I mark this date each year for two reasons.
The first is that one of the last communications I had from my father was an audiotape he made me back in 1990, two months before his death. He had had a heart attack in March, just after turning 60, and had vowed finally to turn his life around. To stop eating all the junk food, to finally quit smoking, return to cycling, which he had once loved. After the heart attack, his handwriting wasn’t very good, and his computer, which he had relied on for years for letters, wasn’t working right, so he found an old tape recorder and decided to audiotape me a letter. He said if it worked out all right, it might be a cool way to do letters going forward. Dad was always interested in technology, even older technology and I was thrilled to get the letter. I listened to it a few times over. It opened with, “Saturday, May 5th. Kind of a rainy looking day, rainy looking day.” He went on to talk about things happening in town, things going on with his family, friends, his girlfriend, who would come to find him on the bathroom floor after his stroke on July 3rd. She was worried she hadn’t heard from him and he wasn’t answering the phone and had to break in when she saw him on the bathroom floor. Unable to speak when she asked how he was doing while waiting for the ambulance, he made the gun motion to the side of his head like, ‘just kill me.’ Dad was a proud guy and wouldn’t have wanted to live impaired. And he didn’t. The blood thinners they had given him after the heart attack loosened the plaque from his arteries, but some apparently made it to the brain, and that’s just the breaks sometimes. He never regained consciousness in the hospital and died the next day, on July 4th.
I listened to that tape over and over again and guarded it as well as I could, but with something like 15 different moves to different apartments, including a cross-country move to Los Angeles and back in the late 90s, at some point, the tape just disappeared. The loss of it is something I’ve never been able to forgive myself for, but when I realized it was finally gone, I just had to let it go, and realize that all we are left with are our memories.
The second reason is that this is the date my divorce became final, years ago. I mark the day each year somehow. I try to go have a drink with friends. Last year, I had kind of a “celebration of freedom” and people flowed in and out all night at a bar where I had set up. It was wonderful and I felt loved and supported. I had waited so long for that day that I’ll never forget, and of course it was a very difficult morning. I couldn’t take the whole day off work and neither could my ex. We just met at the court and waited in almost total silence together on a bench for our turn in front of the judge. It was obviously strained. I tried to stay positive and polite.
The judge commended me for having done all the paperwork myself, which she said was impressive. More impressive, she said, was that we had drafted an agreement that was truly and wholly in the best interests of our child, with custody being shared completely equally at 50 percent, the amicable trading of different holidays, and no demand for anyone else’s money, other than what was necessary to pay for the child’s education, after-care, daycare, camp, etc. I felt a weird and sick sense of pride at having been good at doing something so difficult and complex and personal and that someone finally recognized the year-plus I had worked on trying to get this ream of papers together – and get it right – so that we could finally move forward as separately as would ever be possible, with the child tying us together forever on one level. It all went fairly smoothly and relatively quickly and then we went downstairs to stand in line together to split the cost of the fee for the proceedings. Then we both had to go to work. I cried in the elevator on the way down from the courtroom and he gave me a hug and said it would be ok, everyone would be ok. It was the last time we would ever hug each other like that, with all our history of 12 years together underneath it.
Late last night, my ex called. His father was having some kind of heart episode and I had to come pick up our son so he could go tend to the matter. This is how we started our marriage, ironically. We got married, the next week we both got laid off from work, and fairly quickly when we couldn’t find new, good paying jobs, we had to move to a cheaper apartment. His dad had a near-fatal heart attack the night before moving day, and he had to go spend the week sleeping in hospitals while I handled the move. Medical advances have bought the old man 13 more years, but it doesn’t look like he has a lot more left in him, and he’s not mentally able to handle paperwork so the ex had to go handle things.
I was happy to go get my sleepy, disoriented child, and as I drove him home, I tried to think of some positive things I remembered about my ex-FIL’s life as I may be put to task to convey these things if I have to deliver bad news. I put my personal feelings aside about him and his family and tried to think of how I will position this man for my son. He was a Navy veteran, his grandpa, I will tell him, and how and why that is honorable. He raised three children and was married for more than 50 years to the same woman. He got a Master’s Degree through the GI bill and enjoyed watching sports and debating politics.
I cleaned yesterday afternoon, and did the laundry and all the dishes, and even had enough food in the fridge that putting together a packed breakfast and lunch for my son wasn’t difficult. It’s like I knew someone was coming over.
It sounds like there will be more things to tend to today, whether the man is able to eke out some more months of life or isn’t, and I will probably have my son tonight as well.
So, tonight’s marking of this anniversary date will be me celebrating the best product of that union: my son. We’ll probably get a pizza, and watch some TV. I’ll talk to him about his paternal grandfather, whether he remains alive longer or not, and about my father as well. And I will have a tall, strong glass of bourbon.