30 April 2012

The Day My Dad Died

            The day my dad died I was one month shy of my nineteenth birthday and six months pregnant. I’d spent the day with my husband, whom I would divorce three years later, driving around Lake Winnisquam, looking for a place to rent so we wouldn’t be stuck in our second floor, two-room stuffy apartment in Laconia. I’d grown up on Lake Winnisquam and needed a place with fresh air where I could walk outside with my baby, barefoot, maybe even see the lake shimmer in the distance. If really lucky, we’d find a place where I could sit under a tree by the water and wade in to cool off on hot muggy days.
My brother and I at the lake
            We drove all afternoon and found a place, a small two-room cabin just down the road from my parents on Hill Road, across from the right-of-way that gave everyone on the opposite side of the road access to a swimming spot. The right-of-way, as we always called it, held memories of neighborhood swims and my first kiss from an out-of-town boy called Punk. When I needed space from my family or a retreat from a fight with my dad, I’d slip down to the right-of-way and sit under a big pine to daydream, cry or cool off.
            The day my dad died, we rented that cabin, relieved to find a place we could afford. I thought how lucky I was to be near my lake when the baby came. As we drove down Hill Road and approached my parent’s house, something happened that I’ve only been able to describe as a flash of light, as if an old-fashioned camera bulb had popped in my face and blinded me for a moment. I clutched at my rounded belly and said, “We have to stop. I need to see Dad.”
            I’d been taking Dad to the VA hospital in Vermont, checking on him for my mom when she was at work, but being so wrapped up in new-found love and baby making made me blind to how ill my dad was.
Dad, me and my brother Kent picking beans
            My husband didn’t like my father, so he drove past the salmon-colored ranch-style house that my father spent years remodeling, my life-long home only six months earlier. As we pulled out onto the Route 3, I glanced back at the house where my dad had tended his garden and raspberry bushes, a house that he insisted was “salmon-colored” not pink. The tiny porch wasn’t big enough for a chair, but it was a good place to get out of the weather and take off boots, to greet guests, to sit on the steps as a little kid with a friend or my brother or sister. I remember window boxes, having always had a soft spot for them, but I’m not sure they existed.

Kent, our Beagle King, Wendy & I
 Aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, and co-workers would pass through that front door for parties, holidays, and summer gatherings. Christmas was our favorite holiday because mom always over did it with presents and Dad would complain that she was driving him to the poor house. When I think of my dad, I picture him sitting in his recliner, smoking Winstons, eating his Bridgemix and reading a book, if he wasn’t watching our new color television, the cause of one of my parents’ biggest arguments that left them not speaking for days and put us three kids on our best behavior because one thing we never doubted, even through the bad times was the great love our parents had for each other. I may have doubted my dad’s love for me at times, but I never doubted that my parents were in love.

Me with my mom and her sister Vera on our "porch"
            When my fights with Dad started, it was normal teenage fare, the whole unfairness of life. Why couldn’t I ride in cars with my friends? Why did I need to be home at that hour? Why couldn’t I hang out at the Tony’s Pizza Parlor? That’s when I became the cause of their arguments. Mom wanted to give me more freedom; Dad didn’t. Mom said the reason Dad and I fought was because we were too much alike. Dad said it wasn’t me he didn’t trust; it was boys.
            After leaving Hill Road, after deciding not to fight with my husband about stopping at my parents’ house, we drove in silence and when we reached our two-room apartment in Laconia, I trudged up the outside stairs, wanting to go back. We had just entered the apartment when the phone rang. My husband answered it, then handed the receiver to me.
            “Valerie, this is Dr. Robinson. I’m sorry. Your dad is dead. He shot himself.”
            I screamed and dropped the phone.

