My father was a mystery, an enigma, nothing but a glimpse, a shadow floating in and out of my life every so often. Never a strong presence, if in fact a presence at all, he lurked in a gray, opaque and odd sort of way, seen only as if looking through a window pain coated with steam. His shadow hovers in its peculiar way at the least expected times.
He was a renegade who abandoned everything in the pursuit of some illusive happiness that he seemed unable to grasp. His bizarre personality is hard to capture in words because my interpretation, assessment, emotions are tangled and twisted with threads of love, hate, disbelief, sympathy and finally compassion. Thinking of him surfaces some bruises but he was a force to be dealt with. I've lived, loved and lost and will never fully come to grips with this incredible man.
He always floated in and out of my vision as a clouded, once-in-a-while veiled presence, more like a strange phenomenon than real. I think when he did appear so unexpectedly it was only to remind me that he really did exist. I kept him buried deep within my soul with all the sorrows and puzzles in life that we never understand but that we need to accept if we are to survive. Any connection to him was mysterious and troublesome and I long ago determined very early on that he was a ghost of a man too painful to try to understand. His life was exactly that -his life – and clearly one over which I had no control. His being could only have meaning for me if I allowed it to limit my reach for happiness. Not until I got older and wiser did pieces of the puzzle fit. He was a challenge to love and though I don't profess to have loved him, there is some peace in understanding him just a little. How do I describe such a complex man?
He was born into high society, the son of a renowned and respected Supreme Court Judge. His mother served as "Mistress of the Manor" and very little is known about her. Her mission was to bear children and run the Judge's home with dignity and decorum. Based purely on stories I heard, the children were raised almost exclusively by Irish Nannies who pampered and fussed over them. It's reported that he and his siblings had every physical need catered to but very few of the emotional ones met at all. My father, in particular, grew into a spoiled adolescent who believed his privileged status entitled him to instant gratification.
He was tall and handsome and perfectly groomed at all times. I have very clear memories of this easy-going, devil-may-care- kind of guy whose presence could dominate and electrify a room. I don’t believe I ever saw him without a crisply pressed shirt and carefully knotted tie. A cheap blue or green “Scripto” lead pencil was always sticking out of his shirt pocket along with his ever-present pack of Kool cigarettes and silver lighter. Looking back, I believe perhaps he suffered an obsessive-compulsive disorder. He was fiercely protective of his personal belongings and unerringly consistent in his habits. Each night, before going to bed, he meticulously laid the table for his morning breakfast. He set out a matching cup and saucer for his coffee to the right of a delicate little pedestal eggcup and a small bread plate for his toast. A juice glass was perfectly placed just above the spoon resting on a precisely folded linen napkin. The same small saucepan he used each day to boil his morning egg was placed on the stove with exactly the right amount of water waiting. Pepper and saltshakers were centered above the place setting and his treasured Scripto pencil along with the tall skinny box holding fragile extra lengths of lead was placed alongside, thus completing his daily ritual.
He was tutored at home, never attended public schools and received a first class education. Well versed in the Classics, he learned Latin, English, math and history and studied the great philosophers of the past. He developed that aristocratic grace so common in the wealthy and high society as they were groomed for positions of power and influence. He was taught to speak in a confident and commanding voice that magnetically attracted others to his point of view. He was eloquent and had the ability to charm in order to influence. He could captivate an audience and wasted little time on superfluous conversation.
During my "at home years" "children were to be seen and not heard." The few one-on-one’s I had with my father were a result of some errant infraction of the rules that caused me to be sent to him for discipline. I like to think he loved me but am more inclined to think he tolerated me.
He did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, acting on every instinct, spirit or impulse to satisfy his insatiable thirst for pleasure and comfort. He was unable or unwilling to sacrifice his own needs for those of others. He had never been held accountable for his actions and he showed no signs of changing to meet the responsibilities of a growing family. I like to think he loved my mother and all of us, but I'm less than sure even of that. He was a product of his protected upbringing and had a talent for dismissing anything that might cause him discomfort.
Perhaps it was those early years of being spared the shame or pain of his actions, protected, excused and forgiven by his own mother and father, that caused him to lack the ability to deal with unpleasant events. His adolescent years were roguish and troublesome and he developed a total disregard for rules and regulations. He became expert at absolving himself of any responsibility.
He was a brilliant student who succeeded academically with little effort and avoided failure by barely meeting minimum requirements. His father was so well respected and admired, the family became expert at burying inappropriate events lest the Judge’s reputation be sullied. The Judge demanded strict adherence to the old Irish adage “never air your dirty laundry in public.” My father and his siblings learned very early on that the family reputation was to be cherished and protected at all costs. They were trained to fiercely avoid any public disclosure of transgression and that all misdeeds would be hidden lest the family name be tarnished.
