My father died recently. This is something that I suppose happens to us all, in the end, if we are lucky enough to make it that far in life. It was news that I had been expecting for a long time. He was a heavy smoker. He was very fond of the hooch. We had been estranged for almost two decades. He’d remarried and isolated himself from the rest of his family. We’d all given up on him eventually, I being the last one. Then I called him last year and had a landmark first conversation in 15 years. It was landmark only because I had called him. We mainly talked about his cats. Then we never spoke again. There was no good reason for that aside from, I suppose, stubbornness. His second wife passed away last year, leaving him alone in their house in New Mexico with his cats and a wild lizard he told me visited often. Her death was not a happy one, and he carried a lot of guilt for that. So after a while he just died there on his couch.
This is not to disparage my father. He was a man with many faults and bad habits. But I have all sorts of friends with similar problems who have simply not yet let them get the best of them. And I am absolutely not leaving myself off this list. But when I was a child, my father was undeniably the coolest human being alive. He was brilliant and hilarious, incredibly creative and adept at just about anything he tried. He was fascinated by everything, gregarious and charming, and could entertain us with whatever was lying around. Be it a toothpick and three gum wrappers, he’d invent the most hilarious and engaging toothpick three gum wrapper game. But he was a very restless man who started and rarely finished many projects, one of which, I suppose, was a family.
Enough of that. It’s a very broad topic, and this column is not a biography. I was hesitant to even write about this. I have other family members to consider, and I don’t want to criticize the man. I think he’s had enough of that. But it was the topic foremost on my mind this week. I chose not to mention this on Facebook, feeling like it would be a tacky thing to do. I have hundreds of friends there who are just people I know from shows, and there seemed little point in it aside from eliciting a bunch of “sorry for your loss.”
So here’s what happened. I flew out to California again to work on some films I’ve been making there. I had almost cancelled the trip, because tensions had grown very high in this labor intensive project, and I was afraid my presence would be unproductive. But I’m glad I changed my mind at the last minute and headed out there anyway. I arrived on a Sunday morning, picked up a rental car and headed to Alameda where I stay with old friends. We were sitting on their deck drinking beer, and I was readying myself to drive to San Francisco for dinner with an old high school friend, when my stepsister called me to deliver the news. They had sent the police after she’d tried to call and found his phone disconnected. No one knows how long he was there before they found him. I hate sharing this most unfortunate detail, but I find it to be the most tragic part of the situation and the one that has had the biggest influence on me.
I spent the next week shooting film, hunting for locations and costumes, and hunkered down in an editing studio. While this was going on I spent a great deal of time tracking down and notifying relatives. I talked repeatedly with a funeral home in New Mexico, giving details for his death certificate, and arranging his cremation. They sent me a couple of forms. One was an authorization, and one was a very frightening bill, which my stepsister calmed me by telling me she had already paid. Then there’s the house. There is a house in New Mexico that has to be dealt with. It is full of his things, which need to be sorted through and cleared out. Special cleaners need to be sent to clean up any unpleasant mess left by his remains before we get there. And here I was in California, working on this crazy enormous project every day. I would be there for two weeks and was now facing the prospect of turning around once I landed in Minneapolis and heading to the southwest to deal with my father’s things. I know this sounds a little selfish, but it was all so immediate and overwhelming, and I had barely gotten a chance to process the fact that he had died.
My stepsisters were insistent about their work and school schedules and the risk of leaving a house vacant in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. I understand these things, but as they offered to go there without me and box up what was important, I found my hackles rising. Let ME figure out what’s important. Let me see my father’s house and go through his things before you dismantle it. Give me a freaking second to catch my breath here. This is roughly what I eventually snapped at them, halfway through my stay, demanding to be left alone until I returned home. Then I smothered myself with work and my California family and tried to let the whole thing just sort of wash over me.
So now I’m home. I have a mountain of work to do, and this very sad trip needs to be arranged. I don’t mean to criticize my stepsister. She has taken it upon herself to deal with pretty much everything and gratefully left me with really only a handful of choices. I suppose I haven’t handled this right. IS there a right way to handle this sort of thing? There’s not really a primer course for it, and you only get the one chance to get it right. And the thing is, you’re going about your life, keeping busy, making your future plans, then something happens. And you are pulled out of everything, because this new thing HAS to be taken care of. It’s like this huge reality slap across the face. Wherever you think your life is going, whatever your tiny plans, life occurs outside them, and you are powerless to change that. I’m not trying to sound self pitying here, like feel sorry for me because my dad died and now I have to handle all these unexpected arrangements while I’m really busy. It’s the unexpectedness of it all. The news of his death was not at all a surprise. The surreal details and choices I’d never imagined I’d have to make were.
Crisis cleaners: that’s what they’re called. Now I know that. Have you ever read a cremation authorization form? That is one grizzly document. You have to approve that they can crush bone fragments to make them fit the container, and that if it doesn’t all fit, they can chuck the rest. And you are made aware that there might be commingling of “cremains” from other cremations, so you might accidentally get someone else’s tooth or something in there. I’ve never even thought about cremation. That whole side of the family is very Irish. It’s all about the wake, which is understandably not an option here. I remember once having to wait in a long funeral procession of cars to get into a cemetery for one of his relatives. I think the graveyard had overbooked or something. My brother and I were very small and restless, crammed in the backseat of his yellow Volkswagen Bug, and dad entertained us with two cigarette butts and a stripped down car speaker. We laughed so hard it was a little embarrassing, considering the somber procession around us.
He was my hero. And a whole lot of my favorite parts of me came from him; my creativity, my ability to make friends, my sense of humor. On top of which, I think a lot of choices I have made have been to avoid going down the path that he tread. I am hysterically devoted to finishing everything I start. I am hyper sensitive of my self-control, my faithfulness and loyalty, and my honesty. I don’t drink too much. I make damned sure I let people know when they are important to me. And even though my artistic efforts ebb and flow, I maintain vehemently that they will triumph in the end. I once told my father over a game of pool in Albuquerque after he’d given me a speech about how he’d let me down and I should forgive and forget that I was not mad at him. Crappy things had happened, and he had certainly been responsible for many of them, but everything that had led up to that point had made me who I was, and I was very happy with that person.
A couple of months ago I lost my job. I had been working in restaurants for 25 years and had slid over the past five or so into a pretty sedentary life, going to work and occasionally writing something or doing a show. I decided at that point that it was time for me to switch gears and get back to what I had started as an artist. I think a lot of this decision had to do with my dad. I had recently spoken to him for the first time in years, and I knew I didn’t want to end up being a lonely widower, isolated in New Mexico with my abandoned dreams. But more than that, I wanted to take what he gave me and run with it. I wanted to make him proud. Maybe he didn’t finish what he’d started, but he also started me, and I could take it farther than he ever had.
The way he died, how he was found, how long it took to find him is monumentally tragic and unfortunate. My brother and I spoke shortly after I found out, and I told him that I felt like a lot of what our father had taught us was what not to be, and this was the final lesson. It’s a macabre thought, but having this happen at such a transitional place in my life, while I was in the Bay forging on with an enormous project, might have been a very appropriate time. His death and the manner in which it happened only pushes me harder to live a life I am proud of. I don’t think he’d mind this sentiment. I think he’d appreciate that his influence on me has been often positive in it’s own backwards way.
So goodbye Daniel. You didn’t have it easy from way back when you were a very small child. And while you tried to make the most of it, it didn’t turn out the way you planned. It never does. But you made two people. And regardless of how things went down, we’re still here, carrying a torch you lit. I will not sing any praises of an idyllic childhood. But I will take what you gave me and make it into something incredible. And I will take you with me.