Sean Davis kicks off a new series called “On Fathers of Fathers,” featuring adult children who address how their fathers influenced their parenting. In death, Sean’s dad becomes something more than a bad memory.
My father was delivered to heaven by Jesus, but not the one you’re thinking about right now. Phonetically you’d pronounce this guy’s name HEH-soos and he wore janitor overalls and had a picture of a sugar skull tattooed on his neck. My two brothers and I watched him do it after we drove almost a thousand miles. The night before Jesus and his neck tattoo, the thousand mile road trip, and Dad’s deliverance, a Mexican woman I didn’t know called to tell me she found my father dead and naked on her living room floor.
When I was a kid, especially an adolescent kid, I blamed Dad for how poor we were, I blamed him for how all the other kids would make fun of us growing up in our trailer park, and I blamed him for all the faults I found in myself. I’d say that if I just had a regular father and a regular family like the other children my social skills and ability to form relationships wouldn’t have been handicapped. If he would have spent some time with me maybe I’d have a fully formed sense of worth and some self-confidence. If he would have just given a damn about being a father my life would have been easier.
I give a damn about being a father. I have a son and two daughters and I have to watch it because if I stare at any of them for two long it brings me to tears. I love them that much. A big man like me brought to tears. It happens more than I’ll admit and in those times I can’t see how anyone wouldn’t love their children and do anything for them. So I’ve spent hours, days, probably weeks trying to figure out Dad.
My father was a product of the Me Generation and while I think the 70s were a great time to be born it proved a very bad time for a nineteen year old kid to become a parent. He was young, living in San Francisco during a decade full of all types of brand new drugs. Alcoholism was almost a rite of passage and narcissism was the zeitgeist. My parents fumbled at marriage long enough to have two more sons. Then both of them let the drinking and drugs get out of control. Luckily, both sets of my grandparents had lived through depressions, world wars, and national tragedies so three parentless grandchildren were not a huge challenge.
Dad left when I was five. My brothers were three and one. We didn’t see him again until he drunkenly crashed through the front door of his parent’s single-wide trailer years later. My grandparents saw us growing and realized they were too old to raise teenagers again. They called Dad and he came. He was in a suspended adolescence from the drugs and alcoholism, he didn’t have the ability or disposition to parent children, but he came. Does he get points for that? Does he get points for going out and marrying the first woman he could find that would be okay with staying at home with his three boys while he blistered his hands and feet working a chainsaw in the wet forests of the Cascade Mountains? I would like to give him some, but he was an abusive drunk. My brothers and I would go to school on several occasions with black eyes, swells, and bruises and had to make up stories about how we got them.
I left home at fifteen and by sixteen lived on my own. For years I’d go to high school all day and work as a night stocker at our local supermarket. A few years after graduating I joined the military and in that time I was deployed to a revolution, a war, and a few natural disasters and I know I saved lives in all of these places. Does Dad get points for giving me drive, independence, or discipline? Does he get points for creating a life where I saw no other option than joining the military? How much credit does he get for those people I saved? What makes a good father and can a man be a good father by providing a terrible example? I don’t know, but I do know Dad tried, not his hardest, but he tried.
I had visited him a few months before he died and at that time he was still with the woman he married to raise my brothers and me, but he shared secret plans to leave her for his Mexican girlfriend. His new drug of choice came from hospitals in little orange bottles. He didn’t care what they’re names were or their intended purpose. He’d throw a bunch down his throat just to see what they’d do. I wanted my wife to meet him before he was gone. I can’t say why, maybe he had built up enough points at least for that.
The night I found out he died I called my brothers. The next day we drove the length of Oregon and most of California to Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery. After telling the lady at the front desk who we were a man in a nice suit was called. This man blushed when he explained to us that no one had come to sign papers, visit the deceased, or bring clothes. Dad had been brought straight there so when he opened the door to the dark cremation room there was Dad, completely naked inside of “the most cost effective” coffin they had, which was made of thick cardboard. In order to preserve the decease’s dignity, the man told me, they had covered his lower body with a translucent plastic “blanket”.
When I saw him I couldn’t help but to burst out laughing. My brother Vince asked with a smile if we were going to mail him somewhere. Keith just stared down at Dad’s face. Trying to recover I kept my eyes on him for a few seconds but the way the muscles had relaxed I didn’t really even see the dad I knew in it. It became uncomfortable so I looked away.
The man blushed deeper and awkwardly informed us that he was going to leave us to grieve. He said he’d be back and asked us how much time we would need. I asked him what would be appropriate. He coughed and said he’d be back in ten or fifteen minutes.
My brothers and I looked at each other not knowing what to do. My children never knew Dad except for in a couple faded pictures. In the twenty years of my adulthood I’d gotten to know him better and despite all his faults he was my father. I’d call him at least a few times a month and he’d be sober maybe half the time. Sometimes he would speak to my kids and every once in a while he would send them something for the holidays. A few desperate times he sent me money and came through when I really needed help. Did that all add up to a few words being said over his half-wrapped body in a cardboard coffin?
When the man came back Jesus followed him into the room. Jesus with his thick black hair slicked back. Jesus with a handlebar mustache and a neck tattoo of a Mexican sugar skull. Jesus in a greased stained jumpsuit and callused hands. Dad was never a religious man that I knew about but if he had been this was the Jesus he would have wanted. This was the Jesus he deserved.
Jesus placed the top of the box. He even went to each corner and with gentle hands he made sure they all fight just right. Then, I don’t know how exactly, but when this Jesus opened the cremation oven door and pushed Dad inside, somehow it all made sense. I didn’t resent him for hitting me as a kid, and I wasn’t mad at him for not giving me a normal life. I stopped caring about whether or not he made me a better father by being a bad one. All I wanted to do was jump back in my car and drive another thousand miles to tell my kids I loved them and make their lives a happy one. Can I do it? Hell, I don’t know, but I know I’m trying as hard as I can.
—photo by ___april/Flickr