by Don Waitt
I am still mad at my Dad.
It’s been more than thirty years and I’m still mad.
I wasn’t mad about my Dad dying; I was mad at my Dad for dying.
There’s a big difference.
* * *
My Dad died when he was forty-eight years old. He had a heart attack while playing racquetball. I know, sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Playing fucking racquetball. Hitting a little black ball with a shortened tennis racket inside a closed-in room. Racquetball. That’s what killed my Dad.
In the Vietnam War he flew more than a hundred secret missions, code named Phyllis Ann, over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross after taking artillery fire on a flight and bringing his crew and the plane home safely.
The planes he flew were C-47s, affectionately known as Gooney Birds because, although they looked goofy like an albatross, they could take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’. Later, they were rechristened as Puff the Magic Dragon because of the three huge Gatling guns they carried that could shred dense jungle foliage and enemy soldiers with equal aplomb. He flew KC-135 Stratotanker planes that were half the size of a football field, held tens of thousands of gallons of jet fuel, and re-fueled fighter jets while they were both in the air traveling at about a million miles an hour. Every few months he would go live in a bunker on the runway at the Air Force base with his flight crew where they would be “on alert” with other tanker and bomber crews, waiting for the President to call and say, “Alright boys, fire the engines up and go over and drop a few hundred nukes on those commie bastards.”
He lived through all that.
And on March 2, 1980 he died playing fucking racquetball.
It’s not even a popular sport.
* * *
Do I blame him for dying?
Hate to say it, but yes.
My Dad never did anything half-assed. He always played to win. The day he died he was playing racquetball with the nineteen-year-old son of a business associate. Apparently the kid was pretty good because my Dad was playing hard. There was no way he would let a kid beat him. So instead of spending an hour getting some good exercise he pushed himself too far and his heart exploded.
Great, thanks Dad.
* * *
When he died, my relationship with my Mom changed.
I became cold to her.
I had to.
She had breakfast with my Dad that morning, and that afternoon he died. In the middle of a normal sunny day, he died. The most important person in her world, her rock, kissed her in the morning, got in his car, drove off, and never ever came back. She was only forty-seven years old.
Her world ended before dinner time.
And I saw my Mom getting sucked into a black hole of despair. It was like looking into an old brick well filled with cold, dark swirling water being sucked into the bowels of the earth, and my Mom was in the middle of that water. And I knew that if I did not reach down and grab her hand and pull her up, she would be lost forever. And the way I grabbed her hand was to be as cold and dark as that swirling water.
I was there for her, yes. I moved back to our hometown with my wife and I rented a house and I got another newspaper reporter job and over the next four years I had a son and a daughter, her first grandchildren, and I was there for holidays and little home repairs.
I gave her my presence, but that was all.
If she got teary-eyed, if she started to talk about missing my Dad, if the spark in her flickered, then I turned my back on her. I would not talk about my Dad. I would not share, or partake in, her misery.
One day the security guard manning the outside reception desk at the newspaper where I worked buzzed me to say I had a guest. Even thirty years ago newspapers were smart enough to have security measures in place to protect reporters from nut-jobs. It took a federal building in Oklahoma being blown up and two passenger jets bringing down the Twin Towers before the rest of the world woke up to the fact that there are some not-so-nice people breathing the same air as us.
“I think it’s your mother,” said the security guard.
I walked out and found my Mom in the lobby. She was crying. It was about some ridiculous thing. Maybe her change oil light was on. I don’t remember. I do know it had nothing to do with her car. The loss of my Dad was just killing her. I walked her outside.
“Don’t ever do this again,” I said. “Go home. Deal with it.”
And I watched her slowly walk away to the parking lot.
That tiny little woman.
And I fucking hated myself.
Thirty years later I can remember that day like it was yesterday. I can tell you what the concrete landing and stairs looked like, what the color of the sky was, what the damp air smelled like, what the sounds of the cars driving by were like, and what my Mom’s face looked like when she realized, finally, that her oldest son, her first-born child, was not going to be her new rock and that the grief she had was hers and hers alone.
I didn’t know any other way to handle it.
The best I can hope for is that my actions helped speed up the process.
If not, then there is a special place in hell waiting for me.
* * *
A few days after my Dad died, my Mom sent my brother and I to the airport to meet the father of the kid my Dad was playing racquetball with the day he died.
“He has something to give you,” my Mom said.
I had no idea why we were meeting him at the airport since he lived in the same city as us. It seemed strange then and it seems strange now.
The guy looked very uncomfortable. I’m sure he didn’t want to be there any more than we did. Airports are cold and lonely places. They don’t seem real. They are more like purgatory, a place where nobody stays for long and nobody knows anybody. It was spooky being there meeting a man we didn’t know at all to discuss someone we knew very well.
The man handed us my Dad’s wallet. Why the hell did he have the wallet? You got me. I’m telling you, the whole thing was weird.
He told us my Dad was a great guy and that he didn’t suffer. He must have been there when it happened because he said they tried to give my Dad first aid, but that he pretty much died right after he hit the floor and that there was spit coming out of the side of his mouth. I remember that part, the part about the spit, the most.
Why did he have to mention that? What the fuck did that have to do with anything?
I always picture that guy driving away from the airport, banging his hands on the steering wheel and saying out loud, “You idiot, why did you mention the spit?”
Driving home, my brother and I were quiet for a long time, until my brother said, “What a fucking jerk.”
We both smiled. It was the first time we both felt normal since my Dad had died. The rest of the world might be screwy, but we were okay.