Monday, June 16, 2014

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Eighteen Months: one profile of my father (Part II)

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A young author with his grandparents.

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Dad claimed to have slept with his high school math teacher. He also said he could read minds. When he started smoking at 43, he told Grandma that the doctor advised it, and when he met his fourth wife, he claimed to have once been a professional bronco rider. These were lies, I know that now, but he was my father, and in my early teens, I took what he said seriously. There was also evidence to back up his claims. He started conversations with, “I know what you’re thinking,” and usually he was right. In old photos he looked like a bronco rider in western-style shirts and tight fitting jeans, slender and muscular as a greyhound with narrow hips and broad shoulders. A doctor could have told him to start smoking. As a youth, I didn’t know enough about doctors to say what they would and would not advise a patient to do. And a romantic relationship with his high school math teacher would explain his ability to compute complicated math problems in his head, like how much heating duct a 16,000-square-foot building required.
He read like an unreliable narrator, his dialogue hugging the margins between fact and fiction. I wonder if he liked being more than what he was, and I question if this was something he’d begun doing at a young age, or something that started later in life. Perhaps he had a moment of clarity, and realized that his life was not what he’d hoped it would be, so he began crafting his own past, hopeful that it would influence the future. Or maybe he told lies for attention. Or girls. I don’t know what his motivations were but I know that I had, on occasion, claimed I could play the guitar solo from Van Halen's Eruption, had sex with a lonely 25-year-old cowgirl, and once rode a bull. And sometimes I claimed that Dad lived in Wyoming. I compared my lies with his and wondered if this was something I was predetermined to do.
A few months before Dad went to jail, he started asking Grandma for money. He’d been fired from Jameson Heating and Air Conditioning for selling prescription pills to coworkers. But he told Grandma he was innocent, just like he claimed to have never cheated on my mother, taken pills to get high, or driven while intoxicated. There was always a shitty cop with a chip on his shoulder, or an accusation-making son of a bitch that Dad pissed off in high school, or a flirtatious waitress that needed a ride and Dad’s good intentions created a misunderstanding. Grandma believed him because she had to. No one felt more obligated to grant Dad the benefit of the doubt. Dad said he needed money for rent or gas or groceries, but his eyes were always glossy and his breath was always sweet, and the rent was always over-due, and his Ford pickup was always a notch above empty, and his fridge and cupboards were always spare. Grandma must have known that her money would go to some other purpose, something she didn’t agree with, but she always gave it to him because I think she liked believing that he could spend it on gas.
Like Grandma, I also clung to his lies. Between his release from jail and his death two year later, he started asking me for money and I always gave it to him for the same reasons Grandma did. Even now at 28, nine years after his death, I still cling to his lies, awake at night imagining him throwing his high school math teacher a charming grin, or riding a bronco in a dusty arena, boots caked in manure, rather than him shoeless sitting in some white-walled jail cell, or eyes closed and coffin stiff.

A month before Dad’s incarceration, Grandma and I were driving from the grocery store. Across from Provo Power was Dad’s gray Ford pickup. The flashers were on, and the hood was up. Dad’s right hand held a beer, his left held himself as he urinated on the sidewalk. It was midday. If he saw us, he didn’t show it. Grandma gripped my forearm, “Keep driving,” she said. There was force behind her grip, a hurt I didn’t understand, and probably never will. Her eyes were rich with fatigue, her right hand trembling. All I can find are names for her emotions—embarrassment, shame, regret—but those words are inadequate, incapable of describing the depth of her heartache.
I’d seen Dad urinate in shopping center parking lots, job sites, and potted plants at garden centers. Utah County was his urinal. I never figured out if it was his lowered inhibitions, a lack of shame, or laziness. Perhaps it was all three. I’d seen Dad pee in public enough times to assume Grandma had also seen it, or at least heard others in town talk about it. But this was the first time we’d seen it together.
We drove for 10 minutes before Grandma spoke into the maroon dashboard of her Buick Park Avenue. “I don’t know what your Dad was doing back there, and frankly I don’t want to know. But what I want you to understand is that it was wrong. And you don’t have to do things that are wrong.” Sometimes I wonder if Grandma knew about my fear of becoming Dad. Or maybe she feared that whatever was making Dad drink and drive and urinate on the side of a busy road was also inside of me.

I don’t know when Dad started drinking, or why. Mom said it was after he left, but I don’t know if I believe that. I think he’d been drinking in secret for years. When I was seven, two years before my parents’ separation, my brother and I found a bottle of whisky hidden in Dad’s desk. Mormons don’t drink, and at the time, Dad was an elder in our local congregation. Ryan and I had never seen alcohol. We assumed the amber liquid in a rectangular glass bottle was fancy apple juice. After we sipped a little, we assumed it was rotten apple juice. And his Vicodin addiction. I suspect that started after his ulcer surgery. I was 8, and that was the first time I can recall him taking pills.
Mom and Grandma never talked about Dad’s past. I have always been left with questions. Did it start after his surgery? Was he a victim of circumstance? Or did he get the pills illegally? Did he start drinking at a young age and never had the will to quit? Or did he start sometime after he married Mom? Was he born, as some say, with a bottle in his mouth? I don’t know. But what I do know is that these questions were a big part of my fear. How could I avoid becoming Dad if I didn’t know his past?

