It’s 1996 and I’m sixteen years old. I’m in Chicago with my dad, ostensibly to help man his company’s booth at the National Hardware Show, hosted in the gargantuan McCormick Place, not far off Lake Michigan. I’m being groomed to one day take over his aerosol drain-opener company, but I’m just happy to spend time with him. We’re staying at one of those venerable old hotels off Michigan Avenue and it’s a late afternoon or early evening in summer so he tells me to meet him for dinner in the hotel restaurant. “I’ve got a friend I’d like you to meet,” he says.
Dad leaves our room and, while I shower, I wonder who his friend is—probably another salty salesman, some 40- or 50-year old guy, thick around the middle, with broken blood vessels arrayed on his cheeks and nose and a loosened necktie. Such men always become like my adopted uncles, buying me beers on the sly, or asking me questions about the Minnesota Twins or what is happening back home, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. In Eau Claire, Dad doesn’t really have many friends. Sure, he’s in a bowling league, and yes, there are the guys we shoot skeet with, but that’s more or less it.
I dry off and don a navy-blue pin-striped suit, a suit I’d bought, I think, to attend a high-school dance. I take the elevator down to the lobby and enter the dark, candle-lit dining room of the hotel’s restaurant. I see my father, at a table, with a blond woman about his age. I don’t think much of it; I honestly don’t. Dad introduces us, and we commence the meal.
About the time the entrees arrive, I begin asking polite questions about my dad’s friend. Where does she live—Chicago. Does she work in the hardware industry—no, it seems. How does she know my dad—… And this is where my father admits to me that this woman is not his friend exactly, but more like a girlfriend. I think, but don’t say, mistress.
There have been three times in my life when reality shattered, or rather, when my notions of reality were shattered. That evening in Chicago, was one such moment. The morning of 9/11 was another. (The third, I don’t care to share within the confines of this essay.)
It isn’t much in vogue these days, I should think, but I grew up as a Boy Scout. An Eagle Scout, in fact. I grew up in the company of men, who guided me down a path of reverence for nature, decency, and kindness. We were the ones who were supposed to stand up against bullies, do the right thing, and leave our campsites better off than when we found them. My dad was always very anti-government, a true Libertarian, who loved—loved—gay people, defended abortion, but also adored guns, pornography, low taxes, and more than anything, his right to get drunk and say whatever the fuck was in his heart at that moment. And he used to say to me, “They’ll (the G-Men, the black helicopters, the FBI or ATF) come to get you. Because you are competent, and because you have a code. You’ll stand up to them, and tell them the truth. And when everyone else is lost, when everything else is broken, and hungry, you’ll know how to start a fire, how to read a compass, how to skin and gut a deer.”
But back in that dining room, those speeches my dad gave me, those very heartfelt and sincere speeches rang hollow. I could see, see, for the first time in my life, that my father was not the man I thought he was. He was not all good. I no longer knew what to make of the world; the foundations of my education (in school, in the forest, on his knee) all of it, seemed suddenly corrupt.
Three years later, my dad suffered a massive brain aneurysm. My parents were separated at the time, but not yet divorced, so I became his legal guardian at 19, and had the great misfortune of divorcing my own parents during a conference call in which I was patched into the courtroom back in Eau Claire, because I had morning classes in Madison, where I was then a sophomore. I recently ran into the judge who’d presided that morning, a man who, also happened to have been my childhood Boy Scout leader, the man who taught me to paddle a canoe in a straight line, for miles. He still remembered that morning, he told me, with clarity and sadness.
For years, I carried an intense anger in my gut over that dinner in Chicago. It informed everything I did, every decision, the way I conducted personal relationships, the way I could love and be loved, the way I understood marriage, lust, and the promises we make to one another. And then, years drifted by, as they do, and I married, bought a house, had a son and a daughter, and let things go. I buried that night, that memory.
Years later, I’m on a Cincinnati-bound airplane to promote a book. I’m sitting beside a man in his fifties, and we’re having a nice time chatting. We both order beers, scoop peanuts into our mouths, joke—we might be hanging out in a bar together, two fast new friends, just shooting the shit. He asks me what I do for a living, and I tell him that I’m a writer. What do you write about, he asks. And suddenly, I’m telling this man about my dad, about that night in Chicago, about becoming a dad myself, and it’s all spilling out of me.
I figure I’ll never see this man again in my life, why not unload all this psychic baggage into his lap. As I grow more animated, the man seems to draw into himself, closing up. He crushes the beer can, sighs, and does not say another word to me the remainder of the flight until we land, when he rises from his seat, and without looking at me, says, “I hope you take it easy on your dad. I hope you can try and see it from his perspective. I hope you can forgive him.”
Often, I talk about my dad in the past tense, but he is still alive. Since his aneurysm, he has lived in one nursing home or another—17 years. I don’t visit him as often as I should, and this guilt drags behind me like an anchor. Ironically, my mother is his most faithful visitor. She’ll sit with him for hours on end, watching television, clipping his fingernails, or trimming his nose hairs. The aneurysm has mellowed him out, and destroyed any social filter he once had. Traumatic brain injuries have unpredictable results, some people become angry in their discombobulation, their confusion a daily maze of frustration. Thankfully, my father’s injury made him, I don’t know how to say it, happy. Inside the nursing home, he was forced to quit his beloved Old Gold cigarettes, quit his vodka martinis, quit marijuana and his other myriad vices. (One of my dad’s many onetime mottoes was/is: I never say no to free cocaine.)
Because 17 years have passed, my dad doesn’t always remember me. I am, after all, no longer 19 years old. My hairline is receding, my goatee almost entirely white. Some days, he mistakes me for his younger brothers. This is no insult to me; his brothers are handsome, kind men. But when his eyes find me, and recognize me, he says the kindest things, the sweetest things, the most sincere things, like, You’re so handsome, or, I love your beard, or, How do you keep the ladies away?
Alright—I won’t pretend to pretty it up too much for you: What he’d really say is, “You must get more ass than a toilet seat,” or, “C’mon, tell me, how much pussy are you getting these days?”
Mostly, I think he sees in me some kindness, the friendly face of a young man who can guide him gently in the right direction.
My son is 7-years old. He is sensitive and affectionate and loves the natural world. The other day he was embarrassed because the kids at school were playing with their middle-fingers, joking about that gesture, testing their little worlds. He didn’t know what it meant to give someone the middle finger. The kids laughed at him. This is how sweet he is. I had to explain it to him, saying, Sometimes a person gets real angry, and they, its’ called giving someone the finger, or the bird, and it’s sort of like, Screw you.
He looked at me, and I kid you not, said, Screw you?
As a child of divorce, I know the facts. A marriage is essentially a coin-flip, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lecturing love. Maybe, someday, I’ll find myself divorced, heartbroken, left to re-examine my reality, what I thought was true.
But I hope not. I love my wife so much, my children, our home amidst the tall pine trees, with a view of the buffalo and the hills beyond. We have built all this together, it is our idea, our reality.
Mostly, I imagine my son, as I was, and I want him to believe in me. To believe in me the way he believes in the moon, or the stars in the sky. I want him to believe in goodness and permanence. I will understand when his path leads him away from me, and my wife, but I want to stay rooted here, in my love and my promises. I don’t want to be the one who takes his world away.