Sunday, March 16, 2008

So Begins the Task

I’ll be back in the States late next week on a bittersweet mission. My 84-year-old father, John D – for David – Mitchell, is quite ill and my son and I are traveling from our two homes – he in Boulder, me in Beijing – to meet in Syracuse, NY to be with him, my sister, her son and husband.

I don’t want to say it’s to say goodbye but that sums it up. It’s a time I’ve dreaded since coming to China – always in the back of my mind with every occasional phone call I’d make and the irregular short hand-written letters he would post to me in Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Thailand.

My mother died about 12 years ago, suddenly though not unexpectedly and the initial shock helped numb the loss for awhile. In my father’s case it’s been a slow decline though nothing drastic until the last couple weeks when increasingly worried e-mails from my sister brought it home that soon we’d only have each other and our respective two boys.

I owe him more than I can even imagine – good and bad. Argumentative, gruff, opinionated, sarcastic, overbearing as well as loving, intelligent, witty and low key to the point that in his later years when visiting me for extended periods I’d joke with friends that it was like having a giant mutant cat living with me – I’d leave for work and return 9 hours later to find him more or less in the same position, contently reading seemingly not moving an inch since I’d left.

Together we’d sit comfortably silent for hours in each others’ company sipping bourbon and listening to John Prine, Bob Dylan Hank Williams, Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Willie Nelson, et al, or just reading and still understand each other perfectly in the silence.

Our last big road trip was a leisurely three day drive northwest from Colorado through Wyoming to the Little Big Horn battlefield on the Crow Indian reservation in Montana. I told a girlfriend at the time that he and I had driven for hours without saying a word.

“Nothing!” she said, aghast. “How can you stand it? Not a word?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “We just don’t need to. It’s all understood somehow.” She didn’t get it, compulsive talker that she was and maybe that’s part of why it eventually didn’t work out with us.

I’m in journalism (and also Asia) because of – and perhaps in spite of – him. He was a feared and respected journalism prof at the University of Colorado and Syracuse University and years later when older colleagues in Denver learned he was my father the reaction was pretty much identical.

“I’m sorry, but I originally thought your father was kind of an asshole,” one said laughing. “But I deserved it. He was the hardest and best teacher I ever had.” Tell me about it. When I was in the army in Korea he would send letters I’d sent him back to me with grammatical and punctuation corrections in red ink – just like the students who paid tuition for the same abuse, er, lessons at CU and Syracuse.

The remarkable detail about him is that he never had a father himself. His mother – my grandmother Maxine – was something of a nonconformist in the roaring ‘20s, so much so that my dad was a product of an affair she had with her married college English prof, supposedly after their eyes met as she recited a passionate rendition of Captain, My Captain, Walt Whitman’s ode to Lincoln.

She was largely absent later after leaving school to have him, with sojourns to what sounded like some kind of ur-hippie Isadora Duncan inspired modern dance commune in the Great Lakes, leaving him in the hands of unnamed relatives or friends of friends.

“What did you eat during the Depression?” I asked once.

“Air sandwiches,” he said evenly. “Bread with nothing on it. Mustard if we were lucky.” He said he and his fellow students spent 2nd grade writing their names hundreds of times at the behest of a teacher who sounded as if he had a drinking problem.

But he abided, raised two children, did his best with my complicated mother who also had her, shall we say, “issues” and cried on the phone when he called me to tell me that they were divorcing. It was the first, but not the only time I heard him cry.

The second time was many years later after I’d tracked down details of his biological father that included the amazing coincidences that he’d been a journalist after leaving the Kansas college where he’d procreated my father and that during his undistinguished but solid career as a wandering Midwest reporter had worked at the same newspaper as I later would in Kansas City.

The information also included a name and home phone number for a man who was my father’s biological half-brother.

“Do you want to try calling him?” I asked. Dad had been thumbing through the photocopied papers and a 1960 obituary I’d collected that included the first pictures of his father he’d ever seen; there was one from a college yearbook that also featured a group “Quill Club” photo with his professor “father” and 21-year-old college sophomore mother together.

His eyes began to get wet, he sniffled uncharacteristically and I looked away. “No,” he finally said. “They didn’tcare for me then ... ”

I hope it’s not too late to tell him I still care.

7 comments:

Patrick said...

Have a good trip, Lao Pengyou...

And I hope BJ is treating you well... It's now about 2 calendar years since I was there and can't imagine how much it must have changed since then. I love that crazy town...

John said...

I just heard about your dad's condition when I called my mom to tell her that my father in law just died.

In spite of himself your dad is a great guy and all of our thoughts are with him. You know, I think I did not go into journalism because my dad gave me the same advice that your dad gave you :)

Have a safe trip and please let us know how things are

Ben said...

I remember the affected disdain which colored his regaling of our junior-high musically challenged noise-making and yet I knew, even as a pimply faced teenager, that he was proud that at least you were pursuing something resembling (distantly) an artistic endeavor.

He embodied the moniker curmudgeon but was at the core a very loveable one.

I'm sorry for your loss and at the same time happy for you that you have a bond with him. Don't wonder whether it's too late to let him know. If it hadn't been for your visiting my mom in the Boulder hospital I wouldn't have made it there in time to sit by her bed as she passed. She never responded, but every expert will tell you that the hearing is the last sense to leave. So he has (and God willing shall yet again) hear you.

If you're laying over in L.A. let me know. It'd be great to see you for a bit.

Anonymous said...

Safe trip, amigo Justin. I've only met your dad once or twice - great sense of humor (laughed at my attempts to be funny) and that same sharp stare you have.

Prayers for your dad, you, and the younger journalist in your family. Let me know if there is anything you need from here. Apologies for being anonymous - I am still not up to speed on 21st century stuff. amiga j

Peter said...

Beautifully written Justin. All the best from Denmark.

Chuck said...

Very moving piece on your dad Justin. Professor or not, we learn from our parents in so many different ways - admittedly both good and bad.

The takeaway for us all should be to embrace that understanding, appreciate those learnings and realize that we are doing the same with ours. Your thoughts led me to think deeply about what exactly it is that I am passing to my two sons.

Thanks for the awakening. Safe travels to you. Enjoy the time with family, however bittersweet it may be, and if your travels lead to the Cleveland area, let me know and we can toast our parents and families.

DBC said...

Sorry to hear about this. I wish I would have known earlier that you were coming to Syracuse. I am in New York, living in Harlem.

may you always be as well as you can be.