In the last years of his life, my dad and I had a tradition.
Most nights, on a long commute home, I’d call him. The routine was nearly always the same. The phone would ring: four, five, six times. He wouldn’t answer.
Then the machine would kick in and I’d hear my sister’s voice on the machine. The one who claims to live in Manhattan and come home to take care of Pop. In reality, she was living and smoking and eating and crying in her old bedroom every night. She wasn’t going anywhere.
I would talk to Pop while the machine message droned on. “Pop! Pop, pick up! It’s Tommy! It’s your son.”
After time, I’d stop pleading and just start telling him about my day, my kids, what was new, and that I was still pulling a paycheck.
Very, very occasionally, he’d pick up the phone. About once every two weeks. And we’d talk.
How was he feeling (“What do you want me to say”), the job (“good enough, Pop, but I don’t trust anyone”), the kids (“Grace gets As on her report card and all these little plusses”), the dogs (“they miss you”), and Keith’s therapy.
Keith has high anxieties and hates himself. At times he’s sullen, silent, or suicidal. Pick the day. Other times he might smile during dinner.
Pop seemed to understand Keith’s moods better than I did. I think he’d seen more. He worked w/ a lot of different kinds of firemen and corner boys in the FDNY. Some desperate, some down. Not everyone gets out of the fire.
Pop lost two wives to cancer. Before and after their deaths, he had his rages. His wide-eyed depression. His obsessions (“these are the wrong FORKS”), bargaining and squeezing hope till it burst between his fingers. He lashed out at the people he knew wouldn’t fight back. He didn’t lash out at me.
He’d ask me, How’s Keith doing?
He didn’t understand ADHD and therapists. He didn’t understand gender fluidity and transsexuality. He believed homosexuality was a sin against God. The Church told him so. But he saw nothing wrong with Keith and believed God was lucky to have him.
“Just tell him it’s going to be all right. Tell him I said that.”
And that was it. He’d beg off the phone to do something else, anything else. Our calls were maybe 5 minutes.
Dad’s been dead now nearly a year. And almost every night on my drive home, I think about calling him. Which is absurd; hell, I’m the one who paid his phone bill and cut off the service.
I’ve decided to just imagine – sometimes – he’s sitting in my passenger seat in The Subaru. Driving alongside me on the half-hour commute home, cutting off Lexuses on the toll road.
But the dad I talk to isn’t an old man. Oh no.
Pop died at 85. The last three years he couldn’t eat food by mouth and was living on Similac.
He was bitter at the end. He knew he couldn’t call Obama a nigger around me, that I’d leave. So he’d call him a gorilla and I’d let it go.
Mom was 44 when she died, so dad was about 46.
The Pop I would conjure in my passenger seat is about 47 years old: Confounded by lingering misery. He was by himself. Dead wife, forever bills, and raising children on his own.
His friends empathized but didn’t relate. They never lost a spouse. No one divorced. Hell, no one even walked out.
Money’s not that much of a problem for a fire captain; just keep working the overtime. Women continued to come to him, bringing cake and attention. And he doesn’t trust any of them.
He’s angry and he’s strong. He’s vulnerable and quick to lash out. His steady life is gone. He remembers better days just five years earlier — days when the family was scrambling to get by and get along. He thinks these were the good times.
This Pop is a guy I can talk with.
Our Subaru conversations aren’t much different than our phone calls. He’ll talk in four- or five-word sentences. Grunts sometimes. Expresses himself w/ a clenched jaw or tight shoulders. He looks like he wants to reach through the windshield and strangle the Volvo driver. This guy I understand. This is a guy I can talk with.
At some point dad will say he’s got to go now, his dinner’s getting cold. And I don’t have to turn my head to know he’s gone.
Pay the toll. Switch lanes. Go home. Good times.