“Je m’en vais chercher le grand peut-être.”

Well Dad, it has been 11 years now; for Mom next month will be 18. It all seems like a lifetime ago now, and yet even now just a passing thought can bring it all back. I suppose that’s to be expected though.

Of course your hat — a fedora, is it? — and Mom’s dammit doll still have pride of place in my living room, and your cemetery is little more than an hour away. I guess it is little wonder that you are both still in my thoughts, even now.

May 12, 1927 to Dec. 16, 2008. Gone, yes. But as long as I draw breath, never forgotten …

P.S. Props to François Rabelais.

Ten Years Gone …

It was a decade ago today — and even somewhat close to the hour, as best that I can recall — that my father died. A decade that has been filled with tumult, not the least of which was my own passing visit with the Grim Reaper — a visit that will have its own five-year … “celebration” … on my personal calendar in less than two weeks. Funny that things like my hemorrhagic stroke, my severed quadriceps tendon, Dad’s death, Mom’s long and painful death — they all seem to occur around this time of year. …

 I know I rarely post here anymore, and no one ever reads anything here (or anywhere) anymore, despite all the traffic I seem to get (thanks Russian hackers!). Yes, I know everyone in the world has graduated to Assbook Facebook and whatnot (and most times in some sort of asinine outrage; it seems everyone has turned into Comic Book Guy now), and I wish them well. You know how it is: I just don’t care, yadda yadda yadda. The sudden and unexpected brush with death and the ensuing long recovery seems to have put a lot of the minutia of life — all of it, really — in perspective.

And yet I still feel the need to mark this macabre day.

So Dad, just let me say, as always, you are gone but never forgotten …

Arriving in Nong Khai, Thailand

So I arrived in Thailand around the middle of March, 2010. I spent several days each in Bangkok and Hua Hin, which is about three hours — by bus at highway speeds — south and a little west of Bangkok, on the northwestern shore of the Gulf of Thailand.

I took a grand total of two pictures during that time.

I know what you are thinking, but there are two reasons behind my lack of photographs. One, I was busy doing touristy things and whatnot, and I didn’t think the world needed yet another shot of a reclining Buddha or a wat. Two, when I do have a camera in tow, I tend to always think in terms of making art, as opposed to snapshots (see no. one), selfies and the like, as I’ve observed many times before.

This not say that I’m any great shakes when it comes to photography, however. But Bangkok and Hua Hin are nothing if not touristy. So …

Thai hair gel in Bangkok 2010-03-14 … It took me a moment to figure out that Hard Freeze Hair Wax was actually just hair gel. Find any one over the age of eighteen without product in their hair of some kind in and around Bangkok on a Saturday night. It’s impossible. Time was I had product in my hair too, but that was twenty-some years ago — and likely Elmer’s Glue.

Ronald greets you with a wai in Hua Hin 2010-03-25Even Ronald McDonald offers a you a wai when in Hua Hin — a traditional greeting common throughout Thailand. There must be a million of these on the Internet, but this is the first I heard of it. And that cone of ice cream is nine baht — about a quarter in U.S. dollars.

Now onto Nong Khai. It is the difference between night and day, in many significant ways, between Bangkok, situated on the Gulf, and Nong Khai, Thailand some 389 miles to the northeast. On the one hand it’s urban vs. rural, but it’s much more than that. Nong Khai is a center of Isaan culture, which differs considerably from the culture of Bangkok and surrounding environs, which is what most people think of when they think of Thailand.

Looking east along the Mekong River at Sadet Market in Nong Khai.
Looking east along the Mekong River at Sadet Market in Nong Khai.

Looking west along the Mekong River at Sadet Market.
Looking west along the Mekong River at Sadet Market.

Look at this picture full size and squint; you can just make out the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge in the hazy distance. Across the river and a short tuk-tuk ride away — about 15 miles upriver from the bridge — is Vientiane, capitol of Laos.

Some pigeons in the park outside Sadet Market.
Some pigeons in the park outside Sadet Market.

Notice the naga designs incorporated into the fence in the above picture? I didn’t either, at first, having just arrived in town near the end of March. But soon I realized naga, or giant serpent-like beings, are everywhere in Nong Khai. Said to be the mythical guardians of the Mekong, not to mention every temple and shrine in the area, a six-story, a seven-headed naga stands guard over Sala Keoku.

