Halfway Through the Wood
April 20, 2009 § 12 Comments
for Doug on the loss of his Dad, and in loving memory of Larry Vonalt.
Last week we attended the funeral of a man we’d never met. I could not have told you much at all about him. I was four states and 900 miles away when I learned of his death. My husband read the obituary to me over the telephone, both of us learning that this gentleman had served in two wars, worked for the telephone company, he was 82, and he’d been married for 56 years. In addition to his wife, he is survived by four children, four grandchildren, a brother, a sister. While recounting the news of his death to my mother, tears spill down my face.
No, we’d never met Edsel Peters. If we’d seen him working in his yard or fishing at the lake, we would not have recognized him. But we mourn his passing because his youngest child, his baby boy, is our good and loyal friend. The kind of friend that will help you unload a moving van full of furniture in hundred-degree heat, who shoots baskets with your kid, a man of wit and grace and excellent humor. If the measure of a man is in the children he leaves behind, then Edsel Peters was a very fine man indeed.
Losing your father unmoors you. It doesn’t matter how grown up you might be, how accomplished. Suddenly you are rudderless, flying blind, walking the tightrope without a net. Three years ago, when I told my friend Judy that my father had died, she said, “Oh honey, you’ve done lost your right arm.” It was the absolute truth. I lost my sense of navigation. I was clumsy with grief.
Judy’s own father, Virg Lovell, has been gone forty years or so. He spent years raising and showing Foxhounds, and it was Judy, not her brothers, who followed in his footsteps, from the time she was two years old. Seventy years later, Judy’s still raising and showing Foxhounds, maybe the best in the country. She still talks about her father like he might well walk through the door.
We carry our fathers with us; perhaps in a gesture, a certain turn of a phrase, a predilection for Miracle Whip on our fried egg sandwich, maybe a tendency to sing along with the car radio. I wonder at times about my mother’s father, Bennie Lee Ouzts, who died after being injured in a logging accident when my mother was just twelve. Did he look out across the horizon lost in thought the way my mother does? Did he throw his head back when he laughed the way his sons and daughters do? I never saw my Nana do that, but each of the six children do.
There aren’t many photographs of him. In my mind’s eye, he looks like Gregory Peck (though my mother will no doubt say “Of course not”) and I know that his nickname for my mother was Cooter (after the snapping turtle) and I know that his death became a kind of wound for my mother that never quite heals.
My Nana’s father died when she was just a girl as well. If I knew the exact circumstances, I have forgotten them. What I remember is that his death meant that my grandmother had to quit school in the 8th grade and go to work in the cotton mills. In the last hours of my grandmother’s life, my mother sat at the hospital bedside, watching Nana sleep. Suddenly, my mother said, Nana looked to a place somewhere above the doorframe, lifted up her arms the way a child will when she wants to be carried and whispered “Papa! Papa!”
For me the first death in the family was my father’s father, my Grandpa Paul Vonalt. He died just shy of 80, after an illness. I was an adult by then, and the news, conveyed to me by telephone did not dissemble me the way I expected it to. I felt very sad, missing in advance the unassuming man who taught me to fish for bluegills, sharpen pencils with a Swiss Army knife, how to paint hex signs. Every summer visit, he’d loan me his green Huffy 3-speed bicycle to tool around town.
I expected to go to Grandpa’s funeral. It was just a day’s drive, and I made plans to go. But my father told me not to come. He said that it was too risky with the February weather, that Grannie and Grandpa knew how much I loved them, that I didn’t need to come out, that I shouldn’t. Being that this is an extended family that reassembles for fish fries and baby showers and 40th birthdays, I was puzzled by my father’s insistence that I stay in Boston and not come.
It was only after his funeral that I truly understood why. My father needed that time to be the grieving child. Consumed by sorrow for the loss of his father, he didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to be there for me. I knew this finally because when Dad died, it was my husband who stepped in to care for our son and guide him through the loss of his Grandpa. I was too shattered to be anyone’s mother.
Daniel Sullivan was the first of my friend’s fathers to be lost. His daughter Noelle has been one of my closest friends for nearly twenty years. When I first met Noelle, her father was in remission. It didn’t last. I didn’t know what to do and I wasn’t the friend that I should have been. We were new to this, to facing the unthinkable. Dan Sullivan fought the fight long and hard. I wish I could say that I was present for Noelle; that I provided tea and sympathy, a kind ear and arms to shelter in. But I wasn’t, at least not in the way I should have been. I didn’t know what to say, and I was a little bit afraid. If Noelle’s father could so easily slip away over the edge, what about my own?
