Dad Redux – 01/02/2021

Between the holidays and the struggle to write difficult material, I’m way behind right now. However, I want to share this expansion of the story of my father and his death. It’ll probably get more drawings later on. In the meantime, I’m also working on another chunk that will (I hope) be ready in a week or so. Thanks, and Happy New Year! – JH

When I’ve told people about Dad’s death, they’ve often assumed that I’m sad. I’m not, really, although I do miss him a lot.

Here’s what I am sad about. Dad was always the toughest person on my Christmas list; he didn’t want much, and when he did want something, he bought it. So I fell into a ritual: each year I packed up a box of jams, cookies, fruitcake and other homemade goodies (with extra gingersnaps, which he loved), and added a copy of whatever book I’d most enjoyed in the preceding year.

The book I most enjoyed in 2018 was George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo – but as a gift for a dying man, the story of the lost souls in the graveyard of Lincoln’s son Willie seemed a bit tactless. So instead, I bought him the ebook of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Good Omens, because I couldn’t imagine anyone not loving Good Omens.

In the days after Dad’s death, I was packing up a few things to take home with me. I picked up his Kindle, thinking Miles or Ben might want it, and looked to see what he had been reading.

He was only a third of the way through Good Omens.

That’s sad.

Death interrupts such small pleasures: the end of Good Omens, the next episode of Masterpiece Theatre, the tickets to the big game. To choose death, as he did, means that these little expectations have been outweighed by a bigger consideration: for the depressed, the inability to take joy in such temporary pleasures; for the sick, the imminence of enough pain to outweigh the joy.

For Dad I think it was a little of each. His beloved wife Mona had died the previous summer – aside from a few short hospital stays, the two of them had never spent a night apart in their thirty-four years of marriage. Mona was ten years his junior, so he had never imagined outliving her, until she died of pancreatic cancer just a few weeks after her diagnosis.

There’s no way to describe what happened next without resorting to cliché: the spark went out of his eye, the lift out of his step, all the ways we try to describe the sudden shrinkage of a soul. When Mona died, Dad became old overnight. His Parkinson’s flared and overwhelmed the medicine that had controlled it, he stopped taking pleasure in food or books or television. I think receiving his own cancer diagnosis a few months later was almost a relief. The doctor said they’d caught it soon enough that chemo and surgery stood a pretty good chance of success, but Dad was old by then, and all that sounded like way too much trouble.

After it was all over and the guys from the mortuary had come and gone, my sister Leah[1] suddenly said, “Where’s his wallet?”

We looked everywhere: in the room downstairs he’d moved to, in his real bedroom upstairs, under the bed, in the closet, in the mudroom. No wallet.

“You don’t suppose… he had it in his pocket?” I asked dubiously.

And that’s exactly where it was. The lady from the mortuary called us back the next morning to say that there had been, not one, but two wallets in his pockets: one, with cash, in the front pocket; one, with credit cards, in the back.

And since you’ll never get to meet my dad, that’ll give you an idea of who we’re talking about here. He had awakened that Sunday morning, knowing he was going to die that afternoon, and dressed carefully in his uniform of khakis, a polo shirt, a v-necked merino sweater, and his wallets. Because God forbid he should die in his pajamas, or that someone could come to the door wanting to get paid for delivering the newspaper and he wouldn’t have his wallet on him. The largest concession he was willing to make was to remove his watch and leave it on the nightstand, and to take off his father’s handsome jade ring, which never left his finger, and hand it to my sister. Beyond that, Death found him neatly dressed, hair combed, beard trimmed, and with both wallets where they belonged. The law calls it “Death With Dignity,” which in his case was great marketing.

The house I grew up in was a mishmash of a midcentury rancher that my parents built on a street of century-old neocolonials on Philadelphia’s wealthy Main Line. Mom and Dad dreamed of Frank Lloyd Wright and Eichler, but compromised on an utterly generic exterior – which, inside its conservative front door, shocked the neighbors with floor-to-ceiling picture windows, exposed beams, and a stairstepped brick planter wall dividing the living and dining rooms. Several walls were decorated with the photographs my dad had once dreamed of a career taking; one, a portrait of a one-year-old me snapped in the moment of inverting a full tumbler of milk in order to see what the bottom looks like, hangs in my office as I write this.

The unremarkable façade extended to the house’s residents. Dad left early every morning, gray-suited and trudging, to commute into Philadelphia to work in the benefits department of a large insurance company. The darkroom he’d built in the basement gradually turned into a storage room. Mom knitted doll clothes for charity bazaars and chaired committees at the PTA. The two of them bowled on Tuesdays and played bridge on Saturdays.

