Sunday, May 19, 2013

Day 20: Halfway hallmark....

All my life father believed in angels. There were no angelic frills. No esoteric dreams transcribed by money-grubbing clairvoyants. There were no epiphanies or celestial shafts of light heralding hidden tablets and virgin births. Golden quills failed to skirt across our front lawn during March windstorms. A wayward hubcap was a far cry from an abandoned halo.

Father vested no interest in New Age malarkey. There were no cults, syndicated horoscopes or comet sightings. He favored instant coffee over chamomile tea. He taught fourth graders Monday-Friday and Sunday school on the weekends. He kept his Portals of Prayer in his shirt pocket and his annotated Bible near his bedside. He memorized scripture. He was a very conservative-voiced, middle-aged Christian who loved strumming hymns on his guitar to his three young children. Instead of cursing when he was mad, father would say the words "Crow" or "H-e-double-hockey sticks."
            And he believed in angels.
             He also saw them.
             I first noticed this phenomenon when I was five years old. Dad and I were walking back from the public library. It was late November and a harsh winter gale coughed down from Canada. Father was dressed in his gray sweater and orange stocking cap. Dad’s glasses would often fog up when he walked. Instead of removing his spectacles, Dad would ball up a kleenex, swiping out the interior of his lens as if daubing a cloudy tear.          


We were walking down Main Street when I noticed my father nodding his chin in the direction of an old woman wearing three flannel shirts and loose sweat pants. The woman looked like she had just woken up in an ash tray. She smelled like old kitty litter. Her rasping, warbled speech beckoned my father into stretching his arm deeply into his pocket. With hush lips my father pinched open his coin purse and carefully plucked out several quarters. Dad then quietly planted the currency into the stranger’s cupped palms.
            "What were you doing with that old lady over there?" I inquired. My thin button eyes popped open, astonished that my father would talk to someone he didn't know; someone whose tattered garb and rank scent reflected the lonely squalor of the streets.
            "She wanted to know if she could have money for coffee." Dad quickly responded, not wanting to discuss the incident with his knee high progeny.
            "You gave that old lady money?" I asked again. My father again nodded very quickly in response, his chin wobbling as if his entire conscience were involved in a balancing act.
            "She needed money for coffee." Dad said, adjusting the tempo of his gait, insisting his five year old son walk only on his left side, the side furthest from the hustle and skid of oncoming traffic.


            The next angel appeared to my father several years later. Our refurbished house was located in the forgotten vector of the bluff, overlooking the scattered graffiti and gun shells of the South side. Dad claimed that the neighborhood had changed since the first down payment of his mortgage. Our garage was a spray painted canvas mixed with gang insignias, sprinkled with added teen-age initials.  Often I would come home from school and find the rim of my basketball hoop dangling south, showing reverence for the gravel below.
        The summer I turned twelve, Dad planted an aluminum fence into the thatch of earth surrounding our backyard. Being the father of three, he was careful who his kids talked to. Over the fourth of July he yelled at older boys hurling firecrackers at cats in the alley.
            This angel was wearing a tank top and crooked glasses. He limped over to the side of the fence to speak with my father. A red handkerchief was gauzed around his denim pant leg like a tourniquet. He had a tattoo of a gloss-eyed Virgin Mary on his right shoulder and a tattoo of a blue skull on his left.
            Dad was watering one of his hostas in front of our house. Twice a week Dad had to replant hostas because they kept being uprooted by dropouts down the block. The angel looked at Dad and told him that he was a vet who hadn't eaten in three days. Dad sent me further inside his caged lawn. Dad and the angel talked for a long time and then Dad went inside our house to confer with Mom. He came back out and handed the vet a wad of green bills. Dad then invited the stranger to our church on Sunday.
            An hour later Dad and I went to the corner gas station to fill air in the back tire of my Schwinn.  On our way home we spotted the angel sprawled out on a bus stop. The angel was taking swift gulps out of a brown paper bag. The angel was smoking cigarettes, talking very fast with his hands. The angel and Dad exchanged a distant glare before the angel lashed out in a raucous chorus of vulgarities. Dad shielded my ears with his calloused palm and told me that we had to get home.
            The next morning Dad was once again bent over, his back hunched into the earth like a question mark, replanting uprooted hostas.


I can't say that I'm right there with the old man. I can’t say that I’ve always agreed with him. I myself have never seen an angel. I never even saw my old man cry.

My grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack when I was six-months old. Dad always told me that grandfather and I would have wrestled. That we would have gone fishing. That the two of us would have been close buddies.
            Apparently Dad cried at his own father's death.
            When my grandmother died in '98 all of her children, their spouses and children tearfully slumped around her hospital bed. I got the call at work that my grandmother was dying.

            "Doctor estimates that it should be some time today." Mom said. "We're all over here singing."
            I left work, picked up two boxes of donuts and a thermos of coffee and headed to the hospital.
            "Why are the interior of hospitals always so white?" I thought to myself en route to the hospital. "Why does the building where we enter and exit this planet smell like bleach and disinfectant? Why does the sum total of ones earthly experiences seem to circulate around the sliding-doors of the hospital wing and in our untimely relationship with them?"

When I arrived at the hospital my entire family was huddled in a human bubble around my grandmother's bed. Chemotherapy had deprived grandma of her silver patch of hair. Every pore of grandma’s skin was completely bald and weak. Her once stubborn crocheting arm was now a gimp sling, needled with plastic arteries, plugged into a hissing ventilator.

“The doctor said it’s all conjecture—it could be a matter of hours. It could be in five minutes.” My mother said as she handed me a blue hymnal.

Mother served as the choir director at the Lutheran church where grandma faithfully tithed her entire life. After receiving the final phone call, Mom pillaged a stack of hymnals from two choir pews. Whenever any family member entered the room where grandma’s lips stirred for depleted oxygen, Mom handed them a hymnal.

As grandma’s body bellowed and writhed and squinted after each exhausted breath, her family serenaded her with the songs she had been singing her entire life. We sang “Holy Holy Holy,” and “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” We sang “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and “God of Grace and God of Glory.”

We sang even though our voices clashed and our eyelids dripped. Uncle Larry was unable to breach his thick bass monotone above the black rungs of the lower clef. My sisters respected the dynamics and tonal sway of the music. Mom sang loudly, unconsciously tapping her directorial wrist out of habit.

My father was the only one in the hospital room not crying. He stood up straight, cradling his hymnal aloft the way he has done for every Sunday of his life. Dad was my grandmother’s oldest child and his austere sandpaper lips suggested that he knew his role was merely to be strong.

Grandmother’s hospital room was co-inhabited. Stationed to my grandmother’s right was an elderly black woman with tourquoise eyes named Grace. Grace was also in the hospital for cancer treatment.

Mom asked Grace if she would mind, given the circumstances, if we could sing and Grace said she would feel honored. When grandma started to hack up more blood a nurse tried wheeling Grace out of the room, but Grace adamantly insisted on staying. She said she was fine. Even though Grace was black and our family was white, Grace informed the nurse she wished to remain with her family. Grace even asked for a hymnal and sang the final tearful refrain of “How Great Thou Art.”

            A week after grandma's funeral my father and uncle went to visit Grace. Grace lived on the South side of Peoria not far from grandma's church. Dad found out from the hospital that Grace had been released two days after grandmother’s death and the hospital had been nice enough to release her address so that my uncle and father could visit her, bring her a bouquet and express their gratitude.
            When they arrived on Grace's doorstep a black lady in curlers sharply answered.
            "Ain't no woman name Grace ever live here!” The woman verbally barked, perhaps thinking that my father and uncle were creditors.
            "Sure she does," My father said. "She was in St. Francis last week."

            "Ain't no woman by that name or description ever lived here." The lady said again, before slamming the door.
             "That's weird," Uncle Larry confessed to my father, turning around from the closed door, a bouquet of chrysanthemums slowly wilting near his waist.

            “Maybe the hospital gave us Grace’s wrong address.” Uncle Larry speculated.

            "Maybe she was an angel." Dad humbly suggested as the two brothers walked down to their respective vehicles, driving off to separate homes.


In my late teens and early twenties I was often pissed off at my father. I felt that he didn't care about any of my own ambitions while he catered to my precocious siblings every request. I was always working and going to school and trying to read and trying to write and Father's advice would always be, "Do what God wants you to do," and I would be like, check, ok, right on, whose God? Christ was crucified because he said that "I and the Father are One." Which means Christ was crucified because he felt an unfettered mystical oneness with his Father.
    I was living at home. Both my sisters were younger but were away at boarding schools or colleges. I worked two jobs, went to a community college and tried to write whenever I could. To assuage my sense of failure and lonliness I started to drink after work. I can only imagine what my father thought of his only son, smelling like stale yeast, a cobbled row of alcoholic stubble dotted along his chin as he lumbered around the house, a copy of On the Road tucked under his armpit, sounding like he was perennially prepping for his SAT verbal.
             There was a drifter angel Dad would assist every summer. He was a black man in a white undershirt with bad teeth who wore a crooked fishing cap. Every summer the angel appeared on our front lawn like a garden gnome and Dad would assign him very menial yard work and pay him rather sufficiently.
            I was up in my bedroom slamming down shots of Jameson and thumbing through James Joyce when I heard the black man whistling outside, hunched over Dad’s garden. I worked commerce days and drove a fork lift thirds on weekends. I had been swamped with querulous customers all day.  My boss had left me in charge of inventory while she screwed the Manager of Eddie Bauer’s in the breakroom. I was livid.   

