Friday 16 February 2007

A few things about my father, I

Two weeks ago yesterday, my father went into hospital for what appeared to be a kidney problem. He'd never been in hospital in my lifetime, so just his going in seemed a little surreal. For the first week, we were focused on the diagnosis of the kidney problem, then something else began: he became increasingly pained and paralysed. I'd call my mother to learn his progress and hear his yelps in the background (literally, "Ow! ow! ow!" in rapid, vivid succession).

Last night, an abscess in his cervical vertebra (i.e. his neck) was discovered as the cause of the unusual paralysis and excessive pain, and he was rushed into surgery. Today, I received a call from my mother, and until I could finally ask whether he were alive, I thought it was the archetypal dreaded call, the news of death from a distance.

All week I've had the worst illness in some time--a high fever with a chest infection; I was sure it was bronchitis again, but yesterday the GP told me, before noon, she'd seen seven people that day with the same horrible virus. To my mom I called it a "sympathy illness" as a half-joke, but the more I think of it, the more I believe it.

So, this afternoon, the phone call. I am alone all day, half-sleeping, half-striving to revise my lesson plans so Annie McGann can teach my Sudden Prose class tomorrow. Consciousness comes in patches. The phone rings, and I think WORK. I answer, expecting it to be Steve May, brusque while kind, but I hear Mom's voice, gentle, tentative, and familiar.

The words "Intensive Care" have had no meaning in my life until now. No family member, no friend has been there before.

I want to tell you a few things about my father.

My father was born in Washington D.C. but grew up in St. Louis. This manifested in his love of custard and of the Cardinals, and something I came to think of as “the St. Louis stop.” Once I was in the back seat, my father driving, my mother on the passenger side, and we came to a street sign. Dad touched the brake—no more—and we were headed through the intersection. Mom chastised Dad about it and he asserted that that was the way they did it in St. Louis. In spite of the many years he has lived in Illinois, he always stops at empty intersections like a man in St. Louis—or so I have come to believe.

My father should have lived in another country. If he had lived in England, say, he might have believed more readily, more deeply that it was not his fault that he was laid off, that it was a matter of economics. I don’t think my dad ever completely got over that. He took a pride in being a company man, in racking up years of service, in watching his responsibilities progress over time.

My father is proud of his own father. He brought me Dale Etter’s poems in typescript and in print, musty from the attic, pages not yellow but brown and often crumbling. Perhaps it was part of Dad’s way of saying that I, though adopted, was as much an Etter as any of his other children. Perhaps his father’s old manuscripts were proof of that, and of a kind of fate in my becoming his daughter.

My father never stops talking—never. Even in his sleep, he snores, which is to say that even if you will not grant that he never stops talking, you must concede that he rarely stops producing noise. I remember sitting on the sofa in the living room, my heavy U.S. history book splayed on my lap as I studied for a final exam. Every four or five minutes he popped in with something to say—about the weather, about the news, about dinner, whatever. After a number of these interruptions, I told him he had to leave me alone if I were going to do well on my final. There have been too many times I have said, “Stop, Dad. Just stop talking.” Now I wish I were, and had been, more patient.

My father’s never ceasing to talk, or make noise, has frequently embarrassed me, especially when I was a teenager. This is to say, he talks up strangers on the slightest opportunity. I remember it mostly happening with gas station attendants and waitresses, who had no choice but to smile at his banter. Many in the Midwest responded genuinely to it, conversing with him easily for a few minutes before they had to excuse themselves to continue with their work. But I remember a waiter at Biaggi’s, where we’ve had a number of perfect meals together, who replied to Dad’s comments with tolerance rather than grace. Given my own behaviour, I understood his response, but I was divided between recognising myself and feeling indignant.

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