My father was killed in a car accident a little over 5 1/2 years ago -- Oct. 11, 1981, to be exact -- and it was his fault. If Charles had put on his seat belt he wouldn't have lurched over the steering wheel of his Datsun when it hit, and his forehead wouldn't have slammed into the windshield (making a bulge in the glass the size of a softball) and he wouldn't have broken his neck.
If I cursed him for his carelessness once during the week following his accident, I cursed him a hundred times. According to witnesses, he couldn't have been going more than 20 miles an hour. Race car drivers strap themselves in, slam into walls at high speeds and walk away; Charles sideswipes a viaduct support -- unbuckled -- and buys it. Incredible.
I realize some folks might think it strange, if not downright inappropriate, to begin a Father's Day piece with a description of a father's death. My only defense is that Charles' accident is an emotional line of demarcation for me, dividing my memories into those things that happened before he died and those things that have happened since.
Hardly a day goes by that I don't think about him in some form or fashion, and more often than not these thoughts drift to the matter of Charles' early morning accident and the effects it has had on me.
These ruminations have led me to a number of discoveries, the most striking of which is the fact that the child's relationship with the parent does not end at the parent's death. It keeps right on growing inside the child's head, providing a clearer understanding of all the old things that happened between them.
Sometimes the clearer understandings come fast, like when you're a kid and you cry out at night in the dark, and suddenly the bedroom door is opened by your mother, and the light from the hallway reveals that it is only a pile of clothes in that chair by the window and not some monster flexing its muscles. And after your ma goes back to her room, leaving the door parted so some light can get in, you lie there amazed at how how easily you can be fooled.
Other times the clearer understandings come slowly, like when you're in the woods during summer and you stop and concentrate on just listening, and the quiet you thought was there fades into noises -- birds chirping overhead, something furry and small rattling about the ground foliage, the shushing sound of tree leaves and the wind that causes them to shush -- and while you listen you realize there's a lot more around you than you thought.
But whether the understandings come fast or slow, you wind up more than a little puzzled. You sit and ponder some old thing that happened between you and the dead parent, an old thing that has become a new thing because you have a clearer understanding of it, and you ask yourself how come you never realized that before, "How come I didn't see that?"
For instance, my dad hated Father's Day. Charles claimed the whole thing was nothing more than an attempt by children to relieve guilt feelings caused by all the things they didn't do for their fathers during the rest of the year.
As a result, my three brothers and sister and I never had to give him June presents. Why gifts given on Father's Day were suspect and those given him on his birthday and at Christmas were not, he never explained. I never asked because I was the oldest and obsessed with making sure I never said or did anything that would disappoint him. I figured if I asked him why he felt the way he did about Father's Day he'd think I was trying to be a smart aleck.
So I kept my mouth shut and just thought about it. What I couldn't figure was how he had arrived at such a conclusion in the first place. Did he really think his kids were trying to put one over on him by giving him a gift? And if so, what did that say about how he really felt about us?
As a kid, I was never able to come up with any sort of concrete answer to the first question, and the negative possibilities of the second question made it too scary to contemplate for more than a minute.
By the time I reached my late teens I decided that all his Father's Day furor was nothing more than another manifestation of his orneriness, "the-last-angry-man" side of Dad's nature that delighted in taking a stand opposite of everyone else.
By the time I reached my late twenties -- he had his accident when I was 29 -- I saw his attitude as a back-door way of getting in a dig at my mother. (Their marriage was in trouble by that time, and that surely colored my thinking.) The way I saw it then was that his rejection of Father's Day was a rejection of what they had produced together and, in a way, a rejection of her.
My guess now is that there were times when he resented us. Which is not to say that I think he didn't love us, just that there must have been evenings when he came home from work mule-tired and sat in the living room chair and listened as the five of us kept up a racket in another part of our small house, his fatigue turning our chatter into something irritating as he thought of how much farther ahead of the grimy game he would have been if he hadn't had the noisy quintet.
Charles' reaction to Father's Day was his way of venting his anger without channeling it directly at his children. This was no doubt a good thing. Since I left my parent's home 12 years ago I've heard more than a few stories from friends, lovers and barroom acquaintances about the demon fathers who did channel their anger toward their children, who got cranked and beat their kids up, or molested their daughters, or played the particularly nasty sport of "Now I'll give you my approval, now I won't."
While I realize that things could certainly have been worse under Charles, I am still intrigued by his Father's Day resentment, the causes of which I think go right to the heart of male perceptions about what it means to be a man.
If you were to break it down to basics, the traditional perception of manliness is this: To be a man is to be in control of your present and future. To be a man means you are able to do what you want, when you want. A successful career is measured by how much control you have over what happens to you. It's not so much a matter of what you do, but whether or not you determine what you do. The popularity of the cowboy and the detective -- those lone wolves of pulp fiction -- comes as much from the fact that they are depicted as being beholden to no one as it does from any rough and tough aspect of their jobs.
Marriage, with its built-in responsibilities to family and home, makes a man beholden to all sorts of folks. Or as one of my married friends put it, "Once you buy a house, they have you by the throat."
My father worked as a truck driver, and later -- after a year of night school -- in data processing, and lived from payday to payday all his life. He went from growing up in the South, to the Navy, to marriage to my mother, and I doubt if there was ever a time he felt much in control of anything.
Which brings me to the matter of his car. In 1979 he bought himself a Datsun 280-Z. It was a purely frivolous acquisition. At the time I thought he was a sad example of an older man trying to act as if he was still a kid. It was a little embarrassing. To say he was crazy about that car would be putting it mildly. He joined a "Z Club," where all the members would gather and drive their Datsuns to some prearranged spot far away. They held meetings, looked down their noses at anyone in a Corvette, and generally had a good time.
Sometimes Charles would get in that car and drive from Chicago to an all-night pancake house in Michigan, where he'd have a stack and some coffee, and then drive back. He said it was a good drive at night, the traffic was light, and it helped him think.
After his accident, my mother had to get the car out of the auto pound, but had no place to put it. The neighbor who lived next door to my mother -- Ma and Dad were separated at the time of his death -- let us put the car in her driveway. And there the car sat for most of the winter of 1981-82 with the left front headlight smashed, the hood bent, that softball-sized bulge in the windshield.
I was jarred the first time I saw it, but after a while, when I would pass it on visits to my mother's, I felt that it probably was a good thing it was there. Sometimes I would even walk over and peer in. The car became vivid evidence that he was gone and that it was useless to waste time over fantasies of his ever coming back. The sight of that wrecked car forced me to accept his death.
These days I see this frivolous acquisition as an attempt to get at least a small sense of control over his life. Buying that sports car was a decision that he made on his own, without regard to home or family or anybody but himself.
When I was a kid, I thought he could do anything -- no plumber or electrician ever entered our house; when I was a teen-ager I saw him as stubborn and unwilling to listen to anybody's opinion but his own; and when he died I saw him as a sad man trying to recapture his youth.
But he was none of those things. When I think of Charles now I see him turning first this way and then that, his arms snatching desperately for this glittering something that hovers in the air in front of him, promising everything and remaining forever just out of his reach.