Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Day That Will Live In Infamy

I'll just prep you right now:  this one might not be all that funny.

Today is June 15th.  On June 15th, 1985 I was talking on the phone with my bestie (we didn't have that word then, though) Amy when the operator interrupted the phone call.  I know, that only happens in movies!  Well, it happened to me in real life, I swear.  The operator interrupted my call with Amy to patch in my mother who had left the house with Pop (my dad) a while ago.  Pop had mowed the lawn earlier and wasn't feeling too well so she insisted that he go see a doctor this time instead of chalking it up to indigestion/gas/pickled pigs feet.  They were about halfway to Peoria (where the ER's are) when Pop died of a massive heart attack at 43 years old.  I was 13 and my sister was 8.

Clearly this was what in my Intro to Psych class at ICC "a significant emotional event".  The effects of it on me then and the adult that I have become are big enough even I can see them.  I'm not sure what kind of teenager I would have been but the timing of this event (the summer before I started high school) probably helped me stay on the straight and narrow.  It was a sad summer, obviously, and it became very important to me to not do anything that would make my mom cry ever again.  I had seen that enough and it was awful.  So, I came home when I said I would, called when I'd be late, didn't drink, and didn't cut classes. I'd like to say that I also got excellent grades but, hey, a leopard can't change its spots.  I'm sure I got in trouble for things but for the most part I tried to not be a problem.

I remember seeing Mr. G , my grade school principal right after it happened.  He gave me his condolences and was asking after my mom and sister.  I distinctly remember telling him that I wasn't sure of I was going to be able to stay in high school because I might have to drop out and get a job to help support the family.  Yes, I know that is crazy melodramatic and probably something that would only have been necessary had we been living in the Little House on the Prairie but I honestly though that it was a possibility.  Mr G said that it probably wouldn't be necessary and that mom was was a resourceful woman.

In addition to not wanting to make anyone sad, Pop's death also made me less likely to indulge in those risky, stupid behaviors of which young people are so fond (drugs, drinking, reckless driving) for the simple reason that I, unlike many of my peers, suddenly believed in my own mortality.  Death happened and it could happen to me sooner than I'd like if I temped fate.

Pop's death also meant that mowing the yard was now my responsibility.  Unlike many kids, I was not handed a lawnmower by a relieved dad the instant I was strong enough to push it.  Noooo.  Caretaking of the lawn was serious business and was not for the less-than-committed.  Pop mowed the yard in different patterns each time in order to...I'm not sure why but I know there was a reason.  As a result of this lawnmowing as rite of passage experience I think cutting the grass is great.  I love it to this day.  It's a great time to be alone with your thoughts (although, aren't we always?) and still accomplish something tangible.  I wonder if Pop felt the same way and that's why he wouldn't let me cut the grass and not because I wouldn't remember to mow on a diagonal that week.  (Side note:  We custom ordered his grave marker to have a lawnmower on it.)

While Pop's death made a lasting impression on me (and my mom and sister obviously but it's not my place to talk about their experiences) his life did as well.  Since I can't make new memories of him I have to hang on to the ones I have.  Pop was my mom's second husband and not my biological father.  The way I see it, that's even better because Pop chose to be my father.  This is also why I called him Pop and not Dad - Dad was already taken.  It is my impression that my biological father washed his hands of me when I was 4 or 5 and my mother was granted sole custody of me so Pop is pretty much the only father-type that I remember.

When Pop was born his right arm stopped just past the elbow.  Obviously, this made him left-handed (there's a joke there, I just know it).  Since he was the one to teach me how to play softball, I am a righty that bats and golfs as a lefty.  He taught me how to pitch in our backyard.  Most of the time he pitched it to me at a reasonable speed but every once in a while he's tell me to move and he'd wind of and whip it at the wooden wall of the garage.  It would hit with a huge BOOM and I would get a thrill of terror imagining trying to catch it.  When you only have one full arm, that arm is pretty strong!

The shorter arm had its uses as well.  Because it ended in a rounded stump maybe 4 inches below the elbow it had the shape of a potato on a swivel.  That doesn't sound very flattering but it's the best I can do.  That short arm was MURDER when it came to tickling.  You know how when you were a kid and someone would tickle you and you would laugh and laugh but eventually it wouldn't tickle as much because the tickler would be digging in to hard with their fingers because of your squirming?  Not this arm.  It had no fingers so it never stopped tickling and because it was all swivelly you couldn't block it.  It was brutal.  It's possible that instead of a birth defect this was a new step in evolution.  Just sayin'.