 "Why do you keep assisting these people?" I told  Dad. He was in the living

room reading a book by Max Lucado. "They're just milking you for all your worth."
              Dad was quiet. He could smell my hard breath. He could see that I was tired from working. That I was just tired from living.
            A week before the local paper did an article about my youngest sister Jenn. She was somewhat of a violin phenom and father later said that the one thing he was most proud of in the article was that Jenn "Gave God the Glory" when the journalist asked her about her talent.
            "You care more about these people than you care about your own son." I told him. Dad lips remained still. He could see tears hatching from the agitated white of his son’s eyes.
            "I can't even get you to co-sign on a college loan for me and here you are helping out total strangers." I pleaded.
            "They're not strangers," Dad said, very quietly, pushing up his glasses into his forehead with his index finger.
            "Neither am I." I pelted back slamming the front door as hard as I could, cursing back at my father, damning his skewed belief system. Damning his god. Damning  everything he ever held as being important.
            As I walked outside en route to the discount liquor store I saw the angel whistling to himself. He was padding the bottom of a hosta. The angel looked up at me with his gaping smile, formally tipping the ruffled bill of his cap in acknoweldgement. I made it an overt point in looking the other direction, pretending that he didn't exist; that the angel didn't exist at all.                                                      



I spent the last two weeks of my father's life living with Lisa, a classy woman I met at a wine dinner a few months before. Lisa was older than me. She wore sexy business suits, toted Coach luggage and chatted incessantly into her cell phone to potential clientele. She kissed ass, ripped off customers, boasted about the size of her portfolio, got raises, sweated in the gym after work.
 Our relationship teetered around hangovers and hedonism. We held hands at contempoary art openings. We charged credit to restaurants requiring strict dress codes. We drank vintage wine older than our combined age and sipped single-malt scotch. At night we made love, yelled, accused, conciliated, cried, lit candles, tumbled across each others draped shadow before sailing off exhausted into the nocturnal pond of sleep. 
I held a job as a substitute teacher at an Alternative High School.  Shortly after New Year’s Eve my father complained of a slight ache in his lower abdomen. A routine check-up turned into an overnight hospitalization. By morning my father’s entire life was reduced to medicinal jargon slated on his Doctor’s clipboard. Four different streams of cancer were detected combing the inside of my father’s body. 

Although my father had just been diagnosed with cancer we thought that he would be alright. He was fifty-four, never smoked and drank very modestly at holidays. Dad never missed a day of work in his life. He went to bed early and jogged three miles in the afternoons.
Dad was still teaching fourth graders two weeks before his death.
Lisa first met my father on his death bed. There was fifteen years between myself and Lisa and exactly fifteen years between Lisa and my father.  My brother-in-law located myself and Lisa between bars. He relayed to us the grim prognosis.
 When we arrived at the hospital Lisa immediately started to massage my father’s bloated feet. Dad's whole body was jaundice and sallow—the color of stale beer left over from happy hour. The cancer had pushed into every celled fortress of his body. Father’s eyes had stopped dilating and were the color of alchemized copper. His mouth was spittled open. My father was leaving. He was leaving so quickly.
“Lisa,” I turned to my makeshift bride. “This is my father. This is my hero.”
            As his family stood over his body rolling tears from their sockets; as we embraced and tried to discern just what was going on. As my father’s last breath emptied out from the gaping hole located between his heart and his forehead, at the moment of death, when the body drifts from comatose to commodity, when the body becomes future fertlizer, dormant, worthless, all the vitality licked out--only then I saw it. Father wasn't wearing his glasses. His gray hair was rumpled and unkempt like an aged academician and his skin was so yellow that it almost appeared golden. Squinting through a wreath of tears I saw him. I finally saw my father. Through the hard lights of the hospital and the salty-tassle of decending tears I could almost make out his refulgent wings. My father was an angel. He spent his whole life seeing good in other people. He was an angel and somehow I knew right then that he was flapping his wings home.

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