8 October 2019 1:11 AM (death)
Today, I went to my father's funeral. My father was a very decent man and can likely be credited with many of my more prosocial impulses. Whenever he did anything that went against his own rules, he would apologize for it. When I was a child, when we went to the store, if we saw any shopping carts in the parking lot we would round them up and put them where they belong. If we were walking along and saw a piece of litter, he taught me to pick it up. If something had been blown over by the wind, we righted it.
He died of malignant melanoma. It took root in Wernicke's area of his brain and expanded, making it progressively more difficult for him to talk. He could still say some things, though. He would often say 'thank you'. Eventually he lost awareness of where he was or what he was doing. When we took him to the hopsice house, one day before he lapsed into a coma, he would shake hands with all the nurses, thank them for everything they did, and do his best to say he appreciated them, even if most of the words came out in a garble. I imagine this as having something to do with character as cultivation. Developing habits of kindness and appreciation that persist even when ones normal faculties of self control and reflection are lost.
Also neatness. If someone set a crumpled paper towel or napkin down near him, even on his last day of consciousness when he only had one hand working, he would carefully smooth it out then fold it up precisely.
He was born to a farming family in Tennessee, as one half of a pair of twins, during the Depression. His father got on the train and went to Detroit to work for Henry Ford as soon as he could, sending money home to his family while he saved up to get a house and move everyone up to Detroit.
This was back in the days when Detroit was known as 'The Paris of the New World' and people sang songs about how happy they were to go there.
As a child, my father had an inguinal hernia. Being part of a farming family during the Depression, he had to wear a truss for several years to hold it in place until they could afford to give him an operation to correct it. I've often thought this might be why he worked such long hours. Through most of my childhood, he'd work ten hours every weekday and eight hours every Saturday. Being a UAW member and having joined GM in the 50s, he was paid quite well and had excellent benefits.
Because the world is unfair, he lost a good bit of his money even though he was reasonably frugal. He and my mother simply didn't understand how investment worked, and kept making the same mistakes over and over. (Like selling all their stock right when the price crashed.) He still had a good pension though, so they aren't too badly off.
He went to a trade-high-school in Detroit where he studied to be a tool and die maker. He learned spherical trigonometry there, which surprised me, just because it's not part of most basic math sequences, especially not in high school. (They also had a giant, high-precision, wall-mounted slide-rule.) He did his apprenticeship, at least part of it, in a die shop. Then he decided he simply wouldn't do die-making work. Die-making, he told me, was dirty, nasty, and all-around unpleasant. Also, far too many of the workers in the die-shop had fingers missing.
He joined the naval reserves, so that when he got a draft notice from the army, he was able to join the navy full-time instead. A perfectly reasonable decision, since in the navy he was a Machinesman and working metal on a destroyer in the Pacific during peace time sounds a lot more fun than marching around in the army during peacetime. Apart from talking about some of the more interesting details of ship-repair, like the repair-ship with a foundry and other specialized equipment on it that followed the destroyer group around, he never talked about the actual navy parts of being in the navy.
He did talk a lot about visiting various spots. Being in the Philippines was a miserable experience because the inhabitants didn't want them there. He said Australia was the nicest place he had ever been, and he really liked the people there. He has a picture of monks chasing him out of a shrine in Japan that he wandered into without knowing what it was, though the story I remember the most was that he suddenly got a hankering for pizza and tried to find one. In Japan. In the fifties. Surprisingly, he eventually found one, at a Greek restaurant with a picture of a pizza in the window. And with pointing and waving cash around he managed to get one; unsurprisingly, it was the most disappointing and horrible thing he had ever eaten.
Eventually he got out of the navy and came home to find his friend and his then-wife sleeping together. He got a divorce and eventually married my mother. As a child, I thought it was terribly unfair that this kept him from ever becoming a deacon or having any other position in the church. (And, well, it was.) And was very upset by it.
