Remembering my father, with fewer filters

I haven't posted on LJ in over a year, but this felt like an LJ post if ever there was one.

I found out on Friday that my father died earlier in the week, by receiving an email from my long-lost half sister. (Though it's possible that we were in the same room when I was an infant, I haven't had any contact with her since then.)

Most of my thoughts and feelings about my father have to do with stories my mom told about him, or ways we related to his absence, or ways I reacted when I ran into him and he reacted in an unwelcoming way (due, perhaps in part, to where he was at with mental issues). Inspired in part by reading my sister's recollections of her visit with him in 2013, I dug up my own recollections of what was probably the most positive and welcoming conversation I had with him, in 2007. Here it is, with some mild editing.


11/29/2007 5:19:35 PM

Yesterday I talked with S.R. for longer than I have in 26 or so years.

Scheduling the whole thing was an exercise in my mom’s willfulness. It finally worked out to have David take me over when he had to go for physical therapy. He came rolling up in his old brown car and honked, and I ran out and jumped in – in the back seat, because he rolls with an oxygen tank in the front.

We drove over to Eudora, and I felt like I was in the company of an interesting old codger. David is a mutual friend of S.R. and my mom from back in the day. In fact, my mom knew David first, and met S.R. through him. David and S.R. had had a falling out years ago, and had only reconnected since S.R. ended up in the hospital in 2007 after a severe bout of emphysema.

The drive over was uneventful, although I held my breath every time we came to an intersection. David tends not to brake until the last minute, and even then, he tends to overshoot the spot where he should stop by a good bit. We went to his PT. Afterwards, he entertained the therapist with a couple of Tom Lehrer songs. I couldn’t tell if the guy was genuinely intrigued or if he was just humoring this oddball patient the way he humors all patients to grease the wheels of the medical interaction.

Then we went over to the nursing home where S.R. is staying; David was very nervous. We sat in the vestibule for 15 minutes while he more or less practiced his lines. We had to look around for S.R.; it turned out he was in the Butterfly Room, or as he called it, the library. He was furiously writing. He told us that we were kind of interrupting, but that he wouldn’t be working on that project all day. After a while, David nervously suggested that we go to the living room.

David got one of the workers to unplug the country jukebox, and he played a few songs on the piano to a dull reception from the residents who were sitting around. The woman sitting next to the piano seemed overwhelmed by the volume and banging quality, and also seemed taken aback by David’s visage: sixty-plus-year-old counter-cultural looking guy with a scraggly gray beard, long, limp, greasy gray hair, and an oxygen tank. Craggy eyebrows, and blue eyes, which were beautiful but somehow absent: shy, smoky, more retiring than his voice. David still has the voice of a former classical music announcer, a clear, melodic tone and perfect educated accent to his quiet, almost swallowed voice. S.R. walked by, and told us he was going to his room – invitingly enough, David and I decided.

We went to S.R.'s room, which was unadorned and institutional; a room in a nursing home, it could have easily been a college dorm doubling as a summer camp or a monastery. It was around four in the afternoon, and the sun was shining in through the open curtains. S.R. was typing the manuscript he had just written, and initially it seemed he might just ignore us; I felt just a bit angry at the prospect. But before long David engaged him in conversation. David took up a lot of space initially with storytelling and tangents; whether this was his nervousness or just his style, I don’t know.

They talked about their oxygen tanks (S.R. seems to be largely off his) and their dream lives. S.R. was worried that not having oxygen, his dream life might be suffering. His manner of speech struck me – the way he pronounced his words, kind of swallowing them, maybe a bit of an accent or a brogue? Or maybe just a style of speech. How much it was impacted by medication or affectation I don’t know. I eventually decided if it reminded me of anything, it was a friend's dad who grew up in Wisconsin. My father grew up in Oklahoma, but he was born in Michigan.

S.R. was quiet and a bit shy, though clearly also something of an entertainer. He told us that he hated to ask someone to turn off their music, and therefore it seemed wrong to accept a plea bargain – it reinforced his worst traits. He said he had accepted a plea bargain in a series of three legal cases he was involved in; the one he told us about involved telling city bus drivers to shut down the bus, which sounded like it turned into a disturbing the peace kind of thing.

