“Father issues?” Yeah, if I had a nickel… Manny said “father issues” like it was the secret he had inadvertently discovered hiding under my napkin while I was in the bathroom: “Ugh, I’m not a Hemingway fan.” Father issues? That was the first time. Or like the annoying habit he couldn’t break me of: “I love that movie!” Father issues… That was the regular. Or like a moral indictment he was obligated to render: “I won’t go.” Father issues. That was the end. And I’d say, “Ooh, just wait… You have no idea…. One day I’ll tell you and then you’ll feel like a real asshole. Asshole.” We laughed; we always laughed.
It was funny because he was right. And because he knew he was right and I knew he was right. But I never told him the story. “Father issues” was his joke; the secret of it was mine. Manny smoked; I bummed. Manny liked to debate; I liked to mediate. Manny enjoyed the joke; I enjoyed the joking. Neither of us wanted to discuss it any further. Why ruin a good thing?
The laughing did eventually stop, but not because I told him. It turns out there are other ways to ruin a good joke.
Bad news comes in threes. The week my dog was diagnosed with lymphoma, I found out He had cancer. The week my dog died, I found out He was dying too. The week of my birthday, I found out He was dead. He was in North Carolina. I didn’t know that. He had been in Illinois, Arizona, Minnesota (or was it Michigan? no… Minnesota), and who-knows-where else? Not me. I guess the federal prison system can send inmates anywhere. And they sent Him everywhere – but He didn’t see those places. Just the walls.
They were supposed to be sending Him home: “compassionate release.” He was being sent home to die. But I didn’t know when. There was paperwork to be done. Bureaucracy. I was going to purchase a plane ticket and visit Him when He got there. I looked up flights. I told my boss I’d be taking some time - family emergency. I would leave in a few days, maybe a week. But that paperwork stopped. New paperwork began. He didn’t make it. I told my boss, “nevermind.”
He was sick; He died.
He was sick. He was in prison. He was going home. I was going home. He died.
He was sick. He was gone. He died.
I felt sick.
A compass, a wallet, a t-shirt, a rock: this is what He left me. Brown eyes, full lips, seasonal allergies, a void: this is what He gave me. A parent, a happy memory, a goodbye, a grave: this is what He failed to provide.
His ashes wouldn’t arrive for a while – 6 months, maybe. Bureaucracy. Sooner there would be a family gathering; a farewell party. Would I go? No, I wouldn’t. I would wait for the ashes. I hadn’t seen him in 15 years; I could wait a few months for some ashes. But my sisters were there. And the aunts, uncles, and cousins whom I hadn’t seen in much longer than 15 years. They could handle the symbolic gathering. I’d wait for the man, Himself.
There was discussion of splitting the ashes - whenever they finally arrived - between my sisters and myself. We’d each get a handful, I guess. That was a strange thought. He would finally be ours - the four of us could each do with him as we pleased. Put him on a shelf. Stick him in the closet. Dump him in the river. Toss him to the wind.
I had fantasies of all the places I’d take him. Our long-awaited father-daughter road trip. I may have been alone in this, but I kind of loved the idea. Our time; My father. Then, another surprise. They had received the package much earlier than expected. They took care of it. His brothers had hopped the fence to the cemetery the night He arrived. They sneaked through the dark to my grandfather’s grave, dug a small hole, and buried Him in the ground. Illegal, unidentified, unmourned. Gone.
The great inheritance. I’ve considered turning the compass into a necklace. It’s small and cheap - tin, less than an inch across. Maybe a child’s toy that He found in a parking lot? A small prize? It might be sweet. It also might turn my skin green.
I could save the wallet for my non-existent son. “This is a relic of your absent grandfather. Enjoy.” Black nylon, Velcro closure, gold Iowa Hawkeye football logo on the front, never used. It’s not exactly a weathered journal documenting a life of adventure, but it will have to do.
I thought about sewing the t-shirt into a quilt. It could work: white cotton worn-thin with a portrait of a dopey-faced bald guy with crossed-eyes on a fluorescent pink diamond. “Curly’s Pizza – Nyuk! Nyuk! Nyuk!” it says. Was he a Stooges fan? Or just pizza? I should probably sell it on ebay; hipsters.
The rock I could dispose of in place of the ashes that I never received: toss it into the ocean, lob it off a bridge into the Mississippi River, or fling it into the Grand Canyon. That would have some sort of poetic significance…like I’m showing him one of the places he never really got to visit.
But I won’t do any of those things. No, I’ll just chuck the rock out the car window. I won’t even look to see where it lands.