For years I had a story about my father; well, I had many stories, the bulk were uncomplimentary given my mother’s anger toward him, the man who destroyed her dream of a white picket fence, church on Sundays, and an impenetrable version of the American dream. None of which were really her, given her personality and life choices, including my father: rather it was a mythos she enshrined about what being a wife, mother, and Christian looked like, even though she knew firsthand the hypocrisy of that mythos.
When I was young, every time I didn’t behave as she expected, she made certain to vent her frustration about him and our life circumstances, for I was just like my father. This was true especially when I was emotionally “cold,” withdrawn and solitary, and singularly stubborn. My emotional coldness was her biggest frustration, the distance certain to arouse accusations of being like the man who left her alone. But I understood early that a child ought not be the emotional caretaker for an emotionally deprived adult, so I deliberately crafted the disdained emotional distance as a survival tool, a necessary distance to avoid her emotional morass. She in turn fashioned me in my father’s image.
Yet despite her anger, my mother knew that he was a victim of circumstance. His mother was emotionally incapable of raising her children, so his older sister, younger sister, and he were given to his mother’s aunt and uncle to raise. These two had no interest in trouble making boys, so they shipped my father off to a military school at about eight years old.
There was a problem with this solution: my father was an artist, he wrote poetry and painted from a young age. Military school was a death sentence, and any salvation his soul may have sought in the world deteriorated into rebellion, in a self-fulfilling prophecy about boys being bad. When I write “death sentence,” I use the term literally. For his spirit broke too young: the diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma at twenty-five was his soul’s cancer spread throughout his body.
He wasn’t just a bad boy, he was good-looking. Charming bad boy. Women flirted with him. Waitresses, my mother told me, would run their hair through his thick blond curly hair, in front of her, as if she were not there. My mother and father met, married, and lived in Alaska, and when I visited for a summer in my late teens — 100 dollars, a backpack, a book of Patti Smith poetry, and an invitation to stay with my godparents for a summer — the first thing women who knew him mentioned was his good looks. “Boy, your father was good-looking,” I heard many times, as though this were the most worthwhile thing to tell a young woman about the father who died when she was six.
I don’t remember him. His only visit to me, probably eight or nine months before his death, provides no residue of the man, which is odd given all the other excruciatingly painful details I remember about that visit. I only remember the emotional contours of his person, a dying shadow figure with a suitcase full of experimental medications to ward off the inevitable. I have a few photos though, and he looked staggeringly like Frank Converse. Although Frank Converse’s hey day was before my time, the first time I saw him on television, I harbored a secret fantasy that my father had faked his own death, and was still alive — not because Frank Converse was handsome, but because he looked exactly like the pictures of my father. The secret fantasy of my father living somewhere found a face and name, made more real because my father’s middle name was Frank. I didn’t really believe that Frank Converse was my father, I understood the distance between the fantasy and reality, which is why every time I saw Frank Converse on television, my stomach ached, my throat tightened, and I’d cry alone and without comfort given the carefully crafted emotional walls built far too young.
A gentler story that mother told about my father went like this: one day, he found a drunken homeless man on the street. My father took him to the drugstore, bought him some toiletries, brought him home, and had my mother make him a meal. He let him use their shower, clean up, and they ate. My father then took him out, and with the last twenty in his pocket bought him some new shoes.
“Your father had a kindness in him, such a deep kindness, that’s what I mostly fell in love with,” she would tell me in her forgiving moments. “Just like you, you’re just like your father that way, kind.”
Emotional coldness, notwithstanding.
I’m doing the Jimmy Fund in September, the Boston Marathon route, 26.2 miles and raising money for cancer research. It’s my fourth time, though the last time I participated was six years ago. I can’t say that I am doing 26.2 primarily for cancer research — I’m doing it because I can do the Boston Marathon route at whatever pace I want, without being chipped, and I love a challenge, but on my own terms. I’m also ambivalent about the current state of cancer research, but the event always proves overwhelmingly inspirational, and many of my critiques diminish when the stories pour in about people who Dana-Farber serves. It’s an extraordinary day. Every mile there’s a photo of a child at Dana-Farber, and they make placards thanking you — the number of survivors that one meets, the number of stories told, it’s a special day of people who beat the odds gathering. It’s also a special day of remembering those who didn’t.
Every year I’ve participated, I’ve dedicated the 26.2 to a friend who has had cancer and survived, let them know I was taking them with me. My old friend Bairn who passed not long after the first year; my friend Kath who was one of my biggest supporters the first year, and the following year had to go in for a radical mastectomy and reconstruction; the third year, for my godfather who let me be a hiking bum in Alaska for an entire summer, and has successfully survived prostate cancer.
It occurred to me after registering this spring, that I have never dedicated the route to my father, who died of Hodgkin’s disease. Not once. How could I have avoided the obvious? Because for so many years I had stories about his visit (“how could they have been so stupid as to traumatize a child like that”), the anger over being left alone with my mother’s unending well of demands and expectations, anger that he left, anger that he died, a burning anger that took me long and far but never with happiness or peace. An anger that turned inside, consuming my mind in its depths. “I can’t figure out why you are so angry,” mother would say, and I’d think, “God all mighty, how can you be so clueless.” Once fueled by anger, I’ve let that fire become an incandescent light, a shared light between myself and the Divine, in which I no longer fear or blame. There are now no walls between me and the world, and any that still exist I know will come down gently with time. I choose freedom over anger, because it’s been given to me to do so, after decades of trial and error. For this reason, my father now appears to me without tears, he stands as a poet, an artist, a man willing to give his last twenty dollars to put a pair of shoes on a homeless drunk.
I realize I’ve come full circle; or maybe I’ve finally grown up. The stories only have meaning in the way I craft them. Because I am no longer a victim of circumstance, I am the generous one. I put on my running shoes, and dedicate 26.2 miles to the man who gave me life, poetry, art, and kindness. In so doing, I take his too short incandescence into myself, and I increase my life’s light through his.
(If you’re interested in supporting my 26.2 with a tax deductible contribution, email me at email@example.com and I’ll give you the details. Thanks.)