I. Memories of a Girl Still Alive
When I was 19 I saw my dad for the last time. It was summer. It was always summer. He scrounged up enough money and convinced someone to let him rent a car. Three hours later he showed up at my mom’s house with crushed beer cans in the backseat. I remember how awkward it felt trying to talk to him like we knew each other. The real truth was, he hadn’t remembered my birthday since I was 12. I remember wanting to die of shame when he asked to see my bedroom. Just imagine how obvious it felt that we were mere strangers.
The day I turned 13 years old I waited for my dad to call in my pink and yellow elephant pajamas so I could tell him all about becoming a teenager. If you don’t remember, when you turn 13–it’s a big fucking deal. Eventually I overheard my mom on the phone with him in her bedroom with the door shut, demanding that he call me. “She’s been waiting for you all day Mark.” I had to sweep it all under the rug and pretend I didn’t know the truth when he called me a few minutes later. “So how old are you again?” he asked nonchalantly, like it was as insignificant as the weather in a faraway country no one’s ever heard of and no one will ever care about. Suddenly being a teenager meant nothing.
When I was 23 I was going through one of many breakups. This time I had discovered my boyfriend was doing what they used to call “cyber sex” with some chick who went to the first college he flunked out of. He told me it’s the same as watching porn and I was overreacting. So I decided to overreact and got drunk on whiskey and cured my hangovers with Xanax for a week straight. That lil stunt got me sent home from work in Ohio and straight on an emergency flight back to my mother in Pennsylvania, after my boyfriend pleaded with her on the phone at 3am. “She’s crazy”, he hissed.
My mother immediately took me shopping at the mall for new shoes.While trying on a pair of shoes and debating suicide to get revenge on my boyfriend for not loving me enough, I got a call from a dreaded 570 area code. I knew better than to answer it, but of course I answered it anyway. Of course it was my dad who had disappeared off the face of the Earth months ago. “I just hit the streets!” he told me in a playful, hungry, tired voice I barely recognized. I knew that meant he had just been in jail again. Before I could say anything he had to get off the phone, cuz it wasn’t his phone. Cuz he just hit the streets.
I pretended my dad was dead long before he actually died. It was easier for me to tell people my dad was dead than to admit he was alive and just didn’t care enough to be in my life in any real way. When I was 16 my dad signed away his legal custody in court. He lost physical custody years before that. He looked me in the eyes and told me he couldn’t afford child support with his “beer and butts” fund. My kid brain thought, gee he’d sign my existence away too if he could. He cried until my mom dropped the thousands of dollars he owed in back child support, so that he could get approved for SSI Disability benefits. He promised he’d pay her back once he got Disability, but he never paid a dime. Then he died penniless.
For over 10 years I slept with a box of my dad’s jail cell letters under my bed, bullshit promises from the ghost of a father who I never, ever got back. The father who liked British prog rock music. He listened to Yes and Genesis and Emerson Lake and Palmer and Pink Floyd as loud as he could. I can’t shake him off whenever I hear the looped cash register and jingle jingle intro to “Money”. Sometimes the words to “From the Beginning” just float into my head, alongside layered guitars and that crooning synthesizer solo that never wants to end. The father who liked to bake himself in the sun and slather himself in tanning oil and sit in chairs made for the beach with a fly-swatter in one hand and a non-alcoholic beer in the other. The father who let me stay up late on Friday nights and watched TV with me til I drifted asleep on the couch and then carried me up to my bed without waking me. The father who loved to mow the lawn and adored his tomato plants in the back yard. The father who lived to make me laugh with silly little dances. That one.
Since my dad died I’ve tried as hard as I can to remember everything good I can about him, before he disappeared in his demons. But the real truth is, I’m grasping at straws. His absence is all I can remember. How he just wasn’t there. How he failed me.
My mom tells me he was a charismatic guy, how he could always command a room, was always the center of attention, always making people laugh, always knew what to say next. She says I’m like that too, but I wonder.
Growing up, I felt a lot of things but mostly I just felt invisible.
II. Memories Of A Dying Man
Last night I visited a dying young man in the hospital.
He’s been dying in the hospital for 12 days now. That’s 288 hours and counting. It doesn’t matter what he’s dying from, because death doesn’t care how you get there. Death just wants you dead. This young man who’s dying in the hospital is a husband and a father. But even that won’t save him, cuz death just gives no fucks. Sitting there by his bedside, staring his death in the face, watching his breath stagger, I wondered what he’s possibly thinking about on his 12th day still alive. Has his life been slowly flashing before his eyes for 288 hours? Was he thinking of all his mistakes? All his regrets? All the things he should have done and all the things he wished he’d said? Was he stuck in memories? Memories that make him feel warm and safe and free? Or memories that make him feel cold and already dead inside?
