I was seventeen years old on the day my father died, nineteen years ago this week. I was a young man, very young. As it happened, I talked, prayed, screamed, argued, fought, cried, dismissed, and accepted a great many things about myself during the time that my Father was dying, and in the time after.
It was a tremendously significant time in my life. Anyone who knew me then or knew me well after could likely tell you a story about that time. I won’t speculate as to what anyone else would say about how I handled things, as I really don’t care anymore. The death of my Father colored every relationship and major choice I made for at least ten years after he died.
My Father and I had a relationship that was very much in development: I know with unerring certainty that my Father and I were just starting to understand one another as he got sick, and I won’t deny the fact that there are a lot of days that I feel cheated out of the relationship with him that I would have had, had he lived.
Dad was diagnosed with Cancer around Memorial Day, 1990. He died October 9, 1990. The months therein were among the most difficult times in my life. Beyond the issues with Dad’s health, I was a teenager. I had a serious girlfriend who was my best friend, and then I did not. I had friends that genuinely tried hard to be there for me, but I was too damaged to let them, and alienated myself from many of them. I made some new friends that were amazing, and they tried too, but in the end, I was lost. I was a mess, and truth be told, I would remain a mess in one way or another for a long time.
The journal that Burnett made me keep as part of my Junior and Senior years in the American Studies program at HHS has, over the years, proved invaluable in my life, so much so that back in the old days when I was teaching English, I made my kids do the same thing. I always told them what Alice told us when we asked why we had to keep a journal: “because it’s a grade, and you’ll thank me later.”
And I do. I have several notebooks of my reflections to look back on what was an interesting period of years, to be sure. Thanks, Alice.
So in remembering my Dad this week, I am revisiting these journals formally for the first time in a long time. I am not quoting the entries in their entirety, and will omit and truncate names as needed. I was sixteen when these entries start.
June 5, 1990:
“Tonight was the PIPA Dinner (the Drama club end of year function). I sang “Imagine” by John Lennon and “Your Song” by Elton John…Dad came home yesterday-it’s definite, he has Cancer. I shudder just writing the word-WHY HIM? I know a search for the answer will prove fruitless but I can’t help but wonder. It’s scary-the doctor says he has a lot going for him-perfect health, us, the best doctor (him) in the world. He’s got good chances but it’s a new field…but he has a low number of platelets or something. There’s just no answers. I don’t like it.”
June 14, 1990:
“I know I’m not going to be a coward. I love my family and I’m going to be here, make life easier. That’s why I’m here!”
September 6, 1990:
“It feels like I haven’t been gone at all-what a summer--Firstly, I spent hell of a lot of time in Princeton Hospital. My Father is very ill. Last night he went into Intensive Care with Pneumonia. What a way to start school…I’m scared.”
“Band camp starts tomorrow, and I’m not sure what to do. I called “Pelf” and asked her advice about whether to go or not and I’ve decided to go to Beemerville with the band-I really hope nothing happens at home-Dad is very sick.”
September 7, 1990:
“Today was the first day of Band Camp-it was a lot of fun-it’s really beautiful up here. I feel very at ease and very relaxed…I’ve called home a few times just to make sure all is ok-it seems pretty good-I’m beginning to think I’ve made a good choice by coming-it’s good to get away-I’m having a wonderful time. “Sweetchuck” and A.O are my roommates, and we busted into the best room here--we woke everyone up with “Tequila” this morning. Dad improved a little-at least nothing bad happened.”
The band returned form Beemerville on Sunday the 9th of September. I went back to school on Monday, and my Dad was still in the ICU. No one was sure if he would ever come out of it. While I did not write this down back then, I remember the following moment with a clarity that speaks to me of the sheer joy and significance of the moment. I’ve never written about this before, but it happened I believe on September 11, 1990. It was a Tuesday. I had Honors Physics with Grover every other day for periods 7/8 down by Shally house. I was a genuinely/sarcastically enthusiastic student of Physics, but had weaseled my way out of class that day to stop by office of the Shally House, which was around the corner from Grover’s room. The Shally House secretary, who’s name I deeply regret not remembering, once again allowed me use the phone to call the hospital to check on my dad, who was in ICU at the time and unresponsive. I called the all-too-familiar number and reached my mom, who told me that my Dad was back, and awake. As though he had simply had a long nap and woken up, he seemed to have sat up and asked about what was going on…it was a huge relief to all of us, and I remember heading back to class and running into KS, and not only hugging her out of nowhere, but twirling her around in the air.
It was the first time I had felt hopeful in along time, and the weeks that followed were significant. I can’t recall a moment after that, for a long time, where I was so enthusiastically hopeful, or perhaps hopeful at all. One of the best hugs I ever got.
