December 11th, 1992

The day I lost my dad.


I am kneeling beside my father. He’s dead.

I look at him for a long time. I’ve never seen a dead body before.

I want to memorize his face and hands before he is in the ground.

His mouth is open. His eyes are fixed and wide. He is frozen with a look of surprise. I reach out to touch the back of his neck. My fingers barely land when I feel the prickle of shorn hair and cold, firm flesh.

I immediately withdraw my hand.

I am devastated that he’s gone. I never thought I would feel bad on this day.

My face is numb and tight from the departed tears that I didn’t bother to stop, catch or dry.

His hair is stiff and sharp. It’s cut so close and damaged from the radiation. It’s seems almost burnt.

His nose is pronounced and pointed. When he was healthy, it was round and red, but he’s lost so much weight. It’s chiseled bare.

His cheeks are waxy melting mounds. Smooth and brown.

His hands are large; dangerous. They are still, yet frightening. The monster strength is gone, but they summon the fear of what was possible, what was done.

He is a mechanic. But he has the cleanest, longest nails I’ve ever seen on a man. The palms are soft and tender, amazingly so.

My hands are close to his. The backs of my hands are rough, pale and dry. White with flakes. My nails are short and torn. Red and sore like my eyes.

I can sense that whatever lights the eye and warms the blood is gone from him. There is no recognition, not even a grimace.

His spirit has sighed away and what is left is just a heap of tumors, bones and bile. He will never talk, kiss, threaten, smoke, curse, drink, hit, hate, love, work, sacrifice, shame or wrestle on this earth again. He can’t hurt any more, but he also can’t fix a thing.

I have lost him. I. Am. Lost.

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Go With the Flow

My dad was dying. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was would be gone within two months. He had end-stage lung cancer and could no longer drive. So I had to cart him around. Which he hated. So did I.

He’d lost all autonomy and that was hard for him. A fiercely independent, strongly opinionated man. He couldn’t even decide to go home from the hospital at his leisure. He wanted to die in his own bed. He finally got his wish.

One day, we were taking the interstate home and I was dutifully going the speed limit. I was afraid if I went over the limit, Dad would say something. Criticize me. He did anyway.

“You need to speed up. Move with the traffic.”

At the time, I was extremely annoyed, but all I could mumble was, “Sorry.” And I put the pedal to the floor.

There, Old Man.

“Why do you have to find fault with me in everything I do?” I wondered.

Too fast, too slow. Too lazy. Too everything you think I shouldn’t be. But your sick. So I’ll just keep quiet and take it.

But today, when I remembered his nudge (I still think about and remember these things, ugh), I thought, “Thanks, Dad. Good advice.”

I drive for a living now. All I have is time in the car to think about things, past and present. Too much time, perhaps. It’s like all the thoughts you ever have when you’re working out and in the zone.

I’m a very good driver. I pay attention and know a thing or two about cars, thanks to my father. He was a mechanic by trade. He taught me how to take care of a vehicle, inside and out, and how to drive one.

I know why I was so sensitive at the time. Any opportunity my parents had to correct me was unwelcome and resented. They behaved in ways that grownups shouldn’t: fighting, engaging in unfair behavior, inconsistency, neglect. They were normal parents from the 80s.

Who are you to tell me anything??

And I held them accountable with my teenage indignation. Except, it didn’t help and I was just as wrong. Even if I was totally justified in rebuking their correction, they were still my parents. And they were, on the whole, usually right. Or steering me in the right direction.

I’m 44 now and much more confident about who I am and how well I drive. I’m well-adjusted and have worked through most of my past. I take criticism, for the most part, in stride now (thanks to mandatory art school critiques). 😉

Today I’ll just say, “Thanks, Dad. You were right.”

I miss my dad. I mourn all the years I lost to his mental and physical illness. But I also mourn all the years I lost growing up without him or knowing him as an adult.

He never saw my daughter. I know he would have been proud of the job I did/am doing with her. I wish he could have held her, heard her, helped her. But it was enough that he ever did that with me. I can only remember a handful of times, but it was enough.

I forgive you and I’m sorry, Dad.

Dumb Baby

This handsome little boy. This boy being my father.

dad

My grandmother used to tell the story:

One day, just after she gave birth to one of my uncles, she caught my father in the nursery by the crib. She paused and listened just outside the door.

“You big, dumb, fat, stupid baby.”

So antagonistic toward a little baby. That baby had it coming, I tell ya!

LOL This story tickles me to no end. But it’s a little scary! My father and his brothers had a rocky relationship from the start. But boys will be boys, right?

