Resurrection of the Unholy
Two weeks before my tenth birthday, Dad had his first heart attack. He was sixty-five, the year was 1982, and I was not surprised.
My lack of surprise, I know, is shocking. But one of my earliest memories of Dad is him saying: “I won’t live to see you finish high school,” and after nine years of hearing that dark prediction, I wasn’t surprised when he faced death.
Dad was a retired truck driver and needed to work to feel like a man again, and ironically he got that most stereotypical boyish of jobs: a paper route. Mom, his seventh and eighth wife, had recently taken a job at the mall up from our house, where she was the leading salesperson in a department store, and Dad’s World War II era upbringing and male pride could not allow him to let his wife be the bread-winner.
True to his lifetime of driving truck cross-country, Dad bought a five-speed Mazda pick-up with a diesel engine for his paper route. Every morning at four, he and Mom woke, had coffee in the dark kitchen, then met their papers at the nearby convenience store, where they folded the papers and on rainy mornings, like that December day in 1982, they folded and stuffed the papers into plastic bags.
Their route covered five sections of town, giving Dad the largest route of any paper deliverer in the city of Pensacola, and he always worked his way back to the house, ending with a rent-controlled apartment complex five blocks from our house. The apartment complex was two-story and usually Dad took the top floor, climbing the stairs and walking along the outdoor terrace dropping papers in front of the doors.
“Your coffee gave me indigestion,” Dad said, stopping in front of the complex.
“I’m fine,” Mom said. “You just don’t want to walk in the rain.”
“It’s not the damn rain. It’s my stomach, and my left arm aches too.”
Mom looked at this old, proud man, and she knew he was telling the truth.
Without another word, she took the bundle of papers in their plastic bags, and with her short legs—Dad’s pet name for her was Bench-leg gal—she climbed eight sets of rusty, slippery stairs, delivering the papers, and then hurrying to Dad. When she made it back to the truck, Dad’s face was pale as flour and he lay across the seat. The rain falling on her head, Mom’s greatest fear of marrying an older man had come true: he’d died, and left her by herself to raise me. She walked to the driver’s side door and opened it, which roused Dad, who, in a muffled voice said: “You’re gonna have to drive.”
“You know I can’t drive a stick.”
“You’re gonna have to because I feel too damn bad.”
Breathing heavily and bouncing on her toes, Mom told herself: It’s only a few blocks to the house and the morning traffic isn’t out yet. Seeing how pale Dad was, she thought he should go to the hospital. But she knew Dad believed a hospital was only a dumping point before the cemetery, and if she suggested they go to the hospital it’d only start a fight.
“You’re gonna have to move over so I can get behind the wheel,” Mom said.
She pulled Dad up by his left arm and he wailed in pain and gritted his teeth, but despite the pain and commotion, he sat up. She reached inside the truck and lifted his right leg over the gearshift, then did the same for his left leg. Dad breathed shallowly in short bursts. Mom was thankful the truck was already started and all she had to do was put it in Reverse and turn around, which was going to be hard enough by itself. Grrrrr-eee. She missed Reverse. “Work the stick-shift for me,” she said.
Having spent over half his life changing gears in eighteen-wheelers, Dad blindly dropped it in Reverse. Mom, who hadn’t worked a clutch since she was a little girl on her daddy’s farm, eased off the clutch and the truck lurched backwards, shaking, bobbing, and dying. Mom mashed the clutch to the floorboard and turned the key; the engine, smooth and quiet, started.
“This time give it some gas so you don’t shake me to death and make me puke.”
She gave it more gas; the back tires squealed and the truck shot back; she hit the brakes, squealing the tires again before they hit the privacy fence that separated the apartment complex from the mall where she worked.
“You trying to tear up my truck or kill me?”
“I’m trying to get us both home. Now be quiet and shift into First for me.”
Dad did and Mom cut the steering wheel hard, determined to turn and head out of the narrow parking lot without having to back up again. She missed the full dumpster by inches, and she was glad Dad’s eyes were shut and he didn’t see how close she had come to scraping it with the front fender. She stayed in First gear in the parking lot, turned right and immediately had to stop for a red light. At the light, after seeing that no one was coming, she made a right turn, and headed home, glad she only had two more turns to make.
The engine roared and strained and Dad said: “Press in the clutch and I’ll put her in Second.” And with the familiarity that comes from being married more than a decade, in unison they did their parts and effortlessly shifted the truck into Second gear, which was where the truck stayed until Mom made a left turn on to our street. Our house was first on the street, merely fifty yards after the turn, and Mom navigated the truck smoothly through the open gate and parked it in front of the side door, the door that entered the kitchen.
