Papa was a rollin’ stone.
Where ever he laid his hat was his home.
And when he died,
All he left us was alone. – “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”
Ernest Hemingway always offered this advice to aspiring writers: “Develop a built-in bullshit detector.”
I’ve been thinking about that a lot during the past 24 hours or so. You see, I got the call yesterday that I’ve known was coming for a few months now. My father died yesterday morning.
Regarding Hemingway’s advice, I had a fabulous teacher, the absolute best: my father. If I’m a little crusty around the edges, exceedingly streetwise and street-weary (without ever having lived on them), more than a bit cynical and perhaps a bit too reluctant to trust, I have him to thank.
That probably sounds cruel or resentful but it’s not meant to be. It’s genuine. And because it is, you’ll find no sweet or flowery eulogies here. To provide one would be dishonest to both him and me. I know it’s cliché, but I latched onto the catch-phrase, “It is what it is” to describe the last chapter in the saga that has linked me to my father. I refuse in death to treat it any differently than in life. We always said his world was ruled by "The Three Bs" (booze, broads and bullshit) and no one knew them better.
I may someday regret not having gone to see him during these final weeks or even to have spoken with him. I just don’t think it would have changed or resolved anything. And, I didn’t think it was worth upsetting a dying old man to prove it. I think that in his deluded way my father would have expected me to express all manner of things that, in all honesty, I cannot. (Or maybe this is my way of giving myself a pass. In either case, it’s done.)
As I was not the person in charge of his medical decisions, neither am I the person handling his burial. (Other than not knowing what is going on, I am OK with that.) Considering our estrangement, it seems appropriate. And, it seems typical of the uncertainty I’ve experienced with him for much of my life.
It’s uncertainty that is, at the moment, impeding the one thing I think I can do for him at this point: write an obituary. I’ve basically done this, leaving placeholders for service/burial information for now. It’s brought my PR skills to bear and tested my journalist’s objectivity at the highest levels.
The other thing I can do is try to vanquish, once and for all, the host of negativity that a lifetime of wrongs has generated. Easier said than done, but the task is lightened by the fact that during the past few years and especially since this all started in April, I've been hefting stuff overboard.
I've identified this as a long-term task. In the short term, I've vowed to focus on a few of the things I can point to as happy memories, even if they did come to a screeching halt 30-35 years ago.
- He taught me to play chess – and poker – before I was 5. The latter got me in trouble the first day of first grade in Catholic school – but only because I was beating a bunch of boys and taking their milk money. It also meant that during the many family poker games with my uncles and extended family members and friends, I was the only kid who would get left at the game table to cover while their dad took a bathroom break.
- He made football understandable enough for a 4-year-old and forever spurred my interest in the game.
- When I was 7, he came home with a kitten in the pocket of his trench coat. He had been closing up at the bar he owned at the time and when he took out the trash, he met up with two guys who were bouncing said kitten back and forth and saying what all they were going to do to the unfortunate feline. After a few seconds, the story goes, he intervened and told them that he had a gun that said they were going to give the kitten to him. (Considering that the old man packed a .357 in those days, it was probably a wise choice. And it was probably one of the nicest things he ever did.)
- When I was 11, we moved into a rental house that was a nightmare. But the mother's decorative eye scored us a deal on rent and served as my introduction to DIY. During the next 18 months, I would have some of the best – and worst – times of my life in that house.
I could probably add two or three more fondly held anecdotes; it's a pretty thin collection. And while they don't go very far in outweighing all the terrifying memories, at least they exist.
The one thing I really do owe him a debt is for developing, installing, fine-tuning and regularly testing my "bullshit detector." I don't think my writing would be what it is without the rich experiences that intangible device helped me to cultivate as a reporter. Without it, I don't think I would have the depth of understanding and empathy that I have for those who are abused, chemically-addicted or otherwise downtrodden that I do. Nor would I be able to spot a flim-flam man at 20 paces.
All in all, it's been an invaluable tool. So thanks, Dad. There will always be that. May you find in the next part of your journey what managed to elude you here. I wish you peace.