Saturday, March 21, 2009
Hero Worship (An Obituary)
One day my father said this: "I wish you were never born." We were enemies, you see.
His father, Albert, never took much active interest in him. So when my dad, Tyler, joined the Boy Scouts, he went to meetings and campouts with his best friend and his father. As a result, when I was born, he promised himself he'd make a better father.
He enrolled me in Tiger Cubs and then Cub Scouts. He not only participated, he was the Packmaster. My mom was a den mother. I earned every activity badge in Webelos, the last stage before graduating to Boy Scouts. I loved it. As a Boy Scout, he was there beside me at every campout. He was an awesome dad.
When I became a teenager, my interest in scouting waned and I gravitated towards teenage things like girls, drugs, and popularity. (my lack of those, specifically, though I got pretty good at acquiring and using drugs) It wasn't cool to be best friends with Dad anymore. He wanted me to make Eagle Scout far more than I did. He kept dragging me to meetings. I only wanted to camp. I began to resist and resent, and found ways not to be home when it was time to go to Troop 493 meetings at Dirksen Elementary.
We still got along. He taught me to play chess, a family tradition. He never gave an inch. I always lost, but I loved it, and never gave up. We played for years and years, even after we grew to hate one another. He taught me about computers in the eighties and early nineties, long before the days of graphic interfaces. Everything was hexadecimal and text entry. (I hated it when Windows became an operating system, with point and click, because it let idiots into the wonderful world of computers, which I felt was the private playground of the intelligent.) We still had things in common. But we weren't best friends anymore.
He was changing, too. My mother got a hysterectomy after my folks' fourth child, Andrew was born in 1983. Mom's sex drive departed with her fertility, and as my parents' intimacy evaporated, my father found a substitute in bourbon. None of that registered with me as a youngster, but by the time I was 13 or so, my parents rarely spoke to one another, and when they did, it was curt and snide. Mom slept in the bedroom. Dad slept on the living room couch or the floor. He drank a fifth of Ten High every night; Wild Turkey if he was feeling extravagant.
Home from work in the evenings, he'd sit on the couch, the TV usually off, staring into space, chain smoking Bensen & Hedges De Luxe Ultra Lights 100s. Near the end of the night, shitfaced, he'd remove his pants and button down shirt, leaving him sitting there in black dress socks, white briefs, and threadbare white undershirts. Sometimes all his clothes came off. Often he passed out face up on the floor, drooling, snoring loudly, or both. He was never a violent drunk, just a distant, melancholy one.
Such behavior severely undermined a father trying to maintain authority and impose discipline. None of us four kids took him seriously when he yelled at us for misbehavior, or grounded us. How could we take him seriously? When he ate lunchmeat late at night and left it on the coffee table, Anita and I would sometimes unpeel the remaining slices and layer his naked, prone body with them, giggling all the while, secretly masking our helpless distress. I made fun of him to my friends, pretending none of it bothered me.
My mother is a quiet, sweet woman. And a very soft touch. She never yelled at any of us, never disciplined us. She simply nurtured and supported. As a result, when I rebelled against my dad and quit high school midway through sophomore year, there was nobody who could successfully punish me or force me to go back. I chose instead to stay home and play on the computer, or, when Dad's angry tirades annoyed me enough, I'd stay at friends' homes for weeks on end, supporting an exciting drug habit with money from a fast food job. I always ended up back home, though, a disappointment to my father, a smart but angry teenager wasting his potential and destroying his future.
I hated the man. Daily he committed the worst sin, in my view, which was hypocrisy. I heard lots of "Do as I say, not as I do" and "Because I said so." One of many screaming matches ended with him saying "I wish you were never born." That one made me cry. I guess I did care what he thought, as much as I told myself otherwise.
I didn't learn to drive until I was 22. When I finally had my license, Dad tried to kick me out for the fifth time. (His previous attempts failed when I told Mom and she allowed me to ignore him.) This time, instead of running to Mom, I simply packed up and left. I was afraid I'd never amount to anything in life, and living with my folks wasn't cool for a 22 year old. My peers had graduated high school 4 years before (I never have to this day) and most had left for college. I knew my evolution to adulthood was long overdue.
I wasn't a total deadbeat during those years from 18-22. I had a good work ethic and was working for both Hewlett Packard and Enron, but I'd never paid a bill in my life. My income was disposable and I had lots of fun with it, to my father's chagrin. As a result, striking out on my own was a huge deal.
