Give Some Back
***Alison said to make sure everyone knew that the language might be a little worse than usual. She knows best so I have to put the Parental Advisory on it in order to keep all my words.
My dad is at home and he answered the phone when I called yesterday. It’s really hard to
believe that. Death came for my dad with a Mike Tyson uppercut, and while it phased him, I think Boots might have a few haymakers to give back. The outlook isn’t great of course with hospice care, but I can say that I had one of the best days of my life this past Monday. When I got to the hospital, I expected to see Pop in his usual, very drowsy and weak state. But he wasn’t. His eyes were bright and he was alert. He was his sort-of usual self. Diminished, but his demeanor was the one I’ve known my whole life. We had a couple of really good talks, and I got to tell him anything I could ever dream of feeling the need to say, and believe me, I said it all.
I told him I would make sure the family will stay together. To say the family is big is understating it a tad, and while it is not really dysfunctional, it does have its weird little soft spots that have to be navigated and understood because emotions are so on edge. I would give everyone an A, though. Because no matter what might come up, things flare and go away because it really is all about him with all of us. Man, he deserves that.
So it feels weird that among this love in the family that some of the words that whirl through my head come from my favorite TV character, Al Swearengen from the HBO series Deadwood. Swearengen is played by Ian McShane and the language by him, and by everyone in the show is salty to put it mildly. It’s amazing. Now, my dad doesn’t talk like that, although I think that’s probably “he doesn’t talk like that in front of his kids,” especially with the stories being told to me. One I heard recently is that my first word was, “shit” and not “light,” although dad denies it I can’t blame him because one of Ellie’s first was uttered seconds after the time I called a bad driver a word rhyming with rockchucker. And, like you, I was surpised that she could say three syllable words at that tender age. I was really hoping for just a few more months to be able to listen to the Wu-Tang Clan and occasionally express my road rage aloud while driving to Hooper’s Creek for Dadurday.
Also, I’m sorry, Alison, I am really very good at not swearing when you’re not around, and surely I can’t be in trouble as my dad is dying. That’s got to get me a little leeway in all situations, right? But, it’s really the shittiest excuse imaginable because I am glad to weasel out of some shitty and boring whatever, but the excuse I get to use is one of the worst things that will happen in my life. Like the other day when I was glad to get out of going to a parent teacher conference...Alison came home for a minute before the meeting and I was in bed trying to nap. She asked if I wanted to go and I said, I just laid down do you mind if I take a nap?
I expected a small, but slightly exasperated sigh. Instead I hear, Sure, Baby Doll. Whatever you need. In my head I’m fist-bumping and jumping for joy to not go sit through it, but then the reason I’m tired is so, so very terrible. Because when all is great in the world and I can get out of anything to take a nap, that is the greatest thing ever. But in order to do that my dad has to be dying. Please forgive me, my mind is everywhere. My intent is for this to be funny and to have a record for my kids in the future and an outlet for me to vent. It’s supposed to be sad too and maybe inspired. I feel all these things.
The number one lesson from this is to make sure family is always before everything. The tribute paid to my dad by his family is really special. His love for the family is undoubtable, and because none of us ever doubted his love it takes any sting from any of his mistakes or flaws that might have affected us over the years. That’s the best thing about true love between dad and me in our relationship, or my wife in ours together, or the love I have with my kids. It’s such a deep and abiding love that those flaws and mistakes just don’t matter at all or are just wrapped up in love and that’s what it is, just one big ball of us. If that sounds really weird my signals are just not firing quite right, but it seems pretty fucking profound in my head right now.
One of the last things I wanted him to know was how tough he is. I said, "Dad, you’re something else."
What do you mean?
"There’s no one like you. Think about it," and I gave him the list of all he’s survived including his kidneys failing last week, and then I said, And now I’m sitting across a table from you while you eat your lunch. You are John Wayne if John Wayne were real."
And Pop still has some gumption and now today, Thursday, our lives mirror John Wayne’s last movie, The Shootist, and it is a great movie - a great swan song. John Wayne’s character, J.B. Books learns he’s dying of cancer. The Doctor, played by Jimmy Stuart suggests Books goes out the way he’s lived his life, by the gun. (Sweet Fancy Moses, that sounds like Johnny Cash on one of his albums where he talks a lot and uses phrases like ‘ridin’ the wind.’Or, when he self-righteously reminds us that the Indians were here first. Well, no shit Johnny, and I did use self-righteous and Johnny Cash in the same sentence, and it doesn’t mean I love him any less) The Shootist is a redemption story of course because he takes out three nefarious characters in a blaze of glory, and a kid who wanted to imitate him learned the ultimate lesson if you live by the gun you die by the gun.
But thinking about it as I write, learning a lesson of loving your family is sort of an obvious lesson, right? I think there's a better one here. What I think is resonating with me the most, and so far is the most powerful lesson, is really a psychological one. I said that dad was sort of surprised this was happening to him. He really has lived like there are a million tomorrows even though he has known in his head there aren't.
I don’t necessarily worry about my death, but I am overly aware of it too often. I’m also overly aware of the fleeting nature of things..and maybe we all are. But I look at someone older and see how they might be excited by something and wonder how they can be that excited about anything. It’s just going to be over soon. Yikes, you’re thinking. That sounds like depression, but it’s not. I’ve been there, and I’m not depressed. I think it’s just something that makes me, me. But I want to be more like my dad, and more like Al Swearengen. I mean, dad could be Al Swearengen with a few horrific life choices, but I can hear my dad's life echoed in the phrase:
Pain or damage don't end the world, or despair or fucking beatings. The world ends when you're dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man-and give some back.
No one has to tell dad to stand it like a man. He can do that lying flat on his back.