Forty years ago today, December 7, 1980, my father began the final year of his life.
This reflection has been stuck in my mind for several days now so it is time to process it. Those who are familiar with my writing in TheDailyDrivel.com know it is a stream of consciousness blog and it is likely to go in any number of directions. Sometimes, like today, it comes out as a memoir.
A quick word about memoirs. My parents had four children – my three sisters and me. However, each of us grew up in four different families with these same parents. That’s not unusual. The experience each child has in its family is unique due to birth order, number of siblings, family circumstances, state of the parents’ relationship, etc., etc. By the time I came along (my youngest sister is 10 years my senior) the family experience I had was different from my sisters. For this reason, my memories and memoir is not theirs and never can be, anymore than theirs can be mine. It is not my intention to speak for them and their experience with our parents because I cannot. Hence anything I write here should not be associated to them. Family therapists have more eloquent ways of explaining this phenomenon of siblings growing up in different families with the same parents, but I hope this will suffice for now.
My father died on December 6, 1981, on my sister Carol’s birthday and in my 27th year. Yesterday, of course, was the 40th anniversary of his death. In his book, Tuesday’s with Morrie, Mitch Albom observes, “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”
I have a complicated relationship with my father. He was an alcoholic, and his drinking was particularly bad throughout my teens. However, I now understand he struggled with addiction for many years before and after that period. In my earliest years we lived in a four-room house on my grandfather’s farm. It had a toilet but no bathing facilities. In the cold months we bathed in a tub in the kitchen and, in the warm months, under a rigged up hose and shower nozzle in the cellar. When I was entering grade school we moved into my grandfather’s house, after he moved to town, where we had a bathtub in an upstairs room and a toilet in a small room on the main floor. In junior high school we moved from my grandfather’s house on the family farm into another four-room, one and a half story house in town. It was an exciting move because, for the first time, we had a bathtub and toilet together in the same bathroom. Odd the things that stand out in our memories, eh?
That house in town was small for three people. The last of my three sisters had moved away from home six or seven years before our move. From about age 8 on I was an “only child” with my sisters grown, married, and moved out. Sometimes my mom and dad seemed to be more like grandparents than parents. I had nieces and nephews who were only three to five years younger than me. It was a bit weird to see my parents be grandparents while they were still supposed to be parents to me.
In truth, though, I parented them. My dad would walk home from the bar most afternoons in time for supper in a state of near black out. He would have driven the three blocks home but he’d often forget that he drove his truck there. My mother spent most evenings raging at my dad for his drinking until she finally went to her bedroom on the 2nd floor. Dad’s blackout state meant he never noticed, or remembered, the raging. But I do. I also remember how everyday I felt like I had to keep the peace. Sometimes covering for my dad. Sometimes siding with my mom. Often putting my dad to bed at night. Always strategizing on how to keep some level of peace in our home. There were days when that small house felt like a tiny house with walls that kept moving inward.
The stress of parenting my parents was enormous. Our family doctor observed my father walking to and from the bar each day (he had to walk right by the doctor’s office) and likely surmised what was happening in our home. He knew that I was under extraordinary stress as a teenager. During a routine sports exam, he noted the impact it was having on me and prescribed mild sedatives to help me manage the anxiety. However, I was scared of drugs of any kind as well as alcohol, so I took them sporadically for a month and never refilled the prescription. In that time my family had more in common with the Vance family of Hillbilly Elegy than any of the smiling, middle-class, white families we watched on TV sitcoms.
There was one day each year I looked forward to: Christmas Eve. It had nothing to do with religiosity or gifts. It was all about the opportunity to be just a kid. As a family we were a mixed bag religiously. My two oldest sisters were raised as Lutherans and my youngest sister and I were raised as Methodists. In our German family’s tradition we celebrated Christmas Eve. It was the time when all my sisters and their families came home. On that one night I did not have to feel solely responsible for keeping peace between my parents. My sisters were there to run interference and I could laugh, play, and be a kid.
