corpse. So I gave them the official word: Decorate to your heart's content. Draw cat whiskers on his face, for all I care.

In the movies, people always fall to their knees sobbing when they get wind of someone's death, but I did not feel anything, and I'm not one of those people who believes one should honor one's parents if the parents are dirt bags. So I shook the coroner's hand goodbye and finished my shift at work, made some very calm phone calls and texted with my friends and ate lunch, then went to my other job to work the afternoon/evening shift, then walked home and ate dinner and washed up for bed and turned out the lights and still felt nothing. 

Days went by. Still no grief. No despair. No regrets. No heartaches. No tears. No nothing. I told my friends about it and wondered if the more I reported on the event, the more likely that "it" would "hit me" and I would suddenly feel sad?


Since I'd never been anyone's next of kin before, I'd also never made funeral or burial arrangements, so I tagged along with Shirley and my dad's sister and her husband as they took care of the flowers, coffin, burial plot, headstone, obituary, etc. Did you know a modest funeral will set you back about $10,000? Several hundred dollars were spent just on a few small flower arrangements, which I thought was an insane waste of money. "Why do we need all this stuff?" I asked my aunt. "Because it's tradition," she said, "and your dad was a very traditional guy."

I asked my mom to come with me to the funeral. Since she and Dad split up when I was a toddler, my parents haven't been in the same room together since about 1985, and I've never been photographed with both of them at the same time, so I brought my camera along thinking I might take our first family portrait. But as soon as I saw that casket, I became extremely grossed out and forgot all about pictures. My mouth involuntarily scrunched down into a horrified frown. I couldn't take my eyes off of that old man laying in that bassinet-like box lined with white satin ruffles and with handles on the outside. Yuck.

What a morbid spectacle. I can't believe we do that to our dead people—inject cadavers full of chemicals so they don't rot, put clothes and makeup on them, comb their hair, then put them on display for friends and family. Am I the only one who thinks that's completely nuts?? Can't we just slip them into the ocean or something? Or put them in the compost bin? Let nature do its thing, man. Five years ago I formally arranged to donate my body to science so that when I die, medical students can learn from it, and also so that my family won't have to shell out thousands of dollars for nothing.

Anyway, my mom was not upset by Dad's death either, but I wanted her to come to the funeral for legitimacy. Two years ago, when I announced my existence to Dad's family, one of his relatives doubted that I was really his daughter, and since then I've worried about his friends and family thinking I'm a phony, like one of those women claiming to be Anastasia Romanov. But Mom came to the funeral, so I had a really strong alibi should anyone have questioned me. Who knocked her up? That dude in the coffin there. That guy.

How else did I know for sure he was my dad? Well, his name is on my birth certificate, my parents were in a serious relationship when I was conceived, I look a lot like him, and when speaking to me directly, Dad referred to me as his daughter--he never said to my face, "I'm not your father." Besides, if I was going to lie about someone being my father, don't you think I'd pick someone rich and famous and handsome? Call me crazy, but an antisocial, elderly convict from Nowhere, Wisconsin wouldn't be my first choice of fathers to claim. 

If you haven't read the previous posts about that particular detail, the short of it is that Dad didn't tell anyone except Shirley that I existed. He never told anyone else, "Hey, my girlfriend is pregnant," or "Hey, my girlfriend just had a baby; it's a little girl." He never said "my daughter" in a sentence to anyone--not his parents, not his son [Eddie] from a previous marriage, not his own brothers and sister, not his aunts or uncles, and not a single one of his friends. Not his neighbors, not his swing-dancing friends, not his motorcycle buddies, not his military buddies, not his lifelong friends from elementary school. He kept that secret for 29 years until I told Eddie, who told our aunt and uncles. But Dad's friends and extended family were still in the dark.

I've since gotten used to that fact, but still, when I see people at the mall with their kids or I think about being a parent someday, I just cannot fathom what it would be like to spring another human being from my loins and not tell a single one of my friends or family--for decades afterward. How is the human brain even capable of maintaining such a secret?

