Dad left us last June. I stayed by his side for his last seven days and held his hand as he started to cool. Mom was in the family room trying to keep it together with the help of a close friend. She couldn’t handle Dad’s plunge and final burn-out. I couldn’t either but I had no choice. It was time to grow up in a way I had avoided my entire life.
After the funeral I spent another week with my mother and then flew home to Southern California and into my wife’s arms. I had changed and she immediately felt it. Walking Dad to his personal cliff and then to his final leap was intensely surreal, as I explained in this blog when I restarted it after his death. So in a round-about way, Dad encouraged me in ways he never had before about something he knew nothing about. He had no idea I’m a writer, nor does Mom or any other family member.
“Why?” you ask. One reason. My parents and sister were characters in my novels and I’m not sure they’d be pleased about that. I didn’t write them as horrible villains. I wrote them as who they are and if they weren’t that way they wouldn’t be as interesting, and in fact, inspiring.
So now that I’m again visiting Mom, I’m writing about her once more. I bet she’s a lot like yours. She wants me to be happy and she wants to be happy herself. I’m supposed to make that happen by helping her dispose of Dad’s stuff – all those things he never threw away or gave away.
Dad was an “Early Adopter” way before anyone invented that term. Back then, we just called him a Shopper who acquired the latest new everything; the coolest watch or tiny Minox spy camera, or the first home computer with mechanical switches, or transistor radios, miniature TV’s, reel-to-reel tape recorders or that fully loaded Swiss Army knife with the pliers and magnifier.
There was a downside to all of this. His acquisitions did not apply to me, my sister or Mom. Dad didn’t feel compelled to buy us any cool shit unless he had to. And when he did, it was usually the bottom of the middle-of-the-line, or even the top of the bottom-of-the-line. When it came to himself, Dad sprung for the middle of the top-of-the-line. Nothing in our house was ever the top of the top-of-the-line…except for one thing. And after Dad retired it for its newer replacement, I wanted that very special ornament.
“Do you ever wear it anymore?”
“You’re not getting it. Not until I’m dead.” And so I waited…and waited…and waited.
Now Dad is ashes in a box. Now I have his Jaeger-LeCoultre watch. And now that I’m visiting Mom again, she wants me to look through all of his stash and take everything else I’ve ever wanted.
I do not want anything else. I just wanted that watch back in June. Not because I really had to have it, but because twenty, thirty years ago I really did want it. Back then I would have felt so proud to wear my father’s status timepiece. I would have shown it to all my friends, impressing everyone with my 1958 Swiss alarm watch, shinny gold with two wind spindles and a brown crocodile strap.
As a thirty or forty year-old, that’s what I would have done. As a sixty-six year-old, nothing happens like that. I have worn Dad’s LeCoultre occasionally since last June. I’ve shown it to few men who understand its $2500 collector’s value. No one is that impressed. They all have their special watches.
Sadly, my watch is not that special to me. It was never a gift. It was apathetically taken.
This morning Mom asked me again to pick stuff from Dad’s clothes. Wanting his things out fast and final tells you something about my parents’ relationship. Mom has finally claimed their bedroom closet, territory Dad staked out the moment he walked into the new house fifty-two years ago. It was a small space so Dad took it all, sending Mom to the closets downstairs. None of this info made it into my eulogy or anyone else’s. This was my real dad, a guy I didn’t respect. Still, Mom wants me to have nice thoughts about my father and she hopes wearing his coats, shirts, sweaters, socks and ties will make that happen. It won’t.
The only Dad I want to remember is the one I got to know in the last week of his life – the man who finally humbled himself enough to gratefully thank me for my help instead of demanding parental respect.
I don’t blame him anymore for the distant father he was. But I can’t conjure warm and fuzzy feelings about him either. I can’t get sentimental about a father who didn’t want to spend time with his young son. What Mom doesn’t understand, is that all the things she wants me to take are the same things Dad refused to share with me when he was alive. And when I see those things, I remember that.
My wife is with me on this Mom Visit and she told me what to do – accept Dad’s things. Make Mom happy. My wife leaves today. I stay on to clean house and then fly back Wednesday. Complying to the prescribed agenda means buying a second suitcase packed with stuff I don’t want so I can check it on the plane for an additional $25 and then wait an extra fifteen minutes in LAX airport Baggage Claim. I’m doing all of this to validate a lie. Last week I wrote about telling the truth and how I could argue that there are times when the truth isn’t appropriate. This is one of those times.
Here’s something even more paradoxical. As you now know, Dad never threw anything out. Whatever it was, to my father it had great value and no matter what, he needed to keep it. Consequently over the past few years, as Dad sunk deeper and deeper into senility, I collected all his radios, cameras, stereo gear, headphones, speakers, all of that; and I boxed it up in categories and stacked it neatly into the garage. Even though Dad didn’t care about it anymore, he once did and I felt I should honor that directive.
Carrying out my father’s wishes was my way of holding his control in place even though he had none. It’s something I want for myself so I did it for him. I made sure he kept all his gear from the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties. It was pretty neat, actually – a time capsule. Someone might want it someday, maybe my sister or her kids.
Two months ago Mom had a seriously bad flood in the garage. All that museum stuff I had meticulously boxed up was water ruined forever. In two days I have to throw it all out. I don’t even want to look at it.
One of the last things Dad said to me when I asked him if I could comb his hair, he said, “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
None of his boxed stuff that I tried to make matter, matters anymore. None of the stuff in his drawers and closets that once mattered to me, matters anymore. What does matter to everyone who knew him, was the dignity and courage he brought to his own death. Still, in a few years when we too die, even Dad’s last days of courage won’t matter.
And that’s why I will lie to my mother and tell her I want Dad’s stuff to make her happy. That’s why I gave my nephew my own favorite watch, a 1970 black-face self-winding chronograph Seiko Dad gave me for my college graduation on his return from Japan.
So in reflection, I did get the big Daddy Prize I wanted, when I wanted it. And now I’ve passed it on at the right time in the right place. Now my nephew in Germany is proudly showing all his friends a rare watch my father gave me when I was twenty-two. I really feel good about that and so does my Berlin family.
Thanks Dad. You helped me to do the right thing.