Having finally flown the nest, I learned that life was one hell of a struggle when you have to provide for yourself. I gained a measure of appreciation for old Tyler, realizing he'd supported a family of six for almost two decades despite being desperately unhappy. He kept the family boat from sinking while basically estranged from not only his wife, but his entire family, who treated him with hatred. Some of that hate was his fault. He was certainly the catalyst, but I fueled it, too, in my arrogant teenage way, using diplomacy and persuasion to frame the battle as us vs. him, with everyone on my side. I was extremely successful at that, which I still regret.
Two years after leaving home, I was between jobs, broke, and had a falling out with my roommate. I swallowed my pride and went back to my folks' house. By this time my hatred for my dad had evaporated. Absense makes the heart grow fonder, they say. I had a newfound awareness of financial struggle, resulting in a begruding respect for the old man. I was ready to mend our relationship.
I came home expecting derision, lectures, and fifty varieties of "I told you so!" and "tough out there, huh?" I expected a difficult and painful reconciliation.
What I arrived to find was a sad, broken man, still a slave to bourbon, now without hope. And so, so lonely. His industry, electrical engineering sales representation, had evaporated with the twin advents of direct sales and outsourcing. His savings had dwindled to perilous levels, then nothing. His stabs at new careers like insurance sales and Amway had failed, and with all his kids reaching their early twenties and moving on, my mother, Kristine, finally felt she could divorce him without feeling like she was disappointing or abandoning her children. Papers were filed. Dad was almost broke and on the verge of losing not only his home, but also his family, whom he loved deeply, despite his ineptitude at displaying it.
Enter me, his oldest son, and biggest enemy. I could almost see the resignation on his face when, on my second night back, I grabbed his Ten High, poured myself a couple fingers on the rocks with a splash, (same as him) and sat down beside him. I say almost because his face was already beaten with resignation, and the words he expected to hear from me were just going to be frosting on his cake of doom.
Instead, he got a surprise. I spoke.
"Dad, I'm sorry. Sorry I never listened to you. Sorry I disappointed you. Sorry I hated you. I was young, arrogant, and ignorant. I couldn't fathom the sacrifices you made for me, for the entire family. I couldn't understand that you wanted the best for me, which is why you always tried to direct my life in positive directions. I have some good things going for me now, I think, but on balance, I'm more failure and missed opportunity than success. But that's okay, I'm still young; I'm learning every day. I could blame you for where I went I wrong, but that wouldn't help either of us. So I'm done with that.
"I used to blame you for your weaknesses; for alienating me. A lot of choices I made before, when I was younger, were born of anger. I wanted to spite you. Not anymore. I take responsibility for my life and my actions now.
"Dad, I love you. You're my father. I'm not absolving you completely. In many ways, you failed me. You tried to push me in directions you thought were good for me, but I couldn't listen because I just didn't trust you, and that's your fault.
"You gave up on your wife and love too easily. You gave into self-pity and addiction instead of being a patient and loving husband. I know about Mom's hysterectomy, Dad. I know her passion burned out. But you weren't strong enough to wait, or find a new way to love Mom. You failed each other, and as a result, failed your children.
"Despite that, though, you kept the family together and provided for us. Even when we had no respect for you. Even when we hated you. You were surrounded by your family but completely alone. I see that now. Your strength.
"Now everybody is splitting up. I know you're terrified we're all going to move on with life and forget about you now that we don't need you for money anymore. I know you're bitter as hell about the way everything is turning out. But that's wrong, that isn't true. You are not alone. You are not unloved. Now you need us. I've talked to Anita, Carolyn, and Andrew. We don't hate you. We love you. Very much. Mom still loves you too, she just can't be with you anymore.
"I love you, Dad. You taught me so many great things. You made me, for good and ill. I don't want to be enemies anymore. So no more of that bullshit silliness. I'm here Dad. I'm proud as hell to be your son. I look up to you more than you can know."
We hugged. We cried. We played chess. We drank bourbon. My relationship with my father was reborn and blossomed during what was otherwise the worst summer of my life. I beat him at chess, finally, for the first time ever, then beat him again. I gave him all my money to help pay the overhead. I was merely prolonging the inevitable. We were evicted. The family scattered to the winds. Anita was married. Andy and I went with friends. Carolyn and Mom got a place together. Dad was alone.
