I recalled, very early this morning, Father's last words to me, exactly fifteen years ago: "I probably should have gotten psychological help when you were boys, but there always seemed to be other, more important, things.”
I wasn’t surprised the day in 2001 that a New Berlin police officer called to tell me that “we found your dad several days ago. He had been … um … deceased for a couple of days and … there was no indication of next of kin. So, um … we had to track you down … over the Internet. Nice website, by the way.” Father’s decomposing body had lain for several days before being discovered by a cop face down in his own dried vomit on the floor of the den in our Big Cedar House. The immediate cause was “arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease,” but, when I called the coroner for an explanation, he explained, without emotion, “Well, he was clearly an untreated diabetic, and the liver was cirrhotic, so there’s that.”
He had been failing for some time. I imagine that, since he was only slowing down, Father didn't see the point in paying a doctor to tell him to change his life. Father’s emotions were volcanic. His thirst for expressions of love was impossible to slake. No gesture was enough, so his feelings were always hurt. During our conversation, immediately after Mother’s death, he tried to explain himself to me by quoting the toast from Citizen Kane: “A toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows—his own.”
My brothers had promised their mother to keep trying to communicate with him, but it was naïve of her to expect them to just let go of the damage that a father can do to his son. Shortly after her death, each had an encounter with him that forced them to decide whether to carry on, or to make a new start, with him by telling him that he was forgiven—not that he particularly desired forgiveness, or felt that he deserved it, or understood the suffering and shame he’d inflicted on them with his actions, judgments, and words. The “unveiled secrets of their father,” neither ever spoke to him again.
Partly because I rarely fought him, he never attacked me the way that he did them, so I remained—to a consciously calibrated degree—sensitive to the wounded love that motivated his anger. I never felt the need for an apology from him, or to offer him forgiveness. I accepted that he loved me, had done the best that he could, and that he was sick. To the end, being right remained more important to him than being happy. He taught me how to work; but is wife taught me how to love working. In the end, I kept in touch with him because I promised her that I would, and because not doing so would have made me feel guilty, and I didn’t have what it took to accept that burden. We spoke on the phone. To avoid emotional manipulation, I’d hang up when he turned ugly. Conversations could be short.
It was with a weird sort of relief that my brother and I flew to Milwaukee to perform together the mundane tasks sons do for their dead fathers—burying him, gathering up whatever was worth saving in the house and readying it for sale. In the garage sat the last in a long line of used cars and a lot of familiar, rusting gardening equipment. When we managed to get into the house, it was like a visit with Dickens’ Miss Havisham. Enormous, ropy, decade-old webs hung from the soaring ceiling of the front room, in which buckets sat everywhere on sheets of plastic to catch the rain which had been working its way through the roof for years and in which cheap, remaindered furniture added after Mother's death cluttered the once elegant space. The kitchen whose floor we had scrubbed in our pajamas in the small hours as boys hadn't been used for anything except boiling noodles for what seemed a very long time. The pantry was empty. He had obviously been bathing in the sink. Between the kitchen and the library was an enormous, half-filled garbage can, which looked as though it had been placed there for our use in cleaning up after his demise. The third floor was deserted, the master bedroom with the huge bed at the foot of which Mother died was half-made, the sheet half-pulled off. It looked (and felt) like a crime scene. Once she had banished him, sometime in my early teens, he had never again slept there; he slept on a couch in the den, where he had clearly been living for years….
Father had converted what had been my bedroom into a sort of creepy storage room for teddy bears of various shapes and sizes, which he at some point had taken to giving out to strangers and acquaintances alike. There were dozens of them. The den, where he collapsed and died, was like the lair of some wounded animal. Stinking slightly of sweat, it was filled with broken electronic equipment, an empty Cutty Sark bottle on its side, and a single box filled with insurance papers. On a table sat a box containing what little he had elected to save of his and our family's history—letters, newspaper clippings, birth certificates, and a handful of faded photographs. He returned all my letters to me, tucked carefully back into the envelopes in which they had been sent. Like my other brother a few years before, who emptied his Springfield hotel room before taking a taxi to the hospital one last time, Father was determined to leave no Rosebuds sitting around for others to pick over. Nevertheless, it took us several days to cart away the garbage and the alarming number of broken vacuum cleaners and microwave ovens he had somehow accumulated, to knock the place into the barest shape before handing it over to a realtor who would then sell it after our departure “as is.”
Except for the books that he and Mother had acquired together in college, Father had thrown out or given away all his books and papers. How sad those books that remained looked, propped at crazy angles, cigarette-smoke-stained, moldy, some lolling open over the lip of the shelf like tongues. I fished a copy of Leaves of Grass from the shelf and paged through it. Their marginalia, the handwriting so personal, so recognizable, was a testament to the seriousness with which they pursued their dialogue with favorite poets. It was possible to read their hearts and minds flowering for the first time. He wrote in the margin on one side of a page of Keats’ On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, “Man cannot possess perpetual happiness; only momentary glimpses in intimation of beauty.” On the other side of the page, she answered, “Note how he makes nouns of adjectives & vice versa.” Further down the page, he wrote, “Every poet is contributing to a great poem; each poet is holding ground in his way—,” to which she replied, with two brisk down-strokes of her pen beside Keats’ lines, “Of course, this is the function of a poet’s role.” Really, it’s a love duet they’re singing, with Keats’ observations about Homer as the subtext. Beautiful. Keats had always been Father’s solace, and John Milton; Mother loved Browning, and Baudelaire. A volume of Baudelaire, with Mother’s corrections to the French translation interlaced with the published text, had a bookplate that read, “This book is the property of Gwen Johnson.” They continued to sing together after marrying: Father picked up an anthology of British and American poetry during the 60s the bookplate of which read, “Ex Libris Gwen and Earl Hagen—darling I knew you had to have this—Earl.” A copy of Dylan Thomas’ collected poems was inscribed by me, aged 13 in blue ballpoint pen, “For Mama—a gift from your children, Christmas, 1974.” I took all the volumes that remained. They now rest safely between their siblings on the shelves in the Big Victorian House, where they will snuggle safely for the rest of my life, thereafter to be handed on to my sons for safekeeping, my parents’ marginalia and those added by me read by them as though they were eavesdropping on our ghostly songs.
Mother's recipe box I rescued from the top shelf in the kitchen pantry and gave to my brother, who handed it down to his son. Finally, I caught the kitten; my brother's wife adopted it. We dealt with the realtor, the funeral home, and the local newspaper. Writing the obituary, I couldn’t remember the names of his siblings, or any facts about his life…. We had the remains cremated. There was the melancholy triage of Executorship. I arranged a memorial, to which neither of us went. Sometime later, a well-meaning relative sent a videotape of the service on which numerous familiar-looking people I have never met shared sad, kindly reminiscences of a man I never knew. When I told Father that “all we ever wanted was for you to be happy with us,” his last words to me, in January 2001, a few weeks before he died, were, “I probably should have gotten psychological help when you were boys, but there always seemed to be other, more important, things.”
This essay appeared in its original form in the Huffington Post. Click here to read it there.