Year(s): Fall 1970 and Spring 1999
Age(s): 6 and 34
Place(s): San Diego and San Francisco, California
I realize the title reads like some fucked up re-write of Harry Potter:
– or some other such nonsense.
But this is the story of my father’s passing. As he was epic in my life, his passing was epic in how it was felt by my family, too.
So let’s get the odd part of this post’s title out of the way, shall we? The Doodlebug, you see, wasn’t some strange contraption or odd freak of nature we had trolling around the house, though my mother probably would raise her hand to contest that last statement. The Doodlebug was the family’s name for a car my father wanted to restore, a project that never saw completion. It was a constant work-in-progress.
It was a Studebaker. A classic 1952 Champion Starlight Studebaker, much like the one below. Mom is looking for a picture for me and I’ll update this post once we find it. It’s worth seeing it in all of its patched up glory.
It was a four-door that my father whacked out the middle part (yes, down to the driveshaft) to make it a two-door coupe. So for the majority of its life, spotted grey primer dominated its look and trailer park appeal. The undercoat was a coppery rustic (rust?) brown. My mother argues that she remembered it being two-tone sea-foam green. I don’t recall green at all. It always appeared to be a dark horse of a car. To be honest it was hard to tell what the original color was because of the patchwork primer.
The interior was a mismatch of original production work, dotted with rust here and there. Luan board, easily manipulated to a curved surface, was cut to replace the missing interior of the doors with the vague hope that they would be upholstered at some point. They never were. My father dreamed on the big side and could equate himself quite well with the dreaming, the planning and even the execution. But he was a broad stroke sort of creator or craftsman. Fine line and finesse didn’t come so easily to him. He had grand ideas, just not the finesse to make them happen as I knew he had them in his head. I remember the window handles lay on the floor and had to be picked up and applied to the cog sticking through a cut-out in the board along the door and spun at a steady rhythm so the damned thing wouldn’t come off in your hand. Most of it was a rusted out mess that he was lovingly trying to restore. My mother really didn’t pay much attention to his little project.
“Just make sure it doesn’t cost a lot” was the prevailing wind when it came to the Doodlebug in our lives.
The Doodlebug has real sentimental value in my mind and heart. It was emblematic of everything my father was. He wanted to be more than his humble beginnings. He was always trying to better himself. He didn’t have much to work with in the beginning. He was a kid from the Rez, who struck out at an early age to the sights and sounds of the big city of San Diego when his older brother enlisted in the Navy. It always sounded slightly romanticized when you say it like that – he struck out with his older brother to find the world and himself. That sort of thing. The truth of the matter was Dad had a very angry streak in him in his youth. On the eve of his older brother’s leaving for San Diego, Dad got into a fight and severely beat another boy. My grandfather told my father to go with his brother, better to get him off the Rez and out of Washington altogether. So, not so much a wanderlust adventure as it was fleeing from a life that was slowly driving my father to an early ruin.
I thank my grandfather countless times in my thoughts for having the foresight to get his son out of Dodge when the time came. It couldn’t have been an easy thing to do.
How my father and mother met was, like our lives would be from their marriage forward, happenstance, luck and a tremendous amount of love. Heavy on the first two with the third making up for lost time in a big way once their wedding vows were exchanged.
Mom was a dyed-in-the-wool card-carrying good Catholic girl. Dad didn’t have religion, but converted to Catholicism when things got serious between them to appease Mom’s family. I asked my mom about my father at some point in my life, probably more than once, I’m sure. What drew her to him? I mean, we grew up hearing the stories of their courtship, and there were some doozies in the mix, but when I knew what my attraction to other boys meant to me, I wanted to hear what a woman went through in falling in love with a man. Her queer son was doing a little comparison note taking. Turns out, it wasn’t much different from what I saw in men and boys.
But there was no better person to ask than my mother. Her answer, laced with the love that I saw blossom across her face with a look that I could only imagine must have been on her face after they shared their first kiss, was rather interesting and not quite what I expected. But it did sort of shock and intrigue me. After all, if she had not met and fallen love with my father, she thought she’d go into a nunnery, a cloistered one at that.
Knowing that their marriage almost wasn’t gave my life perspective. I had to embrace the randomness of how I came to be: how many things had to fall into place to get to where I could contemplate that, quite literally, blew my young gayboy mind. I was a pre-teen when I asked her about what Dad was like when they met.
“I remember the first time I saw him. Your Uncle Sonny had rented the other side of the duplex your grandparents owned. We lived on the other side of that duplex. I was walking home from school and, wham-mo, they came flying out the front door wrestling with each other. They hit the lawn and continued to wrestle without a break in their horse play. I remember looking at him and thinking: show off.”
