When I think of Dad, the smell of beer immediately fills my senses – I don’t think he ever didn’t smell of it. My mother often said that the reason Dad drank was namely due to my disability – but, even as a very young child, I could hardly believe that, even as much as I took the blame to heart.
In fact, somewhere along the line, my father told me stories of stealing liquor and cigars as a nine-year-old from his mother’s restaurant, getting a buzz going with his friends in a cave they dug by some railroad tracks in Oakland, California – it must have been the 1950s. By the time he met my mother in the ‘60s – he was sixteen or seventeen – he’d given up school, took to riding a motorcycle, and loaded catering trucks to get by. Soon, he was drafted to Viet Nam, where he took seemingly hundreds of pictures of himself and his buddies hanging around his base. As a child looking at the pictures, I always thought Viet Nam looked as hot and dangerous as it sounded in my school history books, as he was always pictured in a sweaty T-shirt, with a machine gun in one hand, and a beer in the other.
After Dad returned from the war, my brother and I were born, me just eleven months after my brother – and with cerebral palsy.
I truly don’t have any recollection of how Dad reacted to my disability beyond my mother’s recollection. All I knew was that like from the photos from the war, Dad always smelled of sweat and beer when he picked me up from my wheelchair to move me about. Other than that, he didn’t have much to do with me.
Among my few memories that I have of my dad from when I was a child was coming home from school one day in the third grade, finding Dad in our driveway, passed out in a convertible pink Mercedes, a car I’d never seen. There he snored, head cocked back over the seat, still holding on to the steering wheel as if driving, passed out cold in the pink Mercedes, its passenger seat full of empty bear cans and a Playboy magazine. I later learned that his boss – Dad worked as a grounds keeper for a wealthy couple – asked him to get the car washed, but somewhere he took a wrong turn, having a few beers, ending up passed out in our driveway, soon to be fired.
Dad was inevitably a well-worn drunk, unemployed, gambling, fighting with Mom, waking us up at night with drunken ramblings about the house. And, then he split, moving out of state, leaving us barely getting by on public housing and food-bank blocks of cheese and powdered milk for a time.
Once my mother remarried, Dad either called to tell us that he couldn’t see us because it was our mother’s choice to shut him out of our life, or he would promise to come see us on a certain day, at a certain time, and not show up, leaving my brother and me waiting by the window. I suppose that between the ages of eight and eighteen, I may have only seen him six or eight times, not even at my birthdays or high-school graduation.
One Christmas, though, for reasons I’ve never understood, when I was around eleven, my brother and I spent with him, and he barrowed money from us to buy our Christmas presents the day before, never to pay us back. We did have fun that holiday, turning the clocks ahead a few hours, waking him from a drunken stupor, tricking him that it was time to open presents hours before the agreed time.
It’s these few stories that have helped me come to terms with my father over the years, where if nothing else, Dad was consistent in his dysfunction. He even sobered up for a while in the mid ‘90s, and I tried to have a relationship with him, even writing about it in a book; but, it predictably wasn’t to last – not his sobriety, not our relationship.
When my brother called late one night this past April, explaining that Dad was found paralyzed on the floor of the camping trailer he lived in up in the Sierra Nevadas, I wasn’t surprised. And, when the tests came back from the intensive care unit that all my Dad’s organs were failing, that he had only days to live at best, unable to communicate, I wasn’t surprised at that, either. Yet, I was surprised when my brother found a letter addressed to us in our father’s safe-deposit box.
Dear Steve and Mark,
If you’re reading this, I’m probably dead. Just so you know, my girlfriend Georgette gets my Jeep. You can get rid of my other stuff or whatever.
My brother and I had to laugh – if nothing else, again, Dad was consistent till the end, not coming through with the words sons need to hear.
Ultimately, I have no ill regards toward Dad, having resolved any remaining feelings of rejection and abandonment through being the best father I can now be, as my brother has also done, where our daughters know what it’s like to sit down and do their homework with their fathers, never to smell beer or be left waiting by a window.
Surely, it’s somewhat ere now that my father’s gone. After all, even when estranged, there was some comfort in knowing that he was somewhere on Earth, with some possibility of meeting up again some day. But, it never was, and never will be – a real relationship with my father, that is – and I’m accepting of that.
My hope is that wherever my father is now, he’s smiling in a convertible pink Mercedes, with a twelve-pack of beer and a Playboy.