He's wasn't around for cake because just like that nearly paleolithic Saturday Night Live skit, he's still dead. Dad didn't die too long ago, so we still get misty when anybody brings him up. We try never to bring him up because who wants to be miserable remembering the sonofabitch, but sometimes the calendar does it for us and there's no choice. People can't un-remember things very well. The birthdays and anniversaries still come. The day he fucking died is a day I promised I'd never remember, but I've got November 10th etched in my head now like some kind of sick festival.
I called my mom and asked her how she was, to see if she was getting suicidal with the grief again--like I could do anything about it from out here in fucking California.
She talked about getting old. When you're in pain you can deflect some of it by getting philosophical. That's what she was doing. She told me that some parts of getting old really suck, like having to deal with more dead people every day. But she still looks at herself in the mirror in the morning in complete awe. She says that inside her head she's the same person she was when she was 20, the year that I was born. The face doesn't match who she is. She says it's like she stayed the same and the whole world changed around her, including her body. She wants to grab everybody and scream, "It's still me in here. I can't help it that I look this old."
If I was with her I'd hug her and take her out somewhere for a drink. But I can't because I decided to escape the terrible darkness my home had become for me. Like the song said: "it's a death trap, a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we're young."
So I did.
I'm from New Jersey. I can admit that now without shame because here at the beginning of the 21st century it's cool to be from New Jersey. You got your Tom Cruise and Bruce Springsteen, your Kevin Smith and your, gag, Jon Bon Jovi, and all those other denizens of the Garden State that put it on the map of places alright to be from.
When I was a kid New Jersey was full of melmac and people who said youze fuckin guys, so that every day was like one eternal Robert DeNiro movie. The college I went to is in a town that was boldly lambasted by television comedy shows. Piscataway. It's a rather noble Native American name, but it was a city full of people who asked for a cup of cawfee and lived in the shadow of the great and mighty Oz called Manhattan, which everybody called the city to distinguish it from all other places not worthy of the article as adjective.
The city is where I was born, but New Jersey is where I lived all those years things happen to you. New Jersey is where life filled me with things to do and the energy to do them. That's where I drove my first car, my first boat, flew my first airplane. New Jersey is where I fell in love, lost my virginity, got married and had the first kid. New Jersey was the state address of my first house. I had to leave New Jersey because I thought it would kill me. I thought my family was smothering me with endless cheek pinches and dinner table arguments about things nobody knew enough about to be right.
Russell Baker said that old people are always harkening back to the good old days, not because it was better back then--dear lord, no. Back then we didn't have as many antibiotics and people didn't live as long or as happily. The reason everybody likes the good old days is because they remember being younger.
So now it's Dad's birthday and I'm thinking back to my home in New Jersey. Thinking back to playing in garage bands and gigging in run-down clubs on the shore, pronounced sho-wa, by the citizens of Sea Bright and Monmouth Beach. I'm thinking of roaming shopping malls, chasing girls and kissing them in the back seat of a white Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme while they keep slapping my hands away.
I'm think it was good to be a kid in New Jersey. I would wish it on my own kids if we didn't live out here where it never snows.
And the truth is I miss my father. He was a crazy bastard. A stocky, muscular, drill sargeant of a guy who told stories of beating up punk officers when he was in the army, and that's why he was court marshalled a couple of times. It pissed him off I couldn't summon the violence he could when we had to protect something. It was a lion thing. Big lion teaching the cub how to scare away the jackals. So when neighborhood kids picked fights with me and I ran away, he'd yell at me to get out there and kick the living shit out of them. To which I cried, which made him frustrated. So he'd just hug me and tell me I'd have to figure out out for myself, eventually.
My dad and I were kids together. He was only 21 when I was born, Mom only 20. I remember his 30th birthday like it was yesterday, and his 40th, and his 50th. What did he know about raising me that didn't come from instinct and the guidance of parents who were barely 20 years older than him? He pretty much knew the food went in one end, shit came out the other, and everything in the middle was the part of life that brings you adventures.
