The Old Man On New Year's Eve
"Burying my dad." The jokes made some people uncomfortable. They shouldn't have been surprised; my sense of humor goes beyond morbid, into the realm of soullessness. I wasn't covering up pain with humor. When I got the news while stuck in the post-holiday U.S. Airways snarl at Ronald Reagan Washington National, I broke down in tears, as any good son would.
As far as deaths go, my dad's was dignified. While heading home from Christmas at my sister's house, seated in the passenger seat with my mother driving, he had a heart attack. My brother-in-law was also in the car. It could've been much worse. He could've died in front of my young niece and nephew, at the dinner table, on Christmas day; he and my mother could've been on their way to Christmas. My mother could've been alone with him.
Instead, they had just enjoyed the holiday with family. In the last half of 2004, in fact, they'd seen all four kidsˇmy sister in the summer, my brother in the fall. Christmas was spent with me and my other sister. My dad checked in with everyone. Then, he checked out.
His passing is sad and comes too soon, but it is not tragic. In these pages five years ago, I wrote about the stroke and heart attack that transformed my 59-year-old dad from a proud, intelligent and fiercely independent man into a humble, soft-spoken grandfather. I drew parallels between him and his own father, whose breakdown at the age of 59 changed him from a similarly vibrant middle-aged man into the gentle, quiet grandfather I knew growing up. I wondered if there was a genetic instinct that forced these headstrong men of vigor into third acts as peaceful, passive elders.
I grieve instead for my mother, alone for the first time in almost 50 years. They were high school sweethearts who married young. By the time my father turned 30, he was a father four times over. I was the last kid, by all accounts an accident. Not unwelcome, just unplanned.
Upon hearing I was born in 1969, my teenage cousin asked me if I was a hippie baby. I laughed. My father, I answered, probably didn't even notice the 60s counterculture. Think of Mr. Forman on That '70s Show. Like most men raised in post-war America, my father was self-reliant, reliable and quietly dignified. He was no-bullshit, yet also quick with a joke and a handshake, and had a knack for charming strangers. I never saw him cry, but I suppose he could; I never saw him throw a punch, but suppose he could. He was a wiry, tough man unafraid of hard labor, strong in that way only fathers are.
It must've been unbearable for him to depend on others, which is why last week's news didn't shock me.
The sons now bury the father, just as he buried his years ago. Such is the order of life. Rather than forcing more tears, I spent the days before the funeral, to borrow from Hesse, listening to the teachings whispered by my blood.
I was raised with good manners. It's how you show other people that their feelings are important, too. This is fast becoming a world of boys who won't grow up, a land overrun by children raised by wolves, taught to be selfish.
It's not hard to imagine how much happier we'd be if surrounded by polite people. I don't mean the common urban bane of cellphone users, subway frotteurists and screaming kids. The world is doomed because grown men stuff their faces at dinner like hyenas at a corpse, because they seek fistfights for minor slights, because they barrel past women when they meet at a closed door. Too few people live in service to others; not full-time, of courseˇwe can't all be nunsˇbut politeness should be offered in the little exchanges. At the dinner table, during a misunderstanding, in the doorway.
My father's was an old-school masculinity, a pride and dignity that comes from working hard, being civil and smacking the shit out of your kids when they get out of line. And we did get out of line, maybe because we didn't always know where the line was. That's what growing up is: learning the rules.
For instance, I remember being hit for saying, "But she said I could." This was no Three Stooges-style slap. He whomped me, and reprimanded: "Your mother is not 'she.' Or 'her.' She is your mother."
As recently as five years ago (when I wrote that original article), I didn't understand this. Then, at a company Christmas party, I stood by as a man discussed his teenage daughter in the third-person. She was standing right next to him, squirming, reduced to a bit player in an anecdote intended to impress a coworker. I saw him do it again later, and then again with his other kid. He spoke of his children as if they were dogs.
Maybe my father saw another man do this with his wife, and refused to let us be so arrogant, so demeaning. Or maybe this is just how he was raised: Manners take root at home.
When I was a teenager, my father became obsessed with clearing the trees from our yard. We had a monstrous weeping willow, a dogwood as thick across as a large serving plate and more than half a dozen pines. Each had pissed off my pop in some way. The willow's roots, for example, had spread so far that they threatened the house's foundation. The pines were blocking the backyard's morning sunlight. That dogwood just rubbed him wrong, always had. Who can blame him? Who can love a tree with white bark?