My mother had also been married once before and divorced her husband because he physically abused her. She had three children from that marriage and my father adopted them. This, to me, just seemed like the obvious and natural thing one would do, and I was always angry when someone implied that I was my father's 'first-born son' when as far as I was concerned them being adopted gave my brothers just as much claim on him as I had. This isn't quite how they saw it, at least not all of them. One of my brothers has said on several occasions that he would never raise another man's children and the idea of it is completely repugnant to him, and so our father doing for him what he would never do for someone else has always blown him away and filled him with a sort of stunned and puzzled admiration.
He had been raised in a Missionary Baptist church, but, at some point, became ‘backslidden’ and stopped going. He even danced and drank beer. Later he developed epilepsy (‘spells’ as he called them) and came to believe they came about as 'chastening' from ‘the Lord’ for having gotten into things he shouldn't. I hate that kind of mindset, but I'm not going to blame it on Christianity. (Not that I like Christianity.) It's the kind of thing that seems to spring up generally from a sort of unreflective folk-religion and superstition that springs up alongside all manner of doctrines.
He ended up going back to church because my mother, who had been raised Muslim, wanted to be part of a normal, happy American family, and normal, happy American families went to church. So he took her to the church he was raised in and ‘got right with the Lord’ and they went for some time. Right up until the moment the preacher said he didn't want any black people in his church. Then he and my mother told the preacher he was bad and wrong and un-Christlike and quoted some from the Book of Acts and left. This made his family rather upset at both of them for a while. They joined a different church and stayed there (though it merged with another church when the pastor went off on mission work) for all of my childhood.
He worked for General Motors for 35 years. First as a 'fixture builder' for Fisher Body. He'd build frames that they'd stick moving pieces on for testing. This was before the days of ear protection so by the time he retired he had a 'notch' in his hearing that the audiologist said was characteristic of metal workers. Other fun injuries included occasionally getting a spray of molten metal on his hand while welding (which burned into the skin and cooled so the tiny pieces had to be dug out. He got really good at it, too. Whenever I had a splinter as a child, he would use just one or two sewing needles that he'd sterilized in a flame to get it out almost painlessly.), and metal turnings in the eye that would require an eyeball scraping. They also just had pots of molten lead sitting around that you could go grab a ladle full of if you happened to need some molten lead. (Generally to fill a crack or smooth out a seam.)
Later on he was moved to the job of hand-building the first few of a new design of car body so they could be crashed into things, painted and put on a test track, or whatever else.
Eventually, he retired. Then came the Conflicts. My mother had wanted to move somewhere else all her life, and my father hadn't. She wanted to live in Florida, and eventually squirreled away some money for the down-payment on a trailer there. He found out about it when he got the bill. He was not pleased. Everyone was on his side, but…
In the long-run it turned out to be pretty good for him. As long as I'd been alive, he'd never had close friends that I had seen. I don't know what he got up to with the people at work, but he never did things with them after work. He never visited them after retiring. (Though a couple times he went to a union meeting. He was a very strong union man, though being the UAW this unfortunately included a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment.) Similarly, he went to church, and he would give missionaries a room and feed them, but neither he nor my mother seemed to develop really close bonds with anyone from church. They never hung out and did things beyond going to the occasional gospel concert.
Going to the old folks' trailer park in Florida with my mother seemed to me to be the first time he really had real social bonds with people, at least in a long while. He made friends with the neighbors and spent leisure time with them, and spent a lot of time with them. Both he and my mother seemed much happier compared to what I'd seen of them in the house I grew up in, where my mother would watch Trinity Broadcasting Network upstairs in the living room and my father would watch Home and Garden Television in the basement. Things went similarly when my mother was left a house in a resort town in northwestern Michigan by her great uncle and they sold the house they'd lived in for years and started spending their summers there.
