My dad was 27 when his father died. I am 28 right now. My grandfather was 57 when he passed away. My father is 58 today. If you’re seeing a theme developing, you catch on quick.
The hetero lifemate and I talk about this all the time. His mother and my father are the same age. To a huge degree, they are the only parents we have left, though objectively, and in reality, that is just not true. But it feels that way at times, and we often speak about how terrified we are of losing our parent. What it would feel like, the horrible, rudderless, unspeakable pain and listless quality it would bring to our lives. We just don’t want to know what that feels like, not yet at least.
But we still talk about it. “They’re getting older,” we will say, ticking off changes in body and psyche that we’ve noticed, chronicling the little things that take on enormous proportion in these types of conversation. Before he got married last year we both decided, if confronted with such a loss, we’d bail. We’d be gone. How could you possibly react otherwise than to just pull the chord and leave the life you knew, because, and maybe this is true for many kids in my generation, we are just so anchored to our parents. At the same time, we ripped the umbilical a long time ago, more independent in how we think and live than any group of kids before us, and any that will ever be. Prove me wrong. That’s just how it feels.
Of course now that he is married it is only me that would be leaving. But this would never happen anyway, it’s just talk, more metaphor to try and explain the inexplicable. We are saying that we would feel alien to this life we lead, this place we live. A new start would be in order.
When my grandmother turned 80 we gathered the McNeill clan into New Orleans, where she and her brothers had grown up and where much of my family history lies. New Orleans, Thibodaux, Metarie and the outlying bayou region. We rode in a giant party bus out to Bayou Lobouche, where our family crypt is housed. My great grandmother, Cora, a 5’2” 200+ pound magnificent woman with a thick, almost indecipherable Cajun accent rests with the rest of our family.
I remember tracking down the male names on the mausoleum, counting their ages. 62, 45, 57, 53, 42, 60. These were the ages the men in my family lived to. I called my dad over.
“Have you looked at this? Look at the ages!”
He scanned down the list. “Yeah. Not good, is it?” We laughed about it, hard, from our bellies, because of the absurdity of it all. You had to go back 6 or 7 generations to find one who had lived what might be considered a long life, and this anomaly somehow managed into his 90s. What the fuck.
Light up, take a few swigs, what does it matter. I have a genetic imposition, the men in my family are pansies, we wilt way before the frost, like flowers who hear that fall is coming and panic, dropping all their petals and browning into the ground. The rest of the field, and that would be the women here—my sister’s lucky break, it seems—reach for the sun. Fall is a far way off. They have plenty of time. I stand before you now, typing these words, in my middle age. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow I’m pretty much screwed.
My father’s 58th birthday was a very big deal to both of us. A milestone. When he hit the day we sat down and talked about it.
“You’ve outlived your father,” I said.
“I know. And you’ve outlived where I was. I can’t tell you what it means to me to make it here. It’s been on my mind for a few years now.”
“Mine too,” I replied, nodding. “Mine too.”
I will catch myself every now and then, thinking about my dad in terms of borrowed time. I hate that fact. It happens very rarely, but it’s not a mystery why. It has as much to do with my awareness of our family history, but much more to do with the fact that I’m just not ready to lose him yet. There’s too much left to do. Too many things to share with him. Too many things. Full stop.
All he had was knee replacement surgery. It wasn’t brain surgery, after all. Just the replacement of a joint. Still, it scared me. I feel silly now, even writing this all down, but when I went to the hospital tonight I half expected to see a radically changed man, someone somehow diminishing before my eyes. What a fool am I.
He was different tonight, though. Massive amounts of drugs can do that to you. I rounded into the room and his eyes perked up, he raised his eyebrows, he broke into this huge grin.
“Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeey! My son! Come over here son! Sit on this side!” Loopy as Toocan Sam. Drugs. Wonderful, lovely hospital drugs. “Hey,” he said to the nurse over in the corner. “Hey,” he said again. “Hey.” She was ignoring him. I think my dad had been a bit of a pain in the ass. Probably telling them he was ready to go home, then not listening to them and trying to get up anyway. “Hey,” he continued, unbowed. She wasn’t going to win this one, my dad would beat her. “Hey,” she finally looked up, “This is my son!”
“You being a pain in the ass, Dad?”
“Yeah, I think I might have been.” His eyes were darting around the room. He couldn’t stop grinning and laughing. He was 6 again. “I think I might have wanted to get up. I told the doctor I didn’t quite have my plan yet.”
That sentence, that very last sentence, describes my dad perfectly. He didn’t have a plan yet, and that probably left him fidgety and agitated, but on drugs so happily agitated. My dad is a plan man. He is most of the time in perfect control. I’ve rarely not seen him so.
People tell me all the time how much I remind them of my father. We don’t look the same, but we share the same mannerisms, the same way of speaking (though I curse a lot more, something he frequently points out to me), the same bodily laugh, the same focused intensity, the same earnest desperation in how we approach life. When they tell me this, I take it as the highest of complements. He is the best man I’ve ever known. The person I respect above all others. My sister is my favorite person in the world, but my father is my hero.
We diverge in a very simple, yet acute place. I don’t plan. For anything. Where my dad pauses to assess, I charge straight on, full bore. Where my dad thinks through, I jump. If the two of us were standing on a cliff to base jump from it, I would be the first one off, just trusting that he weight on my back was a parachute. He would never jump without checking his gear first. I’ve found myself sometimes, in midair, feeling behind me, thinking, “Shit. Forgot the parachute again.” And I hit. And it hurts like hell. And the next time I’m on the very same cliff I jump again, without checking. Sometimes the chute is there, and the ride is amazing. Other times it’s not, and the ride is just as brilliant, it just makes the landing more uncomfortable than it could have been.
My dad jumps too. We both live our lives that way. He just always has everything in order before he does so, double and triple checking everything. He’s up for the risk, but with him they are always calculated and well thought out. With me, they are just risk.
That is the difference between the two of us, and I think it’s also why we get on as well as we do. We are dear friends as much as father and son, and I think it’s because, as much as he hates to see me hurt, he is proud of the way I live my life, he admires how I approach things, even if he wishes I would be just a tad more deliberate about it. My dad respects me. My father likes me as a person. You cannot overestimate what it feels like to know this with certainty as a child. I pay him the same.
This is not a perfect relationship. Not at all. We fight and go at it, we have our differences, we disagree often. My dad is an opinionated man. I frequently find myself pushing him back over whatever line he has crossed. But, when he glances around and notices he’s stepped a tad too far, he always retreats back willingly. It took me a long time to feel that I had earned my way outside of his shadow, a long time until I felt comfortable in who I was, especially in comparison to him. He casts an awfully wide shadow, I was intimidated by that for a long time. But I’ve earned who I am, and we’ve earned our relationship as it stands. I would trade it for nothing.
I don’t know why I was scared while he was under the knife. It was a knee replacement. The doctor would have had to cleave his leg in two and then leave to get a beer with the lads while my father bled out for my worst fears to come true, and I think doctors are trained not to do those things, so he was probably in the best of hands. But I was anxious and nervous. I was fidgety and agitated. I just didn’t have it in me to say goodbye to him. That time will come, some day, but he is hearty, full of spit and piss, still interested, and he is such a strong, strong person. That day is far off.
It will come, I know, and I won’t be ready for it whenever it is. But I know that until then he will remain for me what he has always been. A remarkably steadfast and steadying force in my life. Someone who loves me unquestionably and unconditionally. One of my pillars. One of my closest and dearest friends. I can’t wait.
It’s simple. I love my father very much.