My dad was a helluva guy. Good-looking in that black-hair-blue-eyes Irish way, smarter than any other ten men put together, with a poker face and a very tight sense of humor, my father could make you feel like the only person on the planet or the most useless one. He carved wooden toys, twisted hangers into puzzles, and baked mystery birthday cakes with increasingly weird additives.
His worst days fell behind us all in 1980 when his heart failed him. I drove to St. Louis from Kansas City, to which I had just moved, to stand with my mother outside of his hospital room. “Damn him,” she muttered, over and over. “Damn him.” Her eyes held mine. I could not tell whether she cursed what he had been or the chance that he would die just as he had emerged from thirty years or more of hard living and vile behavior. I stood at her elbow. Neither of us breathed.
My father lived through that heart attack and the surgery which followed. The surgeon came out of the operating area, shaking his head and laughing. My mother and I and whatever other siblings had gathered, approached him with confused expressions. “Your husband’s quite a guy, Mrs. Corley,” he said. “We told him he had seven cardiac bypasses. He thought a minute, then asked us what the record for one surgery was. When we told him, Nine, he said ‘Wheel me back in boys, I want three more.'”
Quite a guy, all right. Old Stoneface.
For the next decade, my mother and father cobbled a life together that seemed tenuous at times. She made the salary which paid their bills; he puttered around the house. Together, they took day trips, endured her vegetarian phase, and began enjoying their grandchildren. I visited frequently, coming into town on weekends or during the summer when I did not have class. My life in Kansas City seemed surreal to me, so touching base with home balanced me. I stayed in my old bedroom, drank my father’s strong coffee, and watched the news over forgotten classnotes and outlines.
Whenever I left on Sunday, my father slipped me a ten dollar bill and my mother sent a little something from home. These gifts came from her shelves: A flowered porcelain cup; a trio of wooden spindles; a china angel. I’d take the tenspot and the trinket, tuck them into my bag, and hug my mother. My father would stand on the porch, tapping a rolled newspaper against his hand, gazing at my car as though he could divine the last oil change date from a distance of 100 yards. When I hoisted my bag on my shoulder, and turned away, my father would say, every time, “Glad you got to see me. Try and give ’em a good day, for a change.”
I’d smile, and wave my hand, and cross the yard. Every time. Every time. My mother would go back into the house but Richard Adrian Corley — “RAC”, which is “CAR” spelled backwards — stood quite still, watching, until I crested the hill on the way to the interstate.
But what’s this doing in a blog about not complaining, she asks herself, after re-reading. I think a moment, and I suddenly realized that Old Stoneface — RAC — CAR spelled backwards — taught me everything I know about complaining. And I left him behind, as I crested that hill, week after week, with his gaze following me.