Wednesday, February 4, 2015
I Am My Father's Son
I don't want to write this. Writing is my greatest catharsis, but I don't see much catharsis to be found in writing that my dad is slowly passing away before our eyes.
Today, both my kids are moving out and it is impossible for me to not remember that my moving out of my dad's house almost thirty years ago was on so much less friendly terms. Today, I gave my kids a card with money in it. Thirty years ago on the day I left, there was a broken door and punches almost thrown.
Thank God I made amends with my dad and was able to spend some amazing time in the years following, hunting alone with him and playing cards for hours. That's the happy middle to this story.
Much of the early parts were much more brutal and uncertain. My mom gave me her blessing to share many of them, because it is unfair to whitewash the story of such a sweet, brilliant and often conflicted, tumultuous man.
One of my earliest memories of my dad was from when I was only three. I would ask if I got him another beer from the fridge, could I get the last tiny sip at the bottom of the bottle. I very gradually kept asking while there was more and more beer still left. Finally he realized that his having still half a bottle left was not from me having poor eyesight, but the very calculated scheming of a used car salesman and he needed to keep his eye on me.
A year or so later, he sat me down, like most fathers probably do with their 4 year old boys, and told me that the Playboy in his nightstand was his and I was not allowed to keep sneaking in and "reading" it. When I refused to stop, he tried to modify that rule to my not being allowed to sneak in and read the pictures without at least asking first. Like an army general gaining crucial battleground, I agreed to that compromise. They were hippies, so this was the new normal.
This was also the age mom had to explain to dad that the blood all over his old style razor was from me sneaking in, removing the blade and carving my name in my bed. And slipping. And trying to hide the evidence. So, he knew I was a handful from the start. I have since learned that evil little kids like me are made extra adorable looking by mother nature, so the parents do not throw us away or sell us to gypsies as dad often threatened to do.
I first remember the extent of my parent's violent temper around this time when we were awoken at three in the morning to the sounds of mom carefully moving every book from upstairs to the downstairs without walking down them. Also, she sent down the bookcases. And a lot of F words. And screaming and tears.
Whether it is nature or nurture, I first found I have all the terrible parts of both parent's temper mixed into one, when I saw a bigger kid bullying my older brother and pushing him off a swing. Mom says before she knew I had even left her side, I was already at the bottom of the apartment stairs and halfway across the park. I tackled the bully and kept punching his face until he finally broke free, crying and running away. Paul the III was six and I was four. The other kid was eight and twice my size.
Sadly, both my dad and I have so many of those stories. I remember dad fist fighting a neighbor at midnight on the front lawn of our military housing while their wives screamed at them to stop from the top of the stairs. It was not over quickly at all. Afterward, she wanted to know if he was ok and I just wanted to know if dad had won.
I vividly remember so many countless times mom screaming, "Paul, not in the face!" when dad would lose his temper and hit us two older brothers in the face. She told me later she'd read about Thomas Edison losing his hearing from being boxed in the ears as a child and always having that fear for us. Fortunately for my hearing, my mom can yell very loud and always convinced him to stop and only spank us with the belt. I think my ass wore his belt more than his pants, but I can honestly say I cannot remember never first truly earning it. I worked hard to earn it.
Brace yourself if you have a problem with this. It gets so much worse. And so much better.
One of the many positive things that I owe to my dad is his teaching me guitar. This was not his intention, mind you. I walked in, again at four, to see him trying to teach my older brother guitar and immediately informed him that I could do that much better than him and he needed to immediately make me his star pupil. It was not enough that I be good at guitar and banjo, I needed to better than Paul and eventually dad too. When I caught up to dad, he found a local musician to give me lessons. He also taught us both chess at that age and I applied myself with the similar goal of conquering them both and then onto the rest of the world. We didn't play chess quite as often after I beat dad for the first time.
Our time on the Vallejo, Mare Island naval base was relatively short lived. My older brother fretted about the new baby sibling on the way and I told him to relax and that it was a win-win. "If mom has a brother, we can play with him and if it is a sister, we can pick on her." It turned out to be a brother we picked on, but I was close. But shortly afterward, dad was injured on the naval base and honorably discharged. His training as a teacher and job searching landed him a special education position on an Indian reservation in North Dakota, just a few miles south of Canada. As dad fondly would say, "we spent an eternity there one year", and it was incredibly accurate.