My mom tells me that she used to find my sister hitting me when I was just a baby. I don’t remember it. I was too young. But it explains a lot!

babytina-couch.jpg
How could you hit this adorable face??

Why do siblings automatically feel competitive and angry toward each other? I never felt hostile towards my sister. Not until she would attack me. Unprovoked!

“Mom! She hit me!!” I would scream.

Or just retaliate and knock her block off. Sometimes verbally, sometimes physically, she picked at me. It was on like Donkey Kong if she ever touched me.

I remember she pushed me down the stairs one day. Almost broke my neck. Definitely sprained my toe! I let her have it for that. And we never fought again. But I moved out of the house soon after.

I’m so glad I never have to live that way again. I don’t know about most people, but my experience with brothers and sisters is the pits.

I don’t think it has to be this way. Parents play an important role in sibling relationships. Kids are naturally at odds with one another, out of the womb. The 2nd oldest story of the bible is about how brother killed brother. Competing for resources, love and attention is understandably the impetus for sibling rivalry. But parents set the tone. Parents can teach the children to love, behave and share.

Otherwise, it’s every dumb baby for himself.

Black Stove, Purple Lamp

More from Vol. 2 of Present Tense


We are standing in the living room. We are moving our belongings out of the house because my parents are fighting again. My brother is now married and lives in a nearby town with his wife. He is helping us move.

My father confronts my brother in the living room with a baseball bat and threatens to hurt each of us if we do not leave the house immediately.
My father swings the bat to show his intention. Lands a blow on the free-standing wood-burning stove. He leaves quite a dent in the black sheet metal exterior. A dent that will live with us for all time.
He then swings again to assert his presence and smashes my mother’s favorite lamp. It was a beautiful purple lamp. Two lights, beautiful hand-painted designs on the glass shades and delicate gold filigree edging. Gone with one blow.
He smashes the lamp, I imagine, to see the pained look of surprise on her face. He wants to see her hurt.

Tiny little shards embedded in the carpet. Gouges torn in the wood of the end table. Hearts shattered at the violence, but not for things. Splinters of feelings scattered and strewn.


This would not be the last time I would see this house. It should have been.
The house is gone now. Swallowed up in time. Rotted with weather and neglect and turmoil. But it housed our violent, chaotic family for nearly 20 years. It existed and so did we. A new house stands in its place.
So long now. But the violence persists in my mind.
Sometimes, I wish my mind or memories would rot, but they are rock solid. The negativity built on unshaken cliffs of time-battered trauma.

Memories can be swept away like sand on the shore, but this bedrock is immovable. Formed in liquid lava and cooled to stone for all time.


We moved back very soon after this incident. Perhaps 1-2 months later. We left several times, but never for very long. Unfortunately.

’66 Chevelle

More from Vol. 2 of Present Tense.


I am 14 or 15 years old. Saturday morning. I’m lying down, but awake. I am in my bedroom with the door closed. There is one loud voice and one scared voice in the next room.
“Where is she?”
He is choking my sister. He is pulling her hair. He is threatening her. He is hurting my sister because my mother isn’t there to hurt.
He leaves her bedroom. I stop moving, thinking, inhaling in the hope that I will not be next. Not quickly enough, I hear the back door bang.
I hear my sister stir. I hear her muffled, wet breaths. She is crying.
I hear my father opening the hood of my sister’s car, the car that she shares with my mother.


’66 Chevelle Malibu. The one with the rusted-out hole in the floor board. The one with white paint and blue vinyl seats. The one with jagged rear window posts that cut your hand when you’re not careful. The one that an old lady drove to church and the store and only had several thousand miles when we bought it almost 20 years after it was made. The classic. The sweet-ass sportster. The muscle car from Malibu. The one that will take a beating.


I look out the window of my bedroom and see my father ripping wires out of the engine. He slams the hood closed and now takes a hammer he must have grabbed on the way out. He pounds the metal repeatedly with quick, powerful blasts and leaves at least two dozen or more marks.
These are not dings. These are not dimples. These are deep, hate-filled holes.
“Get out of here.”
My sister calls my brother and we leave. We wait at the end of our driveway for my brother to pick us up. We don’t speak to one another. I am powerless to change what is happening. I can only follow, obey and relinquish any hope of being normal.


Every time I tell this story, it makes me afraid all over again. But. I lived. So I am thankful for this story. It reminds me that I can survive. And that I never have to live that way again.

Let’s All Go To the Movies.