The next few shots are of Isara Foundation and its volunteers in action at an English camp. On the left one of the adults you see in first picture is Kirk Gillock, Isara’s founder. Isara operated for more that ten years, running a free English language and computer center in Nong Khai, amongst other community service efforts. One of the best things about volunteering for Isara? It was indeed free to volunteer.kids and volunteers at Isara Foundationkids and volunteers at Isara Foundationkids and volunteers at Isara FoundationThe next batch of snapshots are of the kids at Sarnelli House and the volunteers of Isara Foundation, who had come for the afternoon to visit and play with said kids, me included. This was April 10, 2010.kids at Sarnelli House and the volunteers of Isara Foundationkids at Sarnelli House and the volunteers of Isara Foundationkids at Sarnelli House and the volunteers of Isara Foundationkids at Sarnelli House and the volunteers of Isara Foundationkids at Sarnelli House kids at Sarnelli House and the volunteers of Isara Foundationkids at Sarnelli House and the volunteers of Isara FoundationThis last batch, taken in mid-April, were taken at Ming’s parents’ house. Ming was Kirk’s girlfriend at the time; her parents were watching a little boy — why, I’m afraid I forget — and the current Isara crew came to celebrate his birthday. In the second photo Ming is to the boy’s left; the other two children I believe belong to Ming’s sister.Kirk ans a little Thai friend Isara crew and friends celebrate a birthday. Isara crew and friends celebrate a birthday. Isara crew and friends celebrate a birthday. Isara crew and friends celebrate a birthday. Isara crew and friends celebrate a birthday. A Thai family at home.Notice there is no carpet? That’s a Western concept; a typical Thai household doesn’t have one, nor do the Vietnamese and I would guess that is typical throughout Southeast Asia at least (given how warm it is year ’round in most places). Carpets equal dirt magnets, as more than one Thai person pointed out to me. Too true, that.

Finally, here is a banana tree growing on the farm that Ming’s parents own; I had never seen one of course and was duly fascinated.banana tree Nong Khai, Thailand banana tree Nong Khai, Thailand Hard to believe that six months before then, in 2009, I was out of a job with no immediate prospects while my eldest brother and my sister argued incessantly over Dad’s estate, he having died at the end of 2008. Me, I argued incessantly with both of them — at first — that this was indeed pointless, as Dad had already spelled it out in stone, essentially, that everything was to be divided four ways between us kids; Mom, of course, died at the end of 2001.

Furthermore, Dad had told us — well, me at least; I won’t speak for the others — that he wanted us to all get along in the aftermath of his death. He bought it up several times in the year before he died, even though at age 81 his health was stable, as far as anyone knew.

So, with both Mom and Dad gone, no job and no immediate career prospects, at age 41 I packed up, sold out and headed for Viet Nam with no immediate plans to return. Why and how Viet Nam is a story for some other time and some other batch of photos, however.

I started this because, having just found out about Isara having closed its doors last month (which actually happened back in July of 2014 no less), I realized there was little on this site to  document my time there. It was only a month, but I consider it a pivotal moment among my more that four years abroad; out of all the places I spent time in between Viet Nam and Thailand, it is the place I remember most fondly — and not with the rose-colored glasses with which I began my teaching career, but the clarity of hindsight. Isara was a big part of that.

More to come. …

Postscript: Sorry, but I’m shit with names, and I’ve forgotten the names of all the volunteers in the pictures. Mai pen rai. Also, these were taken with a Nokia 5800, itself already a couple years old in 2010; they are a bit craptacular, I’m afraid. I do have some shots taken with my old Canon Rebel to come.

Furthermore, some of these pictures have appeared before …

And Yet I Cannot Forget, Dad

Windswept Graveyard HDR: St. James' Church, Thornes. Copyright Kevin Wakelam
Windswept Graveyard HDR: St. James’ Church, Thornes. Copyright Kevin Wakelam

Not sure what I can say that I haven’t said before, Dad. Not sure what I can say about your death that I won’t say on the next anniversary, and the next, and the next, ad infinitum. …

Nevertheless, as is years past I feel the need to mark this grim date here, simply for my own edification. Sages of grief tell us that we should dwell not on the bad aspects of death but on the good aspects of life. I would not disagree, and yet some dark part of me can’t or won’t let get of those last days, those last moments of your life. Good or bad, they are the last memories I have of you and I don’t want them to fade, grim as they might be.

Even as time and entropy causes these memories to fade — damn them both — I would cling to them, the good and the bad, the lovely and the ugly, for they are all that I have left of you.

As before, it’s difficult to accept that so much time has passed — four years, to be precise. Even half a world away, living in a foreign culture, with the added distractions of moving into a new apartment and beginning an organized study of a foreign language, December 16 looms large in my consciousness. A day that lives on in personal infamy, along with its sister, January 19.

A dead laptop can keep me from writing about until a week after the fact — yet another distraction — but I cannot forget. I would not, even if I could.

I think being here does make it somewhat easier to deal with, though. They celebrate Christmas here, too, but like the Japanese, it’s merely a secular holiday for them: an excuse to sell things people don’t need; an excuse to buy them; an excuse to listen to awful music; an excuse to celebrate and party — not that Thais need an excuse for that, which is one of the reasons I love them.

So even with the reminders it doesn’t feel like this dread season, but then I think that has more to do with my physical environment than anything else. When its 90 degrees outside — that’d be Fahrenheit, or 32 Celsius — the sun is shining and I can see subtropical plants and flowers outside, when a gecko skitters across my wall chasing after a bug that has wandered in through the open window — well, it’s just doesn’t feel like the Christmas I know and loathe.

For this, Dad, I give thanks. And yet, and yet. Part of me still resides this time of year in a small rural hospital, watching over your last laboring moments of life. Part of me still resides on a frost laden, wind bitten graveyard, next to your casket poised over its hole in the ground, all your grimly playful allusions to “daisy-root sniffing” over the course of my life coming back to me.

And part of me still seethes with anger at how your memory was desecrated and betrayed by those whose petty concerns outweighed your final wishes. Those whom you gave life to and loved. And part of me weeps that I don’t think I’ll ever be man enough to forgive and forget, as you would want me to do.

