Wednesday, August 31, 2011
My Father's Birthday
There was a period of time where I wasn't speaking to most of my extended family, the result of my grandmother attempting to place the blame for everything in my life – like she had with my father before me – squarely on the shoulders of my mother. Sure, my mother is a contributor to the emotional train wreck that I am and long have been, but so is my father, my brother, a half-score of teachers, and most importantly, I am. I am the one who has made the disastrously bad decisions in my life, and I am the one who has never made good on what was once assumed to be a great amount of potential.
At my lowest in my adult life, though it can be argued that I have done much to avoid living as an adult, I reached out to my family for help. My grandmother put a price on her help: blame your mother for everything. Blame your mother, free your father from blame, and more than that, free myself from any realization that I am the author of my miseries. And all I had to do was say it. I didn't have to mean it. I didn't have to live my life affirming it. I just had to profess something I didn't believe to be true and she would be willing to help me, which is to say that she would intercede with my grandfather on my behalf. Blame my mother, the woman who could have easily had me sent off to jail at that particular time, and all would be made right, all favors would be granted.
I couldn't do it. I may have been (and maybe am still to this day) a most reprehensible creature, but I was not going to assign my troubles – those of the moment – to my mother and my mother alone. If I were going to be assigning blame within the family, I would start with me. And I wouldn't absolve my father for his part.
Not long before this moment –which took place in some forgettable restaurant in Oak Brook, Illinois – I had reached out to my father for help. I was at a serious low point; almost Fall of '92 in how close I came to just quitting on everything. I was scheduled to visit my father in about three weeks, but it would have been much better if I could have gotten out to see him before that. I hadn't really seen much of him since we lost the apartment in Orland Park, Illinois.
He went off to live with his sister in Winfield and I with my mother in Oak Park. He stopped by a few times for some reason or another; I remember him helping track down my mother's wayward cat in a search that lasted more than three hours. I remember him showing up to celebrate my 18th birthday – which wasn't on my 18th birthday (I spent that day driving to and from Michigan to retrieve a friend who promised to come back and watch Jurassic Park on opening day with me and a collection of friends – to show off his new motorcycle; he introduced it with the quip, "Do you like what I spent your tuition money on?".
My father drove me out to Iowa City and back to register for classes – I really could have used some help with that – and find a place to live. Not to stay, like the regular freshman who went off to the dorms. Floods and circumstances placed me in an apartment a little over a mile off campus with a pair of drop-outs. Don't get me wrong, I came to really like my roommates (and I cannot apologize enough for them having to put up with me), but I could have strongly benefited from living like a student and being surrounded by students. Then again, I would have severely benefited by going to any other school in the country. Live and learn, but I didn't aspire to doing much of either.
I saw him that Christmas (1993) back in Illinois. I had done as bad as a student could do and still earn credit. The message I was given was "do better". That April, I he swung through Iowa City on his way out to Denver. I drove the majority of the trip from where I joined, finally giving into exhaustion in Brush, Colorado – I had been hallucinating behind the wheel and figured it was time for some sleep – having been up for nearly three days straight constantly waiting for his "I should be there in six hours" time frames. I never saw Denver on that trip, only the old airport as I was put on a plane for Cedar Rapids and my room mate Dave being kind enough to make the trip to come get me.
I was invited out to see my father once. Flying out on a United Airlines pass – and arriving an hour early because that was the flight with open seats – I was greeted not by my father but by his landlord, Rich Charles. Rich got my bags to my father's jeep (and showed me how to get into it when it was locked) and word to him that I had arrived. An hour later, Rich came by and found me again; no sign of my father. Well, since I would be staying at Rich's house, he could take me there if my father never showed up. But he did show up.
He hadn't come up with any kind of plan for what we would do, at least not one he wanted to let me know about. Rich had to strongly suggest that my father get some food as there was nothing for me at the house. Other than my father looking absolutely lost in a supermarket – and not in the way intimated by the Clash – the only thing I remember from that night was that Rich's ex-wife (?) had a thing for Kip Winger. Come the next day, my father spent most of the morning in the basement with his girlfriend. Eventually he emerged and we had a brief conversation, but he retreated back to the basement. The only activity of the trip ended up being a trip out to see a country music festival she wanted to see.
At the time, I was supremely upset that he would invite me out for a weekend he had already prioritized to someone else. I got to sit around in an unfamiliar house without much to do, take a long uncomfortable (because of how I behaved) trip to and from the festival, and then during the festival was ignored enough that I took the ski lift up the mountain just so I could walk back down and kill time. I wasn't behaving at all like an adult, and I want to say that I was 20, so I should have been something more than a pouting child.