He seemed to get along quite happily, and I was glad to see it. I admired and liked my father very much, but I wasn't that close to him, in that we never talked for that long or had all that much to say to each other. He liked to hear about my work and was especially happy when I put in long hours. (I honestly don't know if this was because he thought hard work was virtuous or if he forgot I'm salaried and thus don't get overtime.) Even though I have a lot more conflict with my mother, when we talked we had a lot more to talk about. I sort of feel like my mother is much the more intelligent of the pair and more willing to question things, while not being very introspective and not having quite internalized the idea that the world is a consistent thing you might want to learn about.
Four years ago, he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. The diagnosis was delayed enough that it was advanced, very thick, and had spread over a large area. They removed it, but when they biopsied a couple lymph nodes they found traces of the cancer within them. He wasn't a candidate for radiation or chemotherapy, but they offered to take all the lymph nodes out of his head and neck. He, quite wisely in my opinion, declined, as the surgery would take twelve hours and involve peeling the skin off to get at them then putting it back on and had a high risk of nerve and blood vessel damage.
And then he had four years of healthy, functional life. He got macular degeneration, but otherwise had few problems. Up until this summer, where he started feeling a wrongness and having trouble with his memory. On 4 July of this year, he was unable to keep his balance and had difficulty remembering people's names or keeping track of what he was doing. An MRI revealed a brain tumor, and he began to lose the ability to speak. Specifically, the word he thought he was saying was not the one that came out. It was a few wrong words here and there at first, but it got worse and worse. After about a month he became mostly incomprehensible. (Having seen it up-close and personal I'm still intrigued by some words and phrases being clear right up to the end. Structural words were mostly spared, but he could usually, perhaps after a few tries, say clearly that he had to use the bathroom, for example.)
Eventually his balance problems and general motor coordination became bad enough that he couldn't get around by himself without risk of falling. One of my brothers went up to help take care of him, and a couple weeks later I got called up to help as well. By that time the left side of his body wasn't working properly and he couldn't feed himself any more. He was disoriented enough that when we stood him up to clean him off, it was very difficult to get him to sit down in his wheelchair again, even if we showed it to him and put his hand on it.
A place in a hospice house opened up, and we took him down. I feel a little bit bad about it, because when I asked him if he was looking forward to the car ride he said, "No." and once he was there he kept saying he wanted to leave and go back where they'd come from. My mother told him he was in the hospital to get better. That bothered me, too, because he knew full well he wasn't getting better. He'd told us numerous times that he was dying soon, and each time it was a little more heartrending by virtue of how much less able to communicate he was.
The day after we checked him in, he lost consciousness, moving into deeper levels of coma until dying on the fourth day. I wonder, just a bit, if he 'checked out' in some fashion after deciding he didn't want to be there, though I don't know. Between the time I showed up and the time we took him there he was deteriorating every day, so it's completely believable to me he was just on the fast track out of mortality. He wasn't in pain at any time, and when he died he just breathed more and more slowly until he stopped breathing entirely.
A few people at the funeral tried to connect this and his life. Saying that his being a good, Christian man 'paid off' with how easily he died. Unlike his parents who lingered for years and did have some pain. This is that 'folk religion' thing again. I'm not sure if they realized they were implying that his parents hadn't been sufficiently good Christians as evidenced by their harder deaths, but it was kind of gross.
However, I do think you can make a case that his spending his life cultivating virtue in himself made his last days easier for everyone else, and made everyone feel good about helping and taking care of him.
9 November 2019 8:13 PM
That was a poignant obituary. You summed up your father well, and I feel like you painted a picture of a good human. I can't really describe my feelings but, I guess, thank you for sharing this and your last cathartic post where you needed to. When you scream into the void, you might help lurkers on your site.
20 January 2020 4:33 PM
Though I suspected there was more to the story than what I've heard in our conversations, I hadn't realized just how much.. I'm not sure of the words to use, but.. positive emotional feelings?
I appreciate the effort invested in sharing your perspective on your father's life. And, as Semi noted, even the void isn't empty.