All that talk in those last months about burying hatchets. Even now I’m astonished about how you knew, or at least suspected in your aged wisdom, what was to come. I’m sorry I couldn’t prevent it, that I didn’t do more than I did to try.

There’s nothing more to say, Dad, except that I love you still, and even though you are gone you are not forgotten. That even now rarely a day goes by that I don’t think of you and Mom, at least fleetingly, in passing, for one reason or another. And that even now I would trade almost anything — years of my own life, even — if I could only have a few precious hours to speak with you again.

Until entropy catches up with me as well — the cancer or the heart disease lurking in my genes, or simply pneumonia — whatever it might be, until then I shall not forget, and I will forever be saying goodbye.

A note on the image: This image isn’t mine; I found it via a Google image search for “windswept graveyard.” The graveyard where my parents are buried unfortunately isn’t quite so picaresque. Anyway, the original by one Kevin Wakelam can be found here. 

Looking Back on a Father’s Death

Sculptor August Rodin's Falling ManWell, Dad, it’s been three years.

I sometimes wonder where I would have to go to escape the trappings and reminders of this time of year. The remote jungles of New Guinea or Argentina? The deserts of Africa? The Moon?

Then I wonder: were I ever to actually find such a place, would it really matter? Would it be enough to keep from thinking about what this time of year means? Would it be enough, when each hour, each minute that ticks by echoes and reverberates in my conscious, making me almost preternaturally aware of the passage of time, as it ticks down to these two black anniversaries looming – each moment resonating in me like the telltale heart that beats under Poe’s floorboards.

No, I suppose it wouldn’t. And as I’ve remarked before, part of me doesn’t want to forget, painful as it is to remember, painful as it is that your last breath lingers in a corner of my mind, and will for as long as I have one.

I did manage to forget about this time of year for awhile yesterday and the day before. I had just moved into my temporary apartment – because my actual apartment that I’m renting (in the same building as the aforementioned room) won’t be available until January 3. Upon moving into this temporary room in the same building I found not one but two roaches. Granted one was dead, and here Southeast Asia, frankly, as in any warm climate, there’s really no avoiding the occasional roach; you’re going to find one in your bathroom sooner or later. Still, it’s not a welcome site on your first day in your new pad.

But Wait, There’s More!

Then I woke up yesterday to find the hot water heater isn’t working. Okay, roaches and no hot water – maybe I should have spent more time apartment hunting, eh Dad? Maybe the extra money I was spending on that guesthouse was money well spent. At least it had hot water and no roaches.

Then last night, I log onto my bank account back in the United States just to verify the funds I believe I have in there, before I buy some plane tickets and hotel reservations for a trip next month. After all, Dad — even though I know you would look askance at my spending habits, being a child of the Depression and whatnot – some of what you and Mom tried to teach me permeated my thick skull: I make it a point never to spend money I don’t have. So a glance upon logging in reveals that there is considerably less money than there should be in my account – specifically about a $1,000 less.

I look closely at the recent transactions and see a bunch of transactions that show up as international ATM withdrawals – withdrawals that I never made. Four of the five of these transactions all appear on the same date as the day that I last used my card myself. I remember specifically when I last used it, as I have a local account with an ATM card here in Viet Nam, which I use for day to day cash needs. Furthermore, I save all my ATM receipts (again the influence of you and Mom).

Yeah, I know, if I would just use banks instead of ATMs, and actually deal with people this wouldn’t have happened. But you know, Dad, I’ve been using ATMs to do my banking since 1988, and this is the first time something like this has happened. Yes, I should probably consider myself fortunate, mucking about in parts foreign, that this hasn’t happened before.

But what’s really odd is that I still have my card in my possession. And no, as I answered to the customer service person I talked to last night, I never let anyone else use it, and it was never out of my possession. While the ATM codes within the transactions listed in my account are somewhat inscrutable, it appears that these transactions took place in Russia – Stalingrad, in fact.

Russian crooks here in Viet Nam have somehow spoofed my ATM card. Fuckers. Not sure how; even if they were able to observe me enter my pin, would my card have been out long enough to capture an image with high enough resolution to see the number on the card? Could they have hacked the ATM machine, either electronically or physically?

Furthermore, is it too late to nuke what remains of the Soviet Union? Where’s Ronald Reagan and Caspar Weinberger when I need them?

Damned if I know. I just know I’m not going to use the ATM’s in the backpacker ghetto of District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City anymore. And since I don’t have access to nuclear weapons, I’ll just have to bend over and take it. Of course I don’t know that they were actually Russian; just because the transactions show up as having taken place at a Russian ATM doesn’t mean the thief or thieves were Russian.

Anyway now those charges are disputed, my card is invalidated, and I have to have a bunch of paperwork and my new card delivered via courier to me here in Viet Nam at my expense. The bank will only ship it to my address of record – that being my address back in the States – so it falls to me to arrange to get it here; one hopes one can trust the employees of Fed Ex.

So yeah, the last thirty six hours have kind of sucked, but such is the life lived abroad. You deal with these sorts of things when they arise or you go home. On the other hand, I had my first observation review with my boss at the school where I’m now teaching – the observation having taken place last week – and that all went well. Even so, it has occupied my thoughts of late. To say that I’ve been preoccupied these days would be an understatement.

