Of course, parents and their children have a connection. Conception, birth, diaper changing – these all build ties between progeny and their progenitors. But there is still something between my father and I that makes me feel like there is something deeper, something beyond a generation and the generated. When I think of all the forces pulling us apart, it makes me reconsider, even more, the forces that brought us together.
My father walked out of the house in which I first knew him when I was 4-1/2 years old. It was a second marriage for both my father and my mother – a tad atypical for solid-middle-class in 1963. But, both had had badly ending first marriages, involving infidelity and alcoholism, and both just wanted their own happy endings. They got me, instead – and I think that was enough, for awhile. But personalities have a way of asserting themselves, and neither of my parents had any shortage of personality.
So, Dad leaves. Mom, my two brothers (sons from her first marriage) and I move 1,200 miles away, to Duxbury, a gorgeous little waterfront town about 35 miles south of Boston. For two years, life was grand. Imagine the town Wally and the Beav lived in, with a harbor a half-block away and a barrier beach upon which you could spend an entire summer – accessed by, I kid you not, the longest wooden bridge in the U.S. It was heaven, entirely navigable by an 8-year-old on bicycle, and as imagined without fathers.
Almost a month after I turned 8, on the day my brother Jeff turned 15, my mother died of breast cancer that mestastasized into lung cancer and killed her 2 months shy of her 45th birthday. Her devastated parents became my surrogates. An extraordinary couple, they had met in 1910, when she was 12 and he was 14; and my grandmother always said that, at the moment she met Earle Clark, she knew – that man would be her husband.
And that’s when my father re-entered the picture, because, when she knew she was dying, my mother told my father he’d have to step back up to the plate – injured reserve, no longer, he’d have to be a Dad.
To take a step out of this picture – if my mother hadn’t gone through a pack and a half of Parliaments every day, if some little cell in her breast had just stopped reproducing, if the 1967 surgeons had somehow, surprisingly for that time, gotten it right, it might have been high school graduation before I’d seen my father again.
It’s hard for people now, in 2009, to remember what divorce, old-school-style, was like, but, back then – dads just went away. They paid child support when they could, they drank like fishes, they remarried, and they figured moms were just the ones who were supposed to take care of the kids. From the time we moved away from St. Louis, in the summer of 1965, until my mother died in October 1967, I received no phone calls, no birthday cards, no Christmas presents, no reminders of a biological – at least – relationship from my father. And then in late October/early November 1967, a month after my mother had died, two weeks after I’d moved to live with my grandparents in a rural, Mississippi River community 20 miles south of St. Louis, I met my father, again, along with his third wife.
So, that’s one karmic reconnection.
I end up getting transferred again, to live with him and my new stepmother. We live our life. He travels for his sales business. I become the albatross around my stepmother’s neck. As an adult, I even worked for him as an employee for a couple years. At age 45, I’m visiting St. Louis from Chicago for a brief weekend, before a Thanksgiving trip to Ireland for a trip to visit dear friends. Dad’s moved into an apartment. My stepmother is in a nursing home. Dad and I are at the old homestead picking up a few things, when he grabs his arm, then his chest, falls onto the sofa and passes out. The phone’s already been disconnected and the nearest neighbor is a quarter-mile away. My cellphone’s 9-1-1 works! The dispatcher talks me through getting him flat, massaging his chest, keeping converation going even though he’s passed out, as the EMTs make their way to the house.
A six-way bypass later, and he’s back on his feet.
Another step out of the picture. If I hadn’t decided to be a mensch and help with the last odds and ends that weekend, and stayed home to pack for my trip, and if I hadn’t had my cellphone with me – I still really don’t like carrying the things – he’d have been on his own, passed out in an unheated house. The doctors later said the event had not been a heart attack, but I don’t know how he ever would have had the strength to make it to the car if he’d ever come around again.
Flash forward 3-1/2 years. Dad has seemed to do alright on his own, in his little Chesterfield, Mo., apartment – until I get a phone call at 10 a.m. one Friday morning in February 2008 from a St. Luke’s Hospital ER nurse. He’s fallen getting out of bed, is severely dehydrated, seems to be bleeding internally – and there’s no way he should be living on his own. A few serious conversations with my sisters and with him later, it’s decided – he’s going to live with me. The man who walked out of the house in the fall of 1963 walked into my house in March 2008 – a circle of sorts.
I don’t believe in “purposes” or predestination. But I do find a personal truth in the idea of connections that exist for reasons out of our understanding. Kurt Vonnegut developed a religion called Bokononism is his book Cat’s Cradle, which had as a central premise the notion of a group of people called a “karass”, who, often unknowingly, work together to do God’s will. It’s sort of like that notion that the movement of a butterfly’s wings can change the weather half a world away. Yes, this is a satirical novel intended to poke fun at religion and its dictates, but the idea of the karass still resonates with me. What will Dad and I might be working to fulfill is way beyond my comprehension, but there certainly does seem to be some sort of binding tie – or rubber band – that keeps pulling us together.