It was a Friday night in December, 1998, when my sister Julie and I got the call that my father was dead. She and I and her boyfriend, Ron, were sitting in the living room of our San Francisco house sipping wine and talking when my sister Lauri rang and I answered the phone. Lauri was quick to the point, “Mer, dad died.” Julie looked up when I asked in a serious voice, “what? What happened?” I quickly said to Julie, “dad died” and she let out a gasp and a short sob. I did not. I listened to Lauri’s explanation, how he was found in his condo on the floor next to his bed, how he had apparently been there several days, how his doctor was not surprised and conjectured the cause a heart attack or stroke. I hung up the phone. I was not very sad and only mildly shocked. He was 66 years old.
There were times over the years when I spelled it out for my father, explained that his lack of ability or apparent desire to relate to his children, his cold and erratic behavior, his indifference and emotional immaturity would eventually lead him to being old and alone. It was a plea of sorts, for his sake and mine, for the sake of my four younger siblings, for the sake of their unborn but planned children, his future grandchildren. It was all to no avail. He asserted that it was his life. And he was right. And so he died alone. And I felt no guilt for that fact. I had done my due diligence, more than once, more than a hundred times. But there is a little more to the story, the story of my father’s end.
In the fall of 1998, Julie and I had not spoken to my father in five years. It was by tacit agreement, because of his inability to deal with us as adults who wanted to address some of the fucked-up-ness of his parenting and the traumas of our youth. He had no interest in such a thing. Julie and I had discussed it at length and concluded finally that the costs of a relationship with my father were far greater than any benefit. And so we simply made no effort to be in contact with him. That lasted till the fall 1998.
Earlier that year Julie and Ron had their first child, Devyn, and my sister Lauri and her husband had their son, Ian. Lauri had remained in touch with my father and so he had met Ian, but he had never met Devyn. One afternoon Julie asked me if we might invite my father to thanksgiving dinner, let him meet Devyn, just to be kind, to close that loop if nothing else. I thought for only a moment before saying yes. And so it was arranged, through my sister Lauri, an invitation to James Lee to join us for Thanksgiving. He said yes.
It was a four hour drive to Lauri’s house on the Central Coast where we all met for Thanksgiving. I remember the drive, being a bit nervous as I contemplated meeting my father for the first time in five years. I thought about the letter I had written him before our split, how I had shared my recollections of his abuse and had made a few simple requests. His response was written and included the line, “I have consulted with my minister and attorney and I am asking you to cease and desist.” My father was not a religious man and I had no idea what minister he was referring to, but his legal assertion made it clear he feared I was planning to sue him. I was not. The thought had never crossed my mind, not once.
One of the things I had asserted in that letter to my father is that I would never again call him “dad,” that hence forth I would refer to him by his first name, Jim. Although I did not share this in the letter, for me the word “dad” had become deeply marred, perverted beyond redemption. Calling him Jim also signified that I would no longer relate to him as a dependent daughter. I would be something closer to his equal, at the very least, an adult.
As we pulled up to Lauri’s house early that afternoon on Thanksgiving Day, my heart raced, my adrenaline surged, my breathing was rapid and shallow. I stopped on the porch to take a deep breath, then I opened the door and immediately saw my father sitting across the room. I stepped aside and Julie, Ron, and Devyn entered before me as my other siblings shouted hellos and rushed to the door with smiles and hugs. At last I walked towards my father and was shocked by what I saw. In those five years he had become an old man, thin and pale—his skin sagged and he looked depleted and small. He stood before me, trembling slightly, his eyes watering and filled with fear. I reached out my hand, smiling, and said, “hello Jim.” He shook my hand and said, “hello Marie, nice to see you.” And then he relaxed a little and so did I.
The rest of the day and evening was a strange kind of normal. We all helped prepare the meal, chit-chatted, joked, drank wine. There was no discussion of the past, of the splits, the abuse, the letters. And then early in the evening my father said he was heading back to his hotel because he wasn’t feeling well. It’s the last time any of us saw my father. Two weeks later, he was dead.
The day after my sister Lauri called with the news of my father’s death, all four of my siblings met at our house in San Francisco where we rented a minivan and drove towards my father’s home in Reno, Nevada. During the four hour drive we talked and laughed and despite the solemnity of the occasion, we had a good time together. We arrived at our hotel late that evening and settled in before heading to the casino where we parked ourselves at a two-dollar black jack table and played cards until 3am, getting drunk on free beers the waitresses kept coming. My father was a long time compulsive gambler and we thought it a fitting way to bid him farewell. We cracked each other up, laughed with abandon, and we all left the table with more money than we started with.
