Still going through my old journals looking for details to work into my book about Ben (working title - "3,500: An Autistic Boy's Ten Year Romance with Snow White"), and I came across something I wrote back in 2004 about my dad. This was written late one night, immediately after getting home from seeing the movie Big Fish. It was a few months after I had moved from Seattle to Orlando, and my then-fiance, now-wife Kris had not yet made the move so I was living alone in a new city with no friends or family nearby. It was odd stumbling across this only a few days after my Father's Day post earlier this week, and I feel like it really gets to the core of some of my own mixed up feelings about my dad. So anyway, here it is, resurrected from eight years ago:
I spent about fifteen or twenty minutes this evening hiding inside a bathroom stall with my face buried in my hands; I was crying, sobbing as quietly as possible because I didn't want to have to talk to anyone or explain what was wrong.
Of course, that's getting a little ahead of myself -- either by a few hours or a few decades, depending on how you look at it.
My dad grew up in Cowlitz county, down in the south-western corner of the state of Washington. The cities of Kelso and Longview were his childhood stomping grounds, the son of an Irishman named Kip and a fiercely intelligent and outspoken woman named Corrine. My only real memories of my grandpa Kip involve having breakfast cereal with him in the mornings surrounding Thanksgiving. My sister and I traveled with Dad to Longview every year like clockwork for the feast, but grandpa Kip passed away when I was far too young to really know him.
My grandmother outlived her husband by many years, but again sadly by the time I was old enough to begin to know her she was already in the grips of the various ailments that would eventually claim her. I only know through stories about what an amazing woman she really was, a feminist long before such a thing even existed. But still, every year well into my teens my sister and I would join my dad for the drive down to Longview for Thanksgiving weekend. By then I knew my dad was an alcoholic, and I remember being terrified during the entire drive as dad sat with one hand on the steering wheel while the other held an ever-present can of beer. I couldn't let out a sigh of relief until we had crossed the bridge over the Cowlitz river and arrived safely at Grandma Corrine's house. That bridge still stands today, having barely survived the fallout of Mt. St. Helen's in May of 1980 when the contents of Spirit Lake sloughed off the side of the mountain and a roaring mudslide jammed with lumber came crushing down the length of the Cowlitz tripling it's size and leaving a breathtaking swath of destruction behind it.
But of course, all of that is not really about my dad.
I have sitting in front of me right now two annuals from Lower Columbia Junior College from the years 1953 and 1954. To look at them know, it seems like it's my picture staring back at me, not yet twenty years old.
To Don Juan Jose (Son of Kip) Hope to see you this summer(?) Maybe we'll pull the Circus Room Playboys job again Thanks for the line-up job in Cathlamet, but remember -- I haven't got $105.70.
Sometime, I assume, in the mid- to late-fifties Dad got married and started a family. It just wasn't my family yet. He had sons, and he had a daughter. I remember at least one year when they were there at Grandma Corrine's house for Thanksgiving, although I had no idea who they were. The concept that Dad had another family was so alien to me it never even clicked. The last time I saw them was at my dad's retirement party, back in the summer of '93.
I really don't know anything about his first wife. How he met her, why they eventually divorced. I don't know what kind of father he was to the children from his first marriage. We never talked about that. We never talked about much at all. I don't know if his first marriage began while he was in college (after his two years at LCJC he went on to Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA). I know that he became friends with Jerome Jager at Gonzaga, a friendship that would last a lifetime. Jerry became a lawyer, and to my understanding continues to practice to this day (albeit in a very limited capacity these days due to his health). Our de facto family lawyer, Jerry would defend my father on DUI charges more than once.
In any case, by the early sixties his first marriage was over and his second began. I don't even know how my mom and dad met. I assume it was at Boeing, where he worked his entire career as an accountant. My sister was born in December of 1964, and I came along three years later in January of 1968. My only solid memory of Dad at home involves him drunkenly singing "What's it All About, Alfie" to our dog (who was named Alfie). For my early childhood that's the sum total of my dad memories.
What I remember vividly, however, is the day when my mother told me that Dad would not be living with us anymore. We lived in a house on 53rd Place West in Mountlake Terrace. The living room, dining room, and kitchen formed a continuous loop, with a hallway leading down to the three bedrooms and one bath. We had a dishwasher, but it was the kind that rolled around and had a hose that you clamped over the faucet of the kitchen sink. The nook where the dishwasher usually stood had a wall with white paint and yellowing stains, presumably from the moisture of the dishwasher. That nook was where I stood, crying my eyes out when I was told that Dad was leaving. To this day that water-stained wall sits like a photograph in my memory. It's probably not even real at this point. Just a fragment of a memory that I have visited so many times that it has become this iconic thing, a memory of a memory of a memory.