I always woke after I heard my parents leave in the morning and used the time to lie in their king-size bed and watch TV. Mom knew I’d be there, and she called for me to get out of their bed. “Your dad doesn’t feel good and needs to lay down immediately.”
Even in the dim light of the rainy morning, I saw how pallor Dad was.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Your mama’s coffee gave me indigestion,” Dad said, taking off his shirt and letting his trousers drop to the floor, and then he fell into the very spot I had just vacated. “Get ready for school and you get ready for your precious job.”
“You need to go to the hospital,” Mom said.
“Not for indigestion. Now go on,” Dad said.
We left him for a moment, but I was unaccustomed to seeing Dad show any weakness, so I went back to his room. “How do you feel?”
“Like a Peterbilt is parked on my chest. But it’ll pass. Don’t worry about your old man.”
Old man. That phrase stuck in my head because that was what Dad was, and I knew Dad was, but up to that point only in an abstract way. When kids at school bragged about their fathers having fought in Vietnam, I shut them up by saying that my dad had been in World War II on Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, places in old war movies and in our history textbooks. But seeing Dad hurting and out of sorts in front of me made Dad old in a real way. A way I didn’t want to have to face.
Dad shut his eyes, breathed deeply, and motioned for me to leave the room, so I went to the bathroom to clean up for school.
Dad lay in bed and thought of his father who had died of a heart attack in 1955, and Dad wondered if that was what he was experiencing. Fifty-two years of smoking and a lifetime of red meat—a rare steak with a bloody center was his favorite—had they caught up to him? My boy never met his grandfather, Dad thought, and I’ll never see him finish high school. These thoughts along with the pain in his chest resonated in him and made him feel like vomiting. That’ll be good, Dad thought; it will get all this nastiness out.
Dad gingerly placed his feet on the floor and sat up. His head swam and the bedroom spun in front of him and then went black. Dad shook his head and shut his eyes; his mouth watered and he feared he wouldn’t make it to the bathroom in time. He clamped his mouth shut, stood blind to his surroundings, and made his way as quickly as he could to the bathroom. He bumped into me as I stood over the toilet poised to pee, and he spit a hot clear liquid into the toilet.
“You all right, Dad?”
“Just an upset stomach.” Dad didn’t want to tell me what he feared: that he was dying, dying like his father had, perhaps dying as his son might in another five decades. All the Jones men died due to their hearts, and that was a fact of our existence that Dad was not prepared to pass on to his son.
Dad wretched again and more hot clear liquid spewed from his mouth, only this time the act dropped him to his knees.
“Mom! Dad’s passed out.”
Mom, in the kitchen preparing oatmeal and toast for breakfast, turned off the stove top and ran the short distance to the bathroom. In front of the toilet on his knees was her husband, who had claimed he only had indigestion. She knew and feared it was more than indigestion. She hoped now Dad would see that for himself.
“Help me get him up,” she said. “We’ll take him to the bedroom and you dress him and I’ll run start the car.”
“You’re not taking me to the hospital,” Dad said, his head hanging down and rolling like a rag doll’s.
“You’re sick, Dad. And you need to see a doctor.”
“They’ll just take our money and tell me it’s indigestion,” Dad said.
We sat him on the bed, propped him against the headboard, and Mom, paying no mind to Dad’s request, got her purse from the closet, extracted her keys and ran out of the house. I wanted to do what Mom had told me, but I didn’t know how to go about it and simultaneously go against Dad’s wishes. For what seemed hours, I stood in front of Dad, who sat there, his face pale and his eyes closed, waiting for something to happen.
Finally, Dad’s eyes opened and a thin smile spread across his face. “I feel better, boy. I told you it was just indigestion. Go tell your mama to come back in the house and quit overreacting.”
Those words sounded good, but Dad’s voice was too soft, too peaceful to be his normal voice. I knew, no matter what I wanted to believe, that Dad was not all right.
“I think I should still put your pants on you.”
“Dammit, boy! Didn’t you hear me? I said I’m fine.
“I think we should do what Mom said.”
“Always the mama boy. I’m surprised she doesn’t shit for you. I said I’m all right.” Dad stood to prove his point, and I reached out to help steady him, but he slapped my hands away. “See, dammit?” Dad proudly proclaimed and planted his hands on his hips for emphasis.
From this strong and regal pose, Dad bent double and grabbed his chest and left arm. My hands, sweating and shaking, helped Dad up and back into the bed.
“You all right?”