Dad excelled at propelling the local high school track team to win several events at the state championship. He also had the pleasure of calling and informing the state officials they were complete assholes for denying them their awards just for being Indians and not being part of the official state school system.
The local schoolchildren quickly rallied to thank me personally by continuing to beat the shit out of me every day for being white. I'd already nursed a lovely violent temper before then, but really got to see it blossom during this year long eternity. Although I was a fourth grader who'd already entered school a year early, my high aptitude tests moved them to stick me in with the sixth graders. There was a daily raffle to see who got the chance to kick my ass and my dad continued to put boxing gloves on us at home and try to teach us how to defend ourselves.
At that time, my being allowed to hang my first Playboy centerfold on my bedroom wall as a fourth grader was pretty great. But things were more often not so great. In between coming home to the pot fogged filled house and the boxing lessons, I pulled my dad aside and told him that pot was illegal and he needed to get his shit together. My language had long been an issue and I first got soap in the mouth at four. Such a special age, apparently. Mom informed me that I had actually started cussing like my sailor dad at just three, but they waited to see if I would grow out of it. Dad knelt down and informed me that many years ago, alcohol was also illegal in America and eventually pot would be legalized too. I said that was bullshit and got more soap, but I didn't realize how accurate he would end up being.
And then mom ran away.
I called the radio station where mom was a rock and roll DJ and asked why she was gone. Dad had punched her in the face because her drinking had gotten out of control. She had a terrible drinking problem, but was especially drunk that night trying to deal with the stress of her boss sexually assaulting her. I discovered years later that it was actually the third time dad had hit her and the first two times were when she was pregnant with me. I asked what could have led to those events and she said they were both drinking a lot at that time. Finally. A clue as to why I am not so normal in the head.
I hung up the phone with mom who had told me to stay at home. I felt this was perfect advice to completely ignore and told dad I was taking Prescott for a short walk. We meandered the whole mile or two in the general direction of mom's radio station and we somehow finally arrived there. Dad told Paul to look for us and he miraculously ended up there too. And then a friend tried to sneak us across state lines, shortly before a sheriff pulled us over and arrested us.
I remember dad being scheduled to meet us at the battered women shelter and my telling everyone beforehand that we were not getting back together, no matter what. My dad seemed to know I was a lynchpin. He waited a while before he put his arm around me and told me he was sorry and could he please have another chance. It took a while, but my stony, angry disposition finally broke down and with tears I said, "ok".
So many couples and families do split apart and all I can think is how wonderful it is that my crazy, usually screaming parents are still side by side. And I weep at how much I wanted him gone when I was nine, but cannot stand that I am losing him now.
Dad said at the time that the solution was to get the hell out of North Dakota and head back to New York. Not getting my ass kicked everyday for being white was difficult to argue against, but we started to sense a pattern. It was the fourth time to move in seven years and that would turn into nine moves to new homes and schools in nine years. We would make jokes about dad always thinking the grass was greener on the other side, but he would correct us by carefully reminding us that we needed to shut up.
For dad, the grass always was greener on the other side and another city was always better than the one we lived in. He was such a predictable mixture of discontent and hope and ambition.
During this time, the screaming and fighting were never ending. So were the ass kickings for my always being the new kid every year and gradually the multiple suspensions every year for my fist fighting or breaking the law by bringing in drugs and alcohol.
I first got busted for bringing pot to school in the sixth grade and then for sneaking gin into school in the seventh grade. I started the eighth grade with a literal shake to the vice principal's hand telling me in his twenty years, I had broken the school record for the fastest year's suspension. When the bell rang and the doors opened for the first day, I walked up and in ten seconds flat, punched and knocked a guy out just inside the front doors. I knew the vice principal was standing five feet away and was grinning ear to ear when he snatched me by my collar. At least he shook my hand.
Dad knew that as far as a "trouble child" goes, I was particularly special. I was also an amazing liar and convinced him that maybe mom's great aunt Betty next door had stolen one of his Thai Sticks and smoked it. Maybe it was for her cataracts. I forgot how easy it was to monitor the bag with an exact number of pot sticks and I had to think quick on my feet.