The next day we met our Aunt Estelle at our father’s condo. As soon as we opened the door we were smacked with the distinct and overwhelming stench of death. Although my father’s body had been removed, the smell of his death remained in the stained carpet next to his bed where he had fallen. Despite the freezing winter temperatures we immediately scattered to open all the windows to air out the place. And then we started the strange journey of considering the state of our dead father’s home, the place he had lived out his final years.
The place was a mess. Every available plane was covered with junk mail, magazines, newspapers, and porn. The furniture, the dishes, the towels and bedspreads, almost everything in the condo was familiar. The place was filled with the mundane things of our youth, the simple comforts of our family home, the home we had left years ago, after my mother’s death and before my father bought the condo and retired to Reno. And there was some hint of what my father had done for the past five years. He was apparently a man taking stock, looking back, perhaps trying to make some sense of things. This was quite unexpected.
Covering the living room wall were cheap picture frames filled with pieces of my father’s life. There were old pictures of family I had never known, pictures of him standing next to airplanes, a lunar capsule, SpaceLab, the projects that he, as an engineer, had contributed to in his 30-year long career in Aerospace. There were pictures of him in the army and as a young man, a teenager, a child. Also framed were his high school diploma, achievement certificates from work, and the BS degree he earned later in life going to night classes at Long Beach State. And there were pictures of us, his children, at various ages—school pictures and sports team pictures, and a few snap shots of family holidays and such. The frames were hung randomly, close together, completely covering the large wall—they were crooked, didn’t match and were cheap like what you find in a Walgreens. I stood there looking at what my father had deemed worthy of his wall, and in some way, I was shocked to see that I had made it up there. It was an irrational response, perhaps, but it was how I felt.
We were all surprised to see evidence of my father’s apparent self-reflection. In his condo he had never received one of his children as a guest. Not one of us, not once, had visited him. This was not the result of some kind of cruelty on our part. It was simply the logical upshot of the choices my father had made. It was an equation of his making and this scene, his isolation, his lonely death, is what logically followed the equal sign at the end of that equation.
My father was a veteran having served four years in the army, stationed in Germany during the Korean War, and was therefore eligible for veteran burial benefits. The instructions in his living trust were simple and explicit, he wanted to be buried in the veterans cemetery in Sparks, Neveda, just outside of Reno. We all agreed to cremating his partially decomposed body and then made arrangements for the funeral and his burial at the cemetery.
The funeral was attended by me and my siblings, our partners, Devyn and Ian, two longtime family friends of my brother’s, and my Aunt Estelle. The only other guests were an older couple who lived in my father’s condo building, and two older women from the Red Cross where my father had volunteered. The service was short with a perfunctory reading of some military stuff, a thank-you-for-serving-your-country kind of thing read by an ancient veteran, and then a 21-gun salute that scared the shit out of Devyn and Ian. One of the vets folded a flag and handed it to my Aunt Estelle indicating that he thought she was my father’s surviving widow. No one stood up and said anything else. And then it was over.
Soon after the service Julie and I headed back to the condo to continue cleaning and sorting my father’s belongings. The doorbell rang and I answered it and saw the neighbor man who attended the funeral. He stood there, serious, sadness in his eyes and said, “I thought you girls should know this. Your father came home from Thanksgiving very excited because he said he had reconciled with his girls. That’s all. I just thought you should know.” We thanked the man and then he left. Julie and I looked at each other quizzically, “reconciled with his girls?” There was no way for us to know that on that Thanksgiving Day my father was trying, in his own way, to reconcile things in his life, in his waning years and declining health. And perhaps Julie and I had a place in his contemplations, were on some list of things-to-do in his head. And although Julie and I had not considered our meeting with our father any sort of reconciliation, our father had. And I think it interesting that it was only days after that Thanksgiving meeting that he died.
I do not miss my father. I cried little after he died and this stood in stark contrast to the devastating and protracted grief I experienced when my mother died nine years earlier. But a few months after my father’s death I was punched in the gut by something unexpected. It was sparked by a book I read.
My Old Man and the Sea is the true story of a father and son who sailed a 25-foot engineless sloop around Cape Horn. The book’s format is an alternating perspective, one chapter written by the son, the next by the father, and so on. It presents an honest and loving relationship between a father and his grown son, including the father’s encouragement and acceptance of his son being the skipper, the two of them working together on a small boat, sharing a challenging adventure, joking and laughing, talking about life, love, women, and sailing. It’s the kind of relationship I would have wanted with a father. And as I finished the book I was overwhelmed with grief. And I sobbed. I realized that somewhere inside me there had still lived a little girl who harbored that dream, the dream of having a kind father, a father who was a mentor and could become a friend, a father who cheered me on and celebrated my success. And as unreasonable as that hope may have been, it was now, finally, crushed by the death of my father. It would never happen.
I did not mourn my father. I mourned the father I never had.