The cracks, though, were there to be seen by any careful observer, and I’m sure they got us gossiped about. Instead of a portable turntable with a few albums of Perry Como and showtunes, Dad had a “hi-fi” with speakers bigger than me, and a well-stocked record cabinet containing folk songs, calypso, and, later, the Beatles. Instead of the stolidly mediocre American menu I encountered at my friends’ houses, Mom ground her own coffee and dabbled in ethnic cuisine. When I was in fourth grade and my sister in first, Mom, bored to catatonia by the PTA, took a part-time bookkeeping job, making her the only mother I knew who worked.

I was in sixth grade when a new family moved in next door and my folks formed a close friendship with them. When the Garfields were transferred to southern California, they invited us out for a week’s visit the next summer. Dad and Mom were so immediately captivated by California sunshine and West Coast freedom that Dad started sending out resumes to LA-based firms the moment we got home. We packed up and moved to Southern California in 1968…

That’s is the story we tell to strangers, and it’s at least partly true. But there’s more to the story than that.

There’s also the story of a man who had once dreamed of photography, sports car rallies and fine wines, and who woke up one morning living in the suburbs, married to a woman he’d never chosen, and father to two daughters. That story is set in a time and place rising from the ashes of 1950s sexual hypocrisy, in a world fumbling to understand what a liberated sexuality might look like.

The trip to visit the Garfields, it seems, was more in the nature of an assignation. Later, when our family was established in Southern California, I was occasionally drafted to babysit for my own sister and the two bratty Garfield children while the adults had a “party,” which at the time I vaguely associated with the evenings of bridge my folks had hosted back in Pennsylvania.

These days, I write books and run workshops for couples like this. I teach, and believe, that the person with whom you want to have a child and a joint checking account is not necessarily – is not, in fact, likely to be – the person with whom you’re going to have earthshaking sex. If my parents circa 1970 were to show up in one of my workshops, I’d try to help them figure out how to be honest about their desires and behaviors, how to offer each other support and reassurance during times of jealousy or insecurity, how to redefine their boundaries so that love doesn’t equal ownership. I’d offer my own life, imperfect as it is, as an example of how a person can maintain multiple relationships that respect and honor everyone involved. The workshop might not help keep their marriage together, but then again, it might.

In 1970, however, I was fifteen years old. I was one of the lucky kids, the ones with cool parents who said “fuck” and smoked pot. My mother had gone back to school: she’d originally planned to take accounting classes to follow up on her bookkeeping experience, but Psych 1 was a required course and she never looked back, first doing volunteer work in a student drop-in center, then pursuing coursework toward a Marriage and Family Therapist certification. I would often come home on a Saturday night to discover a marathon encounter group taking place in our living room; Dad was rarely home for these. I became adept at tiptoeing into the kitchen, quietly fixing myself a snack, and closing my bedroom door softly behind me so as not to interrupt the confessional whispers or sobbing or shouting.

Sometimes the Saturday night outing from which I was returning was babysitting Amy, the toddler whose family lived a few doors up from us. Amy’s dad was a doctor who spent long hours at the hospital; her mother, a pert brunette, often needed my services when she had a tennis game, a shopping excursion or a lunch date.

A few years later, when I got the call from Mom that my parents were divorcing and I learned that Dad’s longtime clandestine affair with Amy’s mother was the cause, I briefly wondered if I’d ever had a babysitting job that wasn’t in some way facilitating my parents’ sexual escapades.

My sister Leah is four years younger, six inches taller, and at least fifty pounds lighter than me. Nevertheless, I love her very much.

We don’t always like each other, though.

As is true in many families, each of us has had “our” parent, with whom communications are easy and non-fraught; each of our relationship with the other parent was… not.

Leah resembles Dad physically (tall, lanky, narrow-shouldered); I resemble Mom (stocky, short-legged, with a tendency toward sedentariness and a heartfelt love of pretty much all food). The similarities continue into our values. Leah, although a lesbian, is at heart a traditionalist: she has risen high in a sales-oriented job, speaks corporate-speak fluently and effortlessly, and has been with the same partner monogamously for at least twenty years. She loves working out at the gym, swimming laps, wearing designer clothing, and going with her wife on vacations with Olivia[2] twice a year, where they meet up with the same handful of women they consider their best friends (this is her entire social life; aside from family, she’s never had people over to their home).  She loves her two grown kids and four grandkids but is okay with them living on the other side of the country, dotes on her motley assortment of dogs, and eats sparingly, based on whichever diet is in the news that year.