He rented rooms in crowded flophouses full of divorced men and parolees. He delivered pizza and auto parts. He mourned for himself and longed for the past. He bought dirt cheap Indian reservation cigarettes via mail order, switched from bourbon to handles of cheapshit Skol vodka (less detectable on his breath than bourbon) and soldiered on, drunk, depressed, and lonely.
Interventions failed. Everything we tried failed.
He descended further. He stopped renting rooms in crammed houses full of other bitter men and slept instead in his minivan, all his possesions in the back. When winter came, he went to shelters. He hung out with junkies, losers, drunks, and priests. My father, who made six figures one year. My father, who had a degree in electrical engineering from the University Of Colorado at Denver. Tyler, proud father of four, was now just another broken hobo drinking himself to death. He had given up and accepted an ugly end long before his children tried to save his soul, and no effort we made could change the outcome.
One night, he called me asking for money for rent, telling me he spent the cash he'd set aside for it on an emergency car repair. I didn't have it. At that point I had finally gotten an apartment of my own, without roommates. I treasured my solitude and privacy. On the phone with him, something itched inside me. I said no to his request for money, but I asked him to come live with me. Maybe it wasn't too late to save him. He arrived in his van, the remainder of his wordly possesions stuffed within it. A little over a month later our cohabitation ended badly.
The last time I saw him was at Christmastime 2007. I'd heard, from my litter sister Carolyn, that he was in bad health. I called him on Christmas Eve and asked him to spend it with me. He was hesitant. I knew he was afraid of missing final check-in at the shelter. I told him he could stay overnight. I told him to bring his vodka and a fresh change of clothes for the next day. He agreed and I gave him directions.
We talked for hours, smoking cigarettes, reminiscing. We told stories from the past, glorifying the good times, laughing at the ugly ones. When he started to reach that slackjawed heavy drunk mode, I interrupted him and demanded his full attention. I had serious words to impart.
"Dad... I know you're never going to stop drinking. Even if you're capable of it, you just don't want to. You won't. You're gonna die. You're gonna fucking die! Not sometime in the future, but any fucking day now!"
I was crying. I was squeezing his shoulders, shaking him.
"I love you so much. You're my hero. You're my idol. I'm like you in so many ways. I'm my father's son. I am you. Watching you like this, it rips me apart, Dad. So... I just... fuck. I guess... I'm saying goodbye to you now, Dad. I might see you after this, I might not. You're beaten. You're broken. You're dying. I'm fucking furious that you're leaving us like this. You fucking asshole. You fucking shit. I love you, godamnit. Fuck!
"Just know. Just know that... you're my hero. Even like this. Even as a shell. Even... even... Fuck! I'm gonna miss you Dad."
He looked at me, glasy eyed, so wobbly he couldn't even sit up without bobbing left and right, and said, slurring, "I know, son. I know. I'm sorry. Sorry."
He coughed, long and deep.
"I love you. I'm proud of you. You're a good son. Thank you for that."
He paused for moment, looked away, then turned back to me and said, "I'm so scared."
We sobbed until we ran out of energy. We sat silently smoking cigarettes, side by side, looking at the wall, until he was just too drunk for consciousness. He knocked over the ashtray and his vodka, and almost fell from the couch to the floor. I pushed and prodded him into a position that was more likely to keep him from falling off the couch. I went to bed, heartbroken.
I saw him the next day, on Christmas, but there was nothing left to say. When he left Mom's (our holiday gathering place) to head for the shelter, we hugged fiercely.
June 15th, 2008 was Father's Day. I was working a double shift as a bar server at Buffalo Wild Wings in Hoffman Estates. The general manager, Jay McDonald, knew a bit about my family history from conversation.
"Hey Steve. Talk to your dad today?"
"No. I don't think I will. I'm kinda angry at him."
"You should call him. Things happen, you know? You might not get another chance."
"Yeah, you're right. Maybe I will."
I resolved to call him after work. Fast forward three hours.
My big sister Anita called me during the dinner rush.
"It's Dad. He had a heart attack. He died."
I broke down. Lost it completely.
I miss you, Dad. You bastard shithead. You angel. You wonderful, wonderful man. I have so much left to do in my life, so much I wanted you to see. To be proud of me. But you won't. You're gone.
I love you, Dad. Hope you're okay.
Tyler William Giles
10/7/49 - 6/15/08 4:19 AM - Bottle Rocket Fire Alarm
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