My son Jason was born three months later. I never doubted I was having a boy, even from the beginning. After Dad died, I was even more convinced it would be boy. I don’t remember picking out a girl’s name, although I know we did.
            Jason looks uncannily like his grandfather and has his wicked sense of humor and wit, his mannerisms, his work ethic, his sense of responsibility, but thankfully no health problems. I think my dad would have loved him. Or, would the two of them been too much alike and rubbed each other the wrong way? I don’t know.
Mom and Dad
            My dad was responsible right up to the end. On the day he died, he bought a new license and tags for the dog, made sure there was enough paint for one of us kids to finish the garage, and went to the barber for a haircut. He told mom all this in a letter he left, including letting mom know was no suicide clause in the insurance policy. The letter glows with his great love and adoration for my mom. He didn’t want to be a burden on the family and knew the way it was going, he would be. He included a p.s. to me, saying he was sorry he wouldn’t be there to see his first grandchild and, to the end, tried for humor by writing he hoped we wouldn’t give our baby his middle name, Horace.
            Our family still carries on his insistence of having manners, table manners being high on his list: elbows off the table, sit up straight, slow down. Dad would often say, “Don’t eat like your mother,” meaning the English way with knife and fork reversed and fork piled high.
            But this is also a man who sometimes did not eat what mom served for dinner, instead breaking Saltines into a bowl of milk after a day of working outside in the heat and humidity. He ate slowly, chewed each bite over and over, driving us kids crazy. This kind of control extended to the way he raised us. When he couldn’t control us and we fought him, he’d punish. “You might not love me,” he said once, “but one day you’ll respect me.” He was wrong. All I really wanted was to love him and be loved back, but he was a hard man to please and he took my rebellion personally.
            I have grandchildren now and, if I lavish them with love, it’s because sometimes all a teen needs is a hug and a “It will be okay. You’ll get through this.” Many times my fights with my dad might not have happened if I hadn’t felt judged and shamed, if I hadn’t felt my emotions being negated by a parental need to be perceived as in control and being seen as a perfect family.
            Don’t get me wrong. I’m not kidding myself here. Teens have their emotional needs and drives that often supersede anything parents can provide. Guiding teens through their teens is probably the hardest job there is as a parent because they’re competing with peers and hormones. Dad had two more children coming up fast behind me and I’m sure that crossed his mind as we battled and he grew more ill.
            And he was ill, more than I knew. He battled rheumatoid arthritis and prescription pills, and was unable to work toward the end. The only way out for him, as he concluded, was suicide. He did what he thought was the responsible thing, plus it would end his pain and sense of powerless. In his besieged mine, the only way our family would survive would be if he didn’t become a bigger financial and medical burden. I don't doubt that that indeed would have happened.
            Yet on the day he died, he didn’t realize he exchanged those possible burdens on us for bigger, emotional ones.
            Time has given me perspective and knowledge of suicide. Time has given me an understanding of how a need for control can also cause a loss of control. Some have said to me that suicide is the ultimate show of control, but I don't believe that in my dad's case that's true. If he hadn't been ill, he would have never given up. But when he couldn't be the husband and father he wanted to be, needed to be, he couldn't fake it anymore.
            Time has also, above all, shown me that perception should never overshadow love. I don’t care what others think about what my family goes through. We all have problems and I choose to be friends with people who share them and exchange knowledge so we can help out each other. The generation of our parents living in a “keeping up with the Joneses” and “what will the neighbors think” culture better be over because they’re faulty paradigms and destructive on so many levels, especially for a writer like myself who was conditioned to keep a lid on everything of importance and has had to fight to be free and express myself truthfully.

Kent and I in snow
            A few days ago, Mom said to me on the phone, “I wonder what our life would have been like if your dad had lived.” I couldn’t say. I couldn’t imagine it. I hope she visualized something sweet and carefree, something that, like in an act of creating fiction, she formed in her mind while erasing sickness, lack of money, a crazy political world that would have turned my dad apoplectic. I hope she saw her and Dad, retired by the lake, him fishing, her reading or talking on the phone. Maybe they even hold hands while sitting in chairs on the dock. 

Poppy day or Memorial Day around 1961
But maybe they would still be attending their American Legion activities, maybe still dancing as they always did so beautifully. I think she can create that in her mind, create her own story for a life they'd live now. I doubt very much that they would have ended up in Florida where she now lives. I think he’d had enough of hot and humid. But maybe, after shoveling snow one hard winter, he'd have been happy to join the snowbirds. Why not?
* * * * *
            I remember one winter day after a storm had dumped a foot or more of snow. Dad was out shoveling the walkway and I was playing on one of those high snow mounds the snowplow had left along the road. I dug a hole, probably one of those “digging to China” holes, and I dug it so deep, I couldn’t get out. When I realized this, I yelled over and over, “Dad! Dad!”
            When he finally heard me, he walked up the mound, looked down, shook his head and laughed. Then he reached down for my hand and lifted me out.
Dad, my mom's mom Nannie Smith holding me, and Mom
In Loving Memory
Albert Horace Brooks ~ April 3, 1916 to April 30, 1970.