More from Vol. 2 of Present Tense


My mother and father have lost the will to parent. I am sitting in a dark movie theatre with Mom, Dad and my sister. I am five, almost six.
Alien.
Oh, God. That man’s face has just been attacked by an octopus egg.
Oh, God. The android’s head is decapitated from his body and milky fluid is shooting out from his neck.
I am screaming. I am crying. I am being ushered quickly to the lobby by my mother.

We lounge for about a minute.
“Ready to go back?”
Okay, there are no more bodiless robots. Popcorn.
I have to have my legs in my seat. I am sitting cross-legged. No aliens can possibly eat my dangling legs if they are safely tucked up, away from their snotty teeth.
Oh, God. There’s spaghetti exploding from that guy’s open stomach.
Oh, God. It’s a baby alien. I am screaming. I am crying. I am being ushered.
A minute.
“Ready to go back?”
My parents also let me watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Deliverance (ABC Presentation of the Week). Also, A Thief in the Night.
This 1972 (made before I was even born) Christian classic talks about end times. Christians are taken to heaven in the rapture and non-believers are left behind. Everyone has to take the 666-Mark of the Beast tattoo or they can’t buy eggs and butter. People who just want a little breakfast are arrested for trying to buy groceries, and a girl with a balloon gets beheaded on a guillotine. There’s a fun song at the end, too.
I wish we’d all been ready…

The synopsis of this movie may be slightly inaccurate. It’s what I remember and the impression that remains.


I lived through what seemed like a very real threat of nuclear annihilation during the height of the Cold War and was constantly worried about being microwaved to oblivion by a nuke. These movie nights and paranoid world destruction fantasies could be considered the bright, sunny moments of my childhood with an abusive father. My prayer, as I got older, became this:

If I have to die–God, just don’t let me die a virgin.

Vol. 2 (continued)

More from my second volume of Present Tense. These excerpts have not been published or seen. This is from the time I visited my dad in the hospital, just before he passed. He was very sick. End-stage cancer.


Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em


Lung cancer. He smoked for over 45 years. Sometimes 3 packs a day. Sometimes a pipe. Rarely marijuana.
He is laying in bed in a hospital room. I walk into the room with my mother and sister. He’s in a gown, head shaved and Sharpie marks on his scalp. That’s where they focus the radiation. That’s where the brain tumors are. There are several marks. There are other places in his body that have cancer. Leg. Stomach. Chest.
He’s uncomfortable. He starts to squirm. He rolls onto his stomach, props himself up on his elbows and knees. My mother rubs his back. She whispers softly in his ear. She looks scared. So does he. This is the most vulnerable, tender moment I have ever seen them share. The pain passes.
He looks at me and asks me to buy him a pack of cigarettes. He hands me several dollar bills. I agree.
Our philosophies were in agreement on this day and many to follow. The world is a brief, harsh place and you find pleasure where you can.
I was not going to deny a dying man his last want or need.
We are on our way to my grandmother’s funeral.

Piled

Tired, happy children
Piled on top of Pop.
Cuddled on his wrinkled clothes
Upon his lap they’d hop.

Relaxed and tousled jams,
Schlubby socks and drooping eyes.
From contented smiles and deep, sweet breaths
Happiness will rise.

Safe and sound for now,
However momentary.
We were once a family.
Photographic evidence unnecessary.

But helpful. 🙂


My dad and my two oldest siblings.

Making People

Each of these people
Were made by two parents.
Molded and shaped
By opinions, thoughts and variants.

These two people
Made four more humans.
They didn’t do it perfectly.
In fact, our family’s in ruins.

Their legacy was not premeditated.
Their good intentions paved the way,
To Hell and back and there again–
Four lanes without delay.

This kiss and marriage caught some place
Between Heaven and Hell.
A dark, rock-hard place between their love
Is where my childhood fell.

Like a photograph that floats down
Behind a dresser, trapped by wall.
Forgotten with time, buried by dust.
Neglected, unseen by all.

But.

Their love made me.
Shouldn’t I be thankful for this?
I couldn’t think of something more lovely
Than a passionate wedding kiss.

Thankful to be here. No matter what.

Llama-rama

Another llama! Llama sighting.

My dad drew this when he was young. My daughter took a pic of it before we left Missouri. His portfolio was starting to deteriorate from water damage and time. So we took pix of all of the artwork in there and this was among the ruins. So cool!

llama.jpg

This llama belongs on the side of a building with a Che Guevara beret! #banksy Love it! That’s his signature “James K.” He must have been young and still in school. So cute!