Sunday, August 9, 2009

My Father

My father and I had a complicated relationship. Well, it was complicated for a while, but it neither started nor ended that way.

My father was born in Montreal and lived there until he was a little past 18. My father was never a religious man. He came from a strongly religious background, but he always said that he saw his mother, who was deeply religious, suffer a lot, and he couldn't reconcile those two things -- her belief and her suffering. He had a typical Canadian childhood as far as I can tell. He always told us stories of street hockey, jumping off rooftops into snowdrifts and collecting comic books and hockey cards. He used to wax eloquently about the huge comic book collection that was put into storage and his favorite character -- Blackhawk. He collected these things back in the old days, too, before the markets for comics and sports cards were destroyed, so he had a pretty good bit of value saved up -- if his parents hadn't gotten rid of them, the same old story.

My father attempted to enlist in the military to fight in Vietnam, but he wasn't physically eligible, so he went to the U.S. instead. He had a child and a wife in Canada, but the relationship ended badly and in the divorce he was prohibited from seeing my half-sister again. Her name was Joy and I've never seen or met or talked to her.

My father wandered around the U.S. spending time in Haight-Ashbury, doing some work for the druglord featured in the movie Blow, doing things that you'd read about in Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey books. Eventually he ended up in Tallahassee, where he met my 17-year-old mother, who had previously -- not kidding here -- dated Tom Petty (long before his fame). They met and fell, I guess is the word for it. Their marriage lasted a mere eight years, but it produced me and my brother and about ten thousand screaming matches.

As early as I can remember, my father looked like one of the guys from ZZ Top. Not just a little bit, so much so that his nickname was always ZZ Top or ZZ Topper or some variation. Around the house, he always wore t-shirts with things on them like "AC/DC Highway to Hell" and "Disco Sucks." He helped influence my musical tastes in some ways -- taking me to see the Police, Aerosmith and, of course, ZZ Top. In other ways, we parted tastes -- I always liked rap, like disco some and can't stand AC/DC.

My father's career always involved working on cars or some construction and the like when available. He was pretty good at restoring cars, even winning awards at it later in life. At times, it also involved selling drugs. Usually marijuana, but from time to time he tried other things, including the coke deal he tried when I was in tenth grade that sent him to prison for most of a year.

Towards the end of my high school years, we hit a really rough patch. I'm not really sure now what the root of it was. We got into some kind of disagreement and he accused me of things that weren't true. I reacted poorly and we didn't talk for a few years.

Oddly enough, what brought us back together was fantasy football. My cousin Sean set up a league and invited us both to participate. We did and slowly over the next few years we started talking again and became not only friendly, but better friends than we had ever been.

Most of the last decade, our relationship was great. Best of all, that meant that he was around for the full time possible with his three grandsons. In his later years, when he started to decline in health, he moved away from automotive and construction work towards being a full-time role selling stuff on e-bay and at the flea market. He went around to the storage sheds that people left their stuff in. When people stopped paying their bills, the companies auction off the contents of the sheds to a group of people who went around to all of them and bought them. The managers open up the sheds and the buyers bid on them based solely on what they can see from the doorway. Sometimes that means they get great deals, sometimes not so much. My dad was one of those buyers, reselling the items for pretty good profit much of the time. The upshot of it was that from time to time, he would come across cool items for the kids or collectible items he thought I might like (like a original copy of the New York Times from the day after the moon landing).

He still did some work restoring cars from time to time and around the time the twins were born, he was restoring a Rolls Royce and he got the brilliant idea that the twins should come home from the hospital in the Rolls. And he worked his ass off to make sure that the car was ready and Jack and Miles took their first ride in the back of a very, very nice Rolls Royce.

So for years, we'd talk about sports and politics -- my dad became a pretty liberal Democrat as he got older -- and kids and family. I'd help him with computer stuff, he'd give me and the kids cool stuff he found. We'd take turns helping each other out financially when money was available, although he helped me out a bit more than the opposite. All in all, it was the best time we ever had together.

And then his health began to decline. Every few months there would be some new problem -- some big, some small. Some annoying, some life threatening. There were times when he had to be hospitalized, there were times when he had trouble breathing, there were times when his feet became so bloated he couldn't walk, there were times when he lost coherence and didn't know who or where he was. He had new pills and clinic visits and no health insurance. His ability to work or make money began to decline and he had little money. At the time, he had probably been the most well-off person in the family, which wasn't saying much. But it wasn't enough and the doctors had a lot of trouble diagnosing what was wrong with him, particularly since he was going to public clinics and not getting the best medical care available. One thing he did have was his Canadian birth.

About a year ago, he moved back to Canada for the health care he had as a right there that he couldn't get here. They quickly figured out what was wrong with him and got him into a pretty good state and he probably managed to live six months longer than if he had stayed here. By the time he got back to Canada, it was too late and his various health care problems were too far along to fix. I hadn't seen him since he left, but we talked a bit when he first moved up there, but he began moving back and forth between the hospital, the hospice and a lung-related clinic and it was hard to keep up with him. A lot of the time, his mental capacity wasn't there to have conversations. I did talk to him a week or so before he died, though and we got to talk one last time and I got to say goodbye to him one last time.

The saddest part was that he had to spend the last year of his life in a country he hadn't visited in decades because he couldn't find the health care he needed here. So when people get childish and political about health care reform, I take it personally. I didn't get to see my dad the last year of his life because we are the only modern, industrialized country that doesn't take care of its own people. He lived out his days not always coherent and not always sure of where he was and without people who knew him and loved him. That makes me angry. That makes me more committed to fighting the people who refuse to help other people over some misguided philosophy on how the world works.

1 comment:

Larry Thorson said...

My sympathy is with you Kenny. That's an American life, last half of 20th century in the richest country of all. Things that should have happened -- like public health care -- didn't. And things that shouldn't have happened -- like Vietnam and Iraq and Enron -- happened instead and soaked up the money. People enjoy their freedom until it gets sticky, and then they suffer more than they should have. Sympathy to us all.