Thursday, May 10, 2012

The One Lesson I Learned From My Father

(Author's note: For a good while I have wanted to write a story without zombies, invading aliens, spaceships, demons, or the use of weapons. This one is rather long and yes, several tidbits are autobiographical. Its late and I will get the typos when I can. Comments are welcome.)

The first real memory I have of my father was of him sitting at a workbench soldering on some sort of electronic circuit board. My mother had sent me upstairs to his attic sanctuary to call him down for dinner and on very shaky four year-old legs I slowly climbed the steep and very scary stairs to the place he spent nearly all his time when home. After reaching the top, I stood on the small foyer in front of the closed attic door and felt a strange combination of fear and accomplishment.

My fear came from the apparent height, it was a long way down and while I had yet to even to even see my father part of my mind was wondering how I would get back down. Then again I felt a child’s sense of triumph at tackling such a difficult task, so much that I opened the door and walked inside the attic eagerly wanting to tell my father.

At that time in my life the attic was a place of mystery because of all the times I heard my mom and dad discussing all the time he spent up there. He was an industrial electrician at a Charleston power plant but worked on all sorts of different items like televisions in his free time for extra money. When something could not be fixed dad would buy the item from the owner and take it home.  For him the castoffs were spare parts, but my mom called it all junk and openly resented the time he wasted upstairs when there was so much around the house that needed fixing. Somehow, I had made the attic a place of wondrous machines with dad constantly tinkering with some complex device. Seeing it for the first time, I had to agree with my mom in that it all looked like sad pieces of junk.

Every available space was filled pieces of party disassembled televisions with their electrical guts falling out of wooden cabinets, huge ancient radios covered in dust that seemed like works of art, and boxes filled with countless smaller items. On the far end of the attic sat my father at his workbench, his attention so focused on what he was doing he had absolutely no idea I was nearby. Part of me wanted to announce my presence right there but another part was fascinated at what he was doing.

Like any child at that age, my father seemed larger than life and I wanted to please him in every way I could, that he always kept me at arms distance was something I attributed to my young age. But I had now climbed the scary stairs, which to me meant I could now join his world in some fashion.

As quietly as possible, I walked closer to my dad watching the smoke rising from the circuit board as he soldered new components to it.  I stood inches away from my father for what seemed like an eternity with him not taking any notice of me. Waiting patiently for a child is always hard but I was enthralled by what my father was doing, his movements were deft and efficient although I had no real idea of what it all meant. I finally decided to speak up when he put down the soldering iron.

“Daddy,” I almost whispered, “mom says dinner is ready and she wants you to come down.”

My father did not react at first; he was fishing around in several tiny bins on the workbench obviously looking for a part. I waited to the point I started to think he did not hear me the first time. “Daddy, mom says dinner is ready.” I said again but this time louder.

“I heard you the first time Jamie, tell your mom to go ahead and eat without me. I will be down in a few hours once I’m done here.” He said without even looking at me. Even now as an adult, I remember feeling inconsequential and almost ghostly at his casual disregard of my existence.

“But daddy,” I said, “I’m scared of the stairs. I’m going to need your help getting down.”

He still refused to look at me and went back to his soldering after finding the right part. “You made your way up here alone, you can make it make down.” He said with such indifference that I found his words surprisingly cold even then.

With nothing left to do, I backed away and left my father to his work. I was confused and hurt but at that moment, my fear was centered on how to get back down the stairs. Once I finally made it down my mother was already at the kitchen table and did not seem surprised by my father’s decision, she just sighed and poured herself another glass of brown liquid she said only grownups could drink.

You had to give mom credit, she could really cook and that night she had made fried pork chops, green beans, and macaroni and cheese. Despite the meal, my appetite was stunted as she and I ate in silence with her sending me straight to bed afterwards. As always, I would wrap my pillow around my head and hold it as tightly as possible in an attempt to muffle the sounds of their fighting.

