Saturday, September 12, 2009

In Memoriam

My father died eight years ago today. Apparently he fell over backwards in a small ceramics shop, seized by a heart attack a few minutes after he raised the flag at half mast at Friendship House, where he volunteered several days a week after my mother died (six years earlier).

He had called me Monday night to let me know that his dental surgery had gone fine. He left a voice mail because I was out teaching an evening class. He was getting his teeth fixed because he had a new girlfriend, whom I was scheduled to meet for the first time at Thanksgiving—as it turned out, I met her later that week when I went to Augusta with my friends Barbara and Elizabeth to pay up on his cremation and figure out what to do with his stuff.

I called him that Tuesday night to see how he was doing. Fine, he said. It was not a long conversation—neither one of us is famous for his long conversations on the telephone. I asked him if he had seen the World Trade Center collapsing on TV that morning. He had, he said. I said it was bad. He said, yes, it was bad.

I went to work the next day. Wednesday. I remember nothing about it. I remember the day before, watching with my boss and coworkers as the towers fell, trying to gauge how we felt, how much we would let ourselves feel, how real we were going to let the whole surreal mess be to us.

When I got home, I had a phone message. It was the woman who managed Friendship House. She asked me to call her back. She said it was about my father. Of course I knew something was up. The sound of her voice let me know that it was bad. How bad I wouldn’t let myself guess. That this woman I didn’t even know existed was calling me and asking me to call her back was a clear indication it was very bad.

I called back. She started crying and couldn’t get the words out. Somebody else took the phone, somebody I didn’t know who talked to me as if she knew me. My father was dead. Okay. Okay. I will drive down at the end of the week, in two days. I will take care of stuff. Thank you.

I called Elizabeth. She came over. She asked me if I had cried. I didn’t know. Maybe. I was numb. It was the same feeling I had had when my mother had died. It was as if I had just suddenly had an arm or a leg amputated. Something that was a part of me for all my life was now gone. And now the other one was gone. I was a double amputee now.

I called relatives. My mother’s brother said he and his wife would meet me in Augusta. He was a retired Southern Baptist minister, and the only minister of any faith I know whom I can now respect. Whatever else his religion was—obscurantist, judgmental, mean-spirited—was mitigated by his basic human decency, and its sorrier traits were never evident in his actions or words. I called my father’s family, whom I hardly knew, my family (father, mother, and me) having been without actual sense of roots because my father was in the Air Force for the first sixteen years of my life and we had moved every three years or so. They would send me twenty dollars … for whatever needed twenty dollars. (I gave the money to Friendship House.)

Today has been a one-man memorial at my place. I’ve graded papers, walked the dog, and picked up some beer and dog food at Kroger. Mostly I’ve mulled over the facts of my relationship with my father—like most sons, I found those facts very quickly exhausted—and I’ve contemplated death—my own death, sure, and death in general. Don’t hold your breath for me to report any big insights I came up with. Death answers nothing—it’s like reading all the periods in a favorite book … but only the periods. You get nowhere. Fast.

“Nowhere fast” is as good a definition of death as there is.

As I get older, life starts speeding up. Eight years was a huge chunk of time when I was young. Now it’s nothing. I was watching a television show recently, one that was originally broadcast ten years ago. It featured a song by Dido. And here I was still thinking that Dido was something new. Ten years ago seems so new to me. All the styles on the show—homes, clothing, automobiles—look like what I still would like to buy if I could afford them—and if I had them, I would probably consider myself up to date. I am far behind the times. The high-school kids on that show are now playing the parents of teenagers on other TV shows. It makes me cringe to think (it will make you cringe, too) that from time to time I now find myself yearning with deep, sad lust over youths who were born at a time when I was already beginning to feel old.

My dog Ripley, who turns 13 next month, is now the last link I have with my past before ten years ago. My dog Ripley and Facebook, where old friends from high school have lately come creeping up on me out of a cybereal fog, rubbing their eyes like Rip Van Winkle, grinning stupidly, wondering where it all went … and went so fast. We chuckle over our astonishment, shaking our heads from side to side, just like the old folks we’ve become.

But my dog Ripley—now 90 in dog years—is somebody my father petted, somebody who cuddled in the lap of Luis, who died five years ago of AIDS complications, who at the time of his death was my furthest back friend (we had known each other since the ninth grade). My dog, who was born almost a year exactly after my mother died, has been more a part of my life now than anybody except for my parents, and they are gone, and in some sense I have spent more time, hour for hour, with my dog than I have spent with anyone in my entire life, including my parents, old lovers, et cetera.

So I am taking good care of my dog.



  1. A beautiful post Joe. I don't know what led me to it, other than to see how you were, thinking about your dad. And about 5 minutes ago, I was reading Walt Whitman, and thinking of missing limbs. Then I thought of phantom pain, and of the twin towers. It all seemed to come full circle as you described your parents as missing limbs as well.

    Come said my soul,
    Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one).

  2. I love Whitman. For years he was my bible when I no longer had a bible.

    Thank you.

  3. Yes, you do take wonderful care of Ripley. Ain't nothing wrong in that.

  4. He's right here by me now--he can't get enough of me.



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