My dad was the strongest guy I knew. I knew he could beat up any dad on the block. I knew he could run faster and throw a football farther than anyone. He played football in college, back when they wore leather helmets, was proud as hell of me for making first-string on my high school team. And the truth was I really didn't like playing football beyond getting to wear the jersey to class, which got me girl flesh. I only played because it made me feel like a man about to inherit a nation when Dad cheered me for sacking the quarterback.
He was the first one to the hospital when my first daughter was born. Carrying a huge bouquet of flowers and balloons he couldn't see around to walk. And when my poor wife finally got to sleep after 18 hours of labor and delivery, he took me out to lunch. I hadn't slept in about 30 hours so was reasonably irrational, and complaining I'd never felt so completely useless in my entire life than watching my wife in terrible pain and not being able to do anything about it.
So he told me stories of my birth. Of what he was thinking when they handed me to him for the first time. Dreams he had that never came true, and all the ones that did. Everything in life that terrified him, and what being my father meant to him. He told me his life had never been the same since. That it was wonderful. That these were the things that happened we would never understand, but could only live through and enjoy them the best we could. Sometimes you have no choice--is what he would tell me. "It's good, it's bad, you live."
Somehow my dad got non-hodgkins lymphoma. There's only about a 10% survival rate on that disease, and even then it gets you eventually through something else. It's a treacherous, withering cancer that turned my father from someone whose aura knocked people out of rooms, to the ghost of someone who used to be.
Dying was miserable business for my father. He never accepted it. Was bitter the whole way down. It wasn't so much that he fought death, but cursed the lousy luck that cancer struck him two weeks after his company went public, he cashed out, and retired on his earnings. Just when he was ready to live the big easy, he found out he was going to die. It pissed him off. If God had been there the day they gave him a coupla years to live, I'm sure my dad would have trashed him. He was strong. I know he could have kicked Christ's sorry ass right out of Jersey.
I told him I would move back from California to New Jersey so I could be close, so his grandkids could be closer. He said, fuggedaboudit, and told me to do what I had to do independent of him. He didn't want to be the thing that forced my life from one direction to another.
So I stayed in California. I flew back as frequently as I could, which wasn't much. Called him nearly every day. Tracked his medical progress. Interpreted all the test results through the rosiest glasses I could summon. Became a little fucking sunbeam of hope.
But in the end you just die. God was not about to make an exception for him, especially after being threatened that way.
The last time I saw him was the last day of his life, it turns out. I'd flown in from the west coast with my oldest daughter. I didn't want to go alone. Something about piling all that grief on my shoulders made me scared, so I brought her. I knew I wouldn't bawl my eyes out if she was there. She knows I'm the strongest father on earth. She knows I can bend railroad tracks, take chunks out of steel-belted radials with my teeth, see through solid rock. Beat up any father on the block.
We spent a couple of days in New Jersey. Dad wasn't conscious much, so I took her around. Showed her where she was born. The house we lived in when she was an infant. The places I took her mother when we were doing the courtship ritual. We even had lunch in the place I proposed marriage to my wife.
Sitting in that restaurant in Highlands, she took it all in as if it were part of a strange, distant Robert DeNiro movie. And I told her about my life and my dreams. The ones that came true and the ones that didn't. I told her that it wasn't always going to be easy, and we weren't going to understand everything that happened, but it was what we had. She'd made my life wonderful, and I was really happy she was my kid.
When we left for the airport to go home, my dad was awake. He was sitting in a wheel chair. The cancer had shrunken him. He was shorter. Thinner. His skin was translucent so you could see the veins underneath. His hair had fallen out from the chemotherapy and there were only tufts of left in random spots, and there were big bruises on his arms from the endless blood tests and IVs. He looked like he'd been attacked by wolves.
I kissed him on the forehead and told him I'd be back soon. Next week if I could. My daughter kissed him. He looked at me as if he didn't believe I'd be back but I promised him I would.
He said, "Pal, you come back, only one of us will be here."
So I told him to stop talking that way and we left. My daughter cried on the plane all the way home, so I didn't have to.
By the time I got to my house the phone call had already come. I repacked immediately, got on the red eye east, and went home to New Jersey to bury my dad.