After I met my aunt and uncles, they were very kind in trying to assure me that Dad kept me a secret because he was just really embarrassed about his criminal past and wanted to protect me from people in town making snide comments. But think about it: what really motivates someone, especially a narcissist like my dad, to keep that massive of a secret for decades? To tell your own family that you're a father of one when you know that you're a father of two? Fear, for starters, and shame. Just like when he told people that his first wife had run off when really he had hid her body after shooting her in the face. He wasn't able to keep that secret as long, but the concept is the same: secrets, secrets, secrets.

And to think, prior to these events I had considered a "secret" to be something like "I farted on that crowded elevator and didn't confess." Now I have a much more sinister understanding of what a secret is, or can be.

So, friends, I cannot relate to you the full intensity of my disgust with secrets while I was standing in the receiving line at my father's funeral, which, because of his actions, also happened to be my debut as his secret bastard love-child. 

What a spot to be put in. Dozens of old people were coming up to hug my aunt and uncles and give their condolences, and after some chitchat they'd eventually turn to me, their faces searching mine. Who the hell are you?

My aunt was very kind and gracious and introduced me to everyone. "This is Hope, Doug's daughter."

None of his friends or distant family had ever seen me or heard of me before, so most of them stared for a minute, bewildered, blinking the confusion from their eyes. "His daughter? I didn't know he had a daughter." And so it went, one person after another after another: I didn't know he had a daughter. I didn't know he had a daughter. I didn't know he had a daughter. I didn't know he had a daughter.
It was a Centrum Silver crowd, so many of them were hard of hearing and had poor eyesight, and were standing a bit too close, with their stale breath and thin lips and yellow eyeballs, the women with their face powder creasing into their wrinkles, and the men with their wobbling jowls and thick white eyebrow hairs growing in different directions. I was at once trying to lean back a little to avoid the bad breath, but also trying to be friendly and warm, but not smile too much lest I give the impression that I was inappropriately happy at a funeral, but not appear grouchy after realizing just to what extent my dad (and Shirley) kept me a secret for the entire three decades I had been living and breathing in this world.

My aunt was in a sticky spot too, as people kept turning their eyes to her for answers. She kept putting her arm around me and smiling, "Yeah, Doug kept some secrets in his time, but now we know about her and we're so glad to welcome her into the family!"

"Well, you can certainly see a resemblance!" some of them said. "My goodness. You know, I saw that [he had a daughter] in the obituary and I was trying to figure out...well...anyway..." And finally they'd address me. "It's nice to meet you."  

You know, my social skills aren't that slick to begin with, but that shit was painfully awkward--didn't matter who you were. How clumsy to stand there and listen to people reminisce about family gatherings past that you were completely left out of. To be at your father's funeral and be the one who knows the least about him, who has the fewest stories to tell about him, who has the fewest memories of him, who spent the least amount of time with him. To be the stranger on parade.

I never even saw the man's feet, for gosh sakes. I don't know if he had short feet or big feet, long toes or little stubby ones, fallen arches or high arches, round toenails or squarish ones. I don't recall ever sitting on his lap, or holding his hand, or really learning anything about life from him. I hardly knew him. 

But it's true that I do resemble him quite a bit, which is disturbing. The most striking thing about his physical appearance was his big, heavy, bulbous, hound-dog eyes. He looked like a cross between Raymond Burr and Uncle Fester.

The eyes don't look that frightening in photos, but in person they were absolutely unsettling. They were just so large and...dangerous. Like the Eye of Sauron times two. 

And I've got the bulging, buggy Uncle Fester eyes as well, along with the big, puffy, purple-skinned lower lids. I try to hide it with smoothing creams and concealer and eyeliner, but most of the time my eyes just look droopy and bloodshot. What can I say? I just have that easy, breezy, natural alcoholic look that is all the rage.

I don't have a lot of pictures that prove my point because I usually remember to close my eyes halfway when posing for photos, but if I forget, this is what happens--the lunatic-on-a-day-pass look. 

"Wait, wait, let's take another one. That picture's going to be terrible--I forgot to close my eyes!"

"There, that's better."

I hate that I look completely crazy when I laugh or smile naturally in photographs. I hate that I have to close my eyes halfway to look normal and relaxed. There have been numerous times where I've looked at someone with a casual, relaxed gaze and they've recoiled or laughed and said, "Wow, if looks could kill!" when I felt my face was in a neutral or serene state. If I lift my eyebrows even just slightly with curiosity or amusement, I look like a wild animal. My big nostrils are from him too.