And yet, Dad … and yet.

Underneath it all, I’m still acutely aware of the passage of time; acutely aware of just what time of year it is. Despite the fact that temperatures are still approaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and the weather is humid; despite the fact that the trees are green and flowers bloom and local fruit is readily available – despite this I know that it is winter and the time of dread anniversaries.

The trappings of the season one finds in Viet Nam, and indeed much of Southeast Asia – a secular version of Christmas with skinny Santas in flashy gold outfits and sappy versions of Christmas songs I never knew existed until I came here (I hear covers of Wham’s “Last Christmas” 10 times a day; it’s a terrible pop song so be glad you haven’t heard of it) – these all serve as reminders as well. The fact that they are almost always seemingly culturally out of place only make them stand out that much more – that and the fact that it’s all unironically and unapologetically consumerist in nature.

So here we are Dad, three years to the day down the road. Well, I’m here, anyway, but you are not.

And that is indeed what this is all about, isn’t it? The fact that you aren’t here, that you are gone, never to return. Actually as I write this it is only the early morning of December 16 back home in the States, so technically the anniversary of your death won’t be for several more hours yet. But here on the other side of the planet, that day is already here.

And even though three years of passed – and what eventful years they’ve been in my life – you’re still never far from my thoughts. It is rare that a day passes and I don’t think of you or Mom, for one reason or another.

A Road Less Traveled?

It seems hard to believe that three years have passed since your death, and that it will be 11 years in January since Mom died; this time of year always makes your deaths seem so close to me in time. Like my memories of her, some of my memories of you have begun to fade, while others sharpen. As my own age begins to catch up with the age you were when my earliest memories were forming, those childhood images I have of you seem to gain clarity.

It boggles my mind to think that when you were 42 – well, in a few weeks I’ll be 43, won’t I? – that I was already two years old, and that you had three older children, two of which were teenagers already. There but for the grace of God (or more precisely, vulcanized rubber) go I.

I suppose it’s somewhat ironic, this, considering the country where I live currently – many if not most of my students have parents my age; often they are even younger than I. Here in Southeast Asia people find it even more incomprehensible than you and Mom did that I have no wish for marriage and family – that someone would chose to be solitary, and happily so. Some of my students got me a piggy bank for Teacher’s Day here in Viet Nam because, according to them, I need to save money in order to get married. Then one of the Vietnamese people I work with asked me the other day If I had ever married; I told him with a smile that I had dodged that bullet. I added that I was engaged once, though, but that I had wised up before it was too late.

He looked mystified and just said “Oh, I’m sorry,” because in his world view there could be other response to this than condolences. It was one of those “Toto-we’re-definitely-not-in-Kansas” moments I relish living abroad. I grok a little bit more about the local culture and that of my own, and consequently myself – and this is a wonderful thing; it’s ultimately why we travel, yes?

I only wish you could be here to talk about all this in person. There’s so much I’d like to tell you about the last three years. I count myself fortunate that I at least had a few years to get to know you not as your child but as a fellow adult – albeit one whose life took very different turns than your own (sometimes to your chagrin, I know). I think I was only just beginning to come into my own person as a fully-formed adult – yes, I hear you laughing as you say that when I was in my 20s you didn’t think that day would ever come – when Mom died. I rue the fact that I was only just beginning to get to know here as one adult to another when death took her; if there is any sort of justice in the universe someone will have to answer for that after my own death comes.

In any event Dad, once again know that you are gone but not forgotten – that you never could be. That in some ways, even though life goes on, that time passes, that the ghosts remain quiet for long stretches of time, know that I’m still standing by your bedside watching impotently as entropy takes you away from me, that even as it does this, that I declare that it can be damned along with the entire universe before I will forget

Wherever you are now, know this, Dad.

Even though my siblings and I let you down in such a horrible way, I hope your spirit can find some solace in this.

Two Years Gone: Ruminating on a Father’s Death

Vanity by Frans Francken the YoungerSo in less than two hours – if memory serves me – it will be exactly two years since your death. Two years in which so much has changed irrevocably, not the least of which is the fact that you are no longer here.

In some ways your death has been easier for me to accept and deal with than Mom’s; over here in Southeast Asia the ghosts have been largely quiet. They trouble me infrequently, and for that I am grateful. The only thing that haunts my dreams and disturbs my slumber is my usual angst over the usual things, and this, too, is rather rare these days, fortunately.

I’m not sure if this is because in those two years I’ve had the distractions of being laid off, moving half way across the world, and trying on a new career (which was an ill fit, to say the least). Perhaps it’s just because she died first, and I was at least somewhat prepared for what I was in for – as much as anyone ever is for the death of a loved one.

In any event, in spite of all this you are still never far from my thoughts even now. Even now I still sometimes catch myself thinking – for the tiniest and sweetest of instants – that I should call you, because it’s been awhile. This is becoming more rare with the inevitable passage of time, however. Even though it’s like a stab in the heart when I remember that you are dead, I still cherish those moments, in a small, twisted sadomasochistic way, because for that one brief moment it’s as if you are still alive.

And it’s a reminder, however painful, that no, I haven’t forgotten. Some cold comfort, in that.