Of course, this girlfriend of his ended up being his wife of fourteen years (I honestly am guessing here; it is hard for me to be definite when I wasn't invited to or even notified of the wedding). My father went on to, in his way, build a life in Colorado that was quite different from the one he had in Illinois. The next time I was invited out to Denver was in the summer of 1998 and I needed to be there a little before we had arranged. I needed to get out of Illinois in a way not unlike my father did when he transferred four years earlier, but my need was more personal.
I called him from a pay phone at the White Hen Pantry convenience store at North Boulevard and Euclid in Oak Park; I couldn't make the call from home. Dad, I pleaded with him, I need to get out of here. Can I come and see you now? It will still only be a week, but I just can't stay here and I have nowhere else to go. And all of that was true. I had no friends left to turn to, no family that would have me. Whatever damage my mother may have done to me over the course of my entire life to that point I had repaid more than tenfold over the space of a year. My brother and I had come to blows frequently over the months leading up to this phone call.
My father just couldn't be bothered to change his schedule. He was too busy. Maybe next time. I was suicidal, and that was tough, but there was nothing he could do about it.
We didn't speak again until I went down to visit him in Florida after his heart attack. I felt uncomfortable as I climbed into my aunt's SUV and my grandfather beamed that he was just so glad that he was able to see me again, that I had come down. Of course I did. I may have still had an intense resentment of my father for neglecting me when I reached out to him, in the moment when I wanted someone to allow me to see if I thought my life was still worth living (and when I came to the realization that it wasn't I proceeded to drift aimlessly towards an early death), but I wasn't going to compound that by deciding that I was too petty to come down and see him.
He could have died. It was the most serious heart attack I've ever heard of somebody surviving, or at least of that level of magnitude. I brought some of what I had written – because I still occasionally wrote back then – and bought a special edition Time Magazine full of pictures for him when I was told he couldn't concentrate well enough to read. I didn't want him to die, but that is a sentiment without context. As angry as I have been perceived to be – and I want to make the point that frustration and anger are different – I don't really want anyone to die. But I didn't want my father to die down in Florida. I didn't want his parents, my grandparents – the ones who would have helped me if I had turned on my mother – to have to bury their son. I didn't want him to die on a trip where he had gone down to help them out by doing some chores and repair work in their townhouse.
I probably could have gone the rest of my life – because I wasn't doing any living in it – without ever speaking to my father again, but it seemed like it would have taken a force of pure spitefulness to not be there in whatever fashion I could be when he was in need. Not that I could do anything. No matter what kind of ego centric spin I want to put on it, I was little more than just another face in the crowd of family that was there wishing for him to get better. The difference was that I, like my brother and my father's wife – who I will eventually get around to referring to as Theresa...I don't know why I have been so reticent in giving her credit for her role in his life thus far in this story – had to make a journey to see him.
My father got well enough to go back to Colorado. He was well enough to return to Florida after his father died to clean out the townhouse and get it ready for the market. My brother and I were enlisted to be labor in this project. My brother was told as much; I was not. I was told that we should all go visit Grandma and make sure she's doing okay. If I had known I was to be moving boxes and furniture around in 90 degree heat, I would have packed different clothing.
One night (on that trip) when we went out to eat, the we in question was just my brother and I. My father handed over his Harley Davidson credit card and told us to not go crazy. We ended up in an Outback Steakhouse in Naples, but it could have been any western suburb of Chicago from the look of it (or the people inside, many of whom were refugees from the Chicagoland area). Even when we were together, my father found a way for he and I to not be.
So our conversations, which could be as frequent as twice a month or as infrequent as twice a year, revolved around nothing important. I had long ago resolved to not accomplish anything in my life, so even if he had good advice to give about how to move forward, I wasn't going to make myself into the kind of person who would ask for it. There was only a narrow window of our shared past that he cared to revisit. I couldn't get him to talk much about his time in Vietnam or racing. I took four months to get him to talk about his relationship with his grandfather and how it was vastly different than the relationship I had with his father.
I didn't want to talk about work – unless I had done something that would have gotten a regular employee fired (yay to being the kind of worker who is good enough to get away with that) – and he wasn't working. I didn't have any kind of relationship with Theresa or her children, and that was the family that was closer to my father than I was. We had been largely removed from each others' lives for four years when we stopped speaking, and it was seven years of that silence.before the heart attack. By the time we established any regular contact, it had been thirteen years since we spent much time with one another.
