Friday, March 18, 2011

My father's life in dreams

Today is our dad's 65th birthday, or would have been if he had not died almost two years ago. It's a strange moment when you realize that your parents had lives before you, stranger still when those lives become distant and mysterious and, ultimately, unknowable. And, I suppose, even stranger when you never had a sense of those lives even as they intertwined with your own.  From the time I was old enough to think things like this, I always thought of my father as a ghost in our lives.

I was a dark fourteen-year-old. Well, who wasn't?

If you've lost someone, you know that in the aftermath everything the person wore, touched, or looked upon becomes precious. Everything becomes a relic, and you want it all because that's what remains. Sometimes those things are enough, like the denim jacket that still smells like his cigarettes. Sometimes I think I could smell it forever.

But the physical items are more like snapshots than anything else. They might evoke a memory, which can be wonderful; they might be imbued with an essential quality of the person who once owned them, but they don't go beyond that. What you need are stories.

Unfortunately, there aren't many stories about my dad. I suppose people stop telling stories because they're too painful, or because they can't remember--because it's been 40 years and those moments didn't seem important at the time. Or maybe there are no good things left to tell. Maybe they want to hold something back. Maybe they don't see the point in telling. Or maybe we just haven't asked the right people. For whatever reason, what we have--this random information--is more than likely inflated, fragmented, mangled by our memories and the memories of others, utterly unverifiable.

Here's what I think I know:

He used the word capricious. He's been cross-country skiing. He was a cancer survivor. He answered his cell phone yo when his friends called. He would never have admitted they were his friends. He was an Army medic but never made it to Vietnam. He could make anything from a piece of wood. He had a brother who died at birth and who was meant to have his name. He worked on an oil rig in Louisiana. He skipped school, wrecked cars, smoked and drank. He wore cowboy boots whenever he wasn't in combat boots. He went white water rafting in Germany. He pointed a gun at a man during the race riots in DC. He crawled, with my mother, into a diamond mine run by two brothers in the South. He worked at the Pentagon. He advised generals. He often felt unworthy of praise. He had a pair of iguanas named Antony & Cleopatra. He smirked. He wore a pink tuxedo shirt on his wedding day.

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