***

Things did not better as the years went by; the only exception was the birth of my brother Jake when I was five. They tried to be a couple and support each other but on Jake’s first birthday almost by mutual consent, they gave up all pretenses of being husband and wife and returned to their self-centered ways. After that, my mom and dad continued to drift apart with him keeping more to himself to the point I did not even notice when he finally moved out of the house when I was nine years-old. Their divorce soon followed and it was bitter and drawn out. As much as the various parties involved tried to leave us out of the court battles the countless accusations that flew between the two still filtered down to us.

When the dust finally settled we were in mom’s custody with dad restricted to weekend visits that very rarely happened. The usual Friday afternoon meeting place was supposed to be the parking lot of a seafood restaurant but we would wait for hours until mom went into a cussing fit and took us back home. My brother and I went to our room and mom opened a bottle.    

Over time Mom’s drinking slowly escalated with me spending a great deal of my time cleaning up her messes. For my brother and me our only refuge was her parents. They were the ones who gave us our birthday parties and made sure Santa visited while our mom spent her time emptying bottles and chasing a growing cadre of male losers who enjoyed using her then casting her aside. The situation eventually became so bad that the court assigned custody of my brother and me to our grandparents.  Mom then faded away into the static of our lives with only the occasional phone call or birthday card.

The only news we received from our father was about his move to Texas and his marriage to a widowed lady who had three children of her own. Jake and I were teenagers then with a healthy dose of cynicism about that development, but much to our surprise our father contacted granddad about us spending the following summer with him and his new family. Neither of us wanted to go but with our grandparent’s health failing they wanted us to try to build a new relationship with the man. Jake found some success and seemed to fit in with our stepsiblings and dad. For me it was a total disaster, dad seemed as distant and cold as ever and my stepsiblings openly resented me every time I opened my mouth. The day we boarded the plane back for South Carolina I made a promise to myself I would never waste another moment on a man who thought and cared so little of me.

I kept my promise with my father and his family becoming something a half-forgotten memory for me, although much to my chagrin Jake continued to communicate with them on a limited basis. My attitude was that while Jake and I were dealt a bad hand for parents that did not mean they could control our fate. I dedicated myself to school, then college, and was able to take control of my grandfather’s small home building business after he finally passed turning it into a multimillion-dollar company.

Along the way, I got married to a wonderful woman and we had our first child before our second anniversary. When the doctor handed my newborn son to me, I made a promise to both him and his mother not to become my father. As much as I meant to keep the promise, life has a way of slowly molding you in ways you never could possibly conceive. The ultimate irony was that my father was the one who pulled me back from the brink of making the same mistake.

***

It was during the summer of 2008 and the home building business I had built was collapsing all around me like the proverbial house of cards. While I had far too many empty houses ready to sell that were now worth less than the money it took to build them I was at least juggling the numbers enough that I might be able to ride out the storm without losing everything. I had stopped all new construction and laid off nearly all the guys on my building crews but at least the core of the business remained and I promised everyone when things got better I would call them back.

During the worst, I had spent weeks living in my office to the point I bought a new couch so I could sleep comfortably. My wife would call me in the evenings demanding I come home but I was so overwhelmed by real fears of losing the business I had worked so hard to build.. The stress was utterly devastating and the only person I could talk to during this period in my life was my brother.

Jake had taken a far more leisurely route to adulthood and seemed to be able to ride out any storm, both literally and figuratively, without breaking a sweat. Instead of going to college, he enlisted in the army and left it to start a fishing charter business out of Cocoa Beach, Florida. Along the way, he had bought a bar, which kept him financially afloat during tough times while the charter service made him money when times were good. I often found myself blindingly envious of the simplicity of his business plan, which always earned me a good laugh from him. With him my only real shoulder to cry on, I eagerly answered the phone when I saw his number flash on the caller ID screen.

“Jake, it’s great to hear from you. “ I said after snatching up the phone.