Mom, on the other hand, was a marriage and family counselor who loved to entertain, ruled (not always benevolently) over her second husband, never met a dessert she didn’t like, and cared more than anything about freedom and happiness. She was proud of the work I do, stocking copies of my books in her therapy office to give out to clients who wanted to explore polyamory and/or kink, and inviting me down a couple of times to speak about alternative sexualities to her local humanist therapists’ chapter.  

Got the picture?

Leah and I don’t understand each other at all, and there are some topics we’ve learned to steer clear of. But we care about each other a lot. In contrast to many folks I know who have undergone nightmare scenarios when it’s been time to portion out their parents’ estates, Leah and I have yet to disagree even a little on ours.

Leah and her wife were dear friends with Mona; they talked about their exercise programs, their dietary experiments, their jobs, and laughed and laughed. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that Mona was a little scared of me: a conservatively raised Kentuckian English teacher and Weight Watchers instructor has very little context for the stepdaughter who makes her living writing kinky books, who eats what she wants, and who hasn’t bothered with monogamy in decades. Nevertheless, Mona was unfailingly kind and welcoming to me, until the cancer roared up in a matter of weeks and she didn’t want any visitors at all.

So, when it came time for Dad’s life to wind its way down the following year, Leah took the lead position, traveling up to Seattle to spend as much time with him as she could. I went up there too, of course, but not as often, because I knew having me around the house was stressful for Dad in a way Leah wasn’t. When Mom had died ten years previous, we had assumed the opposite roles, without needing to discuss it much. We made a pretty good team for both our parents, I think.

For his seventieth birthday, fifteen years previous, Dad had flown my sister and me up to Vashon Island, Washington, to celebrate with Mona and him in their home overlooking Puget Sound. He and I shared a bottle of wine that he’d been saving for a couple of decades for the occasion. I don’t drink much, so by the bottom of the bottle his eyes were sentimentally moist as he looked around the table at his wife, my sister and me.

I think that night he realized that Leah and I might not be the daughters he’d wished for, but we were the only ones he was going to get.

During a period when they both were single – Dad having broken up with Mom for a variety of reasons, which mostly boiled down to “they never should have been together in the first place,” and Leah being in her early twenties and living nearby – Dad and Leah had been inseparable. And yet, a few years, after Dad and Leah had both gotten married and Leah had a couple of kids, Leah separated from her husband and came out as lesbian. Their relationship got pretty chilly for a while.

I thawed the chill by coming out in rapid succession as a sadomasochist, a polyamorist and a bisexual.[3] By comparison, I think lesbianism looked pretty tame.

Dad and I had one massive fight about kink, in which he expressed the usual vanilla-person fears: I’d want more and more until I wound up maimed or dead; I’d be hanging out with people who had no scruples and no skills; I’d get AIDS. It was the kind of fight you can’t have twice, at least not if you want to continue to have a relationship. We were agonizingly careful with each other for some years after. The seventieth-birthday party was our détente.

A few years after that dinner, I called him up. “Hi. I’m going to be doing a reading up in Seattle and I was wondering if I could stay at you guys’ house. All I’ll need is a ride to the ferry terminal, and from there I can take a cab to the bookstore.”

“No, that’s okay, I’ll take you to the reading,” he said.

“I’m… not sure you’d enjoy it. It’s pretty graphic stuff.” (The essay in question, which had appeared in a collection of the best sex writing of the year, was an exploration of cunts and their relationship to gender ­– including a bit more information about my personal experience with fisting than most people would want their fathers to have.)

“No, I want to come. When will you arrive, and when is the reading?”

When the time came, we dined in Seattle beforehand and he drove me to the bookstore. I did the reading, not daring to look at him as I did.

Afterward, in a question-and-answer session, someone asked the question that someone always asks: “How does your family feel about the work you do?”

I briefly considered pointing out that a member of that family was sitting in the audience, but I wasn’t prepared to out him as my father in front of a crowd of strangers. I made a generic statement that my family knew about my work and was fine with it. Afterward, when I told him about my initial impulse, he said, “Oh, no, that would have been fine.”

Who was this man and what had he done with my father?!

After he died, I found a copy of the book in his library. I hadn’t given it to him.

Before Mona, when I’d stayed at Dad’s bachelor apartment in Santa Monica, I’d had to hang my clothing on the back of chairs, because his guest-room closet was occupied by a grow light and a few scraggly marijuana plants. He had visited Sandstone, the famous experimental sex community, with results that he wouldn’t talk about except to say that it was “disastrous.”

