The Day My Father Died
by Reviewer Rob
My dad died 25 years ago this month. It was early Saturday morning on December 6th, 1980, when my mom and her friend who was staying with us to help through this time woke me up to get me out of bed and tell me. He was in the VA Hospital at UCSD and had been expected to go at any time, but still you never really expect something like that when you’re 16 years old. Or at least you don’t know what to expect. Even so I’d felt ready for his passing for a while. Now, after a lifetime of chronic alcoholism that had wrecked his health, other illnesses and occurrences had culminated in a final year of cancer treatments that finished him off.
It was 3 a.m. but I stayed up and hugged my mom as she sobbed, said nothing really, what was there to say?, and then went back to bed. The day earlier my mom had told me that I should make a trip over to the hospital and see him since it wouldn’t be very long now. I drove out there and went up to the cancer ward or where they had him and asked for his room. My mom was pretty much seizing up emotionally by this time as she was faced with the prospect of losing my dad, and I’d been opting to go to see him alone since it was too hard to deal with mom. I was their only child, and the whole thing was always a lot to bear. Mom would just get so angry at everything all the time.
One time in that final year after the cancer diagnosis I was taking my dad’s car to the beach early in the morning before sunrise, going surfing at Cardiff or Windansea with a couple of friends. I was on Black Mountain Road, coming from Rancho Panasquitos where we lived, when I took a corner wrong and crashed, rolling three and a half times down a steep embankment off of a sharp turn on what was the dirt road in 1980. Even though he was in treatment dad still worked as a bar manager but that was a day my mom didn’t have time scheduled at her real estate office, so I asked to borrow his car since it had more room for boards, and he would take hers. Amazingly none of us in the car were really injured. Although the car rolled three times even our surfboards were alright. After the crash we hitchhiked a ride back to one of our houses from a passing truck and when we got to my buddy’s place and calls were immediately made one of our girlfriends called my house and told my mom what had happened. Mom of course freaked out and called dad, who was probably opening one of the bars he managed in San Diego, either Bernie’s Hof Brau downtown, The Anchor Inn in Old Town, or The Iron Maiden in Clairemont Mesa. He called to find me at my friend’s house. I felt so ashamed; I had been so careless and crashed his car, and here he had cancer. My buddy looked pale when he said it was my dad and handed me the phone. I knew he’d be pissed but to my surprise he only seemed to want to hear that I was OK. When I told him yes, but dad the car is wrecked, he said, “I’m just glad you’re OK.”
Now while I performed this duty and drove to the hospital I wished there were some words I could utter to make the pain go away and make things better for him.
By this time my father had had a stroke while in treatment and was wasted away and incoherent. I guess they didn’t believe in morphine for dying men at the VA or something because he was clearly suffering terribly. I tried to give him a drink of water from the cup with a straw on the table next to his bed, but he just looked up and at me sideways, his big blue eye registering me for just a moment, and then shook his head away from the water I tried to offer. I told him I loved him and I said my goodbyes.
I knew my mom’s eyes were hazel, and mine had turned out green, but I remember being startled that I never really saw before how blue my dad’s eyes were until that moment.
Afterward I went to the elevator and out the front doors of the VA, past a row of American flags and out to the parking lot. Trying to collect my thoughts or get my mind off of all this I drove to the beach to go surfing. The day was grey and cold, and the waves weren’t any good. Even so I surfed Black’s Beach that night until the sun set.
A couple of days later it rained. That night, when the announcement came on the radio that John Lennon had been shot, it was early evening and I was driving on Mira Mesa Boulevard. Right after the announcement finished the headlights to my Datsun pickup went out, something they did due to recurring faulty wiring in that truck. It didn’t affect the radio so as I searched in and around the glove compartment for my flashlight and some spare fuses I listened to a Beatles or Lennon song. I noticed how cold the night was, and how dark it was out there. I was 16 years old and all I could look for was some better days ahead but what was foremost in my mind at that moment was, “Fuck – first my dad dies and leaves me to deal with my neurotic mother, and now this. This sucks.”
Every year when the anniversary of John Lennon’s sudden murder rolls around and all the feelings of celebrity nostalgia come out in the media, they always get mingled for me with a more real sense of loss, one that makes the grief of others and the ways they choose to deal with it a bit easier for me to understand.
Today I don’t know if I can say that time has really lessened the grief of my dad’s passing, but it has made me realize what was lost that much more. RR