Not too long ago I dreamed that I was back home in Cincinnati. As I lay in bed, drifting somewhere in that state that’s not quite sleep but not quite waking, I thought I was indeed still in Cincinnati; apparenlty the last two years were the dream. I remember thinking in that dim, somnambulistic state that it had been awhile since I’d gone down to Tennessee to visit, and that I was due for a roadtrip to see you.

Of course, with the thrusting of that knife in my chest I was instantly and fully awake. And you died once more.

It amazes me that even two years later one’s subconscious can still pretend that you are alive and well. But then we always want what we can’t have; our subconscious never lies or bullshits itself.

There is so much I want to tell you – so much about what I’ve gone through and experienced since you died. I’d love to gain the perspective of your years on my experiences living abroad.

It’s strange and amusing, when I think about it – we are (were) so different, you and I. My life’s path has diverged so much from yours, and yet I always still valued your advice, right on up to the end, even when old age had begun to color your thinking (or so I thought, at any rate). Heh, and then I would marvel at your foresight when I didn’t take said advice only to wish that I had.

Such is the bond of parent and child, I guess.

Like Mom’s death, I haven’t really “gotten over” yours – not in the strictest sense of the phrase. I don’t think anyone who truly loves another ever can. Death changes the living as well as the dead; the person that I was up to the moment you died, died with you. Just as the person that I was when Mom was still alive was buried with her.

So, gone but not forgotten, eh? I went back and read the first blog post I made after you died. It was a few weeks after your funeral. These words – culled from that meandering, near-stream-of-consciousness musing — still rings true:

Yeah, that beat-up, retread heart of his, the one that we thought for nearly 30 years would be the death of him, held out until the bitter end, the last of his organs to stop functioning. Even in death, even as his spirit fled his dieing, frail body, Dad had to be a smart ass and have the last word.

A twisted part of me wishes I had that heart – I mean that literally; I would carry it with me always as a sort of talisman, a tribute to the kind of spirit that laughs in the face of long odds; the kind of spirit that flips the bird in the face of adversity.

The kind of spirit that insists on just one more cast of the fishing rod into the water, even though the light of day is fading, we’re cold and miserable, and we haven’t caught one damn fish the whole damn day. The kind of spirit that taught me that you play every down as hard as you possibly can, no matter if there is less than a minute left in the game and your team is down by 50 points. The kind of spirit that taught me to play like it’s the first play of the game, and there is no score, even when it is the last play and we’ve clearly lost.

Win or lose, you play hard; you never play “give-up ball,” for that is the worst sin of all. You play that way every play, or you don’t even walk out on the field; there is no half-assing. I would carry that heart as a testament to the spirit that taught me that, metaphorically, that’s how one should live one’s life.

I suppose I carry that heart metaphorically, if not literally, huh Dad?

And then concluded with:

As for Dad, I’ll just say this, the words that I used to conclude what I said at his funeral.

If, at the end of my days, I can say that I was half the man my father was – just half – my spirit will be able to rest easy, for I will know that by anyone’s measure, I will have done well with my time here. Just half – for my father, William Blackburn Chappell, was that much of a man.

The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters

Francisco Goya: Caprichos. El sueño de la razón produce monstruo (the dream of reason brings forth monsters).It’s funny, not in an amusing way, but rather in an odd, “isn’t-it-strange” kind of way, how sometimes they all come flooding back, the ghosts and the memories they bear. A month or two can go by, and there are no dreams, even though it comes up in casual conversation, that death of a loved one.

But they are never far away though. They are always there, lurking just below the surface, that frail veneer of normalcy you present to the world. You know this, because you’ve lived with it for some years now. But sometimes, there are stretches of time when the environment around you, the fates, and your own mind all collude to lull you into a false sense of security; perhaps you even foolishly dare to think that you are “over it,” as if you ever can or will be over it – as if you have a choice in this matter — when deep down you know that can never be. That at best, you’ll adapt, like an amputee adjusting to losing a limb: her life goes on and she learns how to do without, but that phantom pain never quite goes away — indeed, it flares up when she least expects it.

In much the same way, you never know when something will whisk you back into those moments to relive yet again for the gods-only-know-how-many times those awful, terrible moments, the dreadful movie playing behind your eyes in all its vivid, mental Technicolor glory. Sometimes you don’t see it coming; the most tenuous reminders – a smell, an uttered phrase, an object on your dresser – they collude to send you back to those moments unwillingly to live them all again. And sometimes it’s just for the briefest of moments before you can return to your façade; sometimes the ghosts even let you sleep unperturbed.

But then other times the ghosts cavort and play their infernal games until light floods the world once more.

And then there are the times you see it coming, like a slow-motion accident — the character in the television show you’ve been watching is in the hospital, on life support, and the prognosis isn’t good, and you know you shouldn’t be watching this; you know what it is going to bring – you hear the banshee’s wail — yet you cannot help yourself. You go there willingly; no collusion or sudden trickery is necessary. And even though it’s all bullshit, the heavily made-up actor lying on the hospital bed in a studio intensive care; no matter how they present it, you know its utter crap because you’ve seen this all first hand, twice now.