Show off! Okay, Mom. Seems to me Dad had the right of it. It sounded like the classic case that Dad was the right “bad boy” to come along and tempt my mother’s eye and heart. To hear my father say it, he saw her for a moment, and continued to wrestle with his older brother. But he said he knew in that moment that it was her. But my father was like that, absolute about things when it came to him. He just knew what to do, where to go, how to take care of whatever it was. It didn’t happen all the time, but often enough that there was a thread throughout his life that he could point to that said that was the case. Remember, he knew when my mother was pregnant with me before she did (he told her), said he knew it from the moment they made love. He knew I was on my way. He also knew I was a boy, and that I would be gay. His patience to watch each of them unfold over the years, as he had foretold to my mother the following morning, was truly astounding. He wasn’t always so patient with things (crowds would drive him to distraction in his later years) but with certain things he had the patience of a Bonsai master (funny thing, that – he actually tended to a Bonsai at one point in our lives). My father had a quiet but purposeful core to him. He could level a look that would stop us kids cold.
Before I give you her answer to my query of what attracted her to him – when did that spark for her – you have to understand, another way we were very different from other families around us was that the concepts of love and sex were expressed without reservation. My parents shared their lives in very real ways. Warts n’ all. There was even one time early on in their dating when he was in the kitchen of her house and she thought she’d be coy and sit on his lap at their small breakfast table. When she went to get up, she farted for the first time in his presence and it was on his lap. She was so embarrassed that she wanted to run out of the room but he wasn’t having it. He just laughed and eased her away from any embarrassment she felt. We knew stories like that, too. We heard of their chaperoned dates in Tijuana, Mexico (just across the border from San Diego), back when going there was a fun night out. This was before it became the cheap, tawdry and corrupt place it is now. Back then, TJ had style with a light stroke of class.
But you see, those stories, the goofy mistakes and awkward moments they shared with us, made us realize what we had to look forward to when we got older. We grew up hearing their stories, stories of my parents’ romance, of how my father wooed the girl who wouldn’t give him the time of day because he was such a rough around the edges boy. It’s odd that I don’t write romance, because romance was very much front and center when it came to how we heard about the early beginnings of our little family. It was a constant in their marriage.
Often my father would buy my mother some doll – not a Barbie™, mind you – but a collector’s doll of some sort, that she’d been eyeing. He’d just leave it on the bed for her to discover after a long day at work. He was like that. He worked on their marriage. It was sacred and important to him. To all of us, really.
Mom did finally confess to my question of attraction. She was very clear about one point that drew her attraction: he had a rockin’ bod.
“Your father had a very muscular body when I met him. And the tiniest waist, 26 or 27″ at most, that tapered to very broad shoulders. A nice V-shape. I don’t know what he saw in me. I was such a dorky girl.”
I recall she would paint on a wrinkled nose when talking about herself. I got that. I do it, too, whenever I talk about myself. She clearly gushed like a high school girl with a hard crush about my father, which is saying something, given her Latino Catholic roots. Back in those days, girls didn’t talk openly about such things. My mother didn’t have much of a social life, not many friends she could socialize with after school, either. For her, it was school, followed by homework and then helping to rear her younger brother and sister (making dinner, cleaning the house) was her entire world. My father changed all of that, swept it away as surely as he swept her off her feet.
The thing is, rather than be repulsed by my parents’ love and their physical attraction to one another as so many kids are when the subject comes up about their parents, my brother, sister and I found it deeply instructive and endearing. We knew from an early age what our parents went through to bring us into this world. We had a real example of what we’re shooting for in our own adult relationships once we got there. My parents were high school (aged) sweethearts. Their marriage is the example I strive for every day in my own. Commitment was evident no matter where you turned in our home and laughter was its lifeblood. Even when we were screaming at each other in anger or distress, you could feel the love pouring out of each other in the argument. As my mother was always quick to remind me as I stewed after a heated debtate:
“If we argue with you, disagree with what you’re doing, just know it’s coming from a place of love. If we didn’t love you, if we didn’t care, we wouldn’t bother debating what you’re about to do.”
Not caring was the easy path. Caring and fighting with the other person because you didn’t want them to make a mistake they would regret, that’s a hard thing to follow. Many choose not to. My parents always got into the thick of things when it came to that. Unlike so many of my friends growing up, my family was on solid footing, even if we rattled windows doing it at times.
But we’ll come back to the car and my family’s unique way of doing things, including that Doodlebug, in a moment. The Doodlebug has significance precisely because of its patch-worked, mismatched, primed, rusted out, threadbare parts spoke volumes about us as a family, and in particular, my father.
