dad family grief

On Your Birthday, Dad

On Your Birthday, SonMy father would have turned 72 today. While going through his and my mother’s papers a few weeks ago, I found this birthday card given to him by his father. Fifteen dollars sat inside with the words “Love, Dad” below the rhyming sentiment. He would have received the card on some year between 1969 (the series year for both bills) and 1985 (the last birthday my dad would have celebrated with grandpa).

Wendy and I found a similar birthday card, years ago, from her great-grandmother to her grandfather with cash sitting inside. Both discoveries have bewildered me.

I wonder why they didn’t spend the money to buy themselves a gift. Maybe they didn’t want to put the money in their wallet for fear of using it accidentally to buy some necessity. I imagine they planned to go out someday and get something nice for themselves. Someday exists after the work day is over, and after the commute; after the family time, after the yardwork, after the errands and after the nap.

Eventually, this valuable little gift is shuffled among other papers and forgotten until it is discovered, years later, after all the somedays are all used up.

I’m going to spend this money today, dad, and think of you. Happy birthday, wherever you are.

dad family mom San Fernando Valley

Happy Valentine’s Day, Mom and Dad

Strangers in the Night

My parents met each other on St. Valentine’s day, 1962. They met at a bar in the San Fernando Valley. My mom was there to meet a date. She was then a 34-year-old divorced mother of four who lived with her kids at her parents’ house.

Parents don’t like to talk to their kids about the people they dated before they met their final mate. It’s as though they would rather not show their work in solving an algebra problem. My mom was a little more forthcoming about her pre-marriage experiences than my father was. I know she dated Johnny Grant, the recently deceased “mayor of Hollywood,” who she described as “all hands.” Hearing that ended my line of questioning for the day.

Still, I was the kind of kid who wanted to get to the very root of my origins, the point at which chance comes into play: that night, a bar, the San Fernando valley.

My dad was 26 at the time — eight years younger than she. He was working for the L.A. school district as a custodian (janitor) and going to night school to get a degree in geography. He was living with his parents at the time — he had moved to the area eight years previously from North Dakota — and he was soon to buy a house on the same street, just a few houses down.

I picture them both, in this bar, in a semi-rural suburb of Los Angeles, orange trees and tract houses, chatting with each other while she waits for her date to arrive. My father, probably post-break-up and my mother, post-divorce. They’re drinking martinis or scotch-and-sodas. The guy my mother is waiting for, whoever he is, calls and asks for her. He’s running late, he says. He wants to meet somewhere else.

No, she says. No. She’s not going somewhere else. She’s waited for him this long, and she’s talking to another guy at the bar anyway and, well, he can just take a long walk off a short pier.

And that’s it. The future starts. My father gets her phone number, one that strangely starts with a word, like TOrrington 7-5309. That night starts a chain reaction of step-children, marriage, my sister, myself, looking after ailing and dying parents, a move, retirement, another move to a new state, and death — all of it over 40 years.

A flat tire, a newspaper article, even a head cold could have made it all happen differently. They’re both gone now, which is the trouble of being born to older parents. The advantage of being born to older parents, though, is that they’re wiser and less likely to fly off the handle. My life has been made easy by older siblings who smoothed out the rough edges new parents always start with.

I miss them both very much. Whether they’re together in the afterlife or together in oblivion, I know they are together.

photo credit: Cocktails 4 Two by gwENvision

dad family grief mom Wendy

I’ve Fallen Into the Cellar

Today, this week, I’ve been in the grips of a monstrous depression that I can’t shake, no matter how hard I try. The weather has been, for the most part, fantastic, but that’s not enough to pull me out of this nose dive. I’ve tried everything I can think of. Just now, I was engaging in some online retail therapy, looking for an American DVD release of Zabriskie Point (no such luck), when I thought maybe what I need to do–maybe what’s been wrong with me–is that I haven’t been blogging.

