My dad had a first bout with melanoma when I was three or four. I remember one pitch-black morning in a hospital parking lot and another in a family friend’s kitchen, understanding that I’d eat breakfast and watch cartoons there before daycare with the Mormon woman I called “Aunt Donna.” I remember hearing “lymph nodes” over and over again, knowing they were in his armpits. I grasped that he was sick, I think, but I don’t recall ever feeling anxious about it. Every month thereafter he’d drive to UCLA for bloodwork and a meeting with his oncologist. I went with him once; it was the first time I ever ate in a cafeteria. I remember marveling at <quote-01>the flavor of the scrambled eggs<quote-01>, so curiously bland compared to my mother’s. I remember liking them. He made that drive once a month for six or seven years, until his oncologist suggested that he probably didn’t have to anymore; cancer-free for over five years usually means cancer-free forever. Some other team of doctors was treating him for anemia six months later when they realized his cancer had returned with a vengeance.
It was <quote-02>your digging<quote-02> into fathers and fatherhood a month ago, Hoke, that first got me thinking about my father; I mean really remembering him. And now, Wuck, you’ve shared with us an intimate exchange with your own, a man with whom you rarely see eye to eye these days despite the immense mutual respect you clearly have for each other. As I read your letter, I found myself imagining a world in which my father was still alive, in which I was disagreeing with him over politics even as we celebrated Dodgers and Lakers championships, and in which the mere mention of Grammar might have defused a tense moment about his redneck friends—cops many of them.
“Gram Slam!” I can almost hear him saying. “What’s shakin’?”
Back in July, you’ll both remember, I wondered about the effect of committing a memory to the page, if the act of doing so permits the brain to relax its hold on the recorded stuff, lets it all unknowingly slip into uncertainty. Or perhaps the mere passage of time is to blame. Either way, your musings on your fathers have stirred in me remembrances of things past, of my own father, gone now twenty-six years. And so I sit here wondering if I should stick pins in these fluttering fragments of memory before they return to wherever they were hibernating, before I lose them for good as I’m sure I’ve lost others.
The first place my mind goes—rather unfortunately—is a cancer ward. I recall vividly our many trips to the hospital—Conch and I—during my father’s final months, not only to Pomona Valley but to Saint John’s in Santa Monica. <quote-03>I drew a lot in those days<quote-03>, mostly comic book stuff. I’d spend hours in the various waiting rooms, drawing and watching whatever was on the television, eating something from the vending machines to pass the time. I can feel now what I felt then, unmistakable and distinct: <quote-04>something like sadness and helplessness and boredom<quote-04>. Thinking back on those months of his sickness, I don’t think we meaningfully interacted the entire time, my father and I. Our relationship had always centered around doing things—hitting the batting cages or miniature golf course, shooting hoops in the driveway or playing catch in the front yard, <quote-05>running to Builder’s Emporium or Rugg Lumber or to the pool supply store for something or other<quote-05>, grabbing a burger at the A&W with the ballgame on the radio—and once he got sick, he didn’t do much but work and sleep. Probably he didn’t know what to say either. I’m sure he was sad, ashamed in a way. I sometimes wonder what he and my mother talked about all those hours in his hospital rooms with me down the hall doodling away. What a bummer dying is, guys. I think I’ve said as much before. So much better just to be dead, I think.
Speaking of, I’m realizing now that homelife without him didn’t take much getting used to, at least at first. He was a regional manager for a nationwide financial services company and only at his Ontario office one-seventh of the year. This meant he was often away for days at a time during the week, holed up in a Bakersfield or Lancaster Ramada Inn. I have so many memories of homelife with just me and Conch that I have to think hard about the specifics to determine whether or not he was dead yet. Is wrestling on in the background? He’s alive. Am I playing Mortal Kombat II? He’s dead. Which pair of Rollerblades are those? What cassette tape is in my Walkman? Is that popcorn or ribbon on the Christmas tree? When he wasn’t away, he was so early to bed and so early to rise that we rarely interacted during the workweek. Still, he was always home for the weekend, always a rooting presence at my baseball and soccer games, never occupied with anything but our home and family. On Saturdays he’d wake up early and do the yardwork—mowing, edging, trimming trees, the whole deal. I remember the big plastic cups Conch would fill with ice water for me to take out to him. That’s another indicator of whether he’s dead or not. Do we have a gardener? On Sundays he’d golf.