The day Dad was sentenced, Grandma went through her pink and turquoise address book and called family. Then she called friends. This was strange behavior. Mornings she made her bed, afternoons she vacuumed the carpet, and evenings she hand washed dishes. She silently baked bread and pulled weeds. She was a reserved and domestic Mormon widow who watched the Lawrence Welk Show, Matlock, and Diagnosis Murder rather than new shows, with new actors that might offend. Not a gossip. But most of that day, she sat at her yellow rotary phone, the same phone Bell began renting to her in 1962 when they installed the line, telling the same story. “Randy’s got himself locked up… for drinking while driving… I don’t know what I’m gonna do.” Once the phone calls were exhausted, Grandma sat in her white vinyl rocker, swaying back and forth, the ball bearing hinges rolling and popping.
She never told me Dad was a dumb ass and a fool, with no direction and little common sense.  And she never asked me what she could have done differently or how she should feel, if it was her fault or his. But I overheard all of these questions with each phone call.  Because of Grandma’s Mormonism, Dad’s addictions were particularly painful. Dad never served a two-year Mormon mission, so it was important to her that I went. She brought it up often, comparing it to the Mormon tithe of 10%. “Two years is less than 10% of a person’s life,” she said, “a small offering when you think about all the blessings you’ll get.” Sometimes, during her phone calls to family and friends, she said, “If he’d only served a mission,” as if Dad’s choice not to proselytize—give the Lord his tithe—had brought divine wrath.
For several days she called friends and family and then sat in her rocker, hands across her lap. She never discovered something new, but I think it felt good to have someone other than me to talk to. Someone to say, “I understand,” even though they probably didn’t.
I watched from the hallway as Grandma sat in her rocker, her anxious toes moving inside small white shoes as she held the phone to her ear. Perhaps what she was waiting to hear was, “It’s not your fault.” I don’t know if anyone told her that.

Throughout my teens, Dad and I communicated intermittently. Once we went a year without seeing each other. His incarceration included the most consistent communication of our relationship. His life was regulated. He was granted one visit and two phone calls a week. Sometimes he called Ryan, who was then nineteen and living in Salt Lake City. And sometimes he called his fourth wife. But most of the time, he called Grandma and me. I wonder if he called us so often because we always answered the phone.
The first time he called his voice was hollow, and deep, and lonely. He could only talk for 15 minutes, and every five minutes an electronic voice interrupted with the remaining time and a reminder of my right to end the conversation. Dad couldn’t hear this recording, and he asked me to remind him how much time we had left. Near the end, all that crossed the line were his heavy sloppy breaths. His silence spoke of regret and remorse, faith and forgiveness, while mine spoke of fear that one day I would be on his end of the line. Our phone call ended with an abrupt click, neither of us saying goodbye. A few moments later the phone rang again. Grandma picked up. She and Dad shared a different silence, one of memories and past mistakes.
Grandma and I thought about Dad a lot during this time. One night after we visited him, Grandma stirred warming milk with a wooden spoon at 2 AM. She wore a pink nightgown with matching slippers, hair in a faded green headscarf protecting her perm. I sat at the bar and she said, “I wish there was something I could do.” And what I think she wanted to say was, I wish there was something I could have done.
I drank my warm milk and thought about Dad’s infidelity and divorces, his drug addiction and loneliness. I wondered why he had to be this way. Was it nature and not nurture? Was his life predetermined?
Neither of us realized it, but we longed for different explanations. I longed to discover that Dad’s missing teeth, drug abuse, and lies were a product of his environment. I hoped that in his youth he fell in with the wrong crowd, or the wrong girl, or received some poor advice that led him to make poor decisions. That way the blame was his alone and not something attributed to heredity.
Grandma must have wanted the opposite. On our coffee table was a large leather three-ring binder of genealogy that she personally researched. It followed her and Grandpa’s family lines back to the seventeen hundreds. Many of the branches contained small narratives below the names. She knew of the misfits, the drunks, and the criminals. While she didn’t understand genetics, she must have noticed consistencies in behavior. I think she wanted the explanation to be heredity, a bad gene, because then the blame would be on God’s hands and not hers.

 

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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, and a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His essays on parenting and marriage have been featured in New York Times Motherlode, Huffington Post Parents, Huffington Post Weddings, and The Good Men Project. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Lucinda Higley

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