This September will be the 25th anniversary of my father’s passing, and in August I will be the same age that he was when he died – 44. It’s difficult to imagine that this was all of the life that he had. At 44, I may feel like I’ve been through a lot, but there is still so much life yet to live.
I was 19 and visiting my mother’s house in Michigan when the call from my aunt came in about dad. He had been in a car accident the day before down in Florida, where he lived. He didn’t survive. My first thought was that he must have been drinking, and I wanted to know if anyone else was involved. The answer that came back was that yes, he was intoxicated but I was reassured that it was a single car accident. I would later learn from his death certificate that he hit another car, but I’m still not clear if anyone else was hurt. The way I remember the events that followed, my grandmother had already left to be with him and my aunt and cousins were planning to make the drive down from northern Indiana and said they would wait for my return so that I could join them. But when I made it back, everyone was already gone. I was 19 and on my own, I didn’t have the money to just hop on a plane and make the trip, so I missed dad’s funeral. Truthfully, I’m not sure that I even wanted to be there at that time, and I can’t say with complete certainty that I didn’t intentionally miss the window of opportunity to ride with them. I know now that I had a tendency to run from things that scared me as opposed to facing them, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this was such an occasion.
My grandmother and I had a falling out about my father’s condition just a few months before his passing. In a nutshell, she insisted that he was doing just fine and I believe my shouting words to her were that she refused to see that he was a “stupid, alcoholic drunk.” Perhaps not the most eloquent way of putting it, but words that have never left my head since being that hurt and angry 18-year old kid. I would be 37 before seeing my grandmother again and would gather more information around the details of his passing. I long had suspicions that dad had just given up and that perhaps the car accident wasn’t an accident at all. This conversation with my grandmother only confirmed that was likely the case. He had grown extremely ill from the alcoholism and drug abuse in the last years of his life and my understanding is that it had only grown worse. According to my grandmother, his doctor told him that he was dying and that his only chance at survival was a slim one and it was going to mean a liver transplant. Just 44-years old and in need of a new liver – it’s hard to even imagine. To even be considered for the transplant list he had to be clean and sober for at least a year. I have no idea what process he must have gone through to make that decision, but dad was apparently scheduled to go into rehab on the day that he died.
As my grandmother recounted the events of his loss for me, I was surprised to hear that it started with an emotional 5 a.m. phone call from dad. Keep in mind, this is a woman who never admitted to him having a problem over the years, she preferred to think he was always just tired from working so hard. With tears in her eyes she told me about how upset dad had been that morning of the accident. He was crying and telling her that he didn’t want to go on any longer and that she knew he was trying to say goodbye. She said she pleaded with him for nearly an hour before they hung up and she didn’t know how to help but she couldn’t stop thinking that she should have done something all those years before. She tried to call him back, but no one would answer. It was a few hours later when she got the call from dad’s wife about the accident and learned that he had been rushed to the hospital. He apparently spent the morning “drinking heavily” in a locked a room before walking out the door and getting into the car. He would succumb to his injuries the following day.
I don’t know if dad planned to take his life in any other way that he couldn’t go through with, but I firmly believe that when he loaded up and got behind the wheel that morning, he knew that was his way out.
No matter how difficult times were growing up with him, I can’t help but still see that somewhere inside of him was a man who wanted to do the right things but was too lost inside of his own pain. I could question everything about his behaviors and actions over and over again and believe me, I have – but above everything these days I can clearly see that he carried some very deep wounds. He spent his life trying to outrun them, only to end up buried beneath them.
What has been on my mind leading up to this post is that I am headed out on a trip to Arizona tomorrow. Arizona has long been a place that I’ve had a fascination for, I lived there off and on as a child, but I haven’t been back since I was very young. While my memory that far back may not be perfect, what I do have are the memories of my dad’s passion for the state. Looking back, his times spent in the desert seem to be the only times where he found solace. He would take off on his motorcycle and disappear for hours or sometimes days taking pictures of the landscapes. While I’m sure drugs and alcohol may also have been involved in these little excursions, his love for the times spent alone with his camera was unmatched. I have been wondering lately what it was about Arizona that he was so drawn to and where his mind took him on his trips to the desert. Was he able to find moments of peace, was he able to catch his breath amid the saguaros?
Our plans for Arizona have been a little spontaneous, this was going to be the trip to Vegas that we changed because of my decision to get sober. It was the first place that popped in my head when deciding where else to go. I told my husband in January that I needed to go there this year because, at the risk of sounding a bit woo-woo, it feels like something is drawing me to this place. We have no big arrangements, just a few days ahead between Flagstaff and Sedona and anything else around it that might come. I have no expectations and no plans beyond a beautiful anniversary dinner, because we also happen to be celebrating 12-years of marriage tomorrow. I am usually more of a planner and this time I look forward to just taking each day as they come and enjoying this experience with the man I love. Perhaps I’ll catch my own breath somewhere along the way.