“You to brother, but I didn’t call today to shoot the usual shit with you. Step mom called me to today. Dad had a stroke last week and is in the hospital in critical condition. I don’t really know how to broach the subject so I’ll just spit it all out, she wants us both to fly in and say our goodbyes.”

I sat back in my expensive office chair at a loss for words. I admit after everything I felt some conflicting emotions at the news but my own scars were far too deep for them to last very long. “Well Jake,” I said in the neutral tone of voice I could muster, “I figure you are going and you can give them my regards.”

“That’s what I thought you would say and it’s cool. My flight leaves in two days, one other thing I, shouldn’t mention it but the hospital bills have just about wiped them all out. I don’t want to piss you off and it’s going to hurt me a good bit but I plan on helping them out by writing a check to cover as much as I can afford.”

“Good for you brother, you were always the best of the two of us.” I said feeling slightly betrayed.

“Don’t be mad bro, I feel the same way about our old man as you. It’s just that something inside me can’t leave them hanging.” Despite my brother’s pleas, I was in fact mad but my anger was not directly at him. Every time I had dealing with my father, he seemed to bring nothing but chaos and sadness. Feeling frustrated I gave up on the never ending paper work that was always threatening to engulf me and walked out of my office.

It was early evening and the famous Charleston heat and humidity had long since forced every sane person into some sort of air-conditioned shelter. It was especially bad on me since I was still wearing the suit put on that morning. I didn’t care, I just wanted to walk and clear my head even if that meant walking all night I would do just that.

As the sun finally set bringing with it a cool breeze off the water, I found myself standing on the Battery looking out over Charleston Harbor. My long walk had actually accomplished something concrete. I figured out what would restore some semblance of happiness for me. I wanted revenge on my father, nothing involving murder or even bodily harm. I wanted him to feel the rejection and cold indifference he had heaped so freely on me during my childhood and I knew just the way to bring it about.

***

“I’m glad you came along Jamie,” my brother said as we walked down the hall leading to my father’s hospital room.

All I could do was give my brother a sidelong glance, which he took he took to mean as resignation of the situation. I had not mentioned a word to him about my true intentions of rubbing my dying father’s face in my contempt. Three days before during my evening walk up and down the streets of Charleston I came up with the idea of making my father’s family believe I would pay the lion’s share of the hospital bills saving them from economic ruin. Even with the housing market in the crapper my wealth was diversified enough that I could swing it without making my nearly estranged wife and child homeless.

I had gone as far to call my brother and tell him I was coming with him to Texas. Feeling more than a little malicious, I had even taken the unprecedented move of contacting one of my stepsisters and telling her of my plans. All I had to do was wait till I finally had my father’s attention and with him expecting me to pull out my checkbook I would tell him and his family they could burn in hell. My brother would be very disappointed, maybe even furious with me but I had been through far too much and I felt I needed to make dad feel something of the hurt he had put me through over the years.

Jake and I entered the hospital room to the cheers of my stepmother and stepsiblings. Dad was, as expected, confined to his bed with what looked to be dozens of tubes and wires running in and out of his body. While I had no real timetable for my plan, I moved up to his bed and was somewhat disappointed to see him sleeping, no matter I figured, I had waited this long and a few extra minutes would not be a stretch.

I had not seen any of these people in decades but it only took a few minutes to determine they had not changed since that terrible summer I spent with them. Our stepmother, Donna was a caring woman but overly controlling and sickly sweet to the point I got a sour taste in my mouth listening to her talk. William, our stepbrother, was a simpleton who I knew was functionally illiterate when I first met him and seemed no better now. Our stepsisters, Sandra and Chloe, were still fanatical bible thumpers who broke into prayer at the drop of hat. To prove the point they both fell to their knees when Jake and I walked into the room and spent twenty minutes thanking God for the salvation we represented.

