So, a little Grandma time.
Since the earliest time I can remember, my grandmother was an integral part of my upbringing. Her influence colors what I do to this day some fifty years later. Growing up half-Latino, I was immersed in the culture from my first breath. For Latinos, or as I like to identify now – given my queer life – Latinx, family is everything. So much so, that your decisions in life are sometimes guided by (and even hampered by) what the family will think. Doesn’t mean you don’t buck the system, you just have to be a bit more clever about doing it.
As I said a few posts ago, my mother and father both worked day jobs. So from a very early age my maternal grandmother (and my mother’s sister, mi tia) held enormous influence over my younger years. That’s not to say it wasn’t filled with love and laughter – for there was plenty of that. Being the first grandchild, I was practically inundated with gifts, love and pride. Just the fact I was healthy and breathing seemed to be the only requirement for me to retain that lofty family status. The favorite. Only because I had the luck of the draw to be the first.
My brother (and sister, to a degree) both felt the weight of my being the favorite. I acknowledge that now, but at the time I did everything I could to deny it – even when I knew it to be true.
We had some very quirky things that were customary in our family. Traits that I don’t think many other families had. For instance, it was absolute sacrilege in my family that if Spanish Rice graced the dinner table, there was a complete order to how it was served, if you bucked the system there were repercussions. This came home to roost when my tia invited her then boyfriend, who sadly became her fiancé later – for the man was a compete idiot – and her boyfriend reached over to serve himself a helping of the rice from somewhere in the middle of the dish and the entire family froze on the spot. Conversations ceased, and all eyes moved to my grandmother, who as the grand matriarch of the family, we all gauged how she – and by extension, we – should react. She held up a hand and calmly said, “It’s alright. He doesn’t know.” Why that sticks with me to this day and why I still follow how to serve Spanish Rice in my own home is rather bizarre. But I still do it, confident that if I don’t she’d come from the spirit world and give me a whack across my hands.
It seems like a simple thing. You have a dish to serve at dinner, why not just scoop some up onto your plate, right? Turns out, not so much.
But nothing with our family was quite that simple. Many things were like that.
I’ll give you another: there was a room in my grandmother’s house that had ornate furniture – completely covered in plastic – which was so prevalent at that time, but here’s the thing: we weren’t allowed to go into that room whenever we were at her house. It struck me as rather odd because it was like having a fully decorated room in the house but couldn’t ever enjoy it. And it’s not like we were rich or something. In fact, having a “museum” like room only pointed out the fact that we were rather poor. The lesson to be learned here? Have something nice? You lock it away and don’t let anyone come near it. The only time we ever used the room was during Christmas. In those early childhood years we alternated between everyone coming over to my parents house and going to my grandparents house. It was a very special treat to go there and to sit in the forbidden room.
I never understood that forbidden room as a child until many years later when traveling down the road my grandmother used to take we kids down from my parent’s home in Spring Valley, to her house closer to downtown San Diego. I was on that road with my mother many years later who told me a story about a house very near to a busy traffic corner where we had stopped, waiting for our signal to continue. Oddly enough, we’d been discussing that museum room in her parent’s house the day before where I expressed my confusion over its existence.
“Did you ever wonder why your grandmother had that room in perfect condition? And why you kids were never allowed to go into it?”
Of course I jumped at the chance to hear why that room existed. It was a huge mystery in my childhood.
“Well, sure.” I added, hoping that I’d get some really deep, dark family secret. Ya know, like a body was buried underneath. Something really fucking scary to explain the step one toe in that room and you’ll pull back a stump feeling about it.
“It goes back to a girl that your grandmother went to school with. Her family had money. Your grandmother’s didn’t. But they put on airs that they did. Anyway, your grandma was very envious of this girl. From what I know, the girl didn’t rub your grandmother’s face in it. But because they had it, and it showed in the way they lived, your grandmother coveted that sort of lifestyle and expression of money. Not having it was hard on your grandma.”
I turned to look over my shoulder at the house half a block back from the corner we were sitting at waiting for the light to change. “So, what’s that house have to do with it?”
“That’s where the girl grew up and got married and ended up living. Your grandmother was very jealous of her.”
“Why? It’s not like they were best friends or anything.”
“Because your grandmother had always been like that – obsessed with money and power. It’s why that room is the way it is. If she couldn’t have an entire house like that she would have a room that would say how she wanted others to think of her.”