Much in the same way most everybody likes Kristen or Pat, most everybody liked my dad. He could make anyone feel at home, make anyone feel like he really cared about them. He was funny and understanding, patient and easy going. He liked Jell-O and cottage cheese and the chili from both Wendy’s and Wienerschnitzel. He drank Budweiser and Dewar’s with a splash of water, smoked Marlboro Reds. He loved wearing plaid pants and saddle shoes, listening to the Kingston Trio. <quote-06>He always had chewing gum and LifeSavers on him<quote-06>—sometimes Juicy Fruit or Big Red but always Wrigley’s Spearmint, sometimes Wint-O-Green or Butter Rum but always Wild Cherry. He liked Big Hunk, Abba Zabba, and Look! Bars; Jujyfruits and Good & Plenty; disliked Chinese food, said it reminded him of <quote-07>Vietnam<quote-07>, which he wouldn’t talk about with anyone. He loved a prank, to joke around, to chat over scotch and a smoke, to invite people over for dinner at a moment’s notice. He and Conch made great hosts; they’d often stay up late together after a successful party, basking in the afterglow. <quote-08>I remember once waking in the middle of the night to find them slow dancing to Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” in the light of the jukebox<quote-08>. The only time they ever fought—I mentioned it briefly somewhere above—was when my father wandered down the street to a neighbor’s Christmas party after one of our own without telling Conch. He’d escorted the last of our guests to their cars—helping them with their white elephants maybe—and remembered the neighbor’s coinciding party. He went over to say hello and stayed a few hours. <quote-09>Conch was sick with worry I seem to recall<quote-09>. That he didn’t think it was a big deal made her furious.
“Well, maybe we’ll spend the holidays getting a divorce!” she shouted.
This was his last healthy Christmas, I’m pretty sure. An afternoon away from the house and a bouquet of flowers did the trick.
St. Mark’s was packed to overflowing when he died, just an endless parade of strangers telling me how wonderful he was, how sorry they were for me. I remember a Japanese man who told me my dad had saved his life in “the war,” another who said my dad hired him when no one else would have and helped turn his life around—stuff like that.
I wonder now if he avoided me during those last months of his life, if maybe I avoided him too. I don’t feel, however, like anything went unsaid between us, like any unfinished business remained. Our relationship was still so simple. When my aunt <quote-10>suggested I go into his room toward the end<quote-10> to tell him I loved him, I did it only because everyone thought it was important. He knew I loved him. I knew he loved me. Saying it wasn’t anything. He was delirious with pain anyway, moaning in agony at one moment and talking about getting a present for his decades-dead mother the next.
I remember happy moments too, of course, <quote-11>little things<quote-11>: going to Toys “R” Us on a whim for a new GI Joe, getting lunch together at the Bob’s Big Boy across from his office, tossing a football back and forth while he hand watered a yellowing spot on the front lawn, sitting between his legs and watching the Showtime Lakers or John Robinson Rams on Sunday afternoons, sneaking off to the side patio after dinner to listen to the last inning of the Dodger game and watch him smoke a cigarette in the total darkness. Home games were almost never televised back then.
I remember too our rare times at home alone: once for sixteen straight summer days when Conch went to Spain with her mom and sister, and every year for a weekend in January while she attended her English teacher’s conference in Ojai. How strange it was when her responsibilities became his. There are photographs of just the two of us at the houses of his friends who also had small children. I am three or four or five in these photos and am always wearing cowboy boots and a quilted ski vest, sometimes without an undershirt; this was the outfit I’d often choose for myself, the one I could get on without any assistance. These are from those motherless days.
He did his best, I suppose.
I know that one Saturday we ate all our meals at McDonald’s: a sausage McMuffin with egg for breakfast, a cheeseburger Happy Meal for lunch, a Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal for dinner, orange drink all three times, maybe a hot fudge sundae or a box of McDonaldland cookies thrown in for good measure. <quote-12>We probably did this a few times<quote-12>, actually, the memory is so crystal clear.
I was so accustomed to Conch’s routine, her regular haunts. I knew the nail salon, the hairdresser, the supermarket; I knew the rheumatologist. But my father’s after-work stops always felt novel: the liquor store, the dry cleaners, the car wash. The first time we left Aunt Donna’s and headed for his <quote-13>liquor store<quote-13> of choice, I remember seeing stoplights and churches I’d never seen before, a new McDonald’s.
