Dan Newland celebrates his addiction to writing and the right to life, literature and the (sometimes desperate) pursuit of happiness. Essays, stories and comments on writers, writing and life in general, in a twice-monthly blog published on the 13th and 27th of every month..."or any other time the spirit moves me."
Sunday, June 17, 2018
Whitie, you were never what I would call “The Ideal Father”. But then
again, hands on our hearts, whose was? Besides, if the collective evolutionists turn
out to be right, I picked you before I reincarnated—if, indeed, I did—so
perhaps I have no one to blame but myself.
That said, I’ve known of a few who pretty nearly were ideal for their
kids—within the margins of human foible—and let me just confess to you that,
growing up, I often envied those kids.
Be that as it may, “ideal”, I’ve learned, can have its drawbacks.
I have one friend who, when he talks about his dad, (and no offense,
Whitie) he makes you want to crawl up into his ol’ man’s lap and beg him to
adopt you. My friend’s dad was a shop worker who busted his ass for his family,
but who always had time for his sons, and especially for my friend, who was a
rare bird by any standard. But his dad always supported him in every endeavor.
If my friend wanted to write, if he wanted to gather the stories of those who
couldn’t tell theirs in their own voices, then he should, his dad said, throw
himself into it heart and soul. Go after his dream. Not let anybody discourage
him. He had a talent, his father said, and by golly, if you were lucky enough
to have one, you should flaunt it.
He didn’t tell his son to forget his stupid fantasies about being a
writer and learn to do something that would make him rich, or something that would give
him a trade, or something with womb
to tomb benefits. In fact, his ol’
man used to do more than encourage him. He used to help his son get interviews
when he was still just a sprout, and drive him back and forth, and read what he
wrote afterwards, and comment. Once he even told his son that the boy had gone far
beyond his own understanding, that his dad no longer understood exactly what
the boy was doing, but that whatever it was, he admired his son for it and that
the boy should shoot for the stars.
I hear him talk about his father and, you know, Whitie, I get a lump in
my throat thinking what I wouldn’t have given for a little, a fraction, of that
kind of encouragement and understanding. But like I say, “ideal” sometimes
isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And one day my friend’s father went down into
the cellar, stuck a shotgun in his mouth and blew his brains out—in the very
house where his sons lived, and where my friend still lives and writes today. I
mean, all that had gone before in their almost ideal relationship was shattered
in a thunder-clap. How could a boy, by now a man, who had felt so close to his
dad compute this? That his father would want so badly to leave the world they
shared that he was willing to kill himself to get away?
My friend still has the shotgun. It’s not some morbid “souvenir” of his
“ideal” father’s death. On the contrary, the shotgun has become a celebration
of life. Every year my friend and his brother take that very shotgun hunting,
and after spending a great day afield together, my friend looks out at the
great beyond as the sun goes down and says, “See what you’re missing, you
But let’s talk about us, Whitie. I’ll have to say this, that you were
never the everyday, ordinary dad. For better or for worse, you were unique.
Obsessive-compulsive, manic, bipolar, most of the time at least mildly
depressed, irascible and short-fused, ever worried about what might happen in
some future that only God knew would exist or not, seldom if ever just living
the moment and enjoying life, usually predictable but sometimes, exceptionally,
off the charts, unfathomable. But some other times, once in a great while, countable
times, happy and hilariously funny....like the time, during one of those
lighter moments, when we were playing My Father Owns a Grocery Store and had
exhausted every item on the grocer’s shelves so we changed the name of the game
to My Father Owns a Drugstore and when somebody said, “My father owns a
drugstore and in it he sells something that starts with‘s’,” the first words out of your mouth were,
“Is it bullet-shaped?” We still laugh
about that sometimes!
But then there were the dark, dark times when you’d hole-up in your room
for weeks on end or check yourself into a psych ward, where you could hide
out even from us, and it was as if nothing but your illness existed—for any of
us, but especially for you. You barely recognized us. We barely existed in your
world, and if we did, it was only as a burden, a responsibility, added noise
and static you’d rather not have had. Especially me, I told myself, because
that was what it felt like, as if I were what most vexed you in the entire
And then, all of the sudden, right after one of these psychotic
episodes, you’d get up and, after a brief period that acted a lot like a
hangover but wasn’t, because you never drank when you were depressed and only
occasionally, socially, when you were happy (or on a manic high), you could be
a completely different person. Especially around others. So much so that my
friends would say, “Wow, you’re dad’s so
cool. I wish I had a dad like
him!” And, although it embarrasses me to tell you this, Whitie, I’d say, “You want
him? Take him home with you when you leave. Strictly no return policy.”
You always had such physical grace. I admired that in you, Whitie. A
natural sportsman, you were. As a boy, none of that rubbed off on me. If
somebody had seen you walking down the street, marching with long strides and
sure feet, your Popeye arms pumping, one-two, one-two with each stride, they
would never have guessed that you were chronically ill. Nobody could have
looked more confident and in control.