While I finally had an answer, It made me even more confused on what to do with that information. You have to understand that this revelation from my mother was years after my grandmother’s death. So it wasn’t like I could go ask her for her side of the story. Though, thinking on it now, I am not too sure she would’ve admitted it to me. Yet, I had more than enough examples where I’d experienced my grandmother’s obsession with exerting power and influence – she did it to my grandfather all of his life. She was a very formidable woman. A woman who loved the crap out of me, but also could be equally vicious if she was ever crossed. I was smart enough not to do that so for the most part that pointed barb of hers never was pointed my direction. But I’d seen her do it to others.
From her I learned perception is everything, even above family. Yet, from my mother I learned that you can never control perceptions from others – “…at best, all you can do is mitigate it. You can never control what they think of you.”
Got it – perceptions can be mitigated, but never controlled. A very valuable life lesson.
It’s why I am obsessed with writing about perceptions. They color everything you do, whether you want to acknowledge their presence or not. They are your guiding force. Growing up in a family obsessed with perceptions went a long way to forming the man I’ve become. Comng from the lower end of the middle class, perceptions ruled my entire world. It was also one of the reasons why my mother didn’t want Spanish spoken in the house. She didn’t want her children to deal with having an accent. It was her way of mitigating those very perceptions that could hold us back. So English was the dominant language. So much so, we practically became Anglophiles in the process.
But it wasn’t all about control, power and perceptions. There was a whole lot of love, laughter and amazing food along the way.
From my grandmother I learned my love of Mexican food and cooking. Family recipes and the love she poured into them now flavor what I make for my own family. From her I learned that you didn’t need precious measuring spoons or cups. “God gave you everything you need right here,” she’d tell me holding a cupped hand out in my direction. The message was clear: I’d learn to measure as she had, learning what a tablespoon, teaspoon and such looked like in my own hand. It was a long process, but one that I embraced because I wanted it to taste as good as hers did.
At least I didn’t have to learn how to roll the perfect tortilla in three rolls of the pin. My mother learned how to do it that way from her grandmother. If she failed to roll that perfect tortilla by the third roll, she got a rather hard whack on her hand for her “lack of effort” in getting it done. So I counted my blessings that no whacking of the hands happened with my learning how to cook. Refried beans from scratch? Yeah, I did that. Fideo, lord almighty, her fideo was legendary, with my mother’s coming a close second. but I learned that too. Chili Reinos, Spanish Rice, Albondigas, Pozole, Menudo, all of it. From her, more than anyone, my latinx heritage was secured. The latin women of my family ensured my love of my culture. The food, family life, ritual and traditions of our race. Viva la raza and all of that. I have to admit, I didn’t always feel it. Probably the queer kid in me taking root. And it’s a tricky thing for me to embrace wholly even now. I still struggle with it. Mostly because there is still so much of my heritage that stands against who I am. It’s a tough road to walk.
Yet, the food. The food is what brings me back. Every time I have Albondigas, I don’t just think of family, I feel them course through me, their memories and love flavoring the soup with each successive spoonful.
Being the first grandchild, I got to enjoy things my brother and sister didn’t. I get that. I feel a tad guilty for it, but it wasn’t anything I did other than being born first. So one such guilty pleasure was something rather silly but meant the world to a three year old boy: I had a specially crafted seat in my grandparents 1962 Cadillac.
Okay, it wasn’t a special seat made just for me. It was actually a double-wide arm rest but my little butt fit onto it and could nestle myself in the indent where the armrest could be stowed when not in use. So I sort of made it my own seat. Now, this was years before the whole click it or ticket sort of thing. We lived on the edge. Kids riding carefree in the back of pickup trucks with no seat belts, nothing to keep their butts on the bed of the truck. Hell, there were times my brother, sister and I would stand up in the back of my dad’s old Ford pickup, gripping the wrought iron frame he had in the back helping us stay in the damned truck.
My brother and sister probably resented the fact that I was the favorite. No, thinking on it now, there is no probably about it. They definitely did. My grandmother made no bones about it. She came from an era where that happened and no one questioned it. My parents, on the other hand, weren’t so accepting of that sort of tradition. As much as my grandmother was obsessed with perceptions about the family, my father was equally obsessed with each of his children being treated fairly. It had become so lopsided that my parents had a rather large fight with my grandparents that they had to treat the three of their children equally or they wouldn’t see any of us at all.