But before I can tell the story of my father’s passing, I have to share the first one that ever happened in my life, the first time Death came calling.
The thing is, this one is dark. Beyond the pale dark. It’s one of the four milestone deaths that gave definition to my queer life.
Death is never an easy topic of conversation. Well, not for most. In my family, nothing was too sacred that it couldn’t be discussed. Death was a topic that would meander across our lips and minds. But when he decided to pay a visit, I was very young. It was unexpected, violent and completely horrifying. It colored how I see death to this very day. It is a violent act – death – the snuffing out of a light. Even if it’s a gradual slide to that distant horizon we’re all sailing toward, it’s still violent when it happens. It’s just how I see it.
This particular death is the reason why.
It’s the rending of a physical presence from emotive bone. The person it targets may go quietly into the night, but those of us left behind have to deal with the aftermath. That’s the violent landscape I speak of: the grief, unimaginable loss, and fiercely deep regrets. Nothing short of being enmeshed in that maudlin web.
Death first rattled my world in the form of a playmate I had at the age of five or six. Her name was Mickey and she was the daughter of a friend of my mother’s. How my mother became acquainted with her mother I can’t quite recall. I think they met while attending meetings to sell Sarah Coventry Jewelry. (My mother is even wearing a Sarah Coventry piece in the family picture above.)
This was back in the days when you did shit like ride in a car without a seat belt (yes, we did that, and survived). My mother used to take my sibs and me to her sales training meetings. They were held at some hall (like a VFW or something of that sort). Children weren’t allowed inside when the meeting was called to order so we would sit in the car (yeah, you did that, too, back then) and my mother would step out to check on us every so often while we played with our toys in the back of our Ford LTD station wagon. We met Mickey’s mother, Troy, and Mickey’s older brother, Billy. Billy was about four or five years older than I was.
Their family lived just a couple of blocks from where we lived. We were practically neighbors! The coolest part? We had gained new playmates.
My mother would take us over there from time to time.
Mickey was my age, maybe just a few months younger. She was a bright child. She loved to laugh and to make us laugh. I remember it was a bubbly laugh, one that begged you to join along. She was a slight, bird of a girl, with near-white blonde impeccably straight hair. The mental image that comes immediately to mind was of her in this periwinkle blue dress that was quite plain, with simple pearl white buttons and a simple collar (not too unlike the dress my sister is wearing in the family photo above). I remember she wore Keds™ shoes a lot, well, when she wasn’t wearing a certain pair of black patent leather shoes with big buckles that she liked.
I remember her mother, Troy, being very nice. She was a bit taller than my 5′ 3/4″ mother (that 3/4″ mattered to my mother). Mickey’s father, Bill, Sr., on the other hand, always seemed a dark figure to me. That’s a perception on my part and not from anything I’d overtly witnessed. The guy just never smiled much, at least not around the kids. From what I was told later, he and Troy divorced not too long after, partially due to his having an affair driven, no doubt, by the events I am about to relay.
But at the time I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was that we would go to their house to play while our mothers visited with one another. I remember her older brother, Billy, Jr., being a troublemaker. If something went wrong, Billy was usually in the middle of it all. For a ten year old, that was definitely saying something. I remember going to their house. The eastern part of San Diego County has a rather hilly terrain. They lived on a hill and their house was on a knoll on that hill. So when we walked the two blocks to get to their house, it was up a hill. Then you reached their house and had a long uphill driveway to scale before you even got to ring the doorbell. For a kid, that was like climbing Everest to see your friend.
When Halloween rolled around we always made it a point to go to their house. I think my mother did this because she knew the climb would tucker us out and we’d be begging to go back home rather early (though we were never for want for candy on those trips – my brother and I scored big time).
We’d spend time with their kids off and on over the year or so we knew them: play dates before they were called such things. We’d run around the house or their backyard while our moms visited with each other.
I was well into the first few months of first grade. I think if I remember it right, Mickey was just beginning kindergarten when it all happened.
It happened all too quickly and off-stage (in my life). We found out about it later. This was the first time Death touched my life, and he took my playmate. He made me realize that none of us were safe. He reached in and ripped a hole in what I knew to be true and real.
“Mijo,” Mom began, “something’s happened to your friend, Mickey.”
It was something like that. And she told me that Mickey had died. We wouldn’t be going there to play anymore. I am sure it was handled delicately. My parents were brilliant when it came to sussing out what we could and couldn’t process. Yet, I was a very precocious child, remember? And this wasn’t an easy thing to understand. I thought I knew how the world worked, even in my young six year old life. I was just getting used to things, and finding the joy of discovering new things. The world was a wondrous place. Shouldn’t it be for a kid like me?