In truth I had two fathers and in the end, I lost them both. My stepfather, Humphrey Clarke Booth, died while brushing his teeth, shooting straight to the sun, gone before his body hit the floor. That was always his style anyway. He was in England, the news came by telephone. This is the man who taught me to drive, (“remember to speed up in the curves”) bought me my first horse, my first car, ordered me my first Martini. He soothed my broken heart, smoothed the oft-ruffled feathers between my mother and me, and made damn sure the lunch ladies in the English primary school never again made comment on the way I held my fork. His death, instant and far away, was also a strange kindness, a leg up on being an orphan before I really had to face it.
And even then, I came undone. I stayed out all night, writing, drinking. When I slept it was fitful. When I ate, it was a dozen raw oysters and a few Bombay Sapphire martinis every night at the Livingston Bar and Grille. One night it was one of the wait staff that drove me home. Other times I’d crash on the studio floor of a painter friend. Finally I asked a woman I knew for something to help get me out of the fog. She gave me a prescription, but no one remembered to tell me that I shouldn’t wash it down with gin. That landed me in the world of ipecac and activated charcoal, discussing a Thomas Jefferson biography with one of the ER docs in between wretching. The next morning I felt much better, as if somehow I’d got my bearings back again.
My stepsister read Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night” at her father’s funeral. At the time it struck me as a peculiar choice, one made only because it is a plaint from child to father. And you, my father, there on the sad height/ Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears I pray / Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage rage against the dying of the light. Reading it now, I realize that it is absolute stricken wail of a child. It’s beautiful and it’s brilliant, but that doesn’t disguise the primal nature of the plea: Don’t leave me, don’t leave me, Daddy, don’t leave me.
My father told me he was dying by asking me if I wanted his poetry books. My father and I had many of the same poetry books. (Perhaps another shared quality, like the way I hold the steering wheel, or a preference for Cabernet over Merlot) He was an English professor; I’d grown up reading Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop and for a while was a poet myself. Some bookshelves bow under the weight of those slender volumes. If my father was offering me his poetry books it was because he would not need them anymore. That was in August. He taught his last class in December. He was dead the day after Christmas.
In the months between August and December, I wrestled with my father’s impending death. He was dying from laryngeal cancer. There had been immense amounts of radiation, and finally in a last ditch attempt the previous January they’d taken out his larynx, and made a permanent hole in his throat, given him a little black box on a cord around his neck in exchange for his voice. It was supposed to be the price for a cure, but they didn’t hold up their end of the deal.
It’s a parlor game to ask what you would do if you knew you only had a year, a few months, a few weeks left. I don’t know what my father might have said when the question was just hypothetical. When it was real, he went on with his life as he knew it. He drove down to his office at the university, met with students, taught classes, stopped by the Chef’s Pantry for good wine and roast beef and cheese on the way home. He took his wife to dinner, they listened to music. He sent emails to old friends and family members. They scheduled times for people to visit.
I suggested that we might come for Thanksgiving, and was told, no, Michael and his family were coming. I’m an only child. Michael is the son of my father’s wife. It was a stinging knockdown, one that left me sitting in tears. I wanted to finish the unfinished business; I wanted to clear the air, set things right. My father just wanted to go on with his life as he knew it. He asked for suggestions for the memorial service. I made them. He said he’d check with his wife. I lost my temper and reminded him he had other family. He sent back a six-word email “Why don’t you just cool it?”
I carefully crafted an email about how upset and enraged I felt about his impending death, how I wanted to set things right between us. He wrote that he didn’t want me to feel enraged. How could I help it? I wasn’t ready. Grave men near death, who see with blinding sight / Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay / Rage, rage against the dying of the light. It seemed that I could do nothing right. There are platitudes about having a chance to say goodbye. Sometimes it’s easier if you lose your father while he is brushing his teeth.