“Damn I hurt,” he said underneath his breath.
I wasn’t waiting any longer. I picked up Dad’s trousers and pulled them up a little past his knees. Then I stood Dad up, balanced him with one hand and with the other hand I pulled up one pant leg at a time and then fastened the wide leather belt that Dad had whipped me with many times. I wasn’t sure if Dad was going to die, and I thought about what Mom usually said after one of my parents’ numerous arguments: Your daddy’s too mean to die.
Dad sat on the edge of the bed, and I picked up his shirt from the floor and slipped it over his head, mussing his gray and thinning hair. I braced Dad against me and led him out of the house. Mom met us at the door and took Dad’s other arm and eased him into the front seat of the station wagon – after her difficulties with the truck’s stick shift, she wasn’t taking it again. A new clinic had just opened down the street from our house, and I figured it would take us ten minutes to get there, and I hoped Dad had ten minutes left.
The sky was lightening with the rising sun when we pulled into the clinic’s parking lot, and Mom and I, each under one of Dad’s arms, walked him into the clinic. Upon entering, a nurse bringing a chart from the back, screamed: “That man’s having a heart attack!”
The nurse and a gang of other clinic workers grabbed Dad from us and wheeled him through double-doors. Mom and I had our arms around each other while we sat in the waiting room.
Dad could hear people talking above him and machines loudly beeping, but he didn’t think they could save him. A hard life of smoking, drinking, working, and many wives had finally caught up to him. He strained to see the people who were trying to save him, but he couldn’t force his eyes open. The sounds, all of a sudden, were muted as if they traveled through water and Dad could see the people, the machines, and even himself. However, he was looking down. A middle-aged man beat and pounded on his chest while nurses checked gauges and read outs. The pain he had experienced was gone, his body felt light, no burden left. Dad could have told them he was dead.
Dad focused on his face, lacking color and laying motionless under him. He’d aged ok, he thought, nothing extraordinary. Wrinkles lined his high-forehead and his nose, which had been broken in basic training, jutted out from his face and leaned to the left; none of these attributes enhanced his looks, but still the same, Dad did not think himself ugly, not even as an old dead man.
Dad, convinced he was gone and not knowing how long he’d get to stay near this world, searched for his family. He found us in the waiting room sitting side by side holding hands and Mom, whom had divorced him once, cried. And as she cried she stroked my hand, and I had a still face without tears, hardened in concentration.
“Your daddy’s gonna be all right,” Mom said. Dad heard those words and wished he could tell her the truth.
Dad wondered what his son thought. Was the boy sad at losing me? Why didn’t he shed a tear? Dad, upon hearing about his dad’s death, had waited a week to cry. He wondered if his son would do the same, but he feared that his son’s tears would never come. Dad knew I liked Mom better than him. She took up for me, protected me from Dad’s wrath, and that wrath wedged the two generations of Jones men apart, just like it had Dad and Grandfather.
I knew Dad wouldn’t die, and I believed Mom was overreacting. Her tears and promises were a bit much. Yet, I was surprised to see this behavior from her. I had witnessed my parents’ many fights, broken dishes, butcher knives pulled, police at the house taking Dad away. I remembered even the many times Mom threatened to leave and take me with her, and each time that happened I was ready to go and leave Dad’s rants and criticism behind.
Although I didn’t believe Dad would die, I allowed myself to ponder life without him. No more cursing, for Mom only let foul language cross her lips when provoked but Dad cursed as naturally as breathing, and usually at me. No more insults about my weight—You’ll be four hundred goddamn pounds if you don’t stop eating. And the yelling. I imagined how quiet the house and my life would be without Dad.
Guilt, shame, and a little bit of glee took control of me for thinking such things while Dad was in the backroom fighting for his life. No son would wish for his dad’s death. And though I saw positive potential coming from Dad’s absence, I did not wish for him to die. I hoped that Dad, once this ordeal was behind him, would be a changed man, a better man.
Dad opened his eyes and a bright light glared into them, obscuring all the people standing above him. Though blinded, Dad heard them speaking—Close call, Glad to have you back—and he knew that he had been dead. At that time, I didn’t know about Dad’s near-death experience, but after waiting for an hour, the nurse who had screamed upon our entry brought me to see Dad. “When we got him stabilized, he asked for you.” Later I knew the full gravity of “stabilized.” At that moment, I wasn’t that shocked that he asked to see me. After all, my parents’ relationship was often contentious, but now with twenty-five years worth of perspective, I understand how much of an honor it was for me to be the first person Dad requested to see when he returned to life.