One of my visits to his apartment stands out in my mind still. We’d taken toddler Miles to Santa Monica Beach to splash in the surf. When we brought him home, he was sand-covered and squirmy.

Holding my grubby offspring at arm’s length, I ran up the stairs, shedding clothes as I went, and leapt into the shower. When I had most of the sand off, I handed Miles out to my dad, still nude from his own shower, to towel him off.

It was a supremely awkward moment. Both of us desired and believed in sexual freedom, both of us had had plenty of experience with social nudity… and yet, there it was, incontrovertible: we were naked, physically close to one another, and dizzy with the sense that some deep, irrational boundary, maybe inbred, maybe learned, had been breached. We remained fully clothed in each other’s presence after that.

Death found Dad appropriately memorialized. He had asked me beforehand to write his obituary, which seemed a very small contribution compared to the monolithic work he was doing – but when someone asks you to do such a thing, of course you do it. Really, writing it was easy. What was hard was handing it to him, during his last night on the planet, for corrections and line edits. As strange as that was for me, I can’t begin to imagine what it felt like to him.

Death also found him slightly tipsy. The typed instructions from the Compassionate Choices people suggested chasing the phenobarb cocktail with a shot or two of the good stuff, but that had very little to do with his state of inebriation. Quite simply, it was late afternoon, and that meant it was time for his glass of scotch.

It was time. The others in attendance – his dear friend Anne, whose credentials as a nurse meant we didn’t have to have a stranger in the room; Anne’s husband Tim, looking a bit queasy; and Leah – were planning a final toast with and to him, as he waited for the lethal draft to take hold.

I was not going to participate in the toast. Not because I loathe scotch, although I do. But I’d anticipated this moment, and when I’d left my home in Eugene to drive up to Dad’s place outside Seattle, I’d packed a bottle of excellent rum, specifically for this very moment.

However, the last stop I’d made here in Eugene was at our neighborhood cannabis dispensary. “I’d like some of the Siskiyou FECO[4],” I told the very young man behind the counter.

“Oh, I’m sorry, we’re out of the Siskiyou,” he told me. “But we have some other FECOs that are pretty similar.” He brought one out and showed it to me.

“Sure, that’ll be fine.” I paid for my purchase and hit the road.

Of course, because chronic pain is a contrary motherfucker, I felt okay that night, in spite of the long drive. Dad and I sat together at his counter, eating the spaghetti I’d thrown together out of what I’d been able to find in his pantry and freezer.

But the next afternoon, on the day Dad had chosen as his last, my back decided it was unhappy with the way I was handling tension, and staged a small rebellion. I squirted a tiny amount of the FECO onto a cracker and ate it.

Anne and Tim arrived shortly thereafter. As we chatted, I noticed an odd, warm, dry feeling in my eyeballs. Every time something moved, I saw it in jerky silent-movie-like bursts. My heart sank.

“Shit,” I hissed to Leah. “That stuff had a lot more THC than they told me. I am fucked up.”

She looked at me helplessly: the last thing this scene needed was one of its principals in a significantly altered state of consciousness. “Maybe if you had a drink, that would relax you?”

I shook my head. “That just makes it worse.” (I’d learned this the hard way the last time I’d had a glass of wine on top of my usual dosage.)

We looked at each other. Neither of us had a clue. “I’ll have a glass of milk,” I decided. I had no reason to suppose that milk would actually help, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.

Anne was in Dad’s room, “making the bed,” by which she meant putting down disposable underpads: Dad’s greatest fear about having Leah and me in the room was that it would be “messy.” We pointed out that we both had had babies, and that was pretty messy too, and he should decide what he wanted instead of trying to anticipate what we wanted. Amazingly enough, he believed us, and agreed that we could be there with him.

So we were standing there, fidgeting, waiting for things to start happening. The milk didn’t seem to be helping, but it tasted good so I drank it anyway.

You’ll have trouble believing this next part, though, because while Leah and I were waiting, I could have sworn I heard Taps.

“Whoa,” I said. “Do you hear that?”

She looked at me blankly, and I was just about ready to chalk it up to hallucination. Then she cocked her head. “Is that Taps?”

I edged into the room and saw the TV set, still on. Dad said, “I’ve never seen From Here to Eternity, but it seemed apropos.” I was stoned enough that I wasn’t sure whether he was actually making a joke about his own death (he was), so I muttered something unintelligible and backed out.

