Things My Father Never Taught Me
I can’t remember the last time I saw my father. While I was with him frequently for the year and a half before he died, the person who expired two weeks before Christmas wasn’t my father. His mind was gone – had been since the first time I saw him stretched out in the Veterans’ hospital. AIDS-related dementia, it was called. All I knew was that the man I spoke to thought I was a high school classmate of his, decades before in south Georgia. He thought the men in the other beds were Mexican students, bent on causing trouble. It only took me a few moments to realize that any attempt to change his mind was fruitless. I spoke to his doctors, once I could track them down. My father had been receiving outpatient care for AIDS going on six months.
I had spoken to him during that time – we had always lived in the same city. He complained of forgetting words, and his speech was hesitant, unsure. Granted, he was in his sixties, but my father had been an actor for years. His voice was a magnificent instrument, made to sing Handel’s Messiah or deliver chilling George Bernard Shaw monologues. So when he stumbled over simple phrases, it might have caught my ear, had I not been dealing with other problems, such as an impending divorce. I was distracted by the inevitable loss of my son, and I use that as my excuse.
My parents divorced while I still in high school, and in the years after, he and I gradually grew apart. Not out of any sort of anger – more that we were two people trying to grow up, and into new ways of life. I was trying to become a father, and he was learning what being single and homosexual meant to a man from Cario, Georgia. He lived in a bad part of town, and I didn’t get around much. I was closer to my mother. Having no brothers or sisters, it was basically just us. We did all right.
While my father sat wasting away in the Veterans’ Hospital, I attempted to gather up the loose ends of his life. I was granted power of attorney over his affairs, I got the keys to his house and car and tried to fend off the constant barrage of bill collectors on his phone. I tried to sort through the mishmash of papers in his home – unorganized piles of bills, receipts and letters. It all added up to a man who had amassed little but debt in sixty-plus years. I looked in vain for life insurance information, savings passbooks, a will. I found none. What I did find was disheartening: records of judgements against him from angry creditors, checks from Warner Brothers studio, garnished for tax levies. My father had acted in Sharkey’s Machine (he played a flasher in the vice room scene). Since he had lines in the movie, he was no mere extra, but instead received royalties (about $100 a year). The checks would come, but the money went to the IRS.
My father never taught me to fish growing up. Or play catch. He was always too busy working, trying to make a go of a one-man business. In the early days I helped. He prepared academic journals for print, setting the type, making plates of the press, and I enjoyed it. This was in the days before home computers, and the machines he used took up half his house. I also went with him when directed plays. I would paint scenery, or work as a props man, making sound effects at the critical junction in the story. I was the king of the creaking door.
He once directed Inherit The Wind, the story of the Scopes Monkey trial. I must have seen (or more correctly, heard) that play 50 times. To this day I follow evolution vs. creationism stories with great interest. So over the years, I learned a familiarity with the creative process. I learned that even the smallest production took weeks of work – your gifts only take you so far, the rest is pure, ugly effort.
I, too, had a gift. I could write. I enjoyed it, and my parents encouraged it. Over the years I created stories, little comics, or poems. One dreadful bit of poetry was published in a local newspaper when I was 10 or so. Mawkish and stiff, I can’t read it now. My father thought it rivaled the best of Shakespeare. Of course, I could never earn a living at it (still can’t). My dad never put much food on his table with his talents either, so I imagine we are the same in that regard.
I came to learn, as he withered away and I went through his things, he had never found the knack of earning money, much less using it well. When I was a child, my father had worked in an ad agency (the same one as James Dickey, who wrote Deliverance while employed there, based on his co-workers). He left there (and many other places, as well) because he couldn’t work with what he considered fools. Dad never took things in stride. One of my most vivid childhood memories was an episode at a Waffle House. The place was crowded, and there was only one waitress serving the entire restaurant. Thusly, our food was late and cold by the time it reached us. Most people would accept it as one of those things that happens, but not my father. He huffed and puffed out of the diner after leaving a penny tip. My mother was embarrassed, more so when the cook came storming out, and flung the cent back at my father.
“That was my sister. If a penny is all you can afford, you better keep it, you fuckhead!”
Yes, over the years I heard my father rail about his disappointment with the human race. If ever there were a picture perfect misanthrope, my dad would have to be it. Gradually he became more and more withdrawn, living as a minority in one of Atlanta’s less grand areas, making do.
A few years before he died, I became a father. At 24, I had no idea what the hell to do. When my son was 4, his mother and I separated, and later divorced. We stayed close, and I saw and played with Brian as much as possible. Like his grandfather and father before him, he is creative, wanting to be a film director. I have no doubt he’ll make it. As both he and I grew older, the impact of his presence in my life grew as well. Now he is a boy at the cusp of the teenage years – years that don’t seem so long ago in my own life. Years I spent experimenting with everything – music, crime, drugs, all those things you do as a kid that as a parent you hope your own children avoid.
As I near 40, I sometimes stop and think about the things my father never taught me. He was horrid with money – I am just now beginning to learn the impact of that lost lesson. He made no long-range plans, living day to day. He left no savings, no insurance, no will, nothing.
He never showed me tolerance for others, instead drilling into my head all the failures of the world. People are just waiting to screw up, he seemed to think. And it’s our job to point it out when they do.
He never communicated to me his fears or pain over the years. He never taught me that the most vital element of a relationship is trust, even if it’s only to tell someone the bad stuff. I’m sure there were things he wanted to tell me before he died, but he never had the nerve.
Sometimes life is like a TV quiz show. You might never fully comprehend the depth of your knowledge, or the lessons you have been taught, until someone asks the right question – “Final Jeopardy,” if you will. Everyday it seems I find myself answering a question with knowledge I was seemingly never taught – or more correctly, answering it with what turns out to be the exact opposite of what I learned over the years. Every time I pay a premium for life insurance, or see a deduction in a paycheck for a retirement account, I understand that it is partly because of my father’s example (or lack thereof) that I do these things – because I can see farther than he ever allowed himself to do. Every time I call on my patience and “Buddha Nature” when confronted with a cell-phone yapping soccer mom who has just missed the left-turn signal, I picture my father slamming the steering wheel and cursing.
But it is those times when I feel at my lowest, and most alone, and I share my fears and failures with someone close, it is then that I realize what I have learned from my father. My father, who lived his life as if he never needed anyone else, who couldn’t tell those around him his terrible secrets, ended up teaching me a lesson that I am slowly, painfully learning. You cannot live without trust. If you don’t allow yourself to fall backwards, trusting in the knowledge that someone will catch you before you hit the ground, then you end up falling forever.
I loved my father very much. He encouraged me to explore my creative side by simple example. I respected him, no matter what the tone of this piece. I learned a lot from my father, but it is like reading a book in a mirror – all the words are backwards. You can’t take the sentences as they appear. Dad, you were a great teacher. Wherever you are now, I know you follow my life. You’ve watched me grow, both prosper and fail, stumble and soar, much like you did. All the things I’ve done have been colored by your example. But it’s only recently that I’ve started to learn how to read the book of your teachings in the mirror of you that is my life. I read it backwards. Thank you, dad.