— Mark Drought (2006)
He was never a big man. And in a hospital bed, under a wall filled with medical apparatus, he looked even smaller. Lying there with enough wires and cables coming out of him to pick up ESPN, the man I’d always looked up to barely made a ripple in the sheets.
My father had suffered a massive heart attack. He looked so frail that, without thinking, I gently squeezed his hand. He gave me a quizzical look. We weren’t the sort of family in which men touched each other very often. I never once doubted that my father loved me, but, in the 22 years I’d known him, he’d never once actually said so.
He winced a little, as a disturbing reality tapped him on the shoulder. It was as if relatives whom he rarely saw had suddenly started showing up at his deathbed to visit him. With a sigh, he asked, “I’m not getting out of here ... am I?” It was barely a question.
He’d always given me straight answers, so I told him. “No. You’re not.”
He nodded, as if this confirmed what he already suspected. Then he rolled slightly toward the wall, his movement restricted by all the tubes. I think he needed some time to get used to the idea.
There were a lot of things I could have said to him at that moment. But all I did say was, “I’ll be back tomorrow morning,” and I left him alone with the last few minutes of the six o’clock news glowing faintly on his wall-mounted television.
I should have thanked him right then for what he’d given me — a pleasant childhood, free from the miseries fathers so often inflict on their families like some sort of genetic disease. But I’d thought my happy home life was merely normal. It took me years to realize how few men make good fathers, and how many fathers treat their sons badly, when they aren’t ignoring them altogether.
I once saw a documentary about lions on “Wild Kingdom.” The male lion takes almost no part in raising the cubs. He doesn’t hunt or play with his offspring. About all he contributes to the pride is his seed. Nature hasn’t bequeathed the males of most species with the instincts to be good parents. I’d been lucky.
My father and I had never been as close as he and my brother were. We were too different. A blue-collar guy, always dressed in his khaki Dickies work clothes, Dad’s life was tools, wood and nails. I was a wannabe intellectual, with dreams of becoming an academic. My life was literary criticism, abstruse poetry and Russian novels. He liked books about armies and explorers, Perry Mason mysteries and movies with John Wayne on a horse.
I’d been happy to avoid the draft and stay as far from Vietnam as possible. Dad had enlisted in the Navy as soon as he graduated from high school and ended up in the middle of World War II a few months later. When you think about the men who won that war, you usually picture grizzled tough guys, like Charles Bronson or Lee Marvin. But, although the veterans who came home when it was over were men, most left home as kids, some only months beyond their proms and geography homework.
In 1944, Dad was on the lookout for Nazi U-boats in a convoy crossing the North Atlantic. On watch late one night, the ship ahead of him, a gasoline tanker, took a torpedo or hit a mine. The night sky was lit up by the fireball, and Dad’s ship swerved to avoid the flaming wreckage, picking up speed to get away from the area as quickly as possible. When a ship filled with gasoline explodes, there aren’t likely to be a lot of survivors to worry about.
When his watch was over, Dad lay in his bunk wide awake. Surrounded by millions of gallons of gasoline, he was afraid to doze off, terrified by the very real possibility he might die in his sleep, without ever having seen his 20th birthday.
But although Dad got no sleep that night, he said the next time he hit his bunk, he “slept like a baby.” He told me, “I was just too goddamn tired to worry about dying. And it’s funny. I’ve never really thought much about it since.” I’ve never quite been able to manage that myself: I have trouble falling asleep in a moving car or an airplane, and I worry that my house is under the airport’s flight path.
The night after I saw my father in the hospital, I was unable to sleep, and I thought about him for hours. There were few bad memories and plenty of good ones — funny little stories I’d enjoy telling for years to come, as well as small kindnesses too personal and fragile to risk putting on paper. And I thought about the example he’d set. I didn’t realize at the time how high he’d placed the bar.
For most of his life, my father worked at a yacht club in Greenwich, Connecticut. One spring, he needed a big, strong guy to work on the club’s clay tennis courts. Someone recommended a local high school football player, who turned out to be friendly, polite, hardworking and black. Dad hired him on the spot.
The young man had been working on the courts for several weeks before someone on The Board — possibly that most august of yachtsmen, the Commodore — let my father know that this wouldn’t do. Yacht club members have very specific ideas about the sorts of people they want to see from the decks of their boats, and Dad was told to correct his “mistake.”
He was in no position to refuse. He worked at a place owned and frequented by the rich and powerful, and every last one of them was his boss. Besides, he was a small man, with a wife, two kids and a mortgage, who needed his low-paying job.
But Dad never really believed there were gray areas in matters of right and wrong, even when a Commodore explained them to him. He saw some things as just plain wrong, and he wanted no part of this particular injustice. So he ignored his orders.
Sometimes, the only thing necessary for the triumph of good is for good men to just do nothing. Oddly, there were no repercussions. The black kid went right on working on the crew, and even returned the following spring. Dad wasn’t fired, the Commodore didn’t die of apoplexy and the yacht club survived desegregation.
I remembered this story as I was driving to the hospital the next morning, thinking about the things I wanted to say: “Thanks Dad, for not abusing your children or beating your wife or gambling away your never-big-enough paycheck. Thanks for drinking just enough to get cheerful and never turning into the nasty, violent bastard your own drunken father had been. Thanks for taking us to the pond to play hockey on those Saturdays you probably would have rather stayed warm at home. And thanks for not being the sort of father so many of my friends had grown up with.”
At the hospital, I was surprised to find him out of the intensive care unit. He’d been moved to another room and was sitting up in bed with all his tubes and wires removed, wearing the pajamas he’d had on when he was admitted. Relaxed and comfortable, he actually looked better than he had in years.
They say people who are ready to end their lives often appear happy, because they’ve come to a decision. When Dad asked to be taken out of intensive care, he’d made up his mind.
We talked for a while about nothing in particular. My mother had asked him earlier in the day if he’d wanted to see a minister.
“I never had much use for ministers,” he admitted. “And I can’t see what use I’d have for one now.”
Then he asked me to look in the newspaper to see what was on television later in the day.
“Here you go,” I said. “Four-thirty ... Wild Kingdom … it’s about cheetahs. You love that stuff.”
“Four-thirty? I’ll be dead by four-thirty. I meant earlier in the day.”
The import of this hit me as if he’d reached over and squeezed my hand. Of course, I already knew it, but hearing him say it so casually made it an ordinary matter of fact, like the time he’d given me the bad news from his mechanic that my beloved Mustang wasn’t going to make it.
I wanted to hug him, but I didn’t. I think I needed it a lot more than he did.
In the years since then, I’ve marveled at how easily he’d said those words. I’ve always hoped that, when my time comes, I’ll be that accepting of my fate. Realistically, how we choose to die is the last real choice any of us gets to make.
At that moment, I should have thanked him for setting a good example. For showing me how to die without begging Jesus to save him, or cursing God for killing him at only 48 years old. And for showing me it’s possible for a small man to die bravely.
There were a lot of things I wanted to say to him that morning. I didn’t say any of them.
He died a few hours later, right after Wild Kingdom.
This story is part of a book that’s available on Amazon.com.
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