I was sitting there by this dying man’s bedside, trapped in my own memories. Thinking about my own father. My father was dying in the hospital for 16 days before his heart finally stopped beating. I didn’t get to sit by his bedside. I didn’t get to hold his hand. I didn’t get to tell him he is loved. And I certainly didn’t get to say goodbye.
The funny thing about memories is once I go to one, I have to visit them all. Suddenly I’m bouncing faster and faster through fragments of feelings and faces and events. Be here now disappears as I spiral like a fractal through seemingly disconnected stories by this dying man’s bedside–connected only because each one happened to me. So I conjure them up, one by one by one…
My dad died on Black Friday on November 27th and when he died, he died alone. His lungs were infected with cancer, he had only one kidney left, and his liver had betrayed him. He had a wet brain full of ammonia and irreversible brain damage. He was 56 years old.
My dad’s last words to me on August 21st were:
“I want to blow my brains out with a .38 but I’m too scared”
We were on the phone for the first time in two years. My dad was experiencing amnesia, confusion, slurred speech, loss of motor coordination, deep depression–a part of him knew he was dying and that it was too late. But to me he was already dead.
I was in a Hyatt hotel just outside Salt Lake City, Utah with some guy I barely knew who was already calling me his girlfriend. We were temporarily stranded in Salt Lake City because his car broke down. Again. His muffler fell off before we left San Francisco. His radiator exploded in Marin. His brakes went out in Reno. I told him this is what happens when you buy an old ass Mercedes Benz from a desperate cokehead for $1,000 cash, no questions asked. Now the alternator had failed and it was only a matter of time before this whole thing blew up in our faces. And when I say that, I’m talking about so much more than just that piece of junk car.
It was summer and the sun was shining but the air conditioner was turned down to 50 degrees. I was shivering but covered in hot sweat. I could barely breathe. Since summer started I had somehow been robbed and bamboozled by gangsters in Cambodia, somehow become homeless, somehow gotten a job trimming pot on a farm, and now had somehow fallen into a dangerous infatuation with a guy who was an Aquarius just like my dad.
One day on the pot farm, a frantic woman who I didn’t know called me to tell me my dad had lung cancer. Again. The first time he got lung cancer, he had to be put into a coma for two weeks so that he didn’t die from alcohol withdrawals before they could remove the cancer. The phone call was bizarre, not only because there was no cell reception on the farm. The woman claimed to be my dad’s girlfriend (even though he was still married). She said they thought the cancer had spread to his brain because he was having balance problems and memory problems. He was experiencing a loss of brain functioning. I guess they never bothered to google symptoms of liver failure. It must be the lung cancer, the lung cancer must have spread to his brain. Turns out alcoholics thrive on denial. I hadn’t heard from my dad since Easter two years ago and I immediately panicked from hearing this woman’s advice, that maybe I should let bygones be bygones and just accept my dad for who he was. Because I couldn’t.
I was covered in marijuana pollen (also had scabies but I didn’t know it yet) and it was itchy as fuck in this 90 degree sun. An old lady I met on the pot farm gave me a set of runes to consult. She was an indigo child and a supreme healer in a human body, if you believe in that sort of thing. She had watery blue eyes and her hands were cold to the touch but warm to the feel as they gently took mine. In this moment I was unraveling and a bunch of stones with the ancient Nordic alphabet carved on them were all I could hold on to.
I pulled the rune called ‘Nauthiz’. It lay there reversed in the sun on the wooden picnic table. Nauthiz is the great teacher disguised as the bringer of pain and limitation. I was being told that I needed to find the restraint to cleanse my past with my father. I was being challenged to turn the darkness into light.
“When something within you is disowned, that which is disowned wreaks havoc”
I was disowned and I was wreaking havoc. That same week I met my new boyfriend on the same day he bought the busted up Benz. Within in a few weeks we decided we must be in love. He told me it was fate that we’d met because he was going to take me to my father to make amends. It just so happened he was about to drive back to the East Coast.
It was fate he said. So off we went.
It just so happened that on the day we got stranded outside Salt Lake City, I decided to call my dad’s girlfriend’s phone number, the one who had shattered my reality on the pot farm. I demanded to speak to Mark. I didn’t call him my dad.
My last words to Mark were:
“maybe you should just do it Dad, just do it, be free”
When I remember this moment I always hear the deafening sound of a dial tone, ringing on endlessly, but there wasn’t one because I was using my cell phone. My memory just has a flair for the dramatic.
Before our last words to each other my dad kept crying, “I’m never going to see you again”. He must have said it at least 10 times. I didn’t know how true he was at the time. But I never saw him again. I never spoke to him again. I never even made it back to my dad’s hometown.
It was fate I guess.