Don't get me wrong, Pop had his less than stellar moments as well.  The man could not stand in a line.  He would get incredibly crabby and start swearing.  We all went to FL to visit my uncle when I was a kid and we actually drove past Disney but didn't go in because there was no way in hell Pop would have made it more than 10 minutes in one of those lines without losing it completely.  Imagine being, say, 11 and driving from IL to FL and being taken within sight of Disney and not going in.  I know, right?  I still haven't been there and I think I might be the only one (well, other than my sister).

As an adult, I think he probably reacted to feelings of anxiety with profanity.  Most of the times when he cussed me out it was because I had scared him somehow.  I remember playing on my swingset shortly after a growth spurt and not realizing that I was about a half inch away from breaking my neck on the ground as I did summersaults on the part of the swingset shaped like an A.  He saw me from the house and ran outside to tell me to use my head for something other than a hat rack.   I was a literal child and this was waaaay to non-specific for me to get his meaning so I confusedly told him that I wasn't even wearing a hat.  He interpreted this as sass and I probably ended up grounded and still confused about what hats had to do with anything.

Another time I had some stitches on my upper leg (butt cheek, whatever) from a mole removal and the stitches popped open when I sat down to pee.  Obviously I started screaming, my little sister came to see what was what, saw me bleeding and she started crying, Pop rushed in freaked out his own damned self and started cussing me out for...not sure...having blood?  having to pee?  Finally my mom arrived on the scene and quickly realized that while I did need medical attention I was in no way, shape, or form bleeding to death, told this to my sister (who thought I might be bleeding to death), and told Pop to calm down because he wasn't helping.

While I grew up in a small town, it wasn't always idyllic:  especially for a girl who looked like a boy.  Once day I was riding my bike when a car pulled up and some older kids (old enough to have a car) started calling me names.  This was nothing new to me so I did what was sensible, I flipped them off.  They did not take kindly to this and circled the block so they could approach me from behind again and this time the passenger leaned out of the car and pushed me.  My bike hit the curb and I went flying.  I'm not sure if I landed on the curb, the street, or the sidewalk but my bike was pretty mangled and my forearm was suddenly devoid of skin.  I was only a block from home at this point and so dragging my bike I started walking (and crying, I'm sure).  The two idiots in the car came back and said they were sorry and asked if I needed a ride somewhere.  (Seriously, you just almost killed me and you think I'm going get in a car with you?)  I told them no.  I probably did not say no thank you but manners be damned.  They drove off and I made it home.  Pop was home and he flipped right the hell out.  He bandaged me up, put me, my bike, and a baseball bat in the van, and then we drove around town so I could tell him if I saw the "sonsofbitches" that did this to me.  I was young but smart enough to a) know not to tell him if I saw the car and b) know not to tell him that I knew who they were and did not need to look for their car.  That would not have ended well for anyone.

I'm not bringing all if this up in an effort to garner sympathy.  It was 26 years ago and the 13 year old with the interrupted phone call is a distant memory.  The reason I bring it up is this:  it might have been prevented.  In the immediate, it might have been better if he didn't insist on taking a shower before heading to the hospital.  But maybe not.  At the very least it might have meant that he died in a hospital and not in the van that I was convinced at 13 would be mine when I turned 16 (It had shag carpeting!).  Instead that van was sold to Mr. Crank of Crank's Roto Rooter and that probably means it lost it's shag carpeting.  More long range, though, Pop's father died of a heart attack at approximately the same age.  Pop got indigestion a lot but then he also ate strange things (pickled pig's feet).  He smoked.  He probably had high blood pressure.  I doubt he went to the doctor all that often (if ever).  Maybe his heart was bad and he wouldn't have gotten old but I am sure that with some care he would have made it out of his 40's (a decade that I am entering).  He probably knew on some level that he wasn't well but going to a doctor would take that from feeling into certainty and that's scary as hell.  It might have meant being told to change his habits.  Pop (and many of his siblings and my sister) was not a fan of being told what to do.  Some might say that he lived on his own terms and I suppose you can look at it that way.  However, I think if he'd really thought about what it would meant to his family and friends for him to cut out early he might have made a few changes.  Maybe not.  So I guess my real point is this:  rather than make up once new excuse after another to explain away why you feel like crap, be proactive.  You'll either be told that you're fine and having nothing to worry about or you might be given an opportunity to fix something before it becomes a real issue.  Wouldn't it be nice to know 26 years from now that your kids are plotting what kind of goofy thing to get you for Father's Day instead of writing a blog post about how it shouldn't have been 26 years since you last cussed them out?