Dad started smoking when I was about seven. And I immediately noticed that, unlike under the influence of alcohol, he traded being angry and unapproachable to having a sense of humor and the nicest guy I knew. My specialty by then was saying smartass things while the teachers were trying to talk (and getting sent to the principal and psychologists), but with dad after a few tokes, I could actually get some laughs.
But the violence got worse with both of us. I did unspeakably violent things. Things that would have now gotten one arrested and thrown into prison. From fourth grade onward, I was suspended multiple times every single year for fist fighting. They invented "in school suspension" during my tenure and then even had to create monitor logs because I somehow had to go to the bathroom every period, even though it really was only for a cigarette or joint.
I don't remember why my dad hit me with that four pronged buckle, Navy issue belt for the very last time, but I do remember in my teens when he came swinging at me with it like a whip, metal buckle end out and I had welts on my back for a week. I stood up at the end with tears streaming down my face and calmly said, "is that it?".
My dad earns at least one thousand bonus points for not sending me back to Jesus during this time. When I stopped showing up to school altogether, he offered me some options. He said I could go full time to a military school, a psychiatrist or he could could kill me. I'm not joking. He said that. I offered a fourth choice of going to church every Sunday, since Paul III had just found Jesus and hey, what the hell could it hurt?
I had no affinity for church and secretly thought I had outsmarted his system, since it meant only one hour a week of closing my ears, not being asked questions, wearing a uniform or being killed.
I celebrated my first church sermon by stepping out the doors of Southampton Methodist Church, lighting a cigarette and sticking a tab of acid on my tongue. I told dad against his protests that I was walking the two hours back to the house and I can promise you that it was more than interesting. They didn't have any "how to discipline your fourteen year old" type books at the time.
Then they threatened to hold me back a grade for nonattendance and my college English teacher father stepped in to offer to tutor me for a summer, one eternity. We both hated it, but he leaned in at one point and told me, "you want to make yourself heard and there is no greater way to do that than writing. Every time you talk, people can misunderstand you, but with writing you can always go back and make sure your point is known". For the first time in my life, I started to love English class and writing. Both my parents loved writing and I am most thankful for it.
But despite his summer tutoring successfully saving me from being held back the next year, things were still deteriorating.
I learned without question that my dad was much more lovable when he was high than when he was drunk. When he came home visibly drunk for the first time in a long time, he told us we were all going out to the movies as a family. I informed him they were both drunk, an embarrassment and I was not going to be seen with them. He informed me I was to take all my Playboy centerfolds off the wall (a favorite of all my friends) with my new electric guitar into the yard, because we were going to have a bonfire. I started ripping them down and walked passed him grinning. That's the last thing I remembered for a few minutes. When I woke up, I had a gash on the top of my head bleeding into my eye and I was running for the impenetrable fortress of the flimsily locked bathroom door. It was penetrable. The last thing I remembered was mom pounding on his back as he was choking me and screaming he was going to "fucking kill" me.
I spent the night bleeding and sleeping next door at great aunt Betty's house with no Thai Sticks to assuage my pain.
But I could drink far more than dad. I could drink like mom. After a night of my own particularly hearty enjoyment of spirits and still illegal substances, I awoke to two people dragging me unconscious into my house. After thanking them for their generosity and asking them about my torn clothing, I proceeded to find everything in the house that qualified as breakable and testing it. My mom had a lot of glass things. Had.
The next time I woke up, I was in my bed looking up at the face of my angry dad pinning down my right arm, because even completely blacked out, my hand was now black and blue and bloody from punching things over and over for the last hour. I remember screaming every cuss word I knew at him and then finally saying that he never had loved me. Plastered out of my mind, I will still never forget the look of shock and guilt on his face. He could not say the words, but he leaned down, hugged me and assured me that was not true and that in the morning we would patch all the holes that I had punched in the walls. And that it was probably time to move to another city.
In the months that followed, after several house visits about me from the police (one for grand theft auto), my dad informed me they were moving and driving to the grandparents in Florida but flying me two weeks in advance to get me the hell out of New York, before it was too late.