I didn’t know what to feel. Not about this.
This rattled me inside in ways I couldn’t put words to. And I was already cultivating words with the on-going dictionary game I played with my mother. But this had no words. All I kept thinking about was Mickey was a part of my world one moment, and then she wasn’t.
But even in this, the Doodlebug had played a part. Death and the Doodlebug had become entwined from that moment forward.
I remember not long after it happened, my father took me to 7-11 in the Doodlebug, probably to get something quickly rather than go to the grocery store, or to buy us all a Slurpee™. I can’t remember, but I do remember the trip. I remember looking around as we turned into the parking lot that I wanted to see if there was evidence of the whole thing – of when Death cheated me of my friend. Not because I was a morbid child, but because I thought there should be some sort of physical evidence that it had occurred, some reason to justify what I was feeling about it all – of why my friend had been spirited away from me. I remember Dad pausing once the car was off. He watched me looking over the seat at that corner. I think he knew what I was doing. We didn’t speak. He just let me be, watching and trying to understand what had happened in my little boy mind. After a moment, his big hand caressed my head.
“C’mon B, let’s go inside.” That was all he said. I looked at him and saw the love, and somehow I moved past it for the moment. He was like that. He knew what to do or say (or not say). It was that quiet ease that would often color what I thought about him.
A few nights later when my mother came to pick us up from her mother’s house on her way home from work, I broke, clutching a relative around their legs, my wet face pressed to their lap. My godfather? My aunt? My grandmother? I can’t remember who. I just remember doing it. Crying in the harsh light of their porch and being so angry that I couldn’t just ask to go over there, certain that they were all lying to me. She was there. She was. I just knew it.
Only we never did – go there again, I mean. That was my confirmation that it did happen, that she was gone. There was nothing to go to.
We didn’t go to the funeral. I don’t remember if we went to a service for her or not. I don’t think we did, probably because my parents thought it might be a bit much for us. If we did go, I think I blocked it from my memory.
I remember it became a topic of conversation several years later. At the time it happened, my parents didn’t think it was wise to explain how it all played out. A neighbor friend of my mother’s had witnessed the event (or the aftermath) and remembered the little girl had been to our house. She called my mother and informed her what she saw. Mom finally explained what happened.
“Chela called and told me. She was there, when it happened or just after. Mickey’s brother, Billy, had taken her to 7-11 to get a Slurpee or something. To get to the store you have to cross Jamacha* Boulevard. Remember at the time there wasn’t a light at that intersection. It was really dangerous to dash across the four lanes of traffic. Those cars going the speed limit of 50 miles per hour didn’t help. I used to worry about you kids going up there. Thank God, you never did that. Kids were always dashing across the street at odd places. Thank God you kids would take the lighted intersection at La Presa by our house. But they didn’t; they dashed across that street. Mickey charged out in front of her brother and a car hit her so hard her shoes were still on the road. Billy had no way to prevent it. The impact happened so hard and so fast it flung her across the street and she cracked her head open on the sidewalk. She died there. Never had a chance.”
(* – pronounced: ham-a-shaw)
I remember hearing those words years later. The pain was still there – an old wound that never healed. I felt physical pain when my mother explained it, Death’s hand stroking across my belly. I was driving by then. Actually, I had just started. I had to pass this intersection to get to the part-time busboy job I had at a Mexican restaurant at the far end of Jamacha. They ended up installing a traffic light at that intersection not too long after she was killed. Every time I would drive across that place, I felt something stir, a twinge in the pit of my stomach, sometimes further down, like Death giving a kick to my balls. Death lingers there for me. Always will, I suppose. A bloody spectre from my past.
Even looking at the photo I inserted below, I still sort of feel it.
This said Death was something to be feared. You were a player in the game, but Death held all the cards. Well, the cards that ultimately mattered in life, that is.
Hearing the details, knowing finally how it all transpired, solved the mystery of what had happened to my friend from so long ago. But it didn’t do a thing to alleviate what Death meant to me. Unfortunately, with HIV just down the line in my life from my mother’s revelatory moment, Death would become a large part of my journey forward. A swath of amazing people would be taken from my world. But it all started with her. She was the first.
I remember your laugh, gentle girl. I remember your bright eyes. I remember how you helped define what friendship meant to me as a young boy and how freely you gave it. I remember how it was all suddenly, way before its time, ripped from me. Physical light from my darkening world. I cherish your life, brief though it was. I lament what you never got to do – who you would’ve loved, where your journey would’ve taken you. Death is hard, but not so hard as when it happens to a child, I think.