Dad really ran amok during the restrictive days of prohibition and he found himself before the courts time and time again. He entered his teens during the prohibition era providing ample opportunity to violate the law. Police silence was purchased and arrest records disappeared, traffic tickets were hidden, fights and bar room brawls were buried and settled with the almighty dollar. They never made it to the police blotters. His total lack of accountability and excessive partying at age 17 got him into his first serious encounter with consequences. He wound up paying the price for his poor judgment for perhaps the first time in his life. After partying particularly hard one evening he drank himself into oblivion. In his drunken state he decided he wanted to "see the world" before he settled down. He went into NY City and signed up to join the French Foreign Legion. When he sobered up he found himself not only in the Corp, but being shipped to France assigned to drive a French Red Cross ambulance through German enemy lines. His influential father could do nothing to save him from this fate and perhaps even, once and for all, gave up trying and decided Dad should suffer the wrath of his irresponsible actions.
He grew into a charming, pampered, spoiled and weak man who was completely amoral. He failed to consider consequences before he acted nor did he do anything he didn't want to do. And he had a hell-of-a-good time doing it. He never met a person he didn't like and his creed was "yesterday's gone, tomorrow may never come, live for today." His drinking and self-gratification robbed him of every bit of human dignity he had and he "hit bottom." He had lost any self-respect and disappeared into alcoholic oblivion so painful to everyone that knew or loved him.
I have to believe his sad and terrible journey into hell had nothing to do with me and everything to do with a terrible sickness. This belief makes his actions at the very least tolerable.
My mother, his one true soul mate, died before her 50th birthday, suddenly and unexpectedly. This was the one blow he couldn't handle. He clearly felt anguish and loneliness and he had not a clue as to how he should handle such an awful insult to his emotions. It slammed full force into his gut. He simply couldn't understand why, how or who caused this and his confusion prevented him from being able to find a place for it. As always, it was all about him. He hurt. He would be alone. He was in pain. Her death was sudden and unexpected and he had to suffer. And suffer he did as he sunk further and further into despair. Instead of picking himself and us out of the depths he began his furious journey into alcoholic hell with a vengeance.
He chose the life of a vagabond or what then was referred to as a "knight of the road" a.k.a. homeless bum. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, he became one of the poor, disheveled bums seen wandering up and down highways in search of the next odd job, or more realistically, the next cheap bottle of wine. He drank, slept and wandered - drank, wandered and slept - and then drank again.
That was the sum total of his existence. We later learned that he followed the weather and in the spring and summer traveled north and in the fall and winter he migrated south with the snowbirds. He worked sparingly and only when he had to. He sometimes worked as a grounds man for a traveling circus, a short order cook, a janitor at any institution that would hire him, or at whatever menial jobs might pay him just enough to survive. He disappeared completely from my life and I resigned myself to never hear from him again. I was to discover, however, that along with his meager belongings he did carry a next-of-kin card with my address listed as an emergency contact.
Neither did I think a whole lot about him during those busy years. I was vaguely aware that he was in and out of jails, indigent missions, Salvation Army flophouses, and homeless shelters. Each time I passed "one of the bums of the road" I might wonder where he was but that was the full extent of any connection.
Then, out of nowhere, I received a phone call from the administrator of a Salvation Army "bunk house" in Poughkeepsie,NY. The caller told me my father was “in residence” and too sick to stay in his 50 cent a night room any longer. Apparently transient "guests" could sleep there but weren't allowed to die there! To do so would be to break the "house rules." He told me Dad would be moved to a government-run poor house and was expected to die within the next few days. The Salvation Army was bound by regulations to let the next of kin know before transferring a "sick guest".
That call was like a kick in the stomach for me. I was sad, frustrated, confused, and mad as hell. What did he want after all these years? He couldn’t really expect me to drop everything and jump in to save him from himself. Without dwelling on the past and without looking too far into the future, I called my sister, Mary Ellen. We reluctantly agreed we couldn’t ignore his sad and lonely plea for help. We had to help him if we could.
We drove to the Salvation Army house and picked up this dying, skin and bones shell of an old man. He was semi-conscious, had no teeth, wore dirty and torn clothes, needed a haircut and shave and he pretended to know who we were. With his meager life belongings in a brown paper bag, we carried him out and took him to our local hospital. The doctor was not optimistic about his prognosis and said he was one of the frailest and sickest patients he had ever been asked to treat. He had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, only one lung, heart failure, malnutrition, liver disease and multiple other manifestations of the life he had led. His lungs had collapsed and he was convulsing and had very little chance of surviving
And die he did! ... just as he had lived, drunk and alone, penniless ... friendless ... destitute ... a sad and lonely, sick old man. Should he be forgiven? Was there anything to forgive? Was it his fault? Was it a sickness?
Was he amoral? I really don't know. I do know, however,
As stated in Ecclesiastes,
"A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance."
His death was undeniably a time to weep and a time to mourn - to mourn - not for the man - but for time and love lost – for what might have been but now could never be.