The law is very specific about how a chosen death should work. Two doctors must agree, two weeks apart, that the patient’s readiness to die is reasonable. They sign some paperwork, and then one of them orders a prescription for a powder[5] that is chemically very similar to the injection used in veterinary euthanasia. The patient himself must pour the powder into the glass, but someone else can add the water or juice into what is apparently a truly foul-tasting concoction. 

So the scene was this: Leah, Tim and I were sitting around the guest-room bed. Anne, for whom this was not her first rodeo, steadied Dad’s Parkinsonian hands so he could pour his powder, and topped it up with some orange juice. He chugged it down like a pro, and made a wry face while Anne was taking the glass of dregs away and replacing it with a squat tumbler of heavy crystal.

Leah poured everyone but me a hefty Scotch as I sat helplessly, waiting to toast him with the last inch of milk in my glass. I was uncharacteristically quiet, because I was afraid that anything I said would come out weird – or at least weirder than sitting in a corner nursing a glass of milk while the source of half my DNA was confronting his final journey.

We clinked glasses and drank. Leah poured a second round. By the time the level in his glass was near the bottom, Dad was fading out.

“Someone should take his glass away,” Anne said quietly. I was closest, so I went over and took it out of his hands – I had to pry his fingers gently away, one by one.

He opened his eyes briefly, smiled, and said, “Good idea.” Those were his last words. I was the last one to touch him.

And then we waited.

I thought longingly of the speed and finality that was euthanizing a pet. When someone dies in the movies, it goes one of two ways: either they close their eyes and that means they’re dead, or they slump over with their eyes wide open. This was a longer and less conclusive process by far.

I can’t speak for any other deaths (Dad’s was the only one I’ve ever attended; Mom, a decade previous, had waited till I was out of the room), but Dad’s eyelids fell till a new-moon crescent of milky white was all that showed. His mouth did something similar – with no muscle tension to pull it upward, his lower lip fell away from his bottom teeth. And perhaps if you’ve attended many deaths this is not news to you, but to me it was a revelation, the first of several.

I could not take my eyes away from him – my stoned soul was mesmerized by the process revealing itself to me.

As I watched, his face began to morph. First it was a skull. Then, the face of an ape. Then, the face of an angel. Then it was my dad, my Daddy, my father. And then a skull again… and the process repeated itself, around and around and around.

And then, during an angel phase, I saw a disturbance – a ripple in the air, like the ripples rising from a hot highway, over his left shoulder. The morphing stopped.

He was gone.

And I was so glad I knew it, because the next few hours started off excruciating and evolved into low comedy, as the rough involuntary breaths that novelists call the “death rattle” continued at longer and longer intervals.

Toward the end, we’d all be certain it was over, and Anne would be on her feet to take his pulse so she could declare the time of death, and the rest of us would rise to leave so she could do her job… and then his body would rattle like a Model T and we’d all sit back down.

Toward the end, we – three tipsy people and one stoned one – were finding it darkly hilarious; there were several fits of contagious giggles. But with a couple of years of hindsight, I don’t think that was inappropriate: the body’s determination to hang onto the spark of life in spite of its occupant’s desires is the oldest, darkest and funniest joke on earth.

The next time I saw my sister was a month later, at a small memorial gathering. In a moment of privacy, I said, “I’ve been thinking about Dad’s death.” (I’d already told her about my hallucinatory experiences.) “Was it transcendent for you too, or was it just because I was stoned?”

“It was perfect,” she said.

[1] The names in this piece have all been changed at the request of the participants.

[2] A lesbian travel company.

[3] Genderqueer came later.

[4] FECO, for those of you not fortunate enough to live in a state with liberal marijuana laws, stands for Full Extract Cannabis Oil. The one that seems to help the most with my back pain is almost entirely made of cannabinoids, with only a tiny amount of THC, the chemical that gets you high. THC and I were good friends in high school but have since come to a parting of the ways; these days it sends me down a rabbit hole of inescapable self-consciousness, of the “oh my god everybody thinks I’m being weird” variety. However, cannabis wisdom holds that a minuscule amount of THC helps activate the cannabinoids, which actually does seem to be true.

[5] I was shocked to hear its four-figure cost. Are poor people not allowed a dignified death?

[5b] What a stupid question.

3 thoughts on “

  1. Wow: “the body’s determination to hang onto the spark of life in spite of its occupant’s desires is the oldest, darkest and funniest joke on earth.” This is a great read. Thank you. And _____ new year! (Seems like maybe the “happy” will have to wait a few days…)



    1. I really love this memoir you are creating. You already know I’m a fan of your work; this feels like the biggest — and at the same time, the smallest, most intimate, most specific, most merely human — territory you’ve staked out yet.

      Liked by 1 person

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