She taught me a lot, far more than I think she would ever know. She taught me about life, and how truly precious and precarious it is. We’re all walking on a knife’s edge, just doing our damnedest not to get cut. Mickey got cut. I know my mother was thankful that we kids never did anything like that – dashing across a four lane road with cars whizzing by at 50+ mph – but that wasn’t always the case. We took chances. I know I did. It was stupid, it was rash and foolish. But you can best believe that as I reached the other side of the road, I spared a thought for my friend who didn’t make it.
Even now as I write this, I remember things about her that waft to the surface. Her family fell apart after she was gone. Her death brought about suffering on an epic scale. Billy got involved in drugs very early on in his teen years. I don’t know what happened to him because Troy and Bill divorced and she moved to Colorado, taking a troubled son with her. We lost contact after that. It goes that way sometimes.
My father always said that life was like a walk in the woods. Sometimes people joined you in that journey, only to have something on another path catch their fancy and they’d have to follow that. I want to think that Mickey just found another path away from my walk in the woods. It’s easier, less violent, if I think of it like that. Poetic. An inherent quietude. It’s a lie I tell myself to remember her without the horrific events of what happened to her.
Death had claimed his first life in my short years on this planet. It wasn’t the worst I’d felt over losing someone, but it was the first.
The Doodlebug has many chapters in its part of our family history. It was just a constant presence that marked the span of time I was living at home. By the time my father passed in ’99, the Doodlebug was ancient history. Shortly after I moved out of the house to live with some friends in another part of San Diego, he tried to sell it. When there were no takers, and his body would not allow him to work on it any more, he just called a scrap metal company to come take it away, make it into a box.
So the Doodlebug was hauled away, scrapped and crushed. I guess it had fulfilled its purpose. I remember at the time I didn’t think much of it. When my father died, however, that car was constantly on my mind and I’ll come to why that is in a bit.
My father was enormously liked and loved by everyone who met him. He cultivated people and friendships like a master gardener. He always seemed to know just how much to tend to and let them know they were important to him. I’m not putting that on him; it’s not something that I would only say about him, others would say it, too. He was one of the most fair men I had ever met. He taught us that race was not something to judge, it just was. We had friends across the rainbow spectrum. We treated everyone of them and valued them all equally. That was my father. Mom supported this and made sure that we understood the whys and the importance it had for us as a family. But my father was nearly obsessed with being fair. Your past didn’t matter as much as who you were in the here and now. He measured you by what he saw, not what people said. And he was a very good judge of character.
He didn’t have it so easy in life. Shortly after my parents were married they moved to a small suburb of San Diego that was just developing: Spring Valley. It was tucked under the largest mountain in that part of the county – San Miguel.
There wasn’t much out there. My parents bought the house with $1 down. Yes, ONE DOLLAR. Something my mother laments to this day that she should’ve been smarter and put a saw buck down and picked up five or ten houses and rented them out. But they were preoccupied with just starting out. They had a family to start. That was the focus. I sort of smirk when I look at the photo above, because family life with my mother and their amazing Mexican family recipes were already having an effect on my Pop’s waistline. He yo-yo’d a bit back then.
Shortly thereafter he got a job with the City of San Diego Water Department. It was a good paying job and had great benefits. They were set. Well, at least it was a start.
The thing was, while this was a great job for my father, and he met some really great guys with that crew who became family friends, it was also the job that completely derailed his life.
In 1974, he was installing a new water main with his crew. He was down the manhole and was checking the pressure with a gauge that was inserted into a place along the pipe. My dad was in a squatting position to read the gauge, which showed the pressure in the pipe was fine. He was talking to one of the other guys on the team when something went wrong. The pipe shuddered and burst, shooting the gauge straight up into the air. Luckily, the guy who my father had been talking with turned to relay the last message my father relayed to him when the gauge was ejected from the pipe. Had he not turned he would’ve been decapitated. My father wasn’t so lucky. As the pipe ruptured, the first wave threw him off his haunches and against his back. The force was strong enough that it knocked him for a loop. By the time he came to a few moments later, the water was already waist deep. He struggled to get out when the pipe really burst, throwing him up through the manhole and whipped him against the metal rim, not once, but three times. The third time caused him to black out. When he came to he couldn’t move much but the water had risen to his neck. He hollered for the guys to help get him out. No one seemed to be responding so with enormous effort he pulled himself out of the hole and onto the rim of the manhole and crept out of it. His back was severely damaged. He never recovered and had back pain for the remainder of his life. This began the steady decline of my father’s health.