After this point, my journal went into after-the-fact retelling-mode, as I hadn’t written in the journal until three weeks after my Dad had died. Much as I do now, I kept notes in my calendar about the things that were going on in my life, and wrote the following narrative with that in hand. This is what I wrote in late October 1990, as it pertained to the last few weeks of my Father‘s life and the first few weeks of my life without him. I have edited for content, clearly, as my thoughts on the HHS football team, and other such trivia are not quite as relevant to this topic, nor are my thoughts on my romantic relationships at the time. In addition, I am omitting from this column a variety of stories including that of an epic canoe ride, a drive to pick up storm windows, my debut as a solo artist at the short-lived “HHS Club,” the delivery of a Renoir poster, seeing “Flatliners” at the Mercer Mall, “The Foreigner,” Hancock Field, and my first rehearsals as part of the 1990 NJ All State Chorus. I was verbose, even then, but I am trying to focus there. It was fun to re-read all of that stuff though.
"Was a special day-we sprang Dad from the hospital for a few hours. We took him to the church picnic and had a wonderful time. Just for him to be out among friends was wonderful. He is so charismatic with people-everyone loves him-as do I”
September 18, 1990:
"Dad got to come home-it was so wonderful to have him back home. He slept in my parents bed for the first time in weeks and said he slept great! It’s really wonderful to have him here-I hope it lasts for a while.”
September 21, 1990:
“I had a little party-just some friends came over and we played music loud and ate and danced and talked and watched movies and stuff-it was nice to have people in my house-some of my best friends have never been here. Now they have”
The gap in time here covers a lot of the stories I mentioned above. I remember that time at home being very busy for me personally, with a pretty heavy course load, a role in the Fall play (until they fired me), rehearsals for All State Chorus, the band, Church, and the other social rigors of being a 17 year old boy with an ‘85 Sentra to cruise in. A romance had ended in my life, and another was beginning. I was pretty much every other thing I would have been at 17, except my Father was dying. Life at home, as I recall, was very pleasant. It was decided that it was important that I try to maintain as normal a life as possible and I did. Although, to be frank, I probably was not as honest with the people in my life about how bad things were with Dad’s health. I remember some of my friends being legitimately shocked that my Dad was as sick as he turned out to be.
October 6, 1990:
“The band had our first competition-what a night it turned out to be. As I marched on the field, I felt very confident. Dad at this point is very sick and I’m scared-Later, as I marched off the field, I realized that I had just played and performed well, and that my daddy wasn’t there to see it, and he may never be. He may never see his children get married or his son perform an original composition. I cried. I cried as I’ve never cried before, with TS and RA I wanted my Father back as he always had been. I guess I kinda knew.”
October 7, 1990:
“Was the last time I saw my Father. I went to the hospital alone and spent a few hours with him. I told him how I admired him for all he is and how I loved him. How much that is a part of me came from him. He was out of it and pretty unresponsive, but he held my hand and I held his. He didn’t really respond, but somehow, he must have heard me. He squeezed me hand and he knew I was there. Somehow, I know he heard me.”
Monday, October 8, 1990:
“Somehow, I had this desire to call the hospital and see how he was. I called from the Band Room phone during fifth period. My Mom was with him and she put the phone up to his ear I told him I loved him and he said ‘I Love you.” With an oxygen mask on and feeling so weak, slowly losing it, he managed to tell me he loved me! That is the last time I talked to my Father.”
October 9, 1990:
“My Father Died. I was awakened at 6:30 am by a phone call from the nurse who spent the night with him and said ‘He’s having a little more trouble breathing this morning, tell your mother.’ Mom had asked to be notified in the event of any change. By this point, Dad had developed the Pneumonia again that had put him in Intensive care and mom had decided not to treat him with Intensive Care. He made it back once and it was a miracle-a wonderful miracle. Mom didn’t want him to suffer in ICU forever. Mom left for the hospital. By the time she arrived, Dad had died. At the age of 50. She called me and said ‘It’s not looking good, don’t go to school.’ She didn’t tell me he had died until she came home. I knew though. After I got off the phone with her, I walked to my backdoor. It was such a beautiful morning and there was this breeze-a warm, loving and tender breeze. I went outside and walked around my backyard. It was very beautiful, the sky was a pale dark blue, free of clouds and the Sun made all the world so colorful. The dew had not yet dried and the birds were singing in my backyard that morning. That breeze lasted for 5 days. On the 5th day, I knew my Father was in heaven.
Jean, the Rector of our Church came home with my Mom. I had by now circled round to my side yard and saw them pull up. I knew. She told me. I held her in my arms. We planned the services that morning.
