Tuesday, December 10, 2002

My Father's Death

Four years ago today, I got the call that I’d been expecting for nearly two years. My father was dead. He had finally lost the long, agonizing struggle for just a little more time to make up for a wasted life. My father could not try any longer to build a relationship with his neglected daughters (grown now, with children and homes and husbands). There was no way to do everything he could have done.

I don’t even remember what time the call came, who called me, or how I reacted at the news. It’s all there in my copies of sent e-mails, I’m sure. I can go back and look, if I want. But it’s strange that it’s so blank in my memory.

What I know, what I am sure of, is that his death hit me harder than I believed possible. After all, he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 23 months before. The two-year survival rate for that virulent form of cancer is something like 1 percent. I joked, during his endless dying by millimeters, that nothing short of a stake would put him in his grave for good.

I don’t know what wounded him, though I can guess at a few things. Some of the trouble must have been biochemical; he tried for years to self-medicate, trying to balance the raging fears and lusts and angers that tossed him around like a smashed twig in a tornado. Some of it undoubtedly was not biochemical. He was in Korea. He was a medic; I’m sure he saw things he couldn’t forget. He was so young, too: just 25 when I was born.

Some of what he did to me was understandable — maybe not forgivable, but understandable — in the light of his feelings of self-loathing, powerlessness, and rage. As for his mad-scientist glee at seeing what dead animals are made of, what little girls are made of, that’s a sign that he couldn’t or wouldn’t see what others were feeling. In some of my nightmares I have been there, feeling what he felt. Those are the worst dreams I have.

Nor can I deny him free will. Failure can be much easier to deal with than success, so he set himself up to fail over and over. He hurt me because he liked it, because it made him feel strong, because it satisfied a terrible itch in him.

I don’t excuse him, but I see, far better than I could thirty years ago, twenty, even ten, how he could make the bargains with the devil that he made. I know a lot more now about the damage mental illness can do, and I’ve done some evil things myself to survive in intolerable situations. I understand how comfortable he became with the role of evil monster. Later, when his father was dying, he took care of the old man for years. There is some redemption in that act.

The horror to me now is not that he terrorized little girls, but that he made part of me become him. These days, I carry that burden with more ease than I would have thought possible, but then I’ve had more than a decade of therapy. And I have the writing, the best chance to work through this inheritance.

We did come to a kind of reconciliation. I saw more of him in his last two years than I had for the previous twenty. I had spent something like 17 years refusing to speak to him. When in May of 1990 I did talk to him again, I ended up an emotional wreck for months. A few years later, I finally called him up and confronted him about the abuse. At first he blustered, denied it. Then he broke down and wept. (I remember that phone call.) I kept asking him why me, what had I done, why choose me as the scapegoat? There was no answer. He didn’t know.

My sisters and I visited him several times during his illness: at home, in the hospital. He was desperately seeking some kind of connection, some kind of relationship. I did try. I arranged his pre-death funeral — a family reunion over Thanksgiving of 1997, bringing together his brother and sisters, many cousins, his daughters, even my mother, if I remember rightly. There are pictures of us all together. I look horrible in them all — fat, wretched, haunted. He looks like a mad animated skeleton with hair.

We went out to Gettysburg Battlefield, a symbol so fitting I could never use it in fiction to stand for the horrors of my family, but a place where we had spent a lot of time. He’s buried there now. I told him the stories of our great-great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side who fought there, was wounded, and ultimately ended up in Andersonville Prison. He came out weighing 74 pounds. In the old photos, he has the same eyes I do.

At the end, my father knew I was a published writer. He even read the manuscript of a book I’d written about my mother-in-law’s experiences in World War II. He was impressed. I don’t remember whether in his copy I included the careful acknowledgement I had composed for him: “Thanks to my father, who first taught me about the evils of the Nazis.”

He loved history and music and the outdoors. He danced well — a skill I haven’t inherited. (Was it my clumsiness that first attracted his derision?) He was very intelligent, a good talker, a fine singer. He owned hundreds of books.

I know all the stories about women marrying their fathers, and I know it’s much more complex than that — definitely in my case. But since he first got sick, I’ve found myself with breaking heart trying to befriend, nurture, and heal various wounded men. Men who are lost and hurt; men who grieve; men whose impulsive, compulsive, irresponsible sexuality is evidence of a far greater wounding. I’m not stupid enough to get sexually involved with these guys, but I do keep listening to their sorrows and trying to heal their wounds.

If I could have healed you, Daddy, I would.

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