We weren't strangers, but we certainly kept a distance in our relationship. I went to Denver once since the trip to Rich's and the festival. I went out to play some Living Arcanis, listen to the Q&A with Henry Lopez – who insulted me (though not by name) in front of everyone present – and also see my father, his house, and Theresa. I stayed at the hotel where the convention was. I wanted some distance even when I was there.
This year, about a week before my birthday, I called him just to talk. He was very upset and I gave him the kind of advice that a friend or a son can give, but a professional (which I am not) mental health care specialist cannot and does not. He had built up a fantasy of where he could return to Illinois and live with me or my brother. Again, I had been long building towards not being around, to not living an adult life. I have a cat and I can't support it, much less a person. My brother was not in a position where he could help, and given something that transpired a few years earlier, I don't think he would have been eager to do much other than encourage my father to seek his ends elsewhere.
There was no succor to be had back home. It wasn't malice. His sons simply couldn't give him the rescue option he wanted to be there.
I spoke to him on my birthday, very briefly. The kind of exchange between people who know they should be talking to one another but can't figure out what they are supposed to say. There was some kind of distraction in the background on his end and I asked him if he had to deal with it. "No," he said, "I just live here."
And then, four days later, that ceased to be true.
Today would have been my father's sixty sixth birthday. Before this year, he was always – the ten week discrepancy not withstanding – thirty years older than me. Not that I thought of him that way. He was, at least until his heart attack and back problems forced him from work and the hobbies that defined him, an active man. I tended to think of him as he was at thirty eight – for some reason I never really sought to figure out how old my father was before the third grade, and he remained at that age (in part) to me. And not just me. I discovered that my brother thought of him at that age, too, during our long drive out to his memorial service. Thirty eight year old Larry McNeil hadn't yet gone to work for United Airlines, hadn't yet gotten into Harley Davidson motorcycles, hadn't moved to Colorado and started a new life.
Thirty eight year old Larry had all the trappings of 25+ year old Tim McNeil in terms of not taking meaningful steps towards real adulthood, except that he had a family and belief that he would find that something that would pull everything together. The Larry McNeil that moved out to Colorado was forty eight years old, aged by ten years of raising his sons (most of 1989-1992 as the primary parent to me, the dates being different for my older brother) and not being free to pursue life on his own terms.
We never got to talk about that. We never got to have a serious conversation about how I had disappointed him, and he had done the same to me. We never even mentioned forgiving one another, or even one of us doing as much for the other alone.
Today would have been my father's birthday. I would have called him up and had an awkward conversation with him. I would have asked him about what he had planned for today and known that for the most part the response wouldn't matter to me. He might have said something about how he missed his mother, who died the year before. He might have been as angry as he was on the 22nd of June. He might have been sad and depressed and focused on his ailments. He might have been in a great and positive mood.
But he isn't any of those things, now. He isn't anything anymore. Some of his remains are out in the front room, awaiting a time next summer when my brother schedules to scatter his ashes in Palos Park, Illinois and at Burt Lake in Michigan (just couldn't be one place, could it, Dad?). The rest are out with Theresa, and I doubt that they are any comfort for Larry not being there any more.
Today is a day when I would want to call my father and talk about him. The kind of day I would want to be there for him. At least as much as I could be, given how I have done so much in my life to be of so little consequence as to not be able to really help. Even if perfunctory communication was all that today would have entailed, it would have been something.
There are so many parallels between 22 June, 2011 and – God help me, I can't give it a specific date (and I'm betting the letter with the date has long since been destroyed) – Fall of 1992 that it is beyond sad. The major difference is that something went wrong in '92 and didn't in '11. I wouldn't be here if not for a malfunction, or if I were, it would be with some severe and lasting damage. I didn't consult my father about that decision, nor did he call my brother or me.
And now there is no special meaning to today.
My father is dead. He isn't going to hear what I have to say, and even if he could I'm not sure it would matter much to him. We hadn't done much to build a solid relationship, and I know how much of that is my fault. My father is gone and I will never have a chance to get to know him as an adult. I will never get back the years of anger, animosity, and hurt. What's worse, I'm sure that even if those had been great years between us, I would still be writing a piece on my father's birthday today.
Because 22nd June, 2011 wasn't about me.
Just like Fall of 1992 wasn't about him.
And now 31 August is just another day in the year. It used to be my father's birthday; he isn't going to have any more. I can keep what memories I have of him with me, but that is a poor substitute for his actual being. The only bright point I can find is that I failed where he succeeded, and he had good years out in Colorado not tainted by my need to be anywhere other than alive.