William Earl Israel, October 23, 1925--March 10, 2010
The holy father
How to write about my father without making him sound like an ogre, or a god. How to write about my relationship with him without sounding like a neurotic basketcase. Maybe the focus is already all wrong. Maybe he will sound like an ogre, maybe I will sound like a nut; say it anyway.
Sometimes when I get a letter from my dad, I try to think if anything I’ve said in recent phone conversations or in a recent letter of my own might have made him angry. I wait to open the envelope, wondering if sliding my finger under its flap will be like opening Pandora’s Box. But what is this fear? How did I get to this place, more than four decades into my life, that opening a letter with news about what movies he and Mom have seen, or who he had lunch with, or how wonderful his young friends are, can cause me to hesitate and wonder, ‘What have I said…?’
Memory is, of course, amorphous, as are one’s perceptions, perhaps especially those formed during childhood. What struck me thirty-five or forty years ago probably does not even exist as a memory for my father. Yet it is my reality, and that’s all I’ve got.
How do I explain who he is without explaining who he is not? Perhaps that is the beginning. Who he is not. He is not an abusive man. He is not an alcoholic, or a tower of seething rage. And yet it is his anger, his intensity, that has shaped me so profoundly, and that I continue to struggle with, long after it has virtually ceased to exist in him.
My father was diagnosed with cancer in 1989. I remember the phone call, I remember pacing and then sitting on the wooden floor of the small dining room of my rental house, wondering what this meant, wondering what was next. I never would have imagined it would mean our relationship would change so dramatically. I’d always described our relationship as being like two magnets having the same charge, so alike, yet repelling one another when held too close together. Over the next few years, we would break beyond this electrical charge, defying physics and the natural laws of the universe, and becoming as close as I’d always wished we could be. Another factor in this dynamic was my at-the-time newfound sobriety.
It seems the combination of Dad’s diagnosis, perhaps his awareness of his mortality, and some of his medications made him much more approachable. He was open and expressive. Due to the testosterone-inhibiting drugs he was on, his anger was gone. And while he mourned the loss, I celebrated it, seizing the opportunity to bridge the gaps caused by my intimidation of him and his moods.
But then our bond changed again. Flux, perhaps, is the only constant in relationships. We lost the closeness, the easy camaraderie, the ability to discuss things that mattered. And I missed it, as I’d so frequently missed it even before I ever had it. Hence a lifetime in which too much energy has been spent focusing on my father, seeking his approval, needing his love. More recently, I’ve compared my father’s emotions as the sun that my family orbits around. I am the angry meteor who crashes into him only to get burned up. I’m ready for a different galaxy now. But how do I get there?
Sometimes I wonder if there’s any point in going to visit. My interactions with my father are so brief. He’s frequently away with his friends or visiting hospice patients. If he’s home, he’s either resting, visiting with his buffoonish friend that no one else can tolerate, or feeling too depressed to talk. I miss our conversations; I miss his interest in my life. I feel disconnected from him, as I have so frequently. Like a kid looking in the window, so close to where I want to be, yet so completely separated by a wall of glass.
My mother told me how joyous Dad had been at each child’s birth. She said he used to go and just stand beside our cribs and watch us sleep. I waited a while, but I had to be sure, so I asked, ‘Even mine?’
The child is father to the man
As usual, I went to Birmingham in December of 2000 to celebrate Christmas with my family. It was the best opportunity I had to hook up with parents and siblings. We might not all show up on the same day, but we would all show up. Given that I lived in Texas at the time, Cindy lives in Kentucky, Greg lives in northern Alabama, and my parents live in central Alabama, it’s rare for us all to be in one place at one time. And the rarity grows, given incidents such as those I experienced on this trip.
My father does not like changes or interruptions, particularly to his established routine. I am an interruption. And boy, did he make that clear on this trip. The most aggravating single incident involved a gift basket from some of the neighbors. My father still walks, and I still walk with him, just as I did when I was four, five, too small to keep up. Dad and I were out walking when some neighbors gave Dad a basket wrapped in green, translucent cellophane. We took it home, and he put it on the table in the kitchen. As is his way, he disappeared into his room, perhaps trying to find comfort from all the disruptions in solitude. I was curious about the basket, and since I thought the neighbors had said it was a gift for the whole family, I peeled back a section of the cellophane to see what was inside. The basket was filled with oranges, and there was a small tin filled with cookies. I didn’t eat or move anything. But a while later, when Dad walked through the kitchen, he yelled “Who opened my present?” I thought he was joking. I told him I had. Then I realized he was furious, petulant as a five-year-old child. He ranted, not directing his words at anyone in particular, but making it impossible for anyone in the downstairs part of the house to avoid hearing him. He groused about it being his gift, and then he found some tape and taped the cellophane back together. He stormed out of the room, leaving the basket on the table. I was stunned. A little later, I knocked on Dad’s closed bedroom door. It was early, but the room was dark and he was in bed. He said nothing. I went in and apologized, explaining that I thought the basket was for everyone. While I didn’t necessarily feel like I should have to apologize, I thought I’d go ahead and do it, in the hopes that some dialogue might ensue. Instead, he replied angrily, “Never mind.” At a further loss, I asked if he needed anything. He said “no.” I left. Fa la la, deck the halls, happy holidays, and when the hell can I leave for Texas?