David suggested that I tell S.R. a little bit about my life. S.R. said he knew, in general; he knew the biographical outline, or something like that. (I gathered that this was from mom’s recent letters, though I’m not completely sure.) In any case, I did so, fairly quickly getting into History of Consciousness and trying to describe what it was. One of them asked if it had anything to do with science, and I explained (in not exactly those terms) that it included people who were working on science studies. S.R. then got excited that perhaps I could help him learn statistics. Evidently this is his current obsession, or, as he said, “a life-long project … but I’ve got many life-long projects. When I get tired of one, I just turn to another” or something like that. This was actually a theme of sorts. I eventually asked him what he was writing, and he said it was a story, and that he started a lot of stories without finishing them; they were kind of like The Etcetera Shop; they just ended with an “etc.” He expressed some dissatisfaction with his own tendency to start projects and not finish them. And if anything about the conversation had the dynamic of a father talking to his son, this was maybe it – the bit of remorse about a life spent starting a lot of things without completing them, along with a bit of advice and hope that I wouldn’t do the same.

He asked where we lived; David explained where his house was, and I said, in Lawrence. He said he lived “two miles east of Eden,” and we got to talking about books. He said he had read a chapter of East of Eden and enjoyed it, but when he went to look through his drawer of books, the only Steinbeck he could find was Grapes of Wrath, which my mom had sent him. (She later said she hadn’t sent him East of Eden, and David said he hadn’t given it to him, so I don’t know if he had a copy from somewhere else, and had lost it, or if he had really been reading Grapes of Wrath and was only working in East of Eden figuratively.) Then he picked up a copy of On the Road which evidently David had given him. He said he hadn’t read it, and I said I had never read it. David said I should read it, and S.R. gave it to me. David looked a little taken aback, but then asked S.R. if it just didn’t feel right, and said, “A gift is a gift.”

I think I didn’t handle that so well. When we got ready to go, I asked S.R. if he had really meant to give me the book. He first said, “Just leave it there.” Then, kind of blustery, probably joking (but you never know with him, I see), “You had your chance.” Then, quieter, “Come back sometime. There’s always another chance. You can’t always accomplish everything you want to in one visit. Come back sometime.” I felt bad in the end that I hadn’t taken the gift, but I did feel good that he invited us back (though as my mom later reminded me, he sometimes gets into putting on a show and being liked, and it is hard to say whether he’s in that mode).

We had to leave kind of quickly, because it was past time for Jeopardy. David structures his day around Jeopardy; if he doesn’t see it, he says, he feels intellectually dead for the rest of the day. And he is a night owl, so I suppose at 4:30 PM his day is usually getting rolling, in its first quadrant. I can empathize with that; I’ve been that way sometimes in my life.

S.R. was better fed than I ever remember having seen him. He seemed pretty content with the nursing home. At one point he volunteered that now that he had his every need taken care of, he was able to really write and devote himself to his projects without a care. When we walked out, David walked a little bit ahead, and S.R. and I walked side-by-side together down the hallway. I suppose I could have let myself imagine that, while at the beginning of the conversation he was more oriented towards David, that now he was more oriented towards me. That he was mildly annoyed like I was with the visit having to end suddenly because of David’s obsession with Jeopardy. That we were both a little shy, but that there was more he wanted to hear from me and more he wanted to tell me. That in whatever way, since I was there, and not demanding anything, and not angry, and curious, that maybe he was a little curious too about this person he had brought into the world.

Yes, it would be easy to let myself imagine that, but I did not let myself spin out that fantasy until the writing of it just now; in writing, you can posit the unreal because the persona can always shift. I don’t know what S.R. was thinking in that moment. I don’t know if he was sad to see us go so soon, or if he wanted to connect with me more, or even if he was performing a connection. I don’t know him well enough to have a feeling for that. His utterances were cryptic, like characters from Joyce’s Ulysses in their prima facie incoherence, seeming internal connection, and cloudy correspondence, as well as in the sense that every obscurity might just be an allusion I just missed. Though my own speech is more direct, with close friends I often find myself lapsing into obscure allusions bordering on inside jokes my friends might or might not get. (To which I reply: Idiot. You can’t inherit an allusive way of speaking from someone you never knew growing up.) I was left with a mixed sense of how much of that might have been deliberate.

What did I feel? Such a hard question, with him, because the narrative of what I should feel about him from my mom is so well-established, and also there are so many cues he strikes that send me into political non-judgmentiveness. Before the thing, I was nervous, though I kept, mostly successfully, trying not to think about it. But it would pop up completely out of the subconscious now and then, or I would find myself humming in the days leading up to it a few bars of Paul Simon lyrics: “though I will not give you false hope / about this strange and mournful day / The mother and child reunion / is only a motion away.”


I guess the moral of the story is that it's finally time to read On the Road.