It’s like you’re not really seeing the stupid bullshit on TV, though. Oh no, your mind and your ghosts make sure that instead of seeing the clean, comfortable, participatory lie — the willing suspension of disbelief — instead you’re reliving the visceral  truth of death all over again: you hear the death rattle in lungs filling with fluid … you see the arms swollen and livid because the kidneys have shut down, and the fluids they continuously pump into him have nowhere to go … you hear the unconscious yet desperate gasps for breath … you smell that telltale odor of decay that refutes the hopeful, steady chirps of the monitors … you feel the rapid beating of a raggedy old heart fighting a desperate, losing battle.

And even though the character on television makes a rapid recovery to the ecstatic, happy relief of their loved ones, that’s not the ending you see. No, you hear that last gasp as the lung rattle ceases, the chest rising for the last time. Then once more you lay fingers on rough, dry, aged skin that’s prickly with gray whiskers so that your fingertips can be witness to that patched, retread heart fluttering once or twice more before finally stopping, forever. You watch again as the blood drains away from the face of the one constant left in your life, never to return. The jaw slackens and you try and close it — how many times have you tried to close it? — grasping for even one tiny shred of dignity for this man, because that’s all you can do, even though you know it’s futile – that’s all you have left to give him, after he’s given you so much. But Death won’t permit even that.

And even as you wander out to the nurse’s station to inform them that your hopeless vigil is at an end, you know it’s only just begun: these images are mentally indelible. You know that even if you were to live for a hundred more years, or a thousand more years, that you will take them to your own grave, as brilliant and vivid as the moment they happened — that only when your own heart stops beating and your own jaw slackens for the last time, then and only then will they leave you.

Only when you join them will the ghosts let you sleep untroubled.

So you come back to the present nine months later and sit and listen to Beethoven — Moonlight Sonata and Für Elise, over and over, and that upbeat, happy part in the middle of Für Elise always catches you off guard – because you know sleep will not come this night. You briefly take solace in the fact that no sleep means no dreams. But then your tired mind keeps replaying those images in your head, over and over, like a tongue probing a rotten tooth, or a finger picking at a bloody scab.

Ghosts will have their due, whether you sleep or not.

So you write it all down because words are the only way you know how to temporarily exorcise them, the images and the ghosts — the only way you know how to drive them away, however fleetingly.

On the Road at 3 a.m. with Bobby and Beth

I heart Beth Orton.What is it about the open road at night — nothing but moon and starlight, the hum of tires on lonely asphalt, and the occasional snippet of summer insect song through an open window as I drive along — that soothes my restless soul?

What is it about the humid, warm wind rushing through my hair and over my face as the soft, silky voice of a British siren whispers in my ear through the windy din, that brings peace to my restless heart?

Even with no particular place to go, and the knowledge that I’ll have to turn around and point myself towards “home” eventually, well before the dawn comes — what is it about this suspended, sublime moment of sound and motion that brings solace?

Is motion, even with no destination, a balm for restlessness? Does it hearken back to the comfort of floating in the dark, warm comfort of the womb? Or is there some primordial memory imprinted in my deoxyribonucleic acids that recalls what it was like to constantly be on the move, a nomad whose very life depended on movement? Or does it hearken to something even farther back, some distant recollection etched in the molecules and atoms of my being: that of constantly cruising through dim, newly-formed seas from birth until death, the wind of the highway standing in for the flow of salt water over my bony, smooth flesh?

What is in me, that the only times I seem to feel truly at peace, the only time that I feel truly at home — at peace with myself and the world — is when I’m headed away from it? It hasn’t mattered where home has been, or who might be waiting there — doesn’t matter which side of the continent, rural or urban – it’s always been this way. What is in me that always seems compelled to see what’s over the next hill, or the next horizon — that is sometimes compelled to just leave at a moment’s notice? That only feels content on a bicycle, car, or plane that’s pointed away from where I’ve been?

These are thoughts that flit through my mind as Beth Orton croons to me of love, death, and loss at 3:30 a.m. on a random highway headed west. Central Reservation has to be one of the best road albums ever, but then it’s very name speaks of the road. I eventually stop at a Waffle House in the middle of Nowhere, Indiana, to get something to eat, and there were two gentlemen in there having breakfast before beginning their respective work days. One was a public school janitor; I couldn’t suss out what the other guy did.

I couldn’t help but think that here were to guys, probably with houses and the corresponding mortgages, families, and responsibilities. They couldn’t decide to take off and hit the road on the wrong side of midnight on a weekday, just because they felt like it; just because it felt good to be moving. And here I was, a guy more or less the same age as these two, only marginally employed thanks to the current economy, with no healthcare — but no bills or other responsibilities, who could just take off at a whim.

And I think how I wouldn’t trade places with either of these two guys, how I feel sorry for them, although they don’t seem like they were sorry for themselves (but then who knows what lurks behind their eyes).


Now, the magic spell of the road is broken as I point the Subaru back toward home (there’s that strange word again). Now my mind races ahead of the car, the voodoo charm of motion having warn off — scattered, smothered, and covered by a chance encounter at a highway restaurant. Now I think of my father, and how sometimes, when I was a kid, seemingly at random (but almost always on a weekend), he would ask if I wanted to go for a car ride — no destination, no particular reason; he just felt like driving. This most often took place when I was a child, but sometimes it would happen even after I had grown into an adult, on up to the months before he died.

