Mourning the Loss of a Man She Wishes She Had Known

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It has been three months since my father died of a heart attack, shortly before he was due to be discharged from a hospitalization for chest pain. When I got the call from my mother that he was dead, I was surprised. I'd always thought he would outlive his children and grandchildren. My immediate response was to mutter, "poor bastard," as I hung up. I don't know if he was ever happy, and he made sure no one around him was.

The man I knew as my father raged all the time, about blacks and Jews and "women libbers" and relatives and neighbors and people at work. At one point, when I was in junior high school, my father became especially irrational. For quite some time he carried a gun with him and walked back and forth day after day past the home of a neighbor who owned an old, crippled police dog, hoping for a chance to bait him or his owner. The dog had, apparently, once snarled at my father.

What I remember most, though, were the dinners. Over dinner every night my father would alternate between ranting about co-workers he harbored grudges against, bragging about petty acts of vandalism he'd committed against them undetected and cursing whatever minority group his non sequiturs happened upon.

After dinner and all day Saturday and Sunday, I lived in my room. My mother prayed her rosary at night in her darkened bedroom. On those rare occasions--maybe once or twice a year--when my father went out of town overnight, we would stay up late in the living room, playing games, joking, giddy and expansive. All of us kids left home early except my oldest sister. I left home the way most girls without money do. I married.

Over the next 18 years my mother would write me brief weather reports from time to time and call occasionally to report on what the rest of the family was doing. I seldom saw my parents, and when I did I couldn't bear their presence.

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Once, when they visited, my mother left a box of photos for me to keep, and at the bottom of the box were my father's love letters, most sent to her during World War II, before they were married. I read them before I returned them, wanting to understand why my mother had married him. That was the first time I realized my father had been a different man at one time.

He was in his early 20s when he wrote these letters. I was born nearly 20 years later. In the letters he was courteous, not raving. He didn't bully my mother; he praised her. In one letter he mentioned he was listening to Strauss waltzes, whose beauty he marveled at. There were no waltzes played in the house I grew up in. In another he recommended that my mother read Poe's "Annabel Lee," which he had just listened to on the radio. There were no poems recited in the house I grew up in.

And toward the end of his correspondence, as he made plans to come home and use the GI bill to go to school, he talked in one letter of training in Minneapolis and taking my mother with him, and the rest of that page and the entire next page were filled with lines of unpunctuated "I love you's."

There were no "I love you's" uttered in the house I grew up in. For a long time I was depressed by the discovery of the letters, feeling cheated, mourning the young man who hadn't been my father.

After he died, I didn't think much about him during the flight to my parents' house and during the lengthy layovers in airports. I would tell myself, "I am going to my father's funeral," and expect to cry, to feel sad. Instead, I ate, I read and was able to finish a whole book. I watched men whose wives and children had come to welcome them home. At the rosary that night, as I entered the church, I looked away when I saw my father's picture propped up on the floral arrangement by his urn. It hit me then that he was actually dead. I wasn't able to look at the photo at all that evening. I busied myself supplying my mother with tissue, a difficult task. The only other time I had seen her cry was when President Kennedy was shot.

Once the ceremony began the next morning, it was easier. I felt as though I were sitting through a stranger's funeral. His hadn't been the life commended by the prayers and hymns I heard. No one got up to speak. The parish priest remarked only on the difference between the anglicized and Croatian pronunciations of my father's first name. I overheard mentions of my father just a few times at the luncheon afterward--once by a man who'd been an altar boy with him, another time by a man who'd graduated from school with him and later shipped out with him during the war. There weren't any stories accompanying these remarks, though. They were merely acknowledgments.

During the burial, though it was late April, it snowed briefly but fiercely. The men from my father's Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter had arranged for a 21-gun salute. The only young man among them played taps. I had to concentrate on how cold it was. Still, I remembered that once when I was little--before I was in school--my father had bought me bubble gum when we'd gone to the hardware store together. It was small, rough-hewn, yellow pieces fashioned after gold nuggets, and it came in a drawstring pouch. I'd never had anything so exotic. I saved the pouch once the gum was gone and used it to store treasures. For as long as I had it, I could still smell the gum and remember the surprise I felt when he bought it for me.

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At the buffet lunch after the funeral, the church hall was full, all the old people in my small hometown having turned out in a show of support for my mother. They each hugged her and murmured their condolences. There was a consensus that the best way to die was as my father had, quickly. There was no mourning over my father, no wistful anecdotes of why they would miss him.

Everyone commented about how nice the floral arrangement was, how nice the funeral had been, how nice the lunch was. When there was a lull in the conversation, these would be repeated and affirmed. As I watched the mourners greet my mother, I thought of my enduring fantasy: On her deathbed my mother confesses to me that my father wasn't my real father. Now it was irrelevant.

A year and a half before he died, after debating for many years whether to do it, I'd written him a long letter asking him why he'd been so angry, and what effect he thought it had had on his wife and children. He never answered. He took his answers to the grave, as I will my questions. Obviously he was depressed.

He was at that age to suffer a midlife crisis, to seethe through each day, betrayed. I will never know, though, what exactly made him demented with anger. I do know he made us each pay along with him, years of bitter misery that made the days too long and the nights too brief.

After the luncheon, before my flight back to my own home, I had a chance to talk with my favorite uncle, my father's younger brother. He told me that, as a young man, my father had been tolerant and patient, a good teacher, a surrogate father to him since their own father had died when they were quite small. He told me that my father could build anything mechanical, from scratch, and make it work; that he was brilliant at working it all out in his head; that it approached art--that it was art--that perhaps I had inherited my talent from him. And that was when I cried.

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