Clearly, I was overgrown and clumsy. You told me so yourself on many an
occasion. I know it must have embarrassed and disappointed you. It wasn’t until
I was a young adult that I learned to overcome that by training my body. Like
in anything else, there are naturals like you, Whitie, and those who need to
train like crazy, like me. I just wish I’d known that, wish somebody—like you,
Whitie—had told me that when I was still a boy, instead of allowing me to believe,
before the Army got hold of me, that if you weren’t a natural, you might as
well get used to being a washout, a nerd, a benchwarmer. Confidence is so important
in becoming athletic, and I didn’t have any. I had to find it and build it
myself—with the help of a drill sergeant’s boot up my ass.
It hurt when I was a kid that we never tossed a ball together, that you
never taught me everything you knew about sports, that neither did you take any
interest in my interests, that we never hunted, or fished, or hiked, or camped
together. I remember joining the Scouts, working hard to fit in, to get my
merit badges, to be “one of the boys”. Not because I gave a rat’s ass about
being a Scout, but because I thought maybe it would make you love me more and
maybe take an interest in something I was doing. Mom ended up going with me to
buy my uniform, accompanied me—along with widows and divorcees, since
the other boys were with their dads—at the Blue and Gold Banquet, was there to
cheer me the day I won the Pinewood Derby, while I’m not even sure you knew I
was in Scouts. Which I wasn’t for long because, not surprisingly, I lost
interest and quit.
And when I decided sports of any kind were a lost cause and excelled in
band—head percussionist, student conductor, head of the percussion section in
All-Area Band, head percussionist in the Buckeye Scarlet concert band my first
and only year at Ohio State—you wrote me off, never came to a game or a
concert, never acknowledged my achievements, never said you were proud of me. I
didn’t realize it consciously then, but everything I did, even later when I
found myself in charge over and over again in whatever activity I undertook, it
was to seek your approval, Whitie.
Why was that? Because I always loved you. I still love you.
But I want you to know, Whitie, that, like I told you in those
long-overdue talks we had while the cancer was killing you, there’s nothing
pending between us. I’m okay, you’re okay, Whitie. It’s an EST thing. No blame,
no regrets. Mostly, I feel bad for you. For how sad and broken you were much of
your life. How you couldn’t break far enough out of your personal darkness to
see us better. To see me better.
Still, if I seldom managed to make you feel proud of me, there were lots
of times I felt proud of you. Like the time on a hot summer day that I took a
black friend to your restaurant and soda fountain, the Teddy Bear, for a Coke.
The chief of police was sitting drinking coffee at the long table up front, the
only other patron in the middle of a slow dog-day afternoon. The same chief who’d
held that post for as long as anybody could remember, mainly because he’d been
so adept at keeping our all-white town that way. And he made a nasty racist
comment, said he hadn’t known you were a nigger-lover, and you told him that if
he could get out of there before you got out from behind the counter, it’d save
you the trouble of throwing his fat ass out on the street.
My heart burst with pride that day, Whitie.
Or the time later when you were a route salesman, killing yourself
working twelve, fourteen, sixteen-hour days on minimum salary and a three
percent commission but pulling down the best money you’d ever had in your life,
selling several million dollars’ worth of goods a year out of the back of a
twelve-ton truck. One afternoon you stopped by the house to pick something up
and the company president happened to drive by. That evening he left a note on
the windshield of your truck where it was plugged in for the night at the
plant. It said he never again wanted to see your truck parked in the driveway
of your house at two in the afternoon.
You went inside and marched up to the president’s office. Pushed past
his secretary who said that he was “in a meeting” and told her, “Don’t worry,
this won’t take long.” You burst in, nodded to the president’s guests, then turned
to him, slapped the note down on his desk top and said, “The next time you
leave me a little note like this, I’ll personally shove it up your ass.” And
then you turned on your heel and walked out, not knowing whether you’d have a
job the next day—but you did! And not caring either, because no matter how much
money you were making, it wasn’t worth letting yourself be humiliated.
That day too, Whitie, you filled me to bursting with pride. And there
were others, lots.
So, I get it that maybe there just wasn’t anything left over from your
illness to invest in being “the ideal dad”. I get it. I understand. You were
fighting that all your life. You were constantly struggling to overcome a
handicap. If you’d been blind, or in a wheelchair, or missing an arm or a leg,
I’d have gotten it back then too. But mental disabilities don’t show. People
with them just seem to be “acting up” or “not getting their shit together.”
Those of us who, right along with the person suffering them, become victims of
them always want to say, “What the hell’s wrong
with you? Why are you acting this
way? Why can’t you just be normal?”
But, Whitie, I get it now. It’s like blaming a paraplegic for not being
able to walk, or a deaf person for not being able to hear, or a blind person
for not being able to see. You couldn’t reach me, because you couldn’t reach
But you taught me so much with your example, Whitie. You taught me that
you only had your name and your word and that without them you were nothing.
You taught me the nobility of work, of not owing anybody anything, of being
your own man. You taught me not to back down no matter how scared I was inside.
And also with your example, with your suffering, with your constant and losing
battle, you taught me about depression, and I learned that you had to get it
before it got you, that as soon as it loomed into sight, you needed to confront
it, grab it by the throat and shake it, choke it to death, before it had a
chance to grab you.
I don’t know if there’s anything beyond this, Whitie. But the day you
died, you sent me a message. You know what I’m talking about. So if that was
your way of telling me that there is something else, I’m hoping you are really in a better place, Ol’ Man. And wherever
you are, Whitie, know that I love you and always did.