We would remove them, one at a time, by chainsaw, axe, pick and shovel. The willow went first. Three feet in diameter, it was the bitch of the litter, but we attacked with gusto, eager to see it come down, a testament to our masculinityˇhis established, mine budding.
Taking down the body was easyˇa chainsaw in the right hands will make quick work of just about any standing wooden structureˇbut my father wasn't the type to simply cut down a tree and turn the stump into, say, a flowerpot base. We would erase it from memory.
Like surgeons extracting a tumor, we severed the thick, deep, spreading roots. We hacked at them, clawed at them, until finally the stump wiggled like a baby tooth three days away from falling out. With the help of a come-along, we wrenched it from the ground. I filled the hole with rocks, covered it with soil, then seed. Two months laterˇtree, what tree?
I was on my own for the dogwood and the pines. Dad had shown me the technique; it was time to kick back with a beer and tinker with his car. Nine trees fell at my feet. My friends teased me, wondering if my family had started a paper mill or a furniture shop or a firewood stand.
As often happens, I've come to appreciate my father's obsessions. By removing the tree stumps, he sought purity. He would not let anything exist in the limbo between living and dead.
Back then, I didn't understand. When I protested, he asked me only, "Why do you want to leave the stump in the ground?"
I had no answer.
"Why do you want to leave the stump?" he asked again.
Still no answer.
"I was taught that we are not lazy people," he said. "Finish the job."
I bought my first car during the summer leading into my senior year of high school. I spent a Saturday afternoon driving around with my dad, inspecting various beaters advertised in the local paper. I had $800 to spend.
My first choice was a flat-black, early-year AMX that I'd seen around town. It could've been anything from a '68 AMX to its tougher descendent, the '74 Javelin; I can't remember. My dad, a self-taught gearhead, took a look-see under the chassis then offered his opinion. "There's a bad oil leak, it's going to need new brakes, new exhaust. Too much rust. It's falling apart."
In hindsight, it's clear that the rust didn't trigger his veto. A quick look at the AMX production figures tells me that my would-be first car probably boasted 290 cubic inches of Detroit power; even more likely, it was a 390. Put that fat V-8 in the hands of this 17-year-old boy with a reckless streakˇmy father's son, all the wayˇand there was an early death in my future.
We ended up buying a 1968 Mustang with a more modest straight-six 200cc engine for $600. The body was in great shape, with just one dent on the front fender; the engine was solid, and the supporting systems were good enough that I drove it home. Unlike the other cars selling for less than $1000, this one didn't smell of motor oil, dry-rotted vinyl and classic rock.
In a corporate parking lot close to home, we tested the Ford's roadworthiness by slamming on the brakes while cruising at 40 mph. On the third pass, a weld in the front-left tower snapped, sending the wheel into the fender. I remember being mad at my father for breaking my car; he ignored me, went home and called over a friend who was welder. The next day, the wheel tower was once again rock solid; another road test convinced him that I wouldn't be killed by structural failure.
Over the next two years, whenever something broke, my dad diagnosed the problem. By trial and error, I repaired or replaced just about every part of that car, including the front and rear brakes (disks and drums, respectively); the brake lines; the entire exhaust system; the main engine seal (my introduction to the torque wrench); the carburetor; the entire exhaust system; shocks; the radiator (when a left-side motor mount snapped, shifting the engine a foot forward) and the radiator again (when the right-side motor mount snapped, teaching me to replace all load-bearing bolts at the same time).
Then the transmission began to slip. I chocked the rear wheels, jacked the front end for the millionth time and dropped the tranny. My father declared the repair beyond our ken, and paid a friend to rebuild it.
After I went away to college, my father sold the Mustang for $800. He kept the money, which squared us for the welding, the transmission and various other loans. A week later, the new owner called to say that the right-side wheel tower had collapsed, just as the left side had for us. She asked for a refund.
My father, polite but no pushover, cited the as-is nature of used-car sales, and refused.
If only my father had learned this lesson for himself.
He was always physically fit. Though the chief engineer for an industrial manufacturer, he didn't sit idly at his desk. During the day, he worked in the factory, always on his feet; at night and on the weekends, he worked around the house. As a diabetic for more than 20 years, he watched his diet. He was slim and wiry. Strong.
The stroke and heart attack didn't come from a slothful neglect of his body. It was the fucking job.
In the early 90s, my father's company moved to Tennessee and offered him the opportunity to relocate. Already planning to retire somewhere other than New Jersey, my parents accepted.
