Happy Birthday, Dad
June 14, 2014 by Thomas Wictor
Happy birthday, Dad. You would’ve been eighty-five today.
Since you died, I’ve been on a quest to find out who you were. You wrote three memoirs, two of which you had duplicated and distributed among your children. For some reason you didn’t give us the third one, even though you finished it in 2009. It was around that time that you were coming to grips with the fact that you had cancer.
From late 2008 to the end of your life on February 23, 2013, you did everything you could to distract yourself from the terrible truth. You learned, however, that all your busywork didn’t save you. There was no way I could’ve helped you, because you wouldn’t have listened to me, and you simply could never come to terms with your own mortality. The frenzy and desperation of your last five years—the time in which you knew you had cancer—were a colossal waste. All that angst changed nothing.
I worked my way through all three of your memoirs, even though they were damn near impenetrable. They meandered, doubled back, obfuscated, and dumped tons of technical jargon on my head. I understand why you made the memoirs almost impossible for anyone to read: You had many secrets. The memoirs aren’t the real story. They’re another way for you to hide.
When I sold my first article to Bass Player—”The Bass Gods of Japan,” which is in the March 1992 issue—you didn’t congratulate me. Instead, you said, “What are you gonna do for eatin’ money?” You said that because it was something your father would’ve said. I have no doubt whatsoever. He reflexively put you down, and you did it to us.
It’s ironic that you said that, Dad. What I’m going to do for eatin’ money is write a novel about a quest. You did tell me that you were impressed with my research skills. I’ve been using them for over a year now.
I’m not a Tom Cruise fan, Dad, but he’s in an absolutely brilliant film called The Firm. In the best scene of his career, he tells two Mafiosi that he knows everything about them. Which is as it should be, since he’s their lawyer.
Well, I did a year of research, Dad. I got your Coast Guard DD Form 214, I looked at more than three thousand family photos, I went through every single drawer in your house, I read a filing cabinet’s worth of letters that—unbeknownst to you—Mom kept, I studied your old passports, I spent months going over online histories, I dredged up memories from my childhood, and I recreated thousands of hours of conversations you and I had or I overheard.
Now I know everything. Which is as it should be, since I’m your son.
Okay, I don’t know every single detail. That’s not possible. For example, I found this photo.
Is it real? What are those Get Smart computer-gizmos in the background? Where the hell is that? Like most of your pictures, it isn’t labeled.
Therefore much of your life is still beyond my reach, Dad. But I know the major stuff. Tim and I have yet to come to grips with it. In time we will. We’re already accommodating it. Denying who you were does none of us any good.
As you well know, death isn’t the end. You still exist. The reason your transition was so difficult and traumatizing for you is that you were justifiably terrified of being held accountable for your actions in this life. What you’ve discovered is that there’s no torture, no flames, no punishment other than the necessity of admitting to bad choices. In life you were incapable of doing so. On the other side, you’re obviously still struggling. All the commotion here attests to that.
We never told you, Dad, that you reminded us of Wilford Brimley. Your voice was deeper than his, but your speaking style was identical. He’s in The Firm, which is another reason I love that movie.
That was how you spoke to us our entire lives, Dad. The jocular menace was always there. I was afraid of you, even when you were old and feeble, because you and I were on completely different wavelengths. You were totally unpredictable, and now I understand why.
Remember the conversation we had in December of 2012, about two months before you died? Tim had taken Mom to the doctor for the followup on her umbilical hernia repair. You and I were alone together in your house, and you said, very hesitantly, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“Well, you and Tim have been talking about moving to Texas someday.” You paused and stared over my head. “If anything happens to your mother, and I’m still alive, I’m… I’m… I’m afraid I’ll have to go with you.”
“Well, of course!” I said. “We’re not going to leave you here alone. Of course you’re going to go with us!”
You almost collapsed in relief. I realized then that you honestly thought I might say, “No way, old man. Fuck you. We’re leaving you here to rot.”
It made me sad that our lives were so…abnormal.
Well, guess what, Dad? Before I wrote this post, I called Tim and asked if knowing what he knows now about you, would he still have been willing to take you with us? As I expected, he said yes. So even if we’d discovered your secrets before you died, we still would’ve taken care of you. It would’ve been hard, but we would’ve done it. We wouldn’t have abandoned you, as you thought we would.
Since you died, I learned that you were the editor of your high-school newspaper.
You never said a thing about it. The way I discovered your accomplishment was by finding your high-school yearbook on your shelf. I was an editor and a writer for over thirty years, and in the five decades you knew me, you never revealed that you’d edited your school newspaper. That was how disconnected we were.
You have a lot to learn, Dad. You also have a lot for which you must atone. Here’s what I don’t want to happen: Another of my favorite films is John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s got Wilford Brimley in it again! Brimley is a scientist who discovers that an alien transformation-monster has the potential of infecting the entire population of the earth within three years if it reaches a populated area.
Brimley goes crazy and destroys all means of leaving the Antarctic research base or contacting the outside world. The other men sedate him and put him in an outside tool shed. Later in the film, they ask him if he’s seen another possibly infected man, and Brimley replies with a series of sentences that made Tim and me scream with laughter.
I don’t wanna stay out here anymore. I wanna come back inside. Funny things… I hear funny things out here. I’m not gonna harm anybody. There’s nothing wrong with me. And if there was, I’m all better now. I’d like to come back inside. Now you’ve got my promise.
Hey, wait a minute. Wait a minute, man. I wanna come back inside, don’t you understand? I’m all right. I’m much better and I won’t harm anybody.
See, we heard you saying that, Dad. We improvised some whacked-out scenario in which you drove your car through the house and then told us, “There’s nothing wrong with me. And if there was, I’m all better now.”
Twenty-odd years later, we realize that what we thought was just more of our coping-strategy gallows humor is a very real possibility. Although I participated in your Last Rites, it wasn’t what I thought it was. You snookered me into giving you a blanket forgiveness. That’s not valid. I can’t forgive you what what you did to others, Dad. I’m sure you found that out in pretty short order.
So: When Tim and I cross over, we really don’t want to see you. That sounds harsh, but considering everything we now know, we feel that you gave us the right to be harsh. Your life was a nearly unbroken string of bad choices. Still, you helped us in some very important ways, and for that we’re grateful.
Your job now is to make amends and learn to be grateful yourself. Gratitude will save you. Maybe someday we’ll meet again, but only on the condition that you do some truly massive and sincere remedial work on how to treat people.
As for me, I’m writing a totally fictional story about a man’s attempt to solve a mystery. It’s not vicious or self-pitying. The challenge is to produce a cautionary tale, an exorcism, a tragedy, and a comedy that entertains without minimizing. I’m up to it. My whole life has led me to this project.
And Tim asked me to tell you that the umbrella tree is doing very well. We expect it to have completely recovered by the time we leave California.
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