The urn does not care
February 9, 2014 by Thomas Wictor
I’ve been told that my posts about my father cause anger. Though I’m under no obligation to explain anything, I will.
My intention is to chronicle a life gone awry. I do this to banish lingering pain. Some of that pain is the result of things my father did to me, and some is the empathic pain I feel for the things done to my father. What I write about is a tiny fraction of the pure hell that my father and I endured while he was alive. That will never be made public.
This is an ongoing exorcism that I’m compelled to undertake. Nobody’s holding a gun to your head and forcing you to read this. I also write about Dad to warn you what can happen if you make extremely poor choices. Dad was unrepentant until the last seven hours of his existence in this cycle. He left behind a trail of destruction. I get to describe it, because I’m one of the destroyed. Those who were not destroyed have nothing to be angry about.
Finally, let’s get down to brass tacks. Tim and I cared for our father in his raving, thrashing, running, screaming death throes. The stress of that experience took months or years off our lives. We did it without hesitation. And when I was asked, I unreservedly forgave my father. It wasn’t just words. That forgiveness had no benefit for me. I knew it wouldn’t, but I gave it anyway. For his sake. He was in torment, so I did what I could to ease the suffering that he’d brought down on his own head.
Therefore, if anybody ever has the gall to criticize me to my face for writing about my father, I’m going to punch you right in the nose. Okay? Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
The urn does not care
In the past year I’ve come to realize that Dad spent every second of his consciousness distracting himself from the fact that someday he would die. He couldn’t bear silence because that may have led to introspection. If he didn’t have music going, he filled the air with noises he made: throat clearing, grunting, coughing, sneezing, and battle cries.
“Oh yes!” he would call. Hundreds of times a day. “Yes indeed!”
He also slammed doors, threw things, and kicked them out of his way. You could follow his progress anywhere on our three properties by simply listening.
“Oh yes!” Wham! “Yes indeed!” Crash! Boom! “Oh yes!” Pow! “Harrumph!” Thud! “Yes indeed!” Bam!
He had the loudest sneeze in human history. What he did was scream “EAR-RUSSIA!” or “HO-LECK!” at full volume, in his deep, male voice. It was easily five times louder than this.
We all develop coping strategies to wrap our minds around our own mortality. My father’s strategy was to distract himself and deny. Another reason I get to write publicly about it is because he often forced me to take part in his mortality-denying projects. Since 1993 I helped him do home-improvement jobs that he deliberately stretched out into years.
Tim and I spent months under my Great-aunt Marian’s house—where I now live—digging out abode-hard dirt with one-handed mini-hoes and geological picks. This was because the plumber was claustrophobic. We had to dig all the trenches for the plumbing. Since the doorway into the crawlspace was so small, we could take only metal wastebaskets that held about a gallon of earth.
Here I am with my nephew Hunter Gonzales, playing on maybe half of the dirt we dug out, gallon by gallon.
We also had to strip seven layers of paint off the house, using hot-air guns and scrapers. You could heat an area of paint two inches wide by half an inch deep. Then you scraped off that little chewing-gum-stick-sized strip. We did the entire house that way, after which we primed and painted it. That meant applying three full coats of paint, the process closely and continually surveilled for lap marks.
Dad had a new concrete driveway professionally poured. One day during a rainstorm, Tim and I saw that part of the earth next to the driveway had caved in, right here.
It was an abandoned brick cesspool. Now there was a huge void under the new driveway. Since the rubble we dumped in left too many empty spaces that would allow settling, Tim and I filled the cesspool with five tons of sand, poured from fifty-pound bags. We made ten trips to the hardware store, because his car could hold only twenty bags of sand at a time. In the rain, we poured two hundred bags into that hole.
We erected the assembled garage frameworks, which were so heavy we were almost killed. Four times. After the contractors did the roof and siding, we put in insulation, installed the walls and ceiling, and finished by priming and painting the whole structure. Three coats of paint; no lap marks.
Dad decided that he wanted brick pathways in his yard; he also wanted to replace all the grass on one side of his house. The first Tim and I knew about it, pallets of bricks were delivered. When I saw them, I knew that months of my life would be devoted to the brutal manual labor that Dad loved. The dirt in his yard was so hard that we had to rent a jackhammer that weighed eighty pounds. I used it to remove enough earth to accommodate all the bricks in this photo.
Then we covered much of the back yard with bricks and made a kind of diagonal Nazca Lines runway from the back door to the workshop.
Mom wanted an extension put on their house, enclosing the back porch. Dad designed it himself. It took him eight years. He made drawings, blueprints, and cardboard models that he painted and trashed so he could begin all over again. Then one day he came over and announced that Tim and I would help him. It took us six months to do a job that a professional could’ve accomplished in two weeks.
One of the reasons it took so long was that Dad had a stroke at the beginning, which he hid from us. Tim and I—an investor and a struggling writer—built everything except the roof, and then we primed and painted it. When that was done, we painted the whole house.
The last job we did for Dad was putting in a system of pipes at the John A. Rowland House.
Once again we had to dig trenches in ground as hard as cement, placing and burying a mile of PVC pipe so that the women of the historical society could turn on a faucet for water to use in demonstrations of ancient washing methods. I dug from a kneeling position because of my back. When I told Dad that his design was overly complicated, he said what he always said if Tim or I ever questioned anything he did.
“Why don’t you just go home, Tom? Just quit! I’ll do it myself!”
While I went off to have lunch and cool down, Tim convinced Dad to scale back his design by about 25 percent. It took an hour, during which Dad used every single arrow of disrespect in his quiver. But Tim held firm.
“Look, you agreed to all this,” I hear somebody very reasonably point out. “Whatever for?”
Because Dad would’ve done it alone if we’d refused. After his quintuple bypass and with his unmanaged diabetes, he would’ve gone out in the summer heat and dug trenches until he fell over dead. He proved that when we replaced the grass on his parkway.
I went on strike due to his rudeness. In response, he pushed a garden roller by himself until he swayed as though he were on the pitching deck of a ship. He had to take to his bed for five days. When Tim was unable to mow Dad’s lawn due to glaucoma surgery that required weeks to heal, Dad asked me to do it. I told him that since it was winter, his lawn didn’t need mowing. Besides, I couldn’t because of my back, as I’d told him five hundred times.
So Dad did it himself. We realize now that he was in his second year of untreated bone cancer that he knew about, and his diabetes had completely destroyed his endocrine system. But he mowed the lawns of all three houses. Afterward, we carted him off to the emergency room because he was completely incoherent, his knees were buckling, and he was the color of vanilla ice cream. He ended up in the intensive care unit.
When he began weeping with fear, we gently remonstrated with him, telling him he had to take better care of himself. He instantly turned into Snake Man, the entity who’d done all the damage.
“Are you sayin’ I’m weak?” he snarled. “You think I’m too stupid to know how to take care of myself?”
After eighty-four years of distraction, denial, and serially blackmailing his two sons into putting their lives on hold and joining in his desperate avoidance-games, Dad died anyway and went into an urn. The month before he died was a carnival of madness and self-degradation. I look at all the physical labor he did to keep away the boogeyman, and I’m at a total loss. Sitting here, writing, the only sounds I hear are my fingers clicking against the keys.
I’m not afraid. And there’s no reason for you to be either. All will be well. There is no death. You don’t have to move tons of earth to keep from thinking about what’s going to happen to you.
You’re going to be fine. I promise.
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