“I know I haven’t been the best father all the time,” he says. His voice cracks up into a higher pitch as he says it, a perverse inversion of the process he must have gone through some 60 years ago. “But it wasn’t all bad was it? We had some good times?” He reaches a bloated, soft hand to hold mine.
I start to weep openly.
“I remember so much of your childhood," he says. "I remember running you around the leaves in the wheelbarrow. Or the time you were so sick we took you to the hospital. I remember walking in the fields.”
I nod, because the moment’s not about me. “Yes Dad,” I say. “There were a lot of good times.”
No, there weren't. Which is why we both escaped: He into the bottle; I into the nerd.
He’s here to continue a process he started about two years ago -- a process of saying goodbye. As a 25 year veteran of Alcoholics Anonymous, he’s long since been through the motions of apologizing to me for all the things he thinks he did wrong. But now, his health failing, he’s trying a different approach. He's trying to rewrite the plotline of his life to be less tragic and more misunderstood. Heroic even.
I said my goodbyes to him a long time ago. At 15 really, when, after one-too-many screaming matches, I packed a backpack and walked out of the house in a blizzard and hiked 6 miles to a friends house. I never spent another night with the man. When he cleaned up, years later, he was already an old man. Sober, and thus a complete stranger.
I let him continue this red-pen journey through his fading memories.
“I remember when we moved into the house on the farm. You were 3. You loved running around the yard so much, and we planted the garden together. You were such a good kid,” he imagines.
We moved into the house on the farm when I was 6. I was an early reader. I hated the outdoors, and resented the move. But the store in town sold comic books. 1973 was a year of Spirit reprints and Shazam and Conan and Tarzan. I spent what little money I had on them, and shoplifted the ones I couldn’t afford.
“And then you met Paul, next door. I remember him being around all the time. It’s great you had such good friends around,” he says.
Paul was indeed a great friend. In reality, he was my only friend for most of my childhood, put together mostly by the convenience of being next door than any innate connection. He came over to my house exactly once. Because I was so mortally ashamed of my house, my family, my life. Paul’s house was a paradise by comparison: plenty of food, enough money, no drunks. To my pre-teen mind, it was familial bliss.
When I turned 10, two things happened that changed my life. The first was Paul getting an Atari 2600. The second was seeing Star Wars for the first time, alone with Paul, because my Dad didn't want to see it. He was a pacifist, and it had "war" in the title. From that point on, I was as nerd as nerd could be.
“So, I’ve got all this stuff I just don’t know what to do with.” He pauses for breath. He has congestive heart failure and a dozen other issues that make it very hard for him to focus for more than a few minutes. It hurts to see him struggling. I well up again. “I have some great horns. I have one of your grandfather’s horns, he bought it when he was a kid. It’s so good. I hate to sell it.”
“I’d love to take it, Dad. I’m sure Peter will want it as he grows up. He seems drawn to music.”
We’ve been making these exchanges for the past two years. He shows up with something “he’d hate to sell” and I dutifully put it in the basement. He walks away feeling like a patriarch, instead of the odd, strange man he’s become.
“I remember you weren’t really much into music growing up,” he forgets.
I was desperate for music. True, I never wanted to learn to play jazz trumpet, his chosen avocation, but by the time I left the house, I had an enormous record collection, and had spent my puberty building heathkit audiogear in the basement with a soldering iron while he slept off his afternoon drunk each day after school. I played drums. I played guitar.
I never worried about waking him up.
“I don’t suppose you want any of my electronics stuff, or my computer or anything. I can’t really type anymore.”
At this I start crying in earnest. If there’s one thing I can trace through my bloodline it’s writing. My grandfather was a newspaperman, my father was an English teacher, and I, well, I guess I write too these days. My daughter’s hard at work on NaNoWriMo. It’s in the genes.
“No Dad, I’m pretty set on computers. Have been since before I left the house.”
He looks blankly at me. “Really? You had a computer back then?”
The first real money I ever had came from my grandmother in the form of a birthday check for an extravagant amount of money - $1,500 if I recall - in 1980. And I knew there was only one thing I wanted in the world for that much money, an Apple. The Apple II Plus got me through the next 5 years of my life, well into college, when I moved “up” to an Atari ST.
I want to tell him. I want to talk to him about how my entire world exploded in 1980. How armed with my Apple and my 1200 baud modem, I discovered — or perhaps invented — myself. I learned how to hack the phone system to log in to bulletin boards all the way across the country in California, where people played games, shared software, and posted grainy pictures of naked women.
I want to tell him about the first time I read The Lord of the Rings, and how much more that meant to me than any book he ever had in his alcohol-fumed office.
I want to tell him about the first time I kissed a girl, late at night on New Years Eve, after we’d played an epic evening of Atari in Paul’s attic.
I want to tell him that the only time I was ever grateful that he was my Dad was when he would drop me off at the arcade with a $5 bill and leave me alone.
I want to tell him all the true things.
But instead, I say, “I love you dad.”