I’ve tried to write again, but it just hasn’t gone through. What’s left to say after mom’s death? Part of me thought that this blog started as a reaction to my father’s death, so maybe it should end.

I miss my mom and my dad. Most of all, though, I miss my wife. We announced the first winner of the Wendy Jackson Hall Memorial Scholarship this week. I thought it would make me happy and give me a sense of completion. It doesn’t. It’s just one more rung on the ladder. I’m holding on to the ladder.

Cinder dad death memory

A Cubic Foot of Memory Suspended in the Air

Castaic Lake, CA

I took Cinder to Battle Point Park last week. It was a rare sunny winter day. We walked around the park, I occasionally throwing the ball for her, but mostly just walking along. We saw high school kids playing lacrosse, joggers, and lazy geese who didn’t fly any farther south. We wandered around the far edge of the park, up against its southern boundary fence, and cutting back across a field to where we had left the car, I walked into a smell identical to that of fishing at dawn with my father at Castaic Lake.

I walked out of the smell before I recognized what it was and paused, trying to figure out how a field in Washington during afternoon hours could smell so much like a distant time and space. It smelled like the location, but not the event. I didn’t smell my father’s cigarette, the oily Coppertone lotion, or the garlic cheese paste we used as bait. I retraced my steps, leading with my nose, trying to find that smell again. I walked back and forth; I walked in circles. I couldn’t find it.

My stumbling search was interrupted by a child’s voice. She was in a stroller pushed along the path by her mother. The girl was shouting something, testing out words. As they passed by, the little girl leaned out of the stroller, pointed at me, and said “Papa dead!”

I waited in the middle of the field for a few minutes in case there was a message coming from beyond, but nothing happened. Maybe what the girl really said was “Papa dog.”

dad Wendy

When Dad Told Me He Had Cancer

He tried to be composed, but he could hear me start to panic and his voiced cracked a bit over the phone. I tried to stay composed, too. I told my boss that I had to leave for a family emergency, then I went back to my desk and called Wendy to drive over and pick me up from work. We lived three blocks away. I held it together through the ride home, but once my body hit the bed, it was as though I were vomiting tears. My body spasmed and I wailed. And I couldn’t stop.


Feeling Punk

Went to a Washington Lawyers for the Arts brown bag session yesterday. The theme of the session was clearing rights for movies, music, and other arts. I really appreciated what they did, but lawyers are a hard group to trust. The first guy’s presentation was basically a sales pitch for Corbis’ rights-clearing services and it was directed more toward ad agency types–none of whom, I think, were in the room. The event had a lot of specifics in it, but it confused a lot of people into thinking you had to have clearance for every single unoriginal thing you’ve put into your work. A law professor who sat near me explained afterward that the standard they were applying is meant for advertisements, not works of art. You still have to get some clearance for works of art, but not for each and every building that appears in a street scene in your movie.

Wendy is down with the flu. I came home yesterday and she had a fever of 102 that quickly went as high as 103. She took some Tylenol and the fever started to come down. This morning it was normal, but she’s still feeling punk.

“Feeling punk” was a phrase my dad used to say instead of “feeling ill.” I suppose that the current understanding of the word punk will leave that phrase to the wind.

baseball dad

Opening Day 2004

Safeco Field, Home of the MarinersWe got tickets from our friends Maki and Rich. I was so happy to go that I got here an hour early. I sat there with the day’s paper, reading up on the season while the ground crew sprayed down the infield. And then, over the PA, they played “It’s a Beautiful Day for a Ballgame” and it made me miss all the times I went to day games with dad. I would spend a fortune just to go again to a game with him. That’s kind of a problem–I fixate on impossibilities like that. We went so many times that it practically became routine. Now, to be cut off from that routine, seems endlessly cruel.

But that is not living in the moment. If I could learn to better savor the moment, maybe I wouldn’t suffer such nostalgia.