Thanks, Dad.

But I guess if the entrepreneurial spirit ever moves me, I could capitalize on my odd features, à la Overly Attached Girlfriend:

Growing up, I used to study my mom's face and look at pictures of her when she was young, and I used to study my siblings' faces, and I didn't really see any physical resemblance between them and me, so I just got used to the fact that I didn't look like anyone in my family. Finally, when I visited my dad those few times in 2011, I realized that I DO look like someone. At long last, a resemblance! I'd never known that feeling before, of looking like other people in my family. You know what's weird? Studying your father's face as he lays in a coffin and seeing the old man version of your own face, and watching the pastor close the lid on that face. 

And to see that lidded box perched over a 6-foot hole. 

I still wasn't sad that he had died. Nor was I really dwelling on my own mortality or the fragility of life or any of that. I still wasn't feeling anything except anger and disgust. The events were just so surreal and, well, soap opera-like.  
So with the most awkward funeral ever finally over with and the body disposed of, the next task was to settle the estate. The week after Dad died, Shirley and my aunt opened his will. First I was simply told that I wasn't mentioned in it, which didn't bother or surprise me because at that point I knew Dad was a tool, and I'd always been told he was penniless anyway, so what did I care? Then I was told that Dad had accumulated quite a nest egg in his old age and had willed most of it to Eddie. Well, if Dad had anything valuable, I felt that Eddie should have it, since Dad had made much more of a mess in Eddie's life than in mine.  

A few weeks later I was at Shirley's helping her sort through my dad's things when she let me see the will myself. Section 1 stated:

"I have only one child and his name is [Eddie]."

That's when I finally started to feel something substantial, when I fully comprehended just how shameful and disposable I was in my father's opinion. It was written right there, in plain English. Literally spelled out. For me, for the lawyers, for the courts, for executor of the estate, and all his relations. 
I had a hard time holding it together after that. I managed to put on a happy face for Shirley and kept telling myself to forget it, but later that day I was walking into Target and had to duck into the bathroom, where I just cried and cried and cried. Quietly, of course. Then I had to walk around the store with my goddamned sunglasses on because jumbo eyeballs + crying = red swollen mess that frightens children. 

It would have been different if he had said, "I have a daughter but she gets nothing." Honestly, I would have been fine with that. I never wanted money from him. I just wanted a dad who kinda sorta acted like one, a dad who I didn't have to constantly make excuses for throughout my life when people would ask about my parents.  

Instead, he bluntly denied my existence even to his longtime lawyer and to the courts. Why? Why did he do that? What had I ever done to make him hate me so much, to the point where he couldn't even speak my name to his trusted legal adviser? To where he was happy to let me grow up being raised and taken care of by other people and have virtually no contact with me? Was it because I was born out of wedlock? Was it because my mom came from a poor family with no fancy connections? Was it that I was a daughter and not a son? Was it my evil red hair? I couldn't understand it. I mean, really. Who conducts their personal affairs in this manner?

Did my dad write this will before I was born? No, it's signed and dated May 1998, when I was 15 going on 16. At the time I would've been a sophomore in high school, an A-student involved in lots of extracurricular activities, playing in marching band, going on field trips, volunteering, experimenting with various clothing styles, learning how to drive. So I don't know. I don't know if my mom said something unkind to him around that time, or if he was angry that I hadn't organized a custody arrangement like he always expected me to. I don't know why I wasn't good enough to be his daughter.

Every time thoughts about this subject creep into my mind, I try to immediately chase them away with something else, something happier, because it brings tears to my eyes every time--long tears that stream down the face and aren't contained by a few dainty dabs with a tissue. Long tears need a full-on shirt collar, sometimes even a whole sleeve, and then you've got a snotty mess. What a hassle.

The solution is to not think about it. To busy myself and go about my life and refuse to let my mind go there, because I've searched far and wide and turned over every stone and there are no satisfying answers and I'm just going to make myself sick thinking about it.

That craving for answers is mostly why I agreed to help Shirley clean the house a few more times over the remainder of the winter. I thought maybe digging through my Dad's stuff would provide some of the answers I was seeking. Who was he, really? Why did he do the things he did? Why was he the person he was?

