Tuesday, April 22, 2008

One year after my father's death

Whenever I sit to write about something like this essay, the first thing that occurs to me is most people have parental situations substantially different than mine. But, that's just a belief I have, I haven't done a survey. Still I normally write in this venue to share things that I believe others may find helpful and I am left with this nagging doubt that my musings about the first year after my father's death are going to apply to anyone else's situation.

I was unable to appreciate the reach that my relationship with my father had into my life until after he died. Before he died, I regarded myself as something of a psychological orphan, i.e., a person who grew up with an absence of paternal presence. In some sense that is quite the truth. What I failed to appreciate until this last year is that this presence of absence was a powerful force.

In many ways I am thoroughly his son. His life was a story of serial personal tragedy. He was a Navy man, he intended to make the Navy his career. He rose rapidly through the officer's ranks to Lieutenant Junior Grade. He served in both WWII and the Korean conflict, not in combat but in ferrying men and supplies to combat in the Pacific theater.

In 1953, he received a promotion to Senior Grade which required a physical. They discovered in that exam that he had a congenitally malformed kidney and the other one was chronically diseased. He was "processed out" of the Navy from his hospital bed (he died of kidney disease).

Out of The Navy, he became an aerospace engineer before the speciality existed (he was trained as an electrical engineer) and worked on the nose-cone of the A7 Corsair-II (video sim), the plane that became the carrier work-horse of Vietnam for Navy Aviation, and the first with a "heads-up display," that teleprompter style instrumentation that allows the pilot to see his instruments while looking out the front window. Specifically his focus was on the radar for the plane, but he worked on a lot of different things that rode in the nose of that plane.

He rose through the ranks in his civilian job until he was caught sleeping one day during a presentation that a very self-impressed Marine General was giving. At the time, he had a reputation as a hard drinker and this incident was attributed to related misbehavior, i.e., being at work less than prepared after a hard night of partying. He was transferred out of this job to another much less involved position with relatively few opportunities for advancement as punishment for embarrassing his employer with a major player (the Marine General) in a contract they were working to get.

30 years later, 10 years after he retired, he was diagnosed with narcolepsy. He had always fallen asleep easily. I'm not sure I ever went to a movie with him where he did not fall asleep. We always thought this was due to his drinking, too. The truth was that he had a disability he could do nothing about (other than take stimulants, which he did after he discovered what was wrong).

His marriage to my mother and my family was tragic. I was conceived as a way to keep them together. They divorced and remarried each other 3 times while I was growing up. He had a girlfriend whom could not marry him because of an unreasonable prejudice by her father against men raised in rural areas. They continued to see each other after he was married to my mother.

He had a son, me, who had an idiopathic (meaning they couldn't figure what was wrong) grand mal seizure disorder the first six years of his life, who had a potentially crippling bone disease right after that, who turned out to be fat, and a stutterer, at a time when such things were seen as evidence of malformation and inferior pedigree.

Finally, he has a widow who has not kept the promises she made to him on his deathbed regarding the distribution of his property to me. His last wife was a con artist and a thief who could hardly wait for him to die so she could assume control over his money, who continues to refuse to provide me with information I am legally due as his son, for which I am going to have to go to the expense of suing so I can enjoy my rights as a beneficiary of his trust.

Need I mention that when I visited my father's grave on Sunday, the anniversary of his death, near sundown, that there were no flowers on his grave, no one but I had visited it? They bury people in the chronological order of their death at the National Cemetery, so all of the graves around his were decked out with flowers and flags. His stood barren of remembrance until I arrived, burned some incense and chanted a buddhist blessing in observance of the first anniversary of his passing.

How fitting that the inscription his widow choose for the head-stone was "Forever in our Hearts." I suppose that means she need not go visit the grave.

I am not going to complain about it, since it is only my view, but my life can certainly be seen as a similar series of tragedies. First my family, then having my education financially abandoned by my family during my sophomore year (which led to a six year break). Then my near-miss at marriage and a family as my partner made a different choice, then a litany of other failed opportunities, unmet expectations and squandered talent since then. I am nearing 50 now and the clock has run out on most of the things I wanted to do in life. I work now at a job where I am underpaid and under-appreciated, my advancement held back by jealous executives unwilling to let my light outshine theirs. It is very remarkable that this pattern holds up between our lives, particularly in light of the fact that we hardly knew each other.

We only really got to know each other in the last six months of his life. Only then did I think we began to peek under the tent of all this we had in common. He was too weak at the end of his life to sustain the kind of conversation I would have liked to have had. We never really leveled with each other. There is a lot unspoken, unfinished business between us, but I think he did figure out at the end of his life that his son is a worthwhile and exceptional man.

Now that he is gone, I see a lot of things a lot more clearly. As Dad would have put it, I've been "locking the barn door after the horse is gone" with a lot of issues--things I wished I had said, things I wished I had seen before. We shared an appreciation for wine, women and food. We both liked to travel. We liked to read, talk and think. We can both be assholes without really seeing it at the time. We share an seemingly innate talent for cooking and technology.

So, what strikes me at the close of my first year with him dead is how much I have learned about him since he died. I have learned more new things about my father this last year than I knew while he was alive. I feel much closer to him now.

So, as I sat on his grave on Sunday, leaning up against the headstone of the grave in front of his, I felt a very comfortable sense of peace and good-will, like this was a space I was welcome to and to which I belonged. The country around the grave is much like his native land further south in Texas--low hills and scraggly Mesquite trees lining irregular open fields. I think it fits him as a place to rest, and being there refuels something in me.

Maybe next year I'll know more about that.

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