I often wonder if this event hadn’t happened what my life with him would’ve been like. Because of the injury, three discs in his lower spine were severely damaged. They were eventually fused to provide support, but the nerves were pinched and damaged in so many places that any physical effort on his part was an exercise in endurance and pain tolerance. He often didn’t win that battle. It severely limited what he could physically do.
Eventually permanent disability was the medical prognosis and he was medically retired from the City. On one hand it was good in that he was not going to be in danger physically again, but on the other, it meant that insurance investigators became a way of life for us. We were constantly watched for any sign that my father was faking the injury (which he most certainly wasn’t – I know, because we kids had to pick up the slack and would jump in if he was hurting too much).
This was but one more physical injury in a long line of them. The first in his life happened when he was eight or nine. He was struck by a car on his way to see Bambi at their local theater in Tomahawk, Wisconsin. The whole time he was mending, he kept crying out that he wanted to go see Bambi. That was all he kept talking about. So to ease his trauma, after they patched him up they took him to the theater and he sat there nearly bandaged from head to toe to watch Bambi. Ironic really considering that is the one movie from Disney that gave me nightmares. I didn’t like it much. All it said to me was don’t go with your parents (particularly your mother) into the forest. Some fucker was gonna shoot her. That was my childhood takeaway from Bambi. I hoped my dad got more out of it than I did.
My father and I always had a unique relationship, probably because I was his first. But I learned quiet contemplation from him. That quietude he had down in spades when he was thinking about something. I would often bring things to my father that I thought were important to talk about, much to the amusement of both my parents. I was five when a very important topic crossed my mind and I had to bring it to my father’s attention a point in our relationship that was sorely lacking. Precocious doesn’t begin to cover this one:
“Dad, I wanna talk to you about an allowance.” He eyed me from the book he was reading.
“Oh. you do, do you?”
“Yes. Some of my friends get an allowance from their dads. I want to know where’s mine.”
He quietly set aside the book, and looked at me, giving me the full attention I thought the subject warranted.
“Well, what do you call all those toys and things I buy you when you say you want them when we go to the store? Isn’t that an allowance?”
He had me there, I remember thinking. Then a bright idea occurred to me and I shot back, “No, Da-a-ad, those aren’t an allowance.”
“No, those are presents.”
He had a good laugh at that one. I didn’t get my way, either. He negotiated that we’d revisit that little idea down the road a piece. I’d have to be content with my presents for a while.
But we were always like that. He once said to me when I was getting ready to graduate that soon I would be needing to move out. He said it with a solid twinkle in his eye so I knew he was goading me.
“I’ll just break your plate and then you’ll have to leave. See how that works.”
Then I immediately shot back, “I’ll just buy paper plates, then.”
As my fifth year started to come up my mother had failed to get me enrolled into the elementary school across Jamacha Boulevard from where we lived. It would’ve been only a five minute walk to school. But she missed the admittance deadline so I had to go to another school that was a few miles away for kindergarten. I got to ride a big school bus to get to school.
I liked riding that bus. I would sit behind the bus driver, a really lovely lady named Dorothy. I would talk her arm and leg off all the way to school and back. My grandmother would apologize for my being so talkative, but Dorothy said she loved that I was so engaging; she really looked forward to my sitting behind her. I guess I made her day. I was only too glad to help.
But one day I got my wires crossed. I had overheard that my father was going to pick me up from school and I took it to mean the following day. So when school ended, Dorothy expected me to get onto the bus. I told her that I wasn’t going to because my father was coming to pick me up. She asked if I was sure. I said yes, my parents talked about it the night before and I knew he was going to be here any minute.
Only it wasn’t that day he was going to do it. I just took it upon myself to think it was. So I waved Dorothy off and watched the bus go down the hill to take the other kids home. I sat at the front of the school, watching teachers and admin people picking up and leaving for the day. Each of them stopped to ask me why I was still there and why didn’t I take the bus. I calmly told them my father was coming to get me. They were concerned but I seemed so convincing that they thought it must be true.
The thing was, I didn’t realize I’d made the mistake. My father wasn’t coming to get me that day. When my grandmother didn’t find me on the bus, Dorothy explained that I was adamant that my dad was picking me up at school. She took my brother and sister back to her house so my mother could pick them up as usual – only sans me.
My father worked an earlier shift in the day so he got home around 4:00 each afternoon. By that time we kids would’ve been at my grandmother’s house already. So basically I was at the school with no family member nearby to speak of. I sat and sat there, thinking that Dad would be along any minute now. I don’t remember being frightened at all. Dad was coming. It was that simple. Finally a secretary to the Principal came out because they’d been watching me. She asked me if everything was okay.