When we departed the next morning, I asked him to take me that roundabout way to Aunt Donna’s again. And the next morning, when I asked for yet another route, he provided one. And again. And again. I remember being so impressed with him, <quote-14>so spellbound when we eventually arrived at this familiar destination by way of some utterly foreign route<quote-14>.
And then one morning he simply circled our block before continuing on the same path Conch always took. I mean, how many different ways can one take to Rancho Cucamonga?
“Hey!” I objected.
He shrugged. Again, he did his best.
When I was younger, I’d imagine going back in time and telling him never to stop going in for his monthly check-ups. “Just promise me,” I’d say. Seems like a simple enough request, no?
Sometimes I’d take it a step further and imagine how different my life would be had he not died. For one, my love for baseball would never have lapsed. I’d have practiced more, cared, benefitted from his influence on my male coaches, played through high school almost certainly. He always made sure I was being active, not eating too horribly. <quote-15>He was so happy I hadn’t inherited his chicken legs<quote-15> but also vigilant that I not get chubby. There’s yet another marker to determine whether or not he’s dead: am I fat? <quote-16>Conch and I ate like garbage in the first years after his death<quote-16>. I get it too. Why go through the trouble of making dinner for just yourself and your kid? I was happy with fast food whenever I could get it. He was the one who truly appreciated a well-rounded home cooked meal: broiled halibut with lemon, rice pilaf, buttered broccoli, dinner rolls, ice cream with homemade fruit topping for dessert—that kind of thing. <quote-17>This isn’t to say Conch stopped cooking<quote-17>. We still had the staples. But when my father was alive and home for dinner, we’d always have a square meal. After? Probably I could plan on a Sunday roast and something else midweek—spaghetti or beef stroganoff or chicken and rice or something. <quote-18>Again, this was fine by me<quote-18>.
I could see this other version of myself still being drawn to ComedySportz—I always loved making people laugh—but I don’t know that I’m ever in a play. Our seventh-grade honors teacher, Hoke, Mrs. Thompson, was the first to really prod me in that direction. Those were the worst days of my life—<quote-19>newly chubby, fatherless, and unpopular<quote-19>—and I was grateful for any vote of confidence, willing to give probably anything a shot. Had she suggested drama to the kid I was at the start of, say, fifth grade, I don’t know how interested I would have been. If that’s the case, there’s definitely no Jennifer Garrobo and probably no Kristen Guerrero. Likely there are instead plenty of others, many of whom I wouldn’t have treated nearly as well without my time in therapy with a widowed mother. Would there have been a punk rock band? Hard to know. The allure of that thoughtful, angry music found me at the same time drama did.
What about the more superficial stuff? We would have had a lot more money, certainly; probably my dad would have taken the country club plunge at some point. Had we remained on friendly terms into my adolescence, there would have been lots of golf. I can also imagine having my own car much earlier in life, something new and nice and safe, not a hand-me-down Camaro. Without question, I would have been a worse kid, taken more risks, more liberties. I probably would have also been a much better student. Conch allowed me so much freedom during high school because of our unusual circumstances, our already strange relationship. With dad around there would have been mandatory homework hours, incentives for success, test-preparation courses—rigor and expectation. For sure I would have gone off to college. Where? To study what? No idea. An alternate reality in which I double major in, like, studio art and American history and play second base and catcher for—I don’t know—UPenn or something doesn’t feel far-fetched. Maybe I go on to do something boring and secure like become a lawyer.
Then again, maybe very little changes. Maybe everything plays out just as it did, and I still become friends with all of you in high school, still do theater and play in a band, still go to prom with April Kadlac instead of Becca White and drop the ball with Megan Tulac. It’s possible, sure. <quote-20>I can tell you with absolute certainty, however, that 1868 North First Avenue would be long gone by now<quote-20>, sold in the name of the wine-country bed and breakfast that was always my parents’ very serious dream for retirement. Without an Upland home for all of us to return to every Christmas, what becomes of our extended friend group? What becomes of the three of us? Nick Webber! Long-time-no-see! Tom told me you just had a kid or something? Chris fucking Hoke—salt of the earth, that guy. I wonder what he’s been up to. Or worse yet, I’d have a Facebook page, and we’d interact only through likes and shares.
What I guess I’m saying is that none of this necessarily sounds any good—or better; it’s just a thought experiment I’ve lost myself in over the years, often in the minutes before sleep.
Anyways, there’s no mistaking it: “He dead. A penny for the Old Guy.”
He was as old as I am now during that first bout with melanoma. Why do I mention it again?
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