My mom was an amazing cook and baker. The food on Christmas Eve was unlike any other day of the year. I loved Christmas eve. In fact, after I graduated from high school and moved out, I always made a point of being home for Christmas Eve. Until 1978.
In September 1978 I became the minister of a thriving rural church in Iowa. It was located over three hours from my hometown and had a tradition of holding a Christmas Eve service. In 1978, for the first time in my life, I had to miss Christmas Eve in order to lead the service at the church. My duties during that time meant I also missed Christmas Eve at home in 1979 and 1980.
In 1981 I changed jobs and it meant that I’d be able to join my family again for Christmas Eve. I was very excited. By the late 1970’s my mom and dad seemed to have achieved a different way of being in their life together. Mom seemed a bit softer and Dad’s drinking seemed to be more controlled. I had heard from Mom that Dad had missed me being home for Christmas Eve and was really looking forward to my return for the holiday.
I made it home but I was both too early and too late. I was called at work on Monday, November 30th and told my dad had fallen ill in the middle of the night. I drove home and took turns sitting with him in the hospital until he died the following Sunday, December 6, 1981.
Odd things happen in the moment when people pass away. I remember two things that happened. First, my mom turned to my sister, on whose birthday Dad died, and said, “Happy birthday, Carol.” That elicited a gasp from the nurses. Then all of my immediate family members – sisters and brothers-in-laws – turned to me and said, nearly in unison, “What do we do now?” Everyday since I have felt the unrelenting emotional weight of responsibility for my family.
For the past several days my heart has been carried back to Iowa by these memories. In fact, the memories have been intense and unshakable, hence the need to write. I think they are so strong because I’m also wrestling with my mortality, and that of people I know back home, in the midst of this terrible spike in COVID-19.
A friend from Western New York sent me an article from The Atlantic titled, Iowa is What Happens When Government Does Nothing: The story of the coronavirus in the state is one of government inaction in the name of freedom and personal responsibility. I know people from Iowa who would refuse to read an article in The Atlantic because they’d associate it with “East Coast elites.” In this case they’d be wrong. The author is from Burlington, Iowa, which was the nearest city near where I grew up and where I hung out as a teenager. The article is written with the awareness and love of an Iowan who is appalled by the situation there.
Another friend told me this week that she is scared of what is happening with the pandemic because it is all so out of control. I agree. I’m scared too. I think we’d both agree that our fear is not so much about the virus. We both know how to mitigate it and we do the things we need to do to protect ourselves: mask up, physical distance, wash hands, etc. Our fear is rooted, instead, in the actions of people who are not taking it seriously and who, out of ignorance, or political leanings, or both, refuse to take the same precautions. We can protect ourselves from a virus easier than we can protect ourselves from such stupidity.
In facing my own mortality, I remembered my dad on the anniversary of his death. None of us knew on December 7, 1980 that he would have only 365 more days. I thought there would be another chance to be at home for Christmas Eve.
Yes, my relationship with my dad was complicated. For all the ways his addiction prevented him from being present in my life, he did one thing for which I am forever grateful: he did not confine me to the same life to which he had been confined. He let me go and, in fact, was proud of me for going.
I saw his pride in one thing he did which seemed silly at the time. In the Spring before I graduated from high school I received a financial award letter from the community college in Burlington. My dad thought I had received a merit scholarship. He got so excited for me that he tracked me to an athletic event I was attending in another town and hand delivered the letter to me. I opened the letter and read it, but it wasn’t a merit scholarship at all, only an award based on financial need. He was so proud, I didn’t have the heart to tell him it wasn’t what he thought.
In the Fall of 1981, when I learned he was looking forward to me coming home for Christmas Eve, the trip took on a new meaning for me. It was no longer about respite, but a way of saying thanks to my dad for letting me go. I never got to say thank you and Christmas Eve has not been the same since. Today it comes and goes with a bit of sadness.
Be safe, be well, wear your mask, keep distance, wash your hands, and, in every way and every day, stand up for accountability, justice, and peace in our country and our world.
And remember to say thank you while you can.