07/23/2013 by syrbal-labrys
Today would have been my father’s 78th birthday. My age, 60, plus the 18 years old he was the year I was born. But my father ended his life in 1997, lying on a bed fully dressed in his best cowboy boots, by shooting himself in the head. And the mind is a complex and teasing thing — all this week wild food cravings possessed me; things I’ve not eaten since childhood. All favorite foods of my father’s, not really my own.
A haunting in my own head, and doubtless of my own making. I knew when he died; I dreamt it and saw him lying on a king-sized bed, gun in hand, perhaps the moment before the final moment. I couldn’t get up and call to say “Daddy, are you ok?” because I didn’t know where he was, you see. No address and no phone number. I had not heard from him in two years, but I was so sure my dream was valid that I cut all my hair off a week later, in mourning.
It was three years before I got verification in the form of a letter from my stepmother. He had indeed shot himself lying on his bed,just as and when I dreamt it. She claimed to have not told me sooner because he had allegedly forbidden her to contact any of his family. Truth, as it turns out, is she just didn’t need anything from me, his only still-participating family member, until then. But that is another bitter family tale.
My father was a Harley riding teen and he rode in rodeos on bulls and broncos; he came from a hard drinking family that was his only through illegal adoption. He served in Korea and didn’t talk much about it. He drank and raged and ranted. He was a racist asshole….but took deer he shot, dressed and clean, to the “other color side of the tracks” in Texas to feed families with too many kids and not enough money. When he was a truck driver, bags of food just ‘fell’ off his truck in some desperate places. But he was also the man who terrorized his family with threats to kill all of us when he decided to “leave this world ’cause it is going to hell’. Even as an adult, I never answered a knock at the door without fear he would be there with a gun, come to kill me…except when I was across an ocean from him.
He was a smart man, but an ill-educated one. His racism was not because he really felt superior to people of color, but because he had been taught that EVERYone had to “keep their place” for things to work right. We argued over it endlessly when we briefly re-connected in my mid-30’s and he was forbidden to raise the subject around his grandchildren and he kept that promise. He loved my youngest child to distraction and that little boy adored his grandfather so much that in 2000, when we got official word of his death, he ran away from home to go “be” his grandfather, as he told his friends.
But alienation was impossible to avoid. He drank. He was almost worse when he occasionally did not drink. He likely had PTSD, but also something more serious; a personality disorder or bipolar disorder. His ups and downs made my childhood hell, specially when combined with my mother’s depressive issues and her sadistic manipulative habits. But he was the parent that was more genuine in his emotions, more honest in his clumsy attempts to emotionally connect. But still, some sense of inferiority always made him lash out in what we used to call “loyalty oath” behaviors. He had to know he could get past every boundary, it was what he had to have to feel sufficiently loved.
So in 1995, the summer I had my second spinal surgery was was painfully living in a high, hard plastic neck collar with prohibitions against anything that could cause coughing or sneezing; he was due to come for a visit. I told him he would need to smoke outside on the porch. And he refused. If he couldn’t smoke indoors, he wasn’t coming. Telling him that a cough that might move bone chips placed to knit my spine back together didn’t seem to reach any logic centers in his head. I proved I was his daughter, the only child who matched him in temper and told him to fuck off. He called back a couple weeks later to ask how I “felt”.
I was mulling how to answer without whining about the agony still denying me sleep, when he said “Well, what I mean is, are you still mad and still insisting I smoke outside?” And just like that, yes, I WAS still angry and said so. “Well, never mind then,” he said. And that was it, the last time I spoke to him. He vanished. Mail to his onetime home in Idaho came back, marked no-such-addressee. The phone was disconnected.
We had genetics in common, but little else. He believed in God the cop, even if he blew off all the rules. I did not. He voted Republican, when he voted; I obviously was a life-long Democrat. He didn’t believe in rape; I was a rape survivor who finally explained it to him sufficiently that he could grasp it….though I think, for him, the very concept that anyone would “take” an unwilling woman was foreign to his picture of the world. He believed in marriage and thought every woman should be married. He wrecked his marriage with drinking and spending money he didn’t have to blow and by being a possessive death-threatening hell to live with at all. So, I thought marriage WAS hell…and yet, I married.
He taught me to shoot a gun. He also taught me to fear water, by throwing me in to “teach” me swimming. He climbed on a roof on Christmas Eve to make Santa Claus noises. He taught me not to smoke or drink by making me smoke a cigarette and down half a pint of cherry vodka. I don’t even like cherry cough syrup, still! But I do drink vodka on occasion, though I don’t smoke cigarettes and never did. So that was 50/50, I guess. We both hated being lied to more than anything else in the world.
He thought I worked harder than anyone he ever met, a fact that surprised me because he had an incredible physical vitality and ability to work. He thought I was courageous, another shock to learn; because when he told me to feed a caged wild, but injured, wild cat, I opened the cage and did it….day after day through a long winter. And I had worn a large bullsnake that lived in our wellhouse in Idaho around my neck while doing chores; which apparently he never tired of telling people about, saying “Damnedest thing I ever saw, that snake was longer than she was tall.” As a child, I had no idea how much impressed he was with these two minor things.
And both of us thought the best thing about birthdays was the cake with layers and frosting and candles. There is no cake today, and no candles. And yet, I keep smelling that whiff of smoke and wax in my mind. And I miss the father I never quite really had.