I told her I thought my dad might’ve forgotten to come get me. A few minutes later I walked into the Principal’s office and calmly asked if I could call my dad. They handed me the phone and I dialed the number. I don’t remember how I knew it but I did. My father answered the call.
“Daddy, where are you?”
“At home. Where are you?”
“I’m at the school. You were supposed to come get me. That’s what you said last night.”
“That wasn’t today, B. It’s next week because I have an appointment so I’ll be home when you get off of school.”
“Well, you better come get me now. I missed the bus.”
He told me he was on his way and asked to speak to the secretary. They chatted and she told him I was very calm and it was fine that they could wait the five or so minutes for my dad to get there.
I remember sitting on that small berm next to a planter that had juniper bushes in them. I liked picking the berries from them while I waited. The rumble of that Doodlebug was the most comforting sound to me. He came up alongside the school and leaned over to open the door. That image of him, in a white t-shirt, rolled up sleeves to his shoulders, the curls of his dark hair, the cut of his jeans, in that rust bucket of a car, is the most heroic image I have of him in my mind. That Doodlebug was a war pony and Dad was the warrior, and he came to save me, his boy. I climbed into that car and he ruffled my hair as I got settled. I leaned up and gave him a peck on the cheek and sat back down. All was right with the world ’cause my father had done what I’d said he do. He came to get me. And that meant everything.
It is that memory that would come to have major significance for when he took his leave of us. Like a horse charging out of the mist of my memories, that car and my father visited me in dreams the evening of his death. It shook me in profound ways that I haven’t addressed to this day. His death caused a tempest of emotions that still rage there, behind a massive door in my mind and heart. Emotions I dare not touch. I don’t dare look at them because I fear I wouldn’t return. And if I did, I wouldn’t be the same person I was going in.
I was living in San Francisco at the time. It was a day in April like any other. The year was 1999. The day, the 19th. The following day would have a significance on the consciousness of America, but for me, the 19th was a normal San Francisco day. I remember it being overcast and quite windy. My husband and I lived in the City in Cole Valley, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Castro, tucked up against the hillside of Mount Sutro/Twin Peaks in the center of the City. I remember being in the kitchen getting ready to start dinner with my guy when the phone rang. It was my father.
“Hey, Dad. Whassup? Something wrong?”
“No. I just wanted to hear your voice. I wanted to remember what it sounded like. It’s been a while, you know?”
I smiled, “Yeah, I should call you more often. I was really glad when you and mom came up the previous fall and spent time here in San Francisco.”
“We enjoyed that, too.”
We talked, Father to Son. Looking back on it, there were threads my father was trying to tell me, trying to gently get me to see that this wasn’t one of our normal conversations. Those carefully placed questions and phrases whizzed right by me. I don’t know if I disappointed him because I was just prattling on about my current state of affairs at work and life in general. He seemed to take it in his stride. But looking back on it now, he was trying to tell me to really pay attention to him, to listen to him, not about what we said, but about how much he wanted to reach out to me. You see, I think he knew it was his last day. I think he knew he wasn’t going to make it. He spent that day contacting everyone. He even walked down the street to where his older brother had bought a house so they could be together (like they were when Sonny was in the Navy) – Sonny and my dad were fairly inseparable. So when Sonny wanted to live in San Diego, he bought a place very close to my father. My dad made the trek down to his brother’s house that night, spent time with him, did the things they normally did. When he went to leave he gave his brother a big hug and told him he loved him. They’d been like that all their lives so it wasn’t too out of the norm. Sonny told me later that he noticed the look in my father’s face wasn’t the same. Sonny told him he’d see him in the morning and they’d go get a donut and coffee like they usually did. My dad nodded but said nothing. Sonny said there was unease about the way it ended that he couldn’t shake that night.
We all went to our separate beds that night.
Unbeknownst to me, my father had been sleeping in the living room. He was on a respirator because breathing at night was difficult for him. My mother said she woke, went to the bathroom and heard something in the living room stir, but it settled down again. She meant to check on my father but since it was quiet again she thought she should let him rest. He was getting spotty sleep at this point. They discovered him a couple of hours later. My mother realized that what she heard earlier may have been when he was beginning to die. They tried to resuscitate him but he wasn’t responding. He was picked up by the ambulance and by the time he arrived at the hospital he had passed. Nothing could be done.
