The Old Man On New Year's Eve
YOU DOING ON NEW YEAR'S EVE?"
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
must've been unbearable for him to depend on others, which
is why last week's news didn't shock me.
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
DOORS OPEN FOR WOMEN.
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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.
ALL TASKS THROUGH TO THEIR COMPLETION.
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?
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
then, I didn't understand. When I protested, he asked
me only, "Why do you want to leave the stump in the ground?"
had no answer.
do you want to leave the stump?" he asked again.
was taught that we are not lazy people," he said. "Finish
A 1968 MUSTANG, THE ONLY THING YOU CAN'T FIX YOURSELF
IS THE TRANSMISSION.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
father, polite but no pushover, cited the as-is nature
of used-car sales, and refused.
PASSION FOR EVERYTHING YOU DO, BUT DON'T LET YOUR JOB
only my father had learned this lesson for himself.
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.
stroke and heart attack didn't come from a slothful neglect
of his body. It was the fucking job.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
think of Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty dying in Blade Runnerˇall
those sights seen, now gone. All that knowledge lost,
all those dreams unbuilt.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
the tears pour down my cheeks.