Father knows best
He adjusts the warm stream of water so that it won’t splash out of the sink. He holds his hands under the stream, turning them so that both sides are wet. He lifts the bar of soap, rolling it a few times in his dominant left hand. He holds his hands together, and rubs vigorously. He carefully returns the soap to its dish, then rubs his suds-covered palms together again. He holds his right hand palm down and rubs the soapy water along the back of it, then turns it palm up and repeats the procedure. Then he washes the palm of the left hand, then the back of the left hand. He repeats the process, then rinses both the tops and bottoms of his hands. He turns off the water, wipes the stray drops of water off the sink, and then dries his hands on the towel by the door.
Running the gauntlet of squeaky floorboards, attempting to complete the traverse without Dad hearing from his bed, where he lay in the darkness and his voice inevitably boomed out some query or command, as if God Himself had been awakened. The hallway outside my room was easy until you go to the corner. Then you had to pass by Dad’s open door, scarcely breathing, and step gingerly yet with a long stride beyond the first squeaky spot. Then you were in the living room. Crossing this was a snap. A dinosaur could have gotten over it quietly. But that left the true minefield of squeaky boards in the dining room, those with no carpet muffling them, those that no matter how you stepped, no matter which direction you took, no matter how fast or how slow you went, there was going to be noise. More than likely, there would be the double squeak, one footfall to another, high then low, and once you hit these, it was all over with Dad. You might as well have driven a Mack truck through the house, horn blaring, radio twanging country tunes with static and chatter crunching across the CB radio airwaves.
He walks at least three miles a day. Usually, he walks in his small house, where his track is a loop from the front hall, through the dining room, kitchen, and living room. He goes around and around and around, maintaining a focused and fast pace, until his allotted time has passed. He walked when I was a child, a mile-long loop around our neighborhood, sometimes ten times a day. As a very small child, I’d beg to go with him.
I’d cry, running to keep up, falling behind, running to catch up again, but refusing to stay home.
He writes notes in tiny, tight handwriting. When the page is filled and the items on the list have been completed, he erases the page and starts a new list.
He sits in the wing chair by the dining room window with his homemade lap-desk. One side of the lap-desk is a cushion, and the other side is a smooth piece of wood. With the cushion in his lap, he shuffles a deck of cards and plays hand after hand of solitaire.
I am not my father. I’ve had a couple of friends remind me of this, and it’s always been helpful to hear. Yet I know no one will ever shape me as indelibly as he has.
I grew up with dogs. First there was Bitsy, then Bootsie, then Puddles, then came Sugar and Spice. We had this pair for about 15 years, the longest of any of our dogs. Eventually, they fell apart to the point that we had to have them put to sleep. I went with Mom when it was Sugar’s time. She had always been “my” dog, so I had to go. I went again the next year, with both Mom and Dad. Spice had always been “his” dog. While Sugar had been silent during the procedure, Spice demonstrated his beagle genes and howled. I ran out of the room and out of the building, blindly. Dad caught me at the door and wrapped me in his arms. It was a gray day in Birmingham, and he was wearing a raincoat. He held me as I wept, as I’m sure he needed to be held.
Dad loved his yard, and he made it incredibly beautiful. He planted scores of ferns, added big beautiful rocks, pulled weeds, raked endlessly, and was inspired to turn the upper backyard into an English garden. He told me once, “I hope when I die it’s from a heart attack in the backyard. After I’ve finished raking the leaves…”
During one of our family trips to Europe, one in 1971 and another in 1973, we drove by a mountainside, covered with an ancient huge, famous depiction of a man. It was essentially a stick figure with a large penis, and Dad remarked with disgust, “You’d think they’d cover him.” This is the same man who, many years later, asked the doctor who removed his testicles if he could keep them, saying he wanted Mom to wear one of them around her neck.
When I was four or five years old, he used to pay me a nickel to dance to his honky-tonk records while he lay on the sofa and laughed. Over the years, he went from the serious man in the suit to the guy in a t-shirt drinking beer in the backyard.
I have a photograph of me with my father that I have always loved. It was taken at Lake Travis in Texas. My mother snapped a shot of the two of us sitting together at a picnic table. We were sitting side by side and looking at her, so I didn’t know until I got the film developed that my father and I had each raised our dominant hands (his left, my right) and rested our chins on our fists. Our smiles are similar. I’m proud to be so much like my dad. He taught me so many things I want to do and be, and so many things I don’t want to do and be. The problem is, I wasn’t done. I need more lessons. I miss you, Dad.