Did he feel that restlessness? Did I inherit it from him? Did he ever find himself hurtling down some isolated highway in the small hours before sunrise, the warm, somewhat sultry voice of a woman he’s never met his only companion, and find a brief enlightenment? Did he regret choices that kept him from being unfettered, from being able to take to the road whenever he wished? Did he miss the freedom of his postwar, post-collegiate self, the gleaming red Studebaker taking him whither he will? I recall his stories of those seemingly idyllic days, and I wonder.

Or does it come from my mother? She of the Northern Irish and Scottish blood, the blood of poets, blood that waxes and wanes across centuries, sometimes in thrall, sometimes free — bending but never breaking, sometimes turning the other cheek, sometimes gladly turning to fight (blood that now flows in my veins)? A depression-era child that watched cancer claim her father only a few short years after she was born, did she ever find that the familial ties that brought comfort then only brought chafing and constraints later in life? Mother that kept a copy of Rand’s The Fountainhead buried on her bookshelf amidst family photos, myriad self help books, bibles and dusty old encyclopedias — a copy that she quietly replaced after I took it home to the Great White North to finish reading, having discovered it on my first Christmas home after college.

There was more to her than I ever knew.

Am I more like them than I ever realized? Is my instinctive fear of life’s metaphorical anchors and chains inherited? Did they feel restless in the small hours of the night? What recourse did they have if they did? They were always there when I awoke as a child — was I a tie that binded them?

Sometimes I rue having been an accident, a gynecologist’s miscalculation, having been born so late in their lives. It seems like I barely got to an age — and if there is any blame to bear for this, it lies with me — where I could appreciate my parents as fellow adults, as distinct human beings — and as friends — before age, infirmity, and death claimed them. On one hand, I’m almost ashamed to say that in one sense I feel free now that my father is gone; there is nothing keeping me here now and I’m truly free to wander whither I will (if I only I had that sweet Studebaker). On the other, I’d pay anything — oh, I’d pay dearly and gladly — for more time with both of them, even just a precious hour or two.

I heart Robert Frost, too. Of course there is no one to ask, now, about these existential 3 a.m. questions  — no one to ask when I wander in the dark, why I wander in the dark. Why I only feel at peace when I do. Why it is only motion that ever drives away the vague angst that settled in my gut in my teenage years — as it seemingly does for everyone — and never left me.

But then, does it even matter? Should it matter? Perhaps, sometimes, it is best not to wonder why we wander, why we travel through the woods on a snowy evening, or whether we will be seen by the land owner. Rather, we should simply revel in woods that “are lovely, dark, and deep,” living in that moment, not worrying about the promises to keep and the miles to go before we sleep — there is time enough for that in the still, sterile light of day.

Ole Bobby Frost, he knew a thing or two about angst, restlessness and 3 a.m. There must have been some Irish or Scotts in the woodpile somewhere in his family history, I’ll wager.

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Tell me it WAS a molehill

So, my siblings and I had a calm, civil meeting with each other today to discuss our further efforts in settling our father’s estate. It’s caused me to cautiously hope that perhaps I was wrong and that in the end we will be able to honor our father and his wishes after all. A close friend suggested that perhaps my freak-out last week opened some eyes or otherwise provided food for thought. Or maybe Dad is behind the scenes, raising hell with Fate’s technical support staff. I don’t know; maybe I was just making a mountain out of a molehill. I suppose whatever the case, it remains to be seen. I don’t even want to think about it too much, lest I jinx it.

I just hope that when all of this is settled and over, that it turns out I was dead wrong, that I owe them a big, fat, hear-felt apology, and that I have to eat a frickin’ mountain of crow. Nothing would make me happier; truer words have never been uttered. And “dead” wrong was a rather poor choice of words in retrospect, but I’ll let it go.

Cautiously optimistic. Odd to feel that right now … almost carefree, even. “Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Guess my emotions have bottomed out; that’s surely part of it. But a lot of it is has to do with the fact that I think losing my job is probably a good thing, in the long run. Sure, some advance warning might have been nice, and the timing could certainly have been better. But as I mentioned in a previous post, finding motivation to do anything beyond phoning it in, so to speak, had become very difficult in the wake of my father’s death. And even before then, I had already come to the realization that things needed to change.

It will be nice to wake up tomorrow whenever I feel like it, and not have to stress about deadlines, copy edits, proofs, and so forth. In fact, while I eventually want to do something that I have a passion for, I think in the interim I want something that is temporary and part-time, and relatively mindless. Something that will pay the bills while I see this estate business through with my siblings, and absorb and process all these changes.

Strange, that a temporary, low-paying job stacking boxes in a warehouse at night suddenly sounds like it would an ideal situation. But then the word “strange” is part and parcel of my existence these days. …

I’m Sorry, Dad

I wrote the following text below the cut (the “read more” link; you’ll get to it eventually) on Thursday afternoon, the evening after I finally cracked. In engineering terminology, my psyche finally suffered a catastrophic malfunction. I’d been waiting for it – had been wondering why it had not happened yet, following Dad’s [tag]death[/tag] four short weeks ago. I’d been wondering if and when it would all become too much. Wednesday night, was the last straw, as it became evident to me that my two oldest siblings decided beyond all doubt that their vanity and personal demons were more important than honoring our father’s wishes.