My mother said that it broke my grandmother’s heart to be given that ultimatum, but it was necessary so that my brother and sister wouldn’t grow up to hate me. I got that and was thankful for my parents having the courage and foresight to nip that one in the bud. The thing is, I don’t know that they were all that successful in detecting when she did favor me. Because I can recall many times she did long after being given that edict from my parents. All it did was serve to drive it underground. She was just more clever on how she gave me a bit more than my brother or sister. On some level I knew it still went on. But I was a kid. You bet your ass I took whatever extra came my way. I’m not proud of that now, it’s just how it played out.
But anyway, back to my custom built seat. The Caddy was a huge influence on me. Later on I’d realize that it, too, was an expression of my grandmother wanting to appear rich when we were anything but. But at the time I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was, as a young boy, I had a small throne for the little prince to ride around in. From that I got that a little favoritism went a long way to building confidence. In those early years i felt like I could do anything. I had a confidence that when my grandmother told me I was special and I could do anything, I felt like I really could.
That didn’t last all the way through my childhood. But in those early years, it mattered. And that wasn’t because they stopped believing in me as I grew older. It was just that, as my queer self started to blossom, I realized just how removed I was from all of them. That’s where the self-doubt and hiding from them all began.
Yet, those few years in that Caddy, that specially designed seat my grandmother had made just for me, meant the world. I still can’t see one of those bullet shaped taillights on that car and not feel a bit whimsical for my youth. I’d probably trade a year off my life to be a young boy in that “special seat” one more time.
This last part doesn’t have to do with my grandmother so much as it does the influence she had on our lives.
I’m talking about the years I don’t remember quite as well that haunt my thoughts to this day. These are the earliest years of my life that I’d like to watch like a fly on the wall. Years when I was told that everything that had to do with me as a young boy were celebrated to the nth degree. In the Latin culture, boys are celebrated at birth, girls are lamented. This is because, for my people, boys rule and our lives are generally lived unfettered by “you can’t or you shouldn’t” – where that’s all the girls hear. For girls born into Latin families, their lives are seen as hard and unforgiving. To a great degree, though our family did its level best to keep things as an even playing field. my sister did deal with harsher realities than me. It’s one of the reasons to this day that I admire her so. In that adversity both within the culture and within the family, she found a way to prosper. I am sure she had to work nearly twice as hard as I did. I was there for her in every way I could think of, but I also know how much easier I had it by being born male. I am all too aware of the male privilege that I enjoy. Times are changing, but it didn’t escape my sight that my sister had a much harder time of it. But like those strong women of my Latinx family, my sister gave me probably the greatest gift of all – to never give up despite what life throws at you. Her perseverance in life feeds my own.
Love ya, sis. I think even Grandma would be proud of how we turned out.
Until next time …
Age: 8 years old
Place: Spring Valley, CA (Suburb of San Diego)
This one took a bit of time to gestate. Yeah, writing these is the closest I’ll come to giving birth. Now, I know my dad always said that that distinction was solely for the passing of kidney stones (and yes, I’ve had one and I’ll have to agree with him on it), but in my case – cranking these bad boys out is just as gut wrenching because they’re my memories, my life experiences I am allowing to bubble up and show up here on the VQR blog.
So, why do them? That’s the obvious question, right? So obvi – as the kids say these days. Jesus, as a sidebar conversation, can I tell you I am always in a constant state of grousing that I get to refer to people younger than me as “kids” and it actually means something? I just fucking hate that. I have such a great appreciation for my elders (who are still kicking it around) now that I am at that age they were when I was younger. They were right: it looks totally different from this side of that youth obsessed, ageist fence.
To answer that question, before I get rolling on the topic at hand, I am doing it because I don’t feel queer people document their lives as much as we should. It’s sort of a catch 22 with me: in that, I come from an early enough era where I am highly suspicious about what our governments are doing with all of this information that is constantly pouring from the masses. We’re being cataloged, categorized and reduced to algorithms that work to predict our next move. So, given that, why contribute? Because our voice is an important one. Each of our journeys is what’s missing from the greater discussion. As queer people we’ve become inured to the heteronormative message out there as if our own voice has less credence and doesn’t belong in the mainstream context. That’s why I am doing this.
Adding one more queer man’s voice to the mix, preserving another queer history, even if it is only my own.
This one took a bit because it deals with three areas of my life that have always been a bit of a quandary to me, mostly because they center around my intimate relationships with other boys. Some were good, others, yeah, not so much. But the one common thread – they were all definitively male.
Yeah why not go with the worst part, right? Like ripping off of a bandage, just do it first and do it fast and the worst will be over.
