Monday, June 18, 2012
Tonight I did something I haven't done in several years, several more years than the four represented on the death certificate, I sat down and had a beer with my dad. The last time I remember doing this, just the two of us, has to be around 1998. He was managing a movie theater in San Mateo, California (or somewhere equally foreign to Berkeley boy with no car) and he insisted that we walk around to the other side of the mall and have a couple tall boys in the parking lot.
The next time I remember seeing him we didn't drink, which was a bit of a surprise. Dad always drank. But this next time I saw him he was in his apartment and a problem with his foot wouldn't allow him to get around like he used to. This time it was 2003 and I was there to extend an olive branch and invite him to my wedding. He showed me around the apartment building, the pool, his car, the cute neighbor. That was one of the few times we talked about our past. About him disappearing for long stretches of my childhood. It was one of the few time I got a glimpse of his shame though he never said "I'm sorry." Through that shame shone the same man I'd come to know over the years. The one who didn't understand that a kid doesn't need a hero or a grand gesture, all he needs is a dad. All he needs is the dad he remembers best. Not the one with presents or an old Cadillac, but the one who can throw a football in the park or who has just enough money for a malt in the bleachers. He wanted me to forgive him then, as he had when he'd first gotten back in touch again, after vanishing for a period of years. Again. What I had to offer him was a wedding invitation. He accepted though he didn't actually come. By the time the wedding came he couldn't drive. His foot condition had gotten worse. His helper was supposed to bring him but something came up.
The next time I remember seeing my dad, or even talking to him was a few years later. I was bringing my new fiancee, or maybe she was still "just" a girlfriend at the time, to meet him. We went out for Mexican food. I took a short video of them dancing in the restaurant. I think it was the last time I saw him. He didn't make it to that wedding either. Diabetes had taken his sight and his mobility. He'd already survived throat cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, at least one pneumonia induced coma, alcoholism, heroin addiction, and the Bronx. He was in no shape to travel. I couldn't commit myself to keeping in touch. After all, this was the man who'd abandoned me so many times and who kind of shrugged off my attempts to hash this out. I knew he was sorry, I knew he was as damaged by it as I was but I just didn't care. I wanted my pound of flesh.
My wife got pregnant at just about the very first possible chance after we were married. My mom had been dead for a year already at that point and my contact with that side of the family was dissolving. I kept meaning to call my dad and tell him but something, friends, work, resentment, always came up. Besides, we were waiting three months before telling people because we knew the statistics. About a week before we were ready to tell the world that there would indeed be another generation of the Santiago line I came home to find a business card stuck in the screen of my front door. It was from farther away than I'd have expected and my first thought was that my grandmother had been compelled to drive farther than she should have. When I called the number and got the news I couldn't believe it, mostly because I'd expected to hear it twenty years earlier. Then ten years earlier, then five. "We regret to inform you that your father is dead. He was found by a friend. Here are some numbers where you can reach people who knew him."
While my dad's death was a shock it wasn't really a surprise. The amazing thing is that he'd lived this long. My senior year of college I'd spent three weekends driving from Los Angeles to the Bay Area to be by his side because the doctors swore "He's going to go this weekend." This was his pneumonia (and vodka and pills) induced coma. After three weeks he still wasn't dead. I stopped going. Two weeks later they found him wandering around the ICU. He'd woken up suddenly, pulled all the tubes out and was trying to go home. He'd been on a respirator. He had a tube running down his nose to his stomach to feed him. None of that seemed to matter to him, he just pulled it all out which means he was either on a ton of pain meds or just a complete bad ass. Whenever we'd discuss any of his seemingly life threatening ailments later he'd always come back to one explanation, which he'd draw out in his raspy, one-lunged-life-time-smoker rattle, "Nothing can kill me, I'm from the Bronx."
In the end he was right. It wasn't the various cancers that got him. It wasn't the diabetes or the vodka. In the end the only thing that could kill my dad was himself. One day he called his case worker, told him what he was going to do, took a shit load of who knows what, laid down in his La-Z-Boy and went to sleep. I got the card from the coroner's office a few days later. A few days before I was really going to call and tell him he was going to be a grandfather. A few days before I might have given him something to live for.
I've carried that guilt with me the last four years as I've watched my son grow up without half his heritage. I don't know if my dad would have been any better a grandfather than he was a father, but I wish we'd had the chance to find out. Now, instead of answers or apologies, I have a five by seven by three inch box. It's strange to think that all that we are can be distilled to 105 cubic inches. I always felt like I was going through the motions when I tried to openly converse with the dead. There's something about talking to a headstone or a photo that always seemed like I was just acting out a trope from a thousand staged dramas. But recently it's felt real. So tonight I sat down to have a beer with my dad. To forgive him. To thank him for the good things I remember. For the lessons he provided, if not by instruction, then by example.
I love you dad. I miss you. I wish you could have met Feechy Jr. Thank you for giving me baseball. Thank you for buying me that yellow Pittsburgh Pirates pill box cap even though we were at a Giants game. For letting me love Willie Stargell. For letting me see those old rainbow Astros unis in person. For letting me steer the van as a kid. For teaching me about the Three Stooges, Little Rascals, and Honeymooners. For taking me to one of the last lunch counters. For giving me some moxie. For that little taste of the South Bronx. For my name, for my looks, thank you.
I love you dad. I forgive you. Happy Father's Day.