Things didn't get better, but thankfully they got different. While visiting the grandparent's house, I coaxed my little brother into dad's car and took off for a short drive around sunny Florida. At fourteen. Haha! Kids! Dad still didn't kill me, which is genuinely admirable.
And then shortly thereafter, I converted from staunch atheism to Christianity. I assure you that is a book in itself. And everything was happily ever after.
Just kidding! We still fought like rabid wolverines. It was obvious that the issue was not us as dysfunctional people, but we simply needed yet one other move, to rainy Oregon!
We arrived to the Northwest with considerable more church going and zero drinking, but the screaming and fighting somehow continued. My departure from dad's household included him punching a hole in yet another quite penetrable bathroom door and then my ripping it literally off the hinges and screaming "Let's go! Let's fucking do this!"
He thankfully paused, and with us both standing and shaking with clenched fists and barely controlled rage, he ceremoniously asked me to permanently "get out of my fucking house" and I said fine and walked out. And I never moved back in.
But thank God, that is not how it ended with my dad. A few months later, I met with him and mom and asked them to forgive me. Oh glory, let the stupid healing begin.
I was already engaged and scheduled to move back to Florida where the grass is greener, to enter into full time ministry. I was obviously a perfect candidate.
But the healing did begin.
When we moved back to Oregon and my dad saw me hug and kiss our children and say "I love you" over and over, I saw a spark of regret in his eyes. I still remember the first time he hugged me as an adult and told me he loved me. It was more awkward than a four year old saying he loved spinach, but I will always cherish it.
Is this the happy ending? No. I already told you it only has a happy middle. Pay attention. While still engaged with Amy, she first saw my temper when my bad brakes gave out and I rear ended her roommates car in front of her house. I got out and calmly dealt with the situation by repeatedly punching the hood of my car until it was caved in and my knuckles were bloody. She ran inside crying, wondering if our fairy tale wedding needed to be postponed.
Some will take issue with this making my dad look bad and others will take issue with the language I used. I think dad would agree with me on both points when I say tough shit.
My father made a promise to never lift his hand to strike my mother again and these forty years later, she sits by his side caring for him as he can no longer care for himself. Those horrible, inexcusable moments of wrath and rage were not the sum of his life and neither were mine. He also went on to help raise me. Through every screaming match and broken door, he somehow helped guide me to stay off of drugs, the streets and the incredibly destructive path I was hellbent on going out in a blaze upon.
I have never hit my wife and never, ever will. It is impossible. It simply could never happen. Does that make me a slightly better man than my dad? No. I am my father's son. We've patched more than a few holes in doors and walls, but even that has been quite a few years.
I do not know if my father's dad ever hugged him and told him he loved him, but he should have. I am betting his dad so wanted to say it, even if he hadn't.
In the few times my dad and I spent alone hunting and playing cribbage, I learned how much I am like him and yet so different. He learned how much I am like him in ways, like mom in others and in the end, my own man. One late night in the hunting trailer, I heard the most blood curdling scream in my life. The next morning I found out he felt he slept just wonderfully. He did not even remember the night terror that he had suffered and that his scream had woken me up. I have suffered those myself many times over the decades, but I had no idea that dad did too.
We spent that next morning relaxing in camp instead of grabbing the rifles and heading out. We wasted hour after hour, content with playing cards, smack talking, making jokes and opening up as father and son and friends, just a little bit more than ever before.
I love him so much and and wish I had a happier story to tell. And I probably do. The highlights are usually the loudest, stupidest and most sensational ones.
But I know he loved me. He hugged me and told me so a good number of times before he lost the ability to talk, and it was one of the hardest, bravest things for him to do. And I hugged him back and told him I love him too. And I trust he absolutely still knows it even now, trapped in his failing body and mind.
My father gave me so much. I hate my temper and cannot blame him for it. But I blame him for my love of writing. I blame him for my analytical and critical thinking. I blame him for my believing the grass will always be greener, whether I have to find it or plant it. And I blame him for my believing a broken and imperfect man can seek for redemption and find it.
He was not a perfect dad and I was easily one of the least perfect sons any dad could have ever fought with and tried to raise. I love him so and I so hate to see him go. I love you, dad. In so many ways, thank God, I am my father's son.
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