Here’s the dealio: every queer kid who didn’t have the luxury of passing as anything but queer has their battle stories, how the other boys made their lives hell. Yeah I have mine, too.
The first real “incident” (as it was come to be called by the staff at La Presa Elementary) was between me and an asswipe of a guy named Eddie. He was Latino, like me (remember, Collins is a nom de plume), something that should’ve made me a part of the tribe, right? Only in this case, being singled out as a sissy, a faggot, or queer, my being Latino like him only served to make it worse.
Latino men are consumed with that whole macho masculine mystique. Yeah, I am here to bear witness that ninety-nine percent of that is utter bullshit. For the most part it is all put-on airs and doing what’s expected of them by those pushy Latina women who do their level best to make sure their men act like some fucked-up myopic view of what a man is. Believe me, women should be the LAST fucking word on that. Look to your own, ladies. That whole “I need me a real man” is so fucked from the moment that fecal-laced thought ever forms in your fucking heads.
Yeah, I went there.
I do blame Latin women for it, HOOK, LINE and FUCKING SINKER. Ninety-nine point 999 percent of male-induced homophobia can be drawn right back to that whole concept of “what makes up a man.“ Yet, that’s never been the case for women. You got tits? Ya got a vagina – bang! You’re a woman. I’ll not devolve into the fucked up male connotations of what makes a perfect woman because I am not using that POV to apply it to men. Body modifications, imagery aside, we’re just talking what makes the grade of being Man or Woman enough. Women get an automatic pass. Got the anatomy (trans ladies aside for the sake of this point, if tangentially relevant)? Then you’re in, you’re a part of the club. Got a cock and balls, is nowhere NEAR good enough to label you as a man. We have qualifiers for what makes up a “real man” and that shit is what builds bullies. That shit is what makes queer boys like me fret for our very lives.
[stepping down from my soap box]
So, La Presa Elementary and Eddie.
He was not the first to bully me at school, but he was the most significant. He was the first to move beyond the name calling. He was the first to physically threaten me and he did it while other kids were around. Publicly.
I was in the third grade. He was in sixth. Hardly a match to begin with, wouldn’t you say? But that’s the way of bullies. They only target those that are a sure win. They’re bullies, not brave. Let’s not confuse the two. There is no courage on breaking the weaker among your own. That’s nothing but cowardice, plain and simple.
Only, knowing that, even at that age, and being the precocious child I was, I did have that partially sussed out, on some level. I knew he was afraid of who I was. He didn’t like me, yet he didn’t even know me. He only knew what other kids had said about me. I was in third grade for fuck sake. Why else would a sixth grader bother?
Looking back on it now, I can sort of see that maybe he was afraid he was more like me than he wanted to admit. We’ll never know.
Wanna know why?
Here’s how it went down:
I remember that it was a fairly good day for me. Music time was right around the corner for me (remember Mrs. Sowers and my Julie Andrews ways in third grade?). So the day was looking up for me. I had my favorite lunch – cheese sandwich on Roman Meal bread. So life was good. I wanted to think it was just going to be a peachy school day.
Then Eddie changed all of that.
The lunch recess bell rang. We all had to make our way to our respective class lines to march – well, walk back (it wasn’t a military school) to our classes. Only I got waylaid by Eddie. He came up from out of nowhere. A bunch of kids were walking alongside me and I remember running my fingers along the chain link fence, humming a song that had been trapped in my head for a good part of that month. I had just begun to notice popular music that was on the radio. And that only created a new form of musical torture – musical ear worms, songs that you just couldn’t give up humming no matter how hard you tried. I remember being so caught up in humming that song, taking my sweet time to fall into line for Mrs. Sowers class, that just as I was about to get to my class line, a rough hand reached out, gripped my shoulder and pushed me very hard into the fence.
My whole world stopped …
This was the first time anything violent had happened to me. I was stunned. The funny thing was, kids saw it, but didn’t stop him from doing it, they didn’t say a thing about it.
In their defense, Eddie was a big guy for a sixth grader. From what I’d heard, he was actually held back twice because he just wasn’t smart enough to move on. I don’t know if that was true, and as I said earlier, it wouldn’t matter much in the long run.
To give you an idea of what I was up against, he was a few inches shy of five and half feet tall. Big for an elementary kid. He had a frog-like face, oblong from side to side – wide, and emphasized by the coke-bottle-bottom horn-rimmed glasses he wore that made his eyes look like they were about to pop out of his eye sockets at any moment. He was a husky boy. You know the type – fat-ish but no one had the balls to say that to his face so everyone said husky – the code word for fat on the playground. He had curly longish greasy black hair. When you added a bad case of acne, and his breath stunk like death warmed over, it only completed the monster image I had of him at that moment.