As we all went through the motions of small talk, I almost vibrated with anticipation at how I was going to crush their hopes. Truth be told, I harbored the evil thought that when I told my father he would not receive a dime from me that the shock alone would kill him. All through the ordeal, I smiled when it was required and laughed at their stupid jokes. Jake truly amazed me at his ability to fit in among them and I regretted the strain that might develop in our relationship.

Two hours later, I was chafing at the bit to get on with what I needed to do but a series of nurses and other visitors strung out the whole affair. That was when I felt my cell phone vibrate. I pulled it out of my pocket to see my own son’s picture on the screen, on pure thoughtless and selfish instinct I let it go to voicemail. The second time my son called a few minutes later I was about to turn the phone off when I saw that my father was awake and looking straight at me.

Something came over me right then that to my dying day I will never be able to explain but after years of total neglect, my father taught me a valuable lesson. From the deepest part of my soul, I abhorred the idea of being like him in for even a nanosecond but everything I had done involving my own family were actions he would have done. I felt so sick I almost puked in that hospital room. It was all I could do to run out of there without collapsing on the floor. When my brother finally caught up with me, I was outside the building I was bent over sucking in air as if I had just run a marathon.

“What the hell happened in there Jamie?” My brother asked with genuine concern.

“Brother dear,” I said, “find out from Donna how much they need and I will write a check for a good chunk right now. Once I get back home I will figure out a way to help with the rest.”

“That’s great bro but like I said I’m going to cough up some funds to help keep the old bastard breathing.”

“That’s the other thing Jake,” I said standing up and looking him in the eyes,” I going to sell my business. I miss my wife and kid and this shit I have been putting up with just isn’t worth the goddamn hassle. Could you use a partner down in Florida because if my wife and kid will have me back I’m bringing them down there with me.”

“Sure thing bro, you know I’ve wanted us to work together for years.”

Jake and I made a few quick plans with him returning to dad’s room a few minutes later, when he disappeared inside, I pulled out my cell phone and call my home. My wife answered on the second ring but I had somehow lost my voice. Right when she was about to hang up I was able to choke out a few desperate words. “Honey,” I said, “I love you and our child and I am so sorry for everything and I would like to come home if you would let me.”

12 comments:

Windsmoke. said...

Very well written indeed. Most people have that fear of turning into their parents and some people do turn into their parents without realising it :-).

Akelamalu said...

What a wonderful story Beach. It ended just as I hoped. x

Randal Graves said...

Where are the zombies and interstellar laser crossbows, you big sap? (good stuff, even without the above, says a fellow big sap).

okjimm said...

Nice write..... made me think of my Dad. By the time I drove the 150 miles to the hospital... he couldn't talk. I told him jokes. He could still grin. It was all I could do.

Ranch Chimp said...

That really was quite a read Bum ... and Thanx.

Have a good un ....

Pixel Peeper said...

Funny how it works out - we try so hard not to become our parents. Sometimes I catch myself and purposely change how I react to stuff my kids do just because I remember how much I disliked when my parents did it to me.

Beach Bum said...

Windsmoke: Thanks! Yeah, I had that very fear when my son was born. Now I'd just be happy not screwing up my kids in my own unique way.

Akelamalu: Thanks, I'm just puttering around while marooned in my hated suburbia.

Randal: Just you wait, working on another alien invasion story even now.

Okjimm: Yeah, I was stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado when my granddad took sick. By the time I got home a day later he didn't really understand what was going on.

Ranch: Thanks buddy!

Pixel: Amen.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I will confess, it was a difficult read for me... hauntingly somewhat autobiographical in my case.

Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

I've read enough of this to get hooked! I'll take it to work with me and start over! Can't wait to get to work this morning!

Life As I Know It Now said...

I read this earlier but when I tried to comment blogger ate it or something! Better to learn and be positive than bitter and repeat the mistake.

R W Rawles said...

You're a healer, Beach!

Steve said...

An interesting read, I know many people who would have gone for the easy revenge option.