The transplanted company immediately fell on hard times. It was the local labor, my dad told me. Every job in the area paid $10 an hourˇbe it welding for his company, or working at the nearby sawmill. Unfortunately, the sawmill was mostly outdoors and came with free lunch; every spring he lost his trained crew and had to start over. Quality slipped, orders dried upˇand my dad felt responsible. His constitution was worn down by anxiety, making it difficult to manage his insulin, which was already problematic, as his metabolism was changing in older age.
On Father's Day, 1998, his body protested. He emerged from the stroke physically strong, but suffering from aphasia. He had also lost his math skills. Unable to work, he set his mind on rehabilitation. He was never the same.
The company folded shortly thereafter.
At 10 a.m. on New Year's Eve day, I was standing in a mausoleum in central New Jersey. This is where my mother's parents are interred; my own parents will eventually be reunited here.
I'm staring at my father's ashen, sunken face. He was a handsome older man who shaved every day, who dressed up for work, and slapped on cologne for special occasions. A photo sitting atop the coffin shows that he was a dashing young man as well. In a perverse, selfish way, I am grateful for the manner of his death. Better this dignity than seeing him stuck in a limbo of decline and decay. Better an open-casket ceremony, where his vigor is easily recalled.
What's inside that head now? I wonder. His brain is no longer pulsing, no longer firing the tiny sparks that were his thoughts. That beautiful, brilliant brainˇknocked off the top shelf, forced to relearn so many things. If it was anything like mine, it was never stillˇalways bickering with itself, always picking fights with the soul.
Finally, now, quiet.
I look down at his thin hands, placed gingerly at his waist, and wonder if they're sewn in place. Come to think of it, is his mouth wired shut? Are his chest cavity and belly packed with sawdust and rags? Will he rot in his mausoleum berth? Or just shrivel up?
Back to the hands. Over Christmas, I finally realized that they are the model for my own. They are the same size and shape: slight, but not small. Not quite feminine, but definitely not brawny. They're smart-guy hands. Nimble. The hands of a man whose fingers were careful, and lanky, wiry, like the frame I also got from him. When I was a kid, his hands inspired meˇable to create, never intimidated.
I think of Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty dying in Blade Runnerˇall those sights seen, now gone. All that knowledge lost, all those dreams unbuilt.
Odd, I think, the things that are missing from my father's character, still staring, and barely registering my brother-in-law's sweet, thoughtful eulogy. My dad wasn't political. I never heard him discuss current events. Neither was he a sports fan. He watched some games, followed a couple teams half-heartedly. In this way, too, I am my father's son.
I also inherited his goofy sense of humor, quick temper and hidden kindness. Like him, I'm not materialistic. He had his favorite things and fetishized certain itemsˇbut their value wasn't monetary. He never even thirsted for cars, which he loved. He bought his first new ride, a Chevy Blazer, when he was in his 40s. He clocked more than 200,000 miles, and sold it without telling the new owner that the odometer had actually flipped twice. No matterˇit was in better condition than most cars at one-third the mileage. Then he bought another Chevy Blazer. He would never own another car.
Back in the cold mausoleum, my eldest sister, a minister in training, is delivering a second eulogy. She reminds me that our father spoke French, German and Spanish, and that he played the guitar, piano and trumpet. She describes him as a history buff who once dreamt of being a professor. No matter what path his life took, she notes, our dad was a teacherˇin temperament and practice, if not profession.
It's the most beautiful thing that's ever been said about him, and I'm unspeakably proud of my sister at this moment. All these years I've fought against her faithˇhow stupid I've been. Who am I to judge my blood for making a choice that I wouldn't make? What right do I have to enforce my own nihilism on another? Especially my sister, who has offered me nothing but love for 35 years?
Still, I'm pleased that his coffin is unmarked by religious symbols. On the lid's liner, two simple words: "going home." A flock of birds is printed on the satin, and there's a bird etched onto each of the coffin's brass details. I suppose they're doves, but my father was a hunter, so I see quarry. I don't doubt that he would've enjoyed having a 14-point buck embossed on the lid, but funeral homes probably don't offer that option. At least not in New Jersey.
Which leads me to wonder, who will get his guns? I'd prefer the shotgun to the rifle, because in the event of apocalypse, it'll be easier to chop down, easier to scavenge ammunition. If the apocalypse turns out to be more 28 Days Later than Mad Max, the shotgun's short-range zombie-killing power will be useful.
These are my thoughts as my sister wraps up. A friend from her church group stands, belts out a version of "Amazing Grace" worthy of angels.
And the tears pour down my cheeks.