We went to see my father in the middle of December. He was clearly near the end. Dad went into the hospital to have a feeding tube put in. From his hospital bed, he wrote directions on a half-size legal pad as to cleaning out his office at school. I might have spent hours at his bedside, but instead I went up to the university and packed. Every few hours I would return to the hospital and ask what to do about various papers, or files, or stacks of literary journals. “Send them,” he scribbled, or “Take them if you want them,” or most often “Pitch it.” I took all the poetry books.
The doctors thought we had another month. They were wrong. As we drove away that night, through a snowstorm to Kansas City on our way back to Montana, I could not stop crying. My heart knew what my head could not yet accept. We promised to come back in two weeks. The last thing my Dad said to me, his mouth silently forming the words was “I’m sorry.”
“Me too, Dad. I’m sorry too.”
We got a phone call on the morning of the 26th. Dad had been admitted to the hospital, this was it. He might have until the close of day. I called every airline that flew out of Montana. If I could get to the airport in the next twenty minutes, I could catch the last flight that would have made a connection to get me to St. Louis at ten o’clock that night. But the airport was an hour and a half away.
“I’ll drive you to Missouri,” my husband said. “Don’t worry, I can drive straight through.” Straight through was1400 miles in the snow. I shook my head. He wasn’t even conscious anymore, it was time to act like the daughter of the pragmatist he was. The day seemed to go on without end. When the phone rang again about 8 p.m., it was all over. If we’d started driving, we would only have gotten as far as Denver.
My husband’s father died a long time ago, and when I’ve asked him about it, he changes the subject. Oh, he’ll say how he got the call. How no one in his family had told him that his father was dying. That he flew to L.A. by himself, as his first wife declined to accompany him. He’ll recall how he found a cash register slip on his father’s dresser for six Porterhouse steaks that were on sale at a great price. His father had bought them just a few days before he died and now Porterhouse steaks are forever entwined with that memory. The stories my husband tells about Pon Lieu are the stories of his life and never of his death. When I asked once how his father had died, Elmer said, “I think he just gave up.” I don’t have to ask him how he felt to lose his father; I know the answer to that.
I envy my friends who still have their fathers, and especially my cousins, the children of my father’s brothers. I worry about my husband and our 14-year-old son, who are caught up in that push-me-pull-you of adolescence. I can’t stand to hear them yelling at each other. Don’t they realize how precious is the time they have together, how we can’t really say which memories will linger on, which parts of the relationship become the legacy carried in one’s heart?
Worse still is my husband’s younger daughter from his first marriage. She is so caught up in her own anger and self-pity that she has excluded her father altogether from her life. He hasn’t heard from her in three years, and any attempts he’s made at communicating have gone unanswered. I want to take her by the shoulders and say “Don’t you realize?! Don’t you know how much you’ll regret this when it’s too late?”
It was only after my father’s memorial service that I learned from strangers that he had been proud of me, that he thought I’d turned out just fine despite everything. One person after another recounted for me the things Dad had told them about me. Sorting through his boxes and files, I found letters I’d written as a child, pieces I’d published in high school, poems I’d worked on, and reams of newspaper stories I’d written. I can’t help but wonder how different those last months might have been if only I’d known.
Driving in the car one morning the spring after my father’s death, I heard a bit of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Wood on the radio. I’ve seen the play, and I turned up the song.
People make mistakes. Fathers. Mothers. People make mistakes. Holding to their own, thinking they’re alone. Honor their mistake. Fight for their mistakes. One another’s terrible mistakes. Witches can be right. Giants can be good. You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good. Just remember: someone is on your side. Someone else is not. While we’re seeing our side maybe we forgot. They are not alone. No one is alone.
I’m a little abashed to say that I found the answer to the father-child conundrum in a Broadway song. All that expectation, all that disappointment, all that dependence and love and struggle. But there it is: People make mistakes. Fathers. Mothers. People make mistakes. In recognizing my father as only human, I am able to accept having to let him go. I am glad he went gentle into that good night, and suffered no more. I miss him every day. I wish he could have come farther along the journey with us, but sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Still, we carry his map and his compass.
After the funeral of our friend’s father, I wanted to say some of these things. At least I wanted to say it gets better. It won’t always hurt so much. Your questions won’t have answers but the questions grow quieter in time. I wanted to say you won’t always feel like a fatherless child. You never stop missing your father, but you grow stronger in time. But I didn’t say any of this. I just hugged our friends and said how sorry I was.