I remember every detail about his face and breath because it was now inches from my own.
“I don’t like you.” He breathed heavily into my face.
“Why? I don’t even know you.”
“‘Cause you’re a queer kid. All the guys say you’re queer. I don’t like queers. I smear queers.”
I don’t know why I remember those words as clearly as I do. Or why his greasy hair, bulging eyes and fetid breath still are as clear to me all these years later but I guess it’s because it was the first time I was truly scared.
But something in me changed. I don’t know where it came from. I’ve always had a smart mouth – it’s both my curse and my joy. I’ve used it to great success and to my utter demise at times. I know it now for what it is. I do my best to curb it when I can feel it won’t do me any good.
Only this time? Yeah, I didn’t know when to keep my trap shut.
“What’re you gonna do? Hit me?”
He smiled. He had teeth that were so yellow that I just knew I wasn’t going to come out of this alive. You’d think that’d be enough to keep my trap shut. It wasn’t.
“I’m gonna mess you up good.”
And I don’t know where the next thing that fell out of my mouth came from, but I went there.
“If you hit me, you’ll be sorry. ‘Cause I curse you. Something really bad is gonna happen to you.” What that was, I had no idea. It just fell out of my mouth.
That stopped him for like a second, then he laughed his ass off, exposing those yellow stinky teeth. I remember seeing his fist pull back and I knew in the next second I was gonna feel a whole lot of pain.
“Eddie! What do you think you’re doing?” Mr, Tibbets called out to him. I was never more thankful for that growly-assed teacher to be near me as I was then. Brown growly bear suit or not, he was a godsend.
“I think you need to get into our line, Eddie, and we’re gonna have a little talk with the Principal after school.”
See, my little curse was already working.
Only I didn’t think it would go beyond that. But it did …
A week later he was hit by a car crossing that same damned boulevard where all the accidents happened. He didn’t die, but he was paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life. He never did come back to our school.
Word spread from the kids who witnessed it. I remember all the kids giving me a wide-birth when word finally got around to what happened to him. I knew I didn’t do anything other than let my mouth get the better of me. In a way, it was a very lonely time on the playground. No one wanted to be near me. I was the kid who gave curses. I didn’t mind, really. Being left alone was safer. I began to just use my imagination and invent things and people I could feel safe around. I’d walk the large perimeter of the recess grounds – which were quite large. I’d sing songs to myself. I would stop and watch other kids play. I wanted to be a part of it. But it was safer for me if I didn’t.
So I didn’t.
Empty victory, really. But I learned a valuable lesson. Two, actually, when I thought on it:
Recesses and playtime were never the same after that. I was always looking over my shoulder, always an ear to the ground. Danger could come from anywhere.
Words. It was when I learned he power of words.
Words were only the warning flag. Being called a sissy, a queer or a faggot was only the beginning of where it could go. Boys could do real harm to me. Boys I liked could be part of that. That’s an awful lot to swallow for a third grader. My parents reared my brother, sister and me knowing that life was often unfair and something could happen to them at any time. We needed to be prepared for that. I memorized our phone number from an early age (kindergarten, in fact) just so I would always have a number to call when something went wrong. Grandma would be there during the day to take care of things if something happened.
But with all that preparation, I don’t think they ever thought that something could happen to me. Maybe they did. They often thought of a great many things before I did. But it was the first time I realized that something could happen to me and I could be hurt. Badly.
My world changed that day. Eddie got his. I hated thinking that, but some small part of me was glad that he wasn’t going to be in a position to do anything to me in the future.
I was a big fan of Bewitched. I practiced twitching my nose and practiced my spell-casting as an extra means of protection. It never worked, obviously. But it gave me something to take my mind off of being so alone. My brother and sister were at the same school but being in first and kindergarten they were relegated to the smaller kids’ part of the playground. So it was just me, to myself.
I learned later on that Eddie didn’t have a great home life. He was picked on by his family at home. That’s another indicator of bullying – they’re usually bullied somewhere else and its a learned reaction.
So I forgive you and your fear of me, Eddie, wherever you are. In a very odd way, you gave me the lens that I needed to see how to watch out for myself. So in that way, I thank you.
I got by, made the transition to fourth grade before that homophobic monster would rear its head again. But I’ll leave that for another telling.
Until next time …
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.