My brother’s email arrived five days ago at 8:13PM.
“He passed at 6:15 tonight. The rest of this is so bizarre it would make a good Larry David or Seinfeld episode.”
That I would learn of my father’s death this way made perfect sense. What I did not expect was to be shaken by the news.
My father was a bad guy. When I made the decision to cut him out of my life several years ago, I knew that I would have to face this day eventually but I assumed I would be at peace and feel nothing.
What I didn’t count on was the fact that I was not my father’s daughter after all. He dealt with his own paranoia and self-loathing by inflicting vicious verbal assaults on others and hiding from the world in a haze of cheap wine and drugs.
I simply hid.
By pretending that he didn’t exist, I lived happily. But the minute I learned he had passed, I had a vague sense that there were good times once, and that I threw them all away. Great. I was in big trouble now with both the guilt and karma police.
Except that I couldn’t remember anything specifically nice about our relationship even though trust me, I tried. Nope, nothing. Not a movie, sporting or musical event…not even a fun family vacation not fraught with tension and arguments.
We for sure never had Daddy/daughter dates.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t all bad. I did get along with him briefly when I was a teenager because the guy I was dating was a small time pot dealer. It was a win/win situation. When he was stoned, he could almost be nice, but I had to watch his alcohol intake because he crossed that line really quickly and there was nothing more terrifying. His verbal abuse turned physical.
I tried hard to conjure up even one good memory because I at least wanted to give him this, a eulogy of sorts. I mean, there wasn’t even going to be a funeral. Wait, scratch that. I just received another email from my brother:
“Our sister called me to tell me the service is at the Salvation Army next Monday at 11AM. I declined.”
No shit he declined. Though had he not lived several states away, I am willing to wager my brother would have been there. Because he was one of the better people on our planet, even if he was the one my father harmed the most.
But the Salvation Army? Really? Didn’t my father have a paid for cemetery plot next to my mother? This was almost as good as the stealth cremation my sister ordered the morning after my father died. My brother and I half-jokingly discussed possible murder conspiracies. Not our sister per se, her lunatic Rush Limbaugh loving significant other. The one who decorated their Christmas tree with empty packs of Camel cigarettes and most likely denies the existence of the holocaust.
Our family is Jewish. Wait. Scratch that, too. My sister goes to church and wears a gold cross around her neck though as far as I know, she never actually officially converted. I think she just likes the organ and potluck suppers.
Okay, so we really didn’t think her boyfriend, husband, or whatever he was killed our Dad, but the social worker at the hospital was concerned. My eighty-two year old father appeared to be covered with bruises and was “over-medicated” when my sister finally brought him into the emergency room.
My father probably tried to kill himself to get away from them, though. In return for handing over his monthly Social Security checks for his room and board, my father got to feed their fifty-seven cats, some of whom slept with him in his tiny, cramped space in my sister’s attic.
In the end, he got his wish. As kids he always told us to leave him alone. I think at some point he must have met Harry Chapin because how else could Harry have written Cat’s in the Cradle.
To spare you the gory details, here is the abridged version of how this all went down. Decades ago, our mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, my sister buried her head in the sand, my mother died, my sister buried her head in the sand, my dad didn’t want to be a father to his young son because he already had a girlfriend waiting in the wings, my sister buried her head in the sand, I had to go to court and get custody of my brother even though I was barely old enough to feed and dress myself, my sister buried her head in the sand, my father lost all of his money but he still had good credit, my sister had bad credit and needed a house, my father needed a place to live, they made a deal, but then my sister realized, surprise, surprise, that my father was a really bad guy after all but by then it was too late and a deal is a deal and by then, I had buried my head in the sand.
I bet my sister never expected him to live until eighty-two.
And despite the young life from hell, losing his mother and knowing that he had a father who didn’t want him, my brother grew up to be a really amazing adult and like me, is a better parent for it. So there’s that.
But here is the thing. Despite all of the misery, I never intended to sever all ties with my father. I wanted my own kids to have a normal life like the families on the black and white television set in my childhood living room. When I was growing up, if my father’s own mother would call, he wouldn’t pick up the phone. He disliked the entire family and had such horrible things to say about everyone that I wish I had written them down to use in future stories because they were that descriptive and off the wall. The best was that after going off on these truly disturbed tirades, he’d look at you with puppy dog eyes and complain that no one liked him.
He was also a jazz musician who got so fucked up at gigs that he eventually blew out a brilliant career and ending up selling home improvements at Sears Roebuck. He despised his life and never let us forget it by sucking all of the joy out of ours.
“Your arms look like two pork loins in that shirt,” he said to me one morning before school.
Did he really have no idea how deeply that remark would wound an insecure young teenaged girl?
So in the end, my reason for ending our relationship was that he tried to work his voodoo on my own children, the beautiful son and daughter I was fiercely raising to be confident and self-assured and loving.
The final straw occurred when I invited my father to see my son play the drums with the All-City Jazz Band. Out of every student in the Philadelphia high school system, my son was selected for this honor, and it was a pretty big deal. Since we were a rock and roll family and my father a jazz musician who loathed rock and blamed that on the death of his career, not his various addictions, I thought he would really enjoy seeing his grandson play “his” music. My sister and the boyfriend brought him to the concert because by then he was no longer driving.
After the show, I was actually naïve enough to expect my father to gush.
Instead, he made comment after comment about the poor musicianship, what he perceived to be my son’s lackluster performance, and that what he’d just witnessed was certainly not jazz. That the musicians were on average fifteen years old meant nothing to him.
My son’s face…
So that was it. I declined any future family gatherings, and in retrospect, given what has happened with the world since September 11 and the fact that Glenn Beck streams live on my sister’s Facebook page, I made the right decision.
Ironically, both of my children grew up to be professional musicians. They have international reputations as being the finest young bassist and drummer around but more importantly, yes, they are happy and confident and loving.
A few days ago, my kids performed at a local festival. As I watched them on stage, looking at each other with such affection and then glancing back at their father and me, knowing that we’d seen that interaction and knowing how we’d eat it up, my eyes filled with tears because God damn it, I thought about my father and realized the greatest tragedy of all.
“Look what you missed,” I whispered. “Look what you missed.”
About the author:
Robin Slick is a rock music obsessed writer living in downtown Philadelphia. Visit her on the web at www.robinslick.com.