The first place I wanted to go was school. I did so-to get my books and to tell a few of my friends was had happened. I had Pelf and RA paged to the office and when they came, I took them outside and told them. We must have spent an hour outside talking. Pelf let the band know and helped organize people to come to the service. She is one of the best friends I’ve ever had…"
October 11-12, 1990:
“On the 11th, we held a prayer vigil at my church for Dad. It was great…the service was on the 12th. I went into school for 3 periods (just for Pre-Calculus and American Studies) and it was nice. I can’t wait to go back Monday. I feel so at ease at school. All my friends are there. My Grandma and my Uncles came Wednesday night. Some friends came over too. BP, JG, RA, TS, CR, and Pelf. I had told them before he died that when what happened happens, I would not want to be avoided or treated with kid gloves. They know me well. They are here.
The Funeral was Beautiful. We had a nice sized pickup choir, incense, banners, bombastic music. It was not dull at all. It was a beautiful service-so many people. I made a speech there. It was very well accepted by the people. (Note: The eulogy I wrote, in Annie’s purple pen, is taped into the journal here. I later used my words that day as the basis for my College essay )
My sister’s friends from Ohio drove here for the service, 12 hours in the car, stayed for a few hours and went back that night for GRE’s the next day. It’s great to know she has such great friends.
Almost everybody came to the services-there were some surprises also. RL organized a whole bunch of SPS people to come, many of whom I haven’t seen since graduation. I was just overwhelmed at the amount of support…I don’t know where I’d be without this band, I’ve been involved with it for years but this it the first year I’ve officially taken it as a class…"
Late October, 1990:
"…I miss my Father. I’ve realized it’s pointless to ask why this had to happen to us. We really had and exceptional family situation. I used to come home from school and go to the kitchen and Dad would be at the table…the radio on and Mom would be cooking and I’d tell them what I’d done, etc, all day. Now I come home from school and he’s not there. On Monday night, the football game’s not on. Every time I would go down to the playroom, all my life, he’d be there reading or watching TV and I’d watch with him for a bit in between homework…I miss him. I want him to be here for my All State concert and to see me march in competition and sing and play with the Jazz Ensemble and play with the concert band. I want him to hear the music I write and meet his grandchildren and travel the world with Mom when they retire. I want him here. Somehow, I think he can see me…This is not how it was supposed to be but they say life gives no guarantees…
From where I stand, the sun is still shining. I look to the sky, but I ask no questions. I know it will not answer the questions I have…There is a breeze that reminds me that I am loved.”
The journal continues beyond this point, but I had lost steam with journaling after that and was working more with expressing myself through awful poetry and later, into songs, starting with such non-hits as “The Road Not Far Behind” and “The Beach Song.” For the bulk of the next decade, that became my medium of expression. I wrote a lot of songs, and I remember reading the lyrics to one of my more mediocre lyrical efforts at Dad’s gravesite in Ohio, nearly two years after he had died.
In the end, I think that while I miss him-his humor, his nature and his presence, what I miss the most is what might have been, and the relationship that I might have had with him. I was a dumb 16 year old kid when he got sick. I was never the same, and my own inability and refusal to deal with the challenges of my life and those of others around me at that time clouded every relationship I had for nearly a decade following his death. I was a mess for years, and I didn’t know it, and it was my wife that pulled me back from the edge, though that is another story.
But, when all this went down, I was a kid. I often wonder about the relationship Dad and I would have today had he either lived through his cancer, or had he not had cancer at all. Both are fantasies, and I don’t indulge them often anymore, but I do wonder at times.
We all have a history. That was a significant time in my life. While it’s fun to look back, I do find myself looking back with less frequency. The past doesn’t change much, and there is an awful lot happening in the now and in the future that matter an awful lot.
So, 19 years have passed since Dad died. I was 17 when it happened. I know very few things about anything, but I do know this: My Dad would have loved my wife. He’d have gone nuts for my kids. He was a good man.
That’s what I think. I don’t know what he would think of me as a man or as a Father. Nor can I speculate on what he would think of the choices that I made by leaving my career and walking away from education, which was his love. I don’t know, and in the end, I don’t know that it matters. He was my Father, and I loved him. His death and the manner in which I handled it, affected me deeply for many years, but I got better. I do wonder sometimes what he would think of my life now, but I wonder it less than I used to. I’m happy with it.
October 9 has always been a date of note on my calendar, but I have noticed that as the years go by, it means different things. I’m glad that I revisited my journals of the time, and am grateful to Burnett for making me write them. I found it interesting to revisit the kid I was then, as I am someone very different today.