That same night in San Francisco, I had a dream about being five years old and sitting on that same planter of my kindergarten class, waiting for my father. It was an overcast and windy day; fog swirled around me. I sat there; no one else around. The roar of the Doodlebug clamored closer to me – I could hear it in the distance as it came up the long hill to the school. I was me as I was in ’99, sitting on that planter in that way that dreams can do to switch things up without a moment’s notice. The Doodlebug pierced the mists and swung around the drop-off point at the front of the school and the door opened. There was my father sitting there just like when I was five. I got up and started to make my way to the car. He held up his hand and stopped me.
“Not now, B. But I’ll come back for you. Just not now, okay?”
I didn’t know what it meant. He smiled; it was a warm, slightly pained smile. The door closed and the Doodlebug rumbled back into the fog, leaving me there as a five year old boy again. I woke up unsettled. I wanted to call him. I looked over to my husband in the bed next to me. I wanted to say something to him about it because it unsettled me so. But instead, I let him sleep. It was just a dream, I kept telling myself.
I had put my cell phone on vibrate that night. I usually did. So when I got up at 5:00 am to get ready for work I discovered the voice mails from the family distraught about my father and that I wasn’t answering their calls. My world imploded. The conversation I had with him the day before rattled in my head as I ran back to my guy and broke as I told him the news.
So after explaining the situation to work, I made the long trek back to San Diego. I had eleven hours to think about what it all meant. When I reached my parents’ house I remember the TV being on, but no one was watching it. Every station had the same events playing out. You see, my father had died the morning of the Columbine Massacre in Colorado.
I remember vaguely watching the events of that whole thing play out on the large screen TV my parents had but couldn’t connect to what it all meant because we were so caught up in our own grief. It seemed like some terrible made-for-TV movie. Every time there is a retrospective on that event, I go right to my father’s death. The two are inextricably tied to one another. But at the time, I was simply too lost in my own grief to care.
The thing is, I didn’t break. Not really. I held it together. I greeted family and friends from across the years and the country who descended on our home in Spring Valley. My mother was beside herself with loss. I knew I had to hold it together for her. Work gave me leave to take as much time as I needed to help my mother along. I never once allowed myself to grieve about it all. It was there; it still is. Only one crack in that fucking fake smooth as marble surface showed itself. My father had a poem he found in the newspaper that he liked. He kept it in his wallet. I had to read it at his funeral service. It was the last line of that poem that I broke. It was brief, but it gave me the smallest glimpse of what I was holding back. My voice cracked, I stuttered on the last word: home. That’s where I wanted him: home. Being the eldest, I knew a lot of people were looking to me to keep things moving where my mother couldn’t. I had to man up. So I set everything I felt about his passing aside.
It colors my works. The things I write about are very heavy with the father-son dynamic. It’s my cathartic way of processing it, slowly.
Stories about my father and me are now a part of Nick and Elliot Donahey in my Angels of Mercy series. I memorialize my father in Nick Donahey. I know he may read as idealistic to some, but what I put down about him in those works are the very essence of the man my father was. He didn’t have all the answers, and he’d be the first to tell you he didn’t. But he would also roll up his sleeves and do everything in his power to get his children whatever we needed. That is the basis of the fathers I write in my works. My own father taught me the importance of fatherhood, of compassion to your fellow man, the fairness of it all. To do your best to set prejudice aside and to see the person, and not the stereotypes others put on them. To see each person for who they truly are. To value them for who they are, in the here and now. Everyone has a past they might not be proud of, what matters is what they are doing with it in the moment.
I often walk over that final conversation I had with him the day before he died. If anything just so I can recall how he sounded, the timbre and tone of his voice. I don’t know if it is because I’ve studied voice to be an opera singer or not, but the memory of how he sounded is fundamentally important to me. And it’s fading. I mentally clutch at it, fearful of losing a single intonation, an inflection, of it.
Miss ya, Papa-san, in ways that I can never fully express.
I am not a religious man. I can’t buy into any of that. But what I will say is that when my time comes, whether by some force of nature or the chemical compositions in my head forming that vision for me, I’ll see him again. And I know, with every fiber of my being, that it is the love he had for me being his boy that I will slip from this life and into that. In reality, it may be a blackened abyss, a nothingness that will consume me, but I know I’ll inwardly smile and my last thoughts will probably be of him, picking me up in that heap of a car, that Doodlebug, the battered war pony and the over-worked but compassionate warrior spiriting his son away.
And in that, I find great comfort, a quietude that I know awaits me when the time comes. Because of this, I don’t fear my own death. My father will be there in spirit to guide me along, as he always did when he was here. A big rough hand, cradling his son’s head, my face pressed to his chest, just as I was when I was a baby napping against him.
That, to me, is a real piece of heaven.