And I broke – and only by the slimmest thread of self control did I keep from literally breaking everything I own. In the end, I wasn’t psychologically strong enough to do what I believe what my father would have wanted me to do.

And I went to a very dark place inside my soul. A dark, dank little cave that I haven’t visited since the spring of 2001, following my mother’s death; this has been my third visit to that place since December 1999 when, but for a “grave”(heh) miscalculation, it would have become my permanent place of residence. After writing what follows, I felt much better; I guess it enabled me to come to terms with my failure, that and the new cadre of ghosts that joins those my mother’s death left behind to keep me company.

I decided not to post it right away, however; I decided to give it a few days and read it over. For one reason, writing when one is emotional is not necessarily a good thing – sometimes it can be powerful beyond measure in its passion; at other times the force of that passion can completely wreck the writing, tearing it asunder and making it descend into melodrama, even as you put it down on the page. The second reason is because I have mixed feelings about keeping a truly personal blog. On one hand, I’m an intensely private person; I often fit the cliché of the loner. On the other hand, when I look at others’ blogs, the ones I truly enjoy reading, they tend to be of an intensely personal nature; they are the ones in which the authors lay their souls bare (they can write well, too). It’s probably not surprising that the blogs I enjoy the most are by published fiction authors.

So, I suppose if I’m going to keep a [tag]blog[/tag], then it might as well be one that I would actually read, were I on the other side of it (I’ll let you decide if I can write well or not; obviously I believe that I can). Furthermore, despite my private nature, there is something cathartic about publishing your innermost thoughts and feelings on a blog for all the world to read – it lets one bare one’s soul without the embarrassment of sharing that with someone in person. Plus, the reader gets the powerful words and compelling emotion without the drama and tears. If they’re uncomfortable, they can stop reading; if it’s someone I know, they can choose to acknowledge it, or not, as they see fit, when we meet in person.

For a misanthropic, navel-gazing loner who only maintains a handful of good friends, it’s the perfect psychological vent.

Another reason I’m glad I waited is that on Friday – it being early Saturday evening as I write this – bitch-ass Fate decided to deal me a coup de grâce: I got laid off from my job. That kind of helped me put everything in perspective, I think, because in spite of what conventional wisdom would suggest I should feel, I feel relieved. I liked my job, liked my coworkers and my employer, but lately, even before my father died, I had had trouble with motivation – in short, I just couldn’t feel motivated anymore to do something that I didn’t have a passion for. It has been like staying in a relationship with someone because it’s comfortable, not because I’m still madly in love with them. My career had become just a job – a cool job, but just a job nonetheless. I’ve actually felt that way about journalism for several years now, but with all of the shit going on following my father’s death, I was finding it extra difficult to do the job – I just couldn’t find it within me to care – so I think it is for the best, even though the future is now even more uncertain than it was before.

One of my good friend’s favorite quotes is from the movie Hero; the lines in question are spoken by Bernie LaPlant, played by Dustin Hoffman, to his son Joey as he explains his philosophy of life.

“People are always talking about truth. Everybody always knows what the truth is, like it was toilet paper or something and they got a supply in the closet. But what you learn as you get older is there ain’t no truth. All there is is bullshit, pardon my vulgarity here. Layers of it. One layer of bullshit on top of another. And what you do in life like when you get older is – you pick the layer of bullshit you prefer and that’s your bullshit so to speak.”

I suspect my dilemma with regard to my career and everything else right now is that the layer of bullshit I have come to prefer is near the bottom, if not precisely the bottom itself. Maybe I’ve always been that way, and I just took 40 years to figure it out. All I know is, if I don’t wake up and the first thing in my brain isn’t “Hot damn, I can’t wait to do my job today,” then I don’t want to do it at all any more, because, well, it’s bullshit otherwise. Out in California you often hear the phrase “I work to live, rather than live to work,” often to justify some heinously long commute, or to justify some mind-numbing, soul-crushing drudgery in a cubicle farm. I think at this point in my life, I’d rather just “live to live,” because everything else is bullshit, I’ve come to conclude. It’s cliché, but it’s true: one must follow one’s bliss.

Granted, truth is subjective, and so is bullshit. But then, I’m a loner at heart, and now that both my [tag]parents[/tag] are dead, the only person I have to answer to is myself. So, whatever the future holds … it won’t hold a lot of bullshit, as far as I’m concerned. I may end up living in my Subaru down by the river, but damn it, it will be on my own terms, and there won’t be any bullshit involved – I won’t have to be full of shit, convincing myself to do a job that I don’t care about, and that doesn’t matter to me at the end of the day.

If I ever get laid off again, I want it to be a tragedy, because I loved that job, and because I couldn’t wait to do it each and every day I got out of bed. No more bullshit, that’s my motto.

So yeah, whatever self censorship may have taken place in the past here is no more. I’m posting what I want and everyone else can bugger off if they don’t like it, future employers included.

But be prepared, dear gentle reader; what you are about to read, should you chose to continue, isn’t a [tag]fluffy box of kittens[/tag] with a side order of Carebears. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

OK, that was a bit over the top. But it is gut wrenching stuff, if I do say so myself. And lengthy. May want to go take a leak and get something to drink before you click.

Continue reading I’m Sorry, Dad