After that day I saw Dad a few times a month on the weekend. I think he tried, I really do, but we just had so little in common. He was a huge sports fan. I remember he once took me to a Seahawks picnic and introduced me to several of the star players. I had no idea who any of them were. I was a drama geek, a band kid. Throughout my school years it was the jocks who made my life miserable, and I wanted nothing to do with sports or the assholes they spawned. By then I also knew my dad was a drunk, and the one thing I feared in life above all else was becoming a drunk like my dad.
So we didn't have much to talk about.
In the summer of 1993 my dad retired and moved with his third wife, Kris, to live in the house they had bought in Mesa, Arizona. In the winter of 1994 he was diagnosed with colon cancer.
In the spring of 1995 we took a trip to Arizona to see my dad. It was a rough period in my life. I had been fired from Musicland a few months earlier, and by that point I was either delivering pizza or working at a video store trying to make ends meet. We were on food stamps. I was a complete failure as a husband and a father. It was becoming increasingly obvious that there was something wrong with Ben, that he just wasn't developing like other kids his age. My marriage was falling to pieces, my son was sick, and my father was dying. So we took a trip to Arizona in the hopes that I could make some sort of peace with my father.
We spent several days there, perhaps a week. I don't really remember. I spent a fair amount of time chit-chatting with my father, but we never had that Meaningful Conversation. Even there with the final chance slipping through our grasp, we just never were able to really speak to each other.
A few months after the visit I was hired to do technical support for the launch of Windows 95. It was my first job in the computer industry, and as it turns out it was the single most important event of my career -- the first toehold in the doorway that would lead to my current success as a software developer. I remember calling my dad to tell him about the job, and for the first time I could ever remember he seemed genuinely proud of me. I had finally found a career, something outside of the dead-end world of food service and retail management. Words can't even begin to describe how I felt, finally having the approval from my father that I never even really knew I craved.
In September of 1995 the phone rang and Sara answered it. She held out the phone to me saying, "It's for you. It's Kris." I knew right then. My heart stopped cold right there, and I numbly held the receiver to my head. With a few short sentences Kris confirmed what I already knew, that earlier that day my father had passed away. I collapsed right there, in a nook between the kitchen and the dining room very much like that old dishwasher spot back in Mountlake Terrace, and all of a sudden I was a child again and I was being told that my dad was leaving and wouldn't be coming back.
Tim Burton has a new movie out. You may have heard of it, it's called Big Fish. It's getting rave reviews, and features Burton's return to the surrealistic fantasy style of Edward Scissorhands. I couldn't possibly give you an objective review of the movie. I suppose if you like Tim Burton, or for that matter if you like Ewan McGregor a la Moulin Rouge, you will probably love the film. It's all about a son who has never really gotten to know his father. All he knows are the tall tales that his father has spun since the day he was born, and as his father's health is failing the son tries desperately to finally have that Meaningful Conversation.
I began to tear up very early on in the movie, during the first scene where the son flies with his wife back home to see his father and first enters the room to see his visibly weakened father lying in bed. All I could see was my own airplane flight, traveling with my own wife, seeing my own terrifyingly thin father far weaker than I had ever imagined him.
It's no spoiler to say that the final act of the movie surrounds the father's death. That is, after all, the entire point of the movie. And looking at it as objectively as I can, the ending really is as bitterly happy as it could possibly be; an affirmation of a life well-lived. But I cried through the whole thing.
I realized as the credits began to roll that I wasn't going to stop crying, not anytime soon. I stumbled out of the theater, found the closest bathroom, and locked myself inside a stall. I cried. I cried for my father, for everything he accomplished in life and for the lousy way he had the fruits of his labor yanked away from him in what should have been a happy and comfortable retirement. I cried for the lousy relationship we had, for the fact that we never got to really talk to each other, not even once. I cried because I was just a little boy who missed his Dad and desperately wanted him back even just for a few minutes.
I don't know how long I was in there, but it was a good long while. Eventually I was just drained in a way I don't ever recall being. I left the stall, washed my hands and face, and finally walked back out to my car. Looking at the clock, I see that it has taken me over two and a half hours to write this, and I don't even know if it is coherent. Or important. But I think it is. I hope it is.