It seems weird to celebrate my father’s birthday today, but not for the reason you might be thinking. He passed away about a year and a half ago, semi-unexpectedly. The year he died, he would have been 67. This year, he would have been 68 on December 2. Why would you celebrate a day of birth when the person has already passed? Well, I certainly don’t want to celebrate his life on the day he died. Some arbitrary day chosen at random also doesn’t seem appropriate. So while I don’texactly understand why, I’m celebrating what would have been my father’s 68th birthday on as good a day as any other.
I had mixed feelings about the day. Last year, on this day, I was a mess; the same mess I was as highlighted in this post. This year, I had an opportunity to go to Atlanta for work on his birthday, which I took. I wanted to distract myself, and not spiral into a swirl of sadness, anger, and general messiness again.
I’ve made a semi-plan of what I want to do to celebrate his birthday this year. I want to order food and have it delivered so no one sees me in my messy state, but the food I want cannot be delivered outside of lunch time. So I will need to go out and face humanity while I’m emotionally naked and mentally raw. I have now procured said food – comfort food, of course. Atlanta’s good for that.
I downloaded the new Pink Floyd album, Endless River, which was released this year. I haven’t listened to it yet, and it’s an album he’s never heard. The first track is appropriately called “Things Left Unsaid.” I’m going to play it, all the way through, so wherever he is, maybe he’ll hear it and know I’m thinking about him. I’ll probably cry, yes, the tears are already forming in my eyes as I type this and prepare for the emotional evening ahead of me.
Is it wrong that sometimes I think of what a jerk he was, and his faults? He was a gruff man; he hated opening presents on Christmas morning. I was ever the impatient and enthusiastic child and his faked (or real – I never asked him) sullenness always sort of brought me down a bit. He drank, somewhat heavily when I was young, to the point of passing out with the stove on a couple of times and catching mom’s pots on fire.
When he was 21, he dove head-first into a shallow lake, and broke his neck. He did not die; but he did live life on the edge, seemingly unafraid of death. His rough and rowdy ways stopped when I was 8, however, when he suffered his first of what would be many strokes. It was massive, and that prompted his first open heart surgery. They broke his sternum and went into his chest cavity, replaced multiple heart valves with some pig valves, and some mechanical valves, and installed a pacemaker. Suddenly, he was on blood thinners to prevent build-up on the machinery in his heart, which meant no more than 2-3 drinks per night. With blood thinners, he was basically a walking hemophiliac, when he wasn’t before, so he would not stop bleeding if he started.
In my Not For Anyone’s Eyes journal and my poetry from when I was young, I penned a piece with an opening line, “If life is a song, my music is wrong, or so my father thinks.” Early in life, I didn’t get on with him at all. My mother was my primary carer. When my mother would tell me to go find my dad and tell him he wants me, I never realized that she was trying to get rid of me and pawn me off on my dad every once in awhile.
On those forced interactions with him, he was actually pretty cool. We used to go and get our Christmas tree together. We would drive a couple hours south to Monterey, or somewhere in the middle of nowhere, every year, to cut down a Christmas tree. He would play Pink Floyd on the cassette deck in his truck. He made the cassettes himself from all the records he had on his giant 80’s sound system and speakers. We wouldn’t talk when he would drive; we would just be. We’d listen to the music, I’d have no idea where we were going, and I would just look out the window. I love car rides, and maybe that is the reason why. Just the scent of fresh cut Christmas trees reminds me of him. That smell will forever be tied to him, as well as Safeguard soap, Right Guard spray deodorant, and Old Spice aftershave on rare occasions.
However, after the trauma of witnessing his stroke and seeing him in the hospital at such a young age, I was always fearful in the back of my mind that he would have another stroke, while he was driving with me in the car. It made me reluctant to go with him sometimes, but I never told him why. I always masked it in mom’s complaints of his fast, reckless and offensive driving.
As I grew older, slowly the Pink Floyd cassettes were replaced by a classical music station. He said the music made him calm, and he found he wasn’t such a bad driver with it playing.
He would always do the job of the actual sawing and cutting of the tree. He and I would pick a tree – he wouldn’t pick the first one he saw, though. No. He always led me into the middle of the tree farm, which had acres and acres and tons of different kinds of trees – Monterey pines, Douglas firs, and so on. Once he’d sawed the trunk of the tree, he’d kick it over, and he’d carry the base of the tree while I carried the top of the tree, horizontally, up to the cashier. He’d hem and haw about the price, say it was way too much, be a gruff prick, for lack of a better word, so we’d chuck the tree in the back of his truck (it had a camper shell so no need to tie it down) and be off.
We’d pull into the driveway when we got home, and mom would meet us outside to see what we got. He had a whole ritual of re-cutting the bottom of the tree, though he just cut it fresh, shaking loose all the dead needles inside the tree he could, then putting it into the tree stand. He’d proceed to hose the tree down entirely, preventing us from decorating the tree that day. He said it was to remove the chances of any rogue spiders or bugs, which was enough for me to be happy with that practice, since I hated bugs. Good idea, dad, hose that sucker down entirely.
No more thought from him was given to the tree when it was dry. Then, the next day, after it had dried overnight, my mother and I would put a Christmas tape on his 80’s sound system and decorate the tree with the same ornaments every year. My grandma made 2 ornaments for the tree – one was a knitted pink yarn thing, maybe a bell? Mine was knitted from lavender yarn. My mother told my family on the east coast my favorite color was purple when I was a little kid, and boy, they never forgot it. Everything I got my entire life from my New York family was lavender or purple or both. Grandma even knitted me a couple afghans, both a mix of purple, white, and lavender yarn. My favorite Christmas song was Rockin Around the Christmas Tree and Candle in the Window (a not so famous Alabama song).
