I Have Not Mourned My Father
My autistic adult son is my truth-teller. And today’s truth makes me wonder, in my solar plexus, whether I am a monster.
I am explaining to him the origins of Halloween, a holiday he hates because of its preoccupation with horror. “Traditionally,” I say, in my best teacher-voice, “‘All Hallows’ was a time to remember people we loved, who had died. Like I might remember Granddaddy.”
My son looks up, surprised. “Really?”
“Well, of course.”
He knits his brows. “You just didn’t seem very sad when he died. I mean, I guess you were sad. But not like if Nana died. Or Dad. You seemed…satisfied.”
My mouth goes dry. I loved my father. I did cry when he died. That is to say, I teared up. And at the funeral, when that soldier I’d never met got down on one knee and handed me that flag, I cried. I did.
But I realize suddenly that my son saw me express more grief over our family dog, who died six years ago, than I did over my father, who died a year later. And that word he said? Well, I don’t know how to respond.
Today I planned to finish my novel, which has to do with my father. And I will finish it; I will. But I find myself in a state of uneasiness. What kind of monster does not mourn her own father?
When Mom calls an hour or so after my talk with my son, I think about not answering. Instead, I tell her that I am unable to be helpful today if she needs counsel. That looks extraordinarily selfish written down.
I have been listening to Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score. Today my face, my throat, and my gut are all alive, as if something menacing is trying to burst out of my body. And I won’t let it. Maybe I write so that I won’t have to. Maybe because writing’s the only thing that keeps the monster fed. That monster who won’t mourn.
Mom knows this novel is knocking me for a loop. She wants to reassure me. She wants me to know that there were good years — so many good years. She wants me to know she’d have had to take me and my brother out of state if she’d left Dad earlier.
She wants me to know I saved his life.
A few weeks back, she allowed me to read her journal, written in the last year my father lived with us. She was very close to the age I am now. She had told me the things the journal described; I had seen many of them happen. But experiencing them through her eyes, I felt what it was to be a woman belittled, bullied, and threatened, when divorce was frowned upon. I read all the inadequate advice she was given by “experts.” (Just tell him to get a different job.) I saw how, despite his treatment of her, she didn’t want to be cruel to a sick man.
If lots was known about mental illness in those days, no one ever sent our family the memo. In fact, I didn’t believe my father had a mental illness. I just knew that this person who could be so kind and charming one minute, could turn on a dime if you didn’t say things the right way. And Mom never said things the right way. Having the right words was my department. Or so I believed.
On the phone today, I try to explain to Mom why I will never be anyone’s message service again. Why I don’t want to hear about “the good years.” How I already know that Dad loved me.
Mom reflects. “He said you were the only thing he had that was all his.”
This is the first time I have heard this. It takes me a moment.
I feel I should stop here to state that my father was never inappropriate towards me sexually. I know this is a burden so many women carry; it is not one I’ve had to bear. But being my dad’s “best thing” was an affliction I did not understand until adulthood.
I have a memory of myself at five. I am wearing red corduroy pants. It’s after dinner and I am singing, over and over, a song of my own creation. It goes, “Come home Daddy-King, come home Daddy-King, come on home.” My mother holds the phone up so that my father can hear.
Today Mom tells me she has wondered, in all the times she summoned the police when Dad threatened to go to the Aurora Bridge, if they ever found him there. She remembers hanging onto the car door as he drove off, dragging her along. He was shouting, “You can’t stop me.”
“I know you hate me telling you this,” she says, “but you did save his life.”
And for a millisecond, something comes into focus.
I’ve seen myself as a kind of wise-woman, tapping into the life-force to channel the correct words when someone needs my help. I’ve seen myself floating on a cloud of healing, letting it flow through me, leaving me untouched by pain. Maybe Mom saw me that way, too.
But all those times when Mom was out of options — when she handed me the phone and said, “Talk to him” because she knew he would listen to the only thing he had that was all his — I was a child.
True, I was fifteen by the time I knew what the stakes were. But even at fifteen or sixteen…or forty, I was no sage. I was a child, begging my father to stay alive, begging him not to leave me, because it was the only thing I knew how to do.
After the divorce and a period of homelessness, my father did nearly suicide. But at the last minute, without my knowledge or intervention, he got help: hospitalization, a diagnosis, medication, a low-rent apartment.
Sometimes, in the years that followed, I’d make a pedal-to-the-metal drive to Seattle when I couldn’t reach him on the phone. I’d burst into his apartment dreading to find a body. But there was no body. He lived. I won’t say he thrived, but he became, if possible, content, surrounded by books, a few friends. He welcomed the grandchildren as they came along. We went to the movies and out to dinner regularly.
His last four years, in a nursing home after two strokes, he longed to go back to the independent life he’d never have again.
The day before he died — in his last cogent hours — my mother fed him dinner and told him she loved him. “Please come back,” he said.
The next day, my brother and I and the grandkids took over. My brother found John McCormack’s version of “The Bard of Armagh,” as he’d promised him. I held Dad’s palm in mine, and we kept vigil until nightfall. Until the end. He did not go in rage. He did not go by his own hand. While satisfaction does not feel like exactly the right word, there is another word for it: relief.
After writing this, my body seems back to normal for the time being. Evidently, I’ve fed the monster sufficiently. I’ll end with a poem from Considering Flight, which became the catalyst for the novel I’m finishing.
Mom takes me to an expert
so I will understand.
“Sometimes they use a straitjacket,” he says,
and I see you
all in white,
down the steps of our house,
down the walk. The car will be white, too.
I am my mother. I have to be.
No one else can be her, so I can’t
look at you anymore. You’ve become
the red-face man.
You must understand how it is:
we can’t be
a stupid bitch anymore.
We can’t go hiding
our bruises in motels.
anymore on the thin glass of threats
But I want you alive,
She is giddy
the night before she beats you to the punch.
Let’s bury the hatchet, she says, Then never again
for the rest of your life.
I wish we had not said that.
You study editorials while I steal looks at you —
the seer knows how deep
the hatchet cuts.
Enough now. I must execute my mission:
Don’t tell Tom; he’s only twelve.
Watch instead for signs of rage.
Dial this number.
They will come then. They will take the red-face man
in their strong arms
and they will sing to him:
sweet and low, sweet and low,
wind of the western sea
Over the rolling waters they will stay
the course of my treachery.
They will take you,
white in the dying moon,
they will hold you,
low, low, breathe and blow, they will
blow you again to me.