The fact is that I did learn some more things about Dad. Shirley and I sorted through pictures and papers and books and memorabilia. My dad had kept meticulous records of everything. Every letter, every photograph, every receipt, everything he ever touched or thought about had a date and note attached. He traveled a lot, he was dedicated to several hobbies and collections, and he took great pride in his ancestry and family history. But looking through all these things, you wouldn't know that he was a father. A lifetime of stuff, and little evidence of his own children, especially his daughter. No pictures of him holding or feeding his kids or reading them stories or teaching them how to ride a bike. How odd that he was so obsessed with ancestry and genealogy but not with his own offspring. His kids weren't the apple of his eye or his biggest joy in life--they were a distraction from his precious fucking hobbies. An inconvenience, an afterthought, a chore.

My childish scrawl.
Shirley and I also found pictures of him from the early 1960s when he was stationed in Germany. He was dressed up in a full Nazi uniform and giving the camera the "Heil Hitler" salute. We also found a Nazi belt buckle, a pair of Nazi Luftwaffe wings, a "KKK Member in Good Standing" key chain, and a huge binder of hate propaganda that my dad had collected over the years—old essays and articles promoting white supremacy, chauvinism, ethnocentrism, sexism, homophobia, and every other vile idea I despise. After that, I really didn't want to know anymore. Every time I learned something new about him, I just felt even more repulsed by who he was as a person. I wished that he could have been there to see his daughter and girlfriend so quickly and unceremoniously throw all that shit straight into the garbage. If he'd spent half as much time collecting essays and articles about how to be a good dad as he did collecting pieces about how to hate everyone more intensely, he probably would've had children who loved him in his old age instead of avoided him. 

So I'd collected a few more answers about Dad, but the answer was that his was a life full of hate, and a life lived without me. I didn't know what to make of it. Why was he so rotten on the inside? Why wasn't he a good, loving, caring, open-minded person? Why was he such a fucking jerk

I tried getting answers from the man himself before he died, but it was like pulling teeth. I couldn't get a straight reply from him about anything. I would ask him the most simple, direct questions, and he would pussyfoot around it, go off on tangents and long-winded stories about his childhood, get himself all riled up and pissed off about something, then turn around and blame me for whatever it was he'd gotten himself in a lather about. He did that to everyone--and then he'd complain that people didn't call or visit him.

Dude was crazy as the day is long, I tell you what. To this day I don't know how my mother put up with him for five years before she kicked him out. I couldn't even stand a few hours with the guy, he was so obnoxious. And I know that sounds strange-- to complain that he rejected me as his daughter, and then to complain that on the occasions I did see or speak to him that I didn't like him anyway. What did I want, then?

I wanted him to be an okay guy. I wasn't expecting the Disney/Hollywood version of a perfect, loving "Daddy" who showers his offspring with affection and extravagant gifts. I was willing to make allowances for his faults and eccentricities if he would've been capable of honest conversation. I wished that when I asked him questions, he would've answered me. I wished that he'd had a brain that was capable of discussing things in an open, meaningful, straightforward, logical fashion. I wished that he wasn't so mean and that his heart wasn't so tightly packed with hate. I wished that he listened to other people and had compassion for them instead of instantly dismissing them.

The few times I did hang out with him, he never missed a chance to put someone down or call them stupid. He hated everyone—people who rode Harleys, people who drove inexpensive cars, people who lived on the north side of town, people who were younger than him, people who said "closure" instead of "closing," people who wrote memoirs, people who wrote blogs, people who used the Internet, people who read Dr. Seuss to their kids, people who weren't hyper-conservative bigots, people of other cultures or skin colors, people who'd never seen blue suede shoes before, people who didn't go swing dancing, people who weren't interested in model airplanes, and on and on and on. He'd point out total strangers—people he'd never seen before in his life and knew nothing about—and jump to huge (and almost certainly inaccurate) conclusions about them based on their looks alone, and then he'd launch into angry rants about how stupid and worthless that person was and how much better he was than that person. He had the biggest, most diseased ego of anyone I have ever met in my life. 