My father would have no part in anything else Christmas, until he got to complain Christmas morning about having to get up early. When I was little, I made the mistake one year of making him get up at 6am, after he had stayed up late, probably drinking, and assembling presents for me. After that, dad had to wake up on his own, or we had to wait until 9 or 10am before waking him up.
He and his sister, my Auntie Chianti (see this post for more info on her), would fight like cats and dogs, and in the early years, sometimes their mother, my grandmother, would come for Christmas too. Her English was not-so-good, but hey, she was a babysitter so my mom, dad, and aunt could drink. Inevitably, my grandma would tell them all what drunks they were, and she stopped getting invited to Christmas. Also, because my dad was the only male, he would get yelled at to shut up by either my mom or my aunt, and he’d go into the computer room and pout, abstaining from any holiday festivities. Also in the early years, my parents used to play board games like Trivial Pursuit, Rack-O, or Risk to pass the time. I was too young to play, but I tried anyway. I did ok at Rack-O, but their Trivial Pursuit was the genus edition, which meant all questions from the 60’s, so whoever was paired with me always lost. I was too young in the early years to play Risk.
As I got older, my mother and I fought more and more, with her being mostly responsible for watching me as my dad disconnected further. He worked a lot, stayed up late, and slept in late. That left her dealing with an angsty and angry teenager. My mother and I grew apart, and I found a new ally in my father during college.
It was over my birthday in college that my mother had a mental breakdown. She was taking non-prescription antidepressants, some form of Paxil she got from the Indian reservations in southern California. If you know anything about antidepressants, know this: you must wean yourself off of them over time. She stopped taking them one day because they were doing what they were meant to do, and making her better. Ceasing so suddenly caused her brain synapses to fry, basically, messing with her brain chemicals, receptors, and her state of being.
My father had to take her to the psychiatric intensive care ward of the hospital. She thought it was Saturday; it was Tuesday. Her boss called home, asking why she hadn’t come into work, or why she hadn’t called in sick, as she was required to do. She was sitting in the suburban street gutters, splashing in the water runoff from someone’s sprinklers down the street.
I don’t want to go into all the gory details, but that was the first time I saw my father as a real person, and we bonded. I drove down from Chico when he told me what happened, a good 4 hours away. Happy birthday to me. He felt guilty. Personally responsible. He thought it was his fault. I asked him why and how it could possibly be his fault. That is when he told me that from the time I was a kid up until recently, he’d been getting cocaine for the two of them to enjoy recreationally. He put a stop to it recently, said no more, and he thought her stopping using cocaine was the cause of her breakdown.
This leads me to my coming out story. In my utter shock and disbelief, as I pictured many questionable scenarios and memories in my mind that probably included her use of cocaine, I said, “I’ve got a better one for you, Dad. I’m gay.” I’d been living in sin with my girlfriend at the time, and we’d been together about a year or so. I’d only really come out to myself maybe a year and a half before that. I’d told all my friends, but I hadn’t told my family.
He got to be who he really was as a person with me, no judgment. There was no response from me criticizing them for their life choices. There was only acceptance. In kind, he said he was disappointed because being gay meant my life would be harder, but he honestly wasn’t surprised. He still loved me and wanted the best for me. He used to say I was the son he never had. He never understood that I wasn’t questioning my gender, I just loved women. Hell, no wonder he wasn’t surprised. He caught me with a Playboy magazine when I was only 10 years old. I always used to joke that one day I’d write my memoirs, and the title would be And They All Said, “Duh.”
Right before her breakdown, my mother had also bought a bike, and decided to ride it without a helmet, before that nasty little law which saved a lot of lives came into effect. She, of course, got into an accident and fell off the bike, hitting her head on the curb. She had a golf ball sized lump on her head, which is actually still visible today.
We postulated over many beers at our neighborhood pub, Britannia Arms in San Jose, that it could be the nonprescription Paxil, the bump on her noggin, or the removal of cocaine from her system that caused the breakdown.
After my mother’s breakdown, my relationship with my mother became further strained. She was diagnosed manic depressive and bipolar, and her mood swings would move so rapidly, she could cycle through a whole gamut of emotions within 10 minutes. I’ll never forget the screams in that ward from the other patients near her. Those were full-on strapped to the bed, restrained, straitjacket crazies. Terrified the living bejesus out of me. To this day, now that I am on a mild dose of Zoloft for my own depression, I talked to my doctor thoroughly about the weaning-off process because I didn’t want the same thing to happen to me.
After that night at the bar of our mutual coming out, my dad and I realized just how similar we really were. We tried to support each other.
Dear reader, I hesitated to put this down in words, but if I lied or withheld the truth, I wouldn’t be doing justice to the relationship I had with my father. One of our primary bonding activities later in life, after the walks, the cutting down the Christmas tree, and both of us trying to find ways to cope with my mother, was a bit unconventional. I have to admit, we smoked weed together in the garage, by his workbench. It would be just our time – mom wasn’t invited. Not the typical father-daughter activity, indeed. But it was ours. We would have deep conversations; he’d tell me about Germany before he and my grandmother moved to America. He’d tell me about what he knew of his side of his family. Then, once we were good and stoned, we’d go inside and watch a movie, much too loudly. By then, my mother was usually asleep as her early bird schedule directly contradicted his night owl schedule.
Across from his workbench, he had his own home-made art studio, consisting of 2×4 sawhorses holding up plywood. He’d put the canvases on the table, and take one of his many brushes (he probably had at least 30) and do oil paintings with his spare time.
I have 4 of his paintings, and my mother has the rest. I have memories. But on his birthday this year, I wish instead I could have 92 minutes tonight with him to listen to the new Pink Floyd album he never got to hear.