Today would have been my father’s 93rd birthday.
I would not go to his grave, even if I were in St. Louis. Though I regularly visit my father-in-law’s resting place, I have only been to my father’s grave once since he died, and that was to bury my brother’s ashes, clinging to family, to friends,wracked with grief and guilt.
I have done more to accept my father’s frailties in the last two years than I did in the fifty-eight before that. I adhere to the belief that our current states should not be blamed on our past but they can be understood if we know about events which shaped us. That holds true for my father. He fought in World War II and came home damaged. His mother told my mother this, warning her. My sons who went to war came home as different men.
My father has been described as a son of a bitch, a bastard, and worse. Conversely when I told my cousin Kati about our childhood, over booze one late night in college, her reply shocked me. Not Uncle Dick, she cried. Yes. Uncle Dick.
But then: He turned out to be a marvelous grandfather. Grandpa Sport, described by one grandchild as a giant, after he died, in a poem.
My son never met my father. My dad died of a heart attack in a McDonald’s bathroom in St. Robert’s, Missouri. He and my brother Stephen were driving to Fayetteville to attend my son’s baptism. They never made it. Stephen, an RN, ran the code all the way to the hospital at Ft. Leonard Wood, where a doctor pronounced death. My sister called me and said, Mary, Dad is dead, and I said, He can’t be dead. I have four dozen Danish for the Baptism breakfast.
She told me to bring them to the funeral; and so I did, wrapped in plastic and secured in an under-bed storage container.
The Danish had been special-ordered from a bakery in Fayetteville which had never previously made them. I called McClain’s Bakery in Kansas City, and they faxed their recipe for Danish to me. I brought the recipe to the bakery in Fayetteville and they made beautiful, flaky, light pastries which would have made a scrumptious spread for my guests after Patrick’s baptism. They fed my siblings for several days, sitting on the counter in my brother Mark’s kitchen. We poured hot coffee down our throats and made macabre jokes about the dentures that Steve stashed in my Dad’s pocket when he started CPR and hollered to the McD’s staff to call 911.
Standard protocol, said Steve. My brother Mark, a paramedic; and my sister Ann, a nurse, agreed. But still. In his pocket?
My memories of my father rise to the surface unbidden. I recall the wire puzzles he made but I also hear the sound of smashed glass and a telephone being twisted off the wall. I see him patiently unsnarling Christmas lights and designing a bracket made from a wire hanger to hold them so he wouldn’t have to untangle them next year. I hear my mother’s cries, begging him to stop, Dick, just stop, please, knowing that what I remember can only be described as the savagery of an out-of-control drunk.
I believe that human beings have some inner essence which survives the body’s passing. I acknowledge that I could be completely wrong. From dust ye were made, and to dust ye shall return. Perhaps that ends things: We die, we crumble into the earth, we are no more.
If not; if what I believe is true; if that core of us some call a soul lives beyond the grave, I hope my father’s essence lives in peace. I won’t say “he deserves peace” any more than any of us do or don’t. I just wish it for him. I do. I won’t lie; I won’t pretend to hate him. I won’t complain that had he not been what he was, and done what he was, I might have been able to trust men more than I do. What I made of what happened to me cannot be blamed on him any longer. I take charge. I own my choices.
Happy birthday , Pops. Can you hear me? Then know this: I have forgiven you.
Richard Adrian Corley
27 December 1922 – 07 September 1991
REST IN PEACE