That’s how I had to answer the phone when Dad was still on active duty in the Air Force. Even my mother did. For his part, when I entered the house in Tucson the night before he died, all he could manage from the bed was a softly croaked “Johnny…” and that was all I heard him say before he heaved and gasped himself to death on the potty seat the next morning. A lot of people go that way. That last little effort to move, you know. The last few molecules of oxygen.
A year or two before, we’d been visiting in Tucson and no one knew about the cancer. But as usual the tension was horrific. I borrowed a bike to get out of the house that night and he asked if he could come. Drunk by then and close to tears, he followed closely as I pedaled through the darkened streets and sobbed out when we slowed to turn around, “Johnny, no one knows what hell it is to be living with that woman…” I didn’t say a word. What son would or could?
No deathbed promises, then. No whispered benedictions or professions of love. The old man wanted to pee, we got him onto the seat beside the bed, and ninety seconds later the last bubble of drool between his lips refused to pop and he was gone. After I broke down screaming “No, no, no!” and pounding the pillow with my fist, my brother Bill and I and Alvaro (my sister Mary’s first husband) wrestled the lifeless sack of jello back onto the bed. It didn’t even look like him. I closed his eyes, surprised they stayed that way. Half an hour later, the funeral home attendants zipped him into a dark green body bag and wheeled him on a gurney down the street in full broad daylight to the ambulance parked discreetly half a block away. I peered out through the blinds knowing this was it, as close as I would ever get, and watched until they drove away, braking at the corner before turning left and vanishing forever.
The gaps in this man’s fathering of me were deep and wide. At critical moments in my upbringing, he set time bombs that all but killed me decades later, over and over again. He never said he loved me though I have to think he did. He never really touched me, either, not one time an arm around my shoulder while he told me I could do it, just get in there and be brave. When I couldn’t catch a ball or ride a bike at first, he turned away. My straight A’s in high school didn’t seem to matter. I never heard him say that he was proud of me and learned to distrust happy paths that didn’t fit the mold.
And yet he was a man and father in his way. He worked hard and provided for his family. He loved to fly and I was proud of that. He had a soft side, too, appreciated comedy, played ukulele, some guitar, and learned accordion in Germany. I know that he looked out for me at times and never told me. He taught me how to bait a hook and clean a fish, which way to turn a screw, and how to make a whistle from a willow branch. One time in Abilene, Texas, after a rare late night winter storm, he rousted me from bed to take us out on the deserted streets to show me how to drive on snow. To this day I remember several times a week his admonition to never back up more than absolutely necessary… These things may sound banal but they are golden. There are probably grown men and women alive today because I didn’t run them over in a parking lot when they were young.
My wife says all the time how much she misses her mother and father. In my case I can’t say I ever do, aside from honoring the elemental nature of relationships that formed me. The rage is mostly gone, at least. There has to be a reason for my karma and what I came into this world to learn. I’m self-aware enough at this point that I could almost be a father, too—won’t happen now, though, will it?—but I can say, “I love you, Dad,” and mean it, here, today.