4/19: I just went looking for this song on the Internet. Hearing it at Safeco was the first time I’ve heard it all the way through…I think it was originally written as a salute to the Cubs. I grew up hearing it at the start of Dodger radio broadcasts. It was originally recorded by the Harry Simeone Songsters and recently appeared on a Rhino Records collection called “Baseball’s Greatest Hits – Lets Play II,” which is unfortunately out of print and seems to be pretty rare (used listings start at $90!).


Why I Write This

I finally got my home computer set-up corrected enough to be back online regularly with updates to this thing. While I was uploading a lot of old entries, I noticed that I’ve been doing this blog for more than two years now. Congratulations to me. I flake out on my writing most of the time, but I’m proud to say I’ve kept this up.

It hasn’t been easy, though. I never really understood through most of it why I was writing it. I sometimes think that I shouldn’t make it personal…who am I to be writing so public a memoir? But just now, I realize that this all started with the death of my father. I wanted a way to speak to my family–even if they never heard it, even if ‘family’ meant someone related to me reading it next week, next month, next year, or next lifetime. I think it’s becoming a node of my personal digital library.

Bob and Michelle were here this weekend…got to see them both without the filter of other family. Very interesting what turns out.


Sad Anniversary

Dad died a year ago today. I hope that in the future I will be able to let this day passed unmarked, but for now I can’t. It just makes me sad that I’ve already got a years distance on him. At least the twelve months of “firsts” (birthdays, holidays, things that he loved to do) are gone, and maybe I’ll stop being so morbid in my thoughts.

dad dream

My Father’s Unexplained Return

Dreamt of my dad last night. I guess it was the first real dream with me interacting with him. He just suddenly showed up again, and there was no explaination for his 10-month absence. Just showed up at the doorstep, looking cold and confused. Everyone in the family was too happy to see him alive again to ask a lot of questions. They were beaming at him and when I would ask my sister or my mom questions like, “Well where has he been?” or “What about the funeral…we saw him in the casket?”, they would just wave the question off, marveling at him, never taking their eyes off him, and answer by saying, “Doesn’t he look good?” And he did, I suppose. He was spry again; no shuffled cancer walk, no wince of pain. But he was really quiet and didn’t seem to really remember us well. I finally got the courage to talk to him, and though he looked and sounded like my dad, he seemed like a different man. I asked him some pointed questions about what happened, but he was casual in his answers to the point of being aloof. My dad was formerly a very engaging, direct man, who never failed to look me in the eye when he spoke to me or listened to me.

“Where have you been?” I asked.
“Oh, you know, around.”
“No, I don’t know. Where have you been?”
“Different places. Walking, mostly.”
“Didn’t you die?”
“What about the funeral?”
“That wasn’t me.”
“But I saw you in the casket!”
“It must have been someone else who looked like me.”
“But then how did you leave the hospital?”
“I walked out.”
“But what about your liver and all the pain you were having?”
“It went away. I got better.”

I eventually just gave up on the unsatisfying interrogation and stood back away from him with my family and watched him.

This isn’t the dream I was hoping for. It was likely influenced by a novel I’ve been reading (Bruce Wagner’s I’ll Let You Go) about a boy in search of the schizophrenic father who abandoned his mother before he was born. I wanted the Obi Wan Kenobi dream, where the voice of my father would come to me and tell me things I would need to know.

Okay, now for something a little lighter. Before the above mentioned dream, I had another dream last night that I was a film producer of a certain pornographic niche–lit porn. Basically, we would take sex scenes from literary classics–D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Henry Miller, etc.–and we would film these very explicit sex scenes that were faithful to the source text and were edited with a voiceover of an actor reading the text. The dream, however, was without nudity and coitus, and instead consisted of a lot of research and phone calls. Still, not such a bad business idea. I could imagine the ad in the back of The New Yorker, or perhaps facing the short story in Playboy (do they still publish fiction at Playboy?).