I once told him, very calmly and matter-of-factly, that I knew about the time he paid for my mom to go to NYC and have an abortion when she was pregnant with me (in addition to bugging her to put me up for adoption and making her take a taxi home from the hospital after birth). He wrote a scathing 3-page reply saying, among other hurtful things, "Do you think you're the first child who was unwanted? My sister wasn't wanted, knows it, and has dealt with it very successfully. And YOU need to deal with it successfully." I later asked my dad's sister about that, and she kind of laughed and said she didn't know she was unwanted by her parents. "And that was certainly not an appropriate response," she said of Dad's reply. 

I once asked Shirley how she put up with Dad's crushing negativity all those years.

"Oh, ya! He was a grouch!" she agreed enthusiastically. "I would come into the kitchen and say 'good morning!' and he'd just grumble and grouse, 'Oh, what's so good about it?' and I just thought, 'Okay, well that's your opinion.' I let him have his opinion and he let me have mine." 

I still marvel at that conversation. She was fine with Dad's shitty 'tude because she didn't see that as relevant to her life. She was a cheerful person and he was a cruel asshole, and apparently they lived peacefully like that for 25 years with no problems. She did reminisce a few times about all the fun she and Dad had when they went on their frequent travels and dancing outings. "We had some really excellent times together," she said. 

I've tried to imagine my dad laughing and having a good time, and I just can't picture it. I'm not sure I ever heard him laugh in a jolly, wholesome way--only in a sarcastic, mean-spirited, schadenfreude way. I can't see him enjoying himself, especially in the vicinity of other people. I joke a lot about being a misanthrope myself, and when I do, Shirley is quick to say, "You're just like your dad!" But in my case it's just a fashionable thing for people of my age and generation to joke about, the same way we joke about Zack Morris cell phones and student loan debt. It's not like I seriously hate people. It's not like I collect binders full of essays justifying my prejudices or turn every conversation into a raging monologue about how passionately I hate complete strangers based either on trivial preferences or on things that are largely out of their control. If I was like him in any way, I probably would've gotten along with him better. I would've thought him a kindred spirit. We would've bonded over our shared interests. But I'm nothing like him, and I take extreme offense to any suggestion to the contrary. 

He was just a sicko, is all, and that kinda makes me mad sometimes. A lot of people (I can name 13 friends off the top of my head) have crap-tastic fathers, but I don't want to be someone who throws a pity-party over it or blames my dad for everything, or really anything at all, because I'm a grown woman and I live my own life now. And the truth is that a lot of things went right in spite of my dad's poor decisions. For example, I'm really glad that my mom didn't tell me about Dad's criminal past when I was young, because I might have internalized it and made it part of my identity. I feel lucky that I had time to grow into an adult with a fully formed personality before finding out he was a convict, because now it's just another bizarre event and Dad is just a person I received some genetic material from. I don't consider myself "a murderer's daughter" or anything, the way I might have if that information had been presented to me when I was young and impressionable, before my brain was done wiring itself. I might have turned out waaaaay more messed up. I might've had nine failed marriages instead of just one. I might've roamed the world aimlessly and thoughtlessly for thirteen years instead of just six.

I'm also extraordinarily lucky in that I happened to have a lot of older siblings on my mother's side who helped take care of me growing up, so I had several parental figures who taught me how to swim, ride a bike, do cartwheels, cook, drive, look for a job, and to have an appreciation for classic rock. A lot of kids have one or more neglectful parents, but not all kids have other people to step in and throw them a pair of new shoes every once in a while, like I did. lucky I was! How blessed I have been! It blows my mind to think of what an amazing and happy circumstance that was. 

And of top of that, I'm extremely lucky that the rest of my dad's family (his son, his siblings, and their spouses) have been so kind and welcoming and they've turned out to be such sweet people. My dad's sister and her husband are like my fairy godparents now. 

Plus I have really wonderful friends. All in all, when I look at the big picture, I see that I've had a lot of strokes of really good luck. I'm so grateful for that, and it makes me so happy. Well, like I said at the beginning, having my own apartment again and a stable Internet connection make me really happy too, but I am so thankful to have such a nice life now, even though my dad was a douchebag. He wasn't crescent fresh, but I'm crescent fresh and my friends and family are crescent fresh (and my friend Emily just got engaged!) and all is well in my little world. Yay life!!