Thursday, June 09, 2005

What Falls Away (Father's Day)

"What falls away is prologue - and is near."
-Theodore Roethke


Example
Theodore Roethke was a big, burly, manic depressive, drunk, self loathing and self inflating American poet. Those terms go well together- Anthony Lane once wrote that "Self pity is just narcissism with a poker face", and that's never left me.

Roethke was also a drop-dead brilliant poet, either ignoring popular influences and going his own way; his poem about a greenhouse in a storm being like a schooner in a hurricane is astounding. Or he would mangle conventions for his own purposes, using a Robert Frost style of rhyme dipped in vinegar. "I Knew A Woman" is parody that flips into rage rather neatly.

This is all a long way to introduce the perils of father's day - things fallen away are prologue. And close.

There are trip wires in the wake of my father's death that I don't see any reason to talk about, because they are minor in consequence and legion in number. But I feel compelled to at least try and explain them, to illustrate the context in which they appear because it maps out the territory in which one lingers after the death of a parent. Family member. Friend. Spouse. Anyone who was cared for dies too soon.

Example
There's an office of the Canadian Cancer Society down the street from my apartment. When my father was ill and my mother was still tottery after her chemotherapy, I had the occasional mad impulse to walk into the office and say, "Your sign depresses me. I'm presently a member of my own little Canadian Cancer Society these days thanks very much, and there's only room for ONE of us on this block..."

Whistling past the graveyard. In this case, literally. The office is actually located in a modest building next to one of Toronto's largest and most popular (if that is the term) cemetaries, hopefully an accident of geography rather than a sick sense of humour on the part of the real estate agent. "And they can see their past clients from here!" might have been an ill-conceived pitch.

The first father's day after my father's death was close enough to the event itself to be insult to injury, but after enough injury that it was barely noticed. If that sounds like so much self pity, my apologies. I'm working on it. But consider it another way-you burn your arm with boiling water. If 15 minutes later, you burn it again with boiling water, do you notice it so much? It doesn't help, but the injury has already been sustained. He's been gone for two years, and for the most part I don't see much point in talking about it- there's only one end to that particular story, and it was unpleasant. But trip-wires twitch from time to time, and what time is more apt than father's day?

Example
The image above is an old Norman Rockwell print (some reader thinks "Not Dali in his blue period? Wow...who knew?") and its the perfect pluck-at-the-ol'-heartstrings card. There are thousands of them that seep into the stores every June and I had no desire to be poked at by a Norman Rockwell drawing at any time of my life but (or a Dali in blue period father's day card, for that matter) but events being what they are, it happens.

Example
For that matter, I was quite content avoiding Tim Horton's donut stores unless in great need of apple fritters, but each time I pass one I think my father would like the thermos, he liked their coffee, he had a sweet tooth. There is sort of an order to such a thought, you can put together a scenario. Thermos. Donuts with crushed peanuts on top. Sitting on the back porch on a cool morning looking at the sun.

Example
In lighter news, this particular father's day also reminded me of Groucho Marx singing an old Harry Ruby song. Maybe you have to hear it to like it, so Voila. For those of you without speakers:
"Today, father, is father's day,
And we're giving you a tie.
It's not much we know,
It's just our way of showing you
We think you are a regular guy.

You say that it was nice of us to bother.
But it really was a pleasure to fuss,
For according to our mother,
You're our father,
And that's good enough for us.
Yes, that's good enough for us. ..."

And for the Groucho fans, the long out of print 'An Evening with Groucho' disc has been transcribed by an eager soul and can be found here. It has nothing to do with my father whatsoever, but Groucho Marx always cheers me up. Might work for you as well.

Example
Introducing Hembeck. This is a respectful pseudonym for a friend, I try not to identify anyone in this blog by their real name as to protect them from the up to 16 sets of eyes who read this journal at any time (do the math). He's called Hembeck because he bears a slight resemblance to a cartoonist with the same name (down to the toothy grin). A few days before father's day, I pick up and phone and hear theme and variation upon Happy Birthday (I'm presuming he paid the appropriate royalties to Warner Music Co.)
"(singing) Happy almost father's day to you..."

"Hembeck?"

"(still singing) Happy almost father's day to you..."

"I'm touched."

"(remarkably, singing still) Happy almost fa-ther's day to the almost father..."

"Don't forget the last verse."

"(and a broadway finish) Happy almost father's day....to you(brief pause for applause). There. Happy almost father's day to the happy almost-father. Are you doing anything for father’s day?”
For a few painfully vivid months I believed that the honest response that I could ever give would be “Curl up in a ball, scream epithets at the universe and cry, mostly. Yourself? Going to The Keg, perhaps?”

To be fair to the universe (and to not appear quite as whiny as I might indeed be) these months took place as my father was dying, rather than after the fact. When my in-laws delicately (and very politely on their part) asked what my wife and I had in mind for the first father’s day after his death, I was explicit- I would love to spend it with my father in law. He is, after all, a father of mine, and there was no better place to be. And it was good, and everything one would want, so that story ends here.

As for the whining (see above), I could relegate it to the same folder which contains ‘HAVE BEEN DENIED BY A CRUEL AND CAPRICIOUS GOD’, but despite enticement to join from a number of sources I don't belong to the 'cruel and capricious God' club. I don’t even own that folder. Have I considered drafting one up? Yes. But no, don’t actually possess one in either the real or virtual worlds. Part of it is residual Baptist Sunday-school teachings - God loves all. Part of it is cynicism - I don't think God has the time to actively hate anyone.

I'd mentioned to Hembeck that as father's day approached, I was seeing various items that would have been on my father's day list. The items hit before the memory. Laser-levelling device available at your convenient Canadian Tire, he would have loved it. Various foodstuffs in drugstores, the licorise allsorts located in the impulse buy isle. He also lost his father recently which, as in all losses, is relative. In his case, a year and a half I believe, the loss might also be 'recently' in 5 years. There is perhaps a formula somewhere that reasons the length of time, the depth of caring, the means of loss that calculate the impact upon an individual. Or perhaps not.

Example
In his case, the trigger isn't Tim Hortons or Norman Rockwell or the laser-level available at fine hardware stores, it's the film 'Backdraft.' His father had been a volunteer fireman, and there's a shot in the film where a fireman, in flashback, is presented in profile. The onscreen character thinks its his late father, something that resonates with Hembeck. There are invariably hundreds of other trip wires, but that movie hits a few simultaneously. And Tim Hortons provides horribly cheap foodstuffs, so what? It's the association. That part of the formula.

Example
From Reothke to Groucho to Joyce. I was reading 'Stephen Hero' on the subway, it's an early draft of 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man'. It's incomplete. It's very Dublin, which means it must have been a scream if you'd been a university student there in around, let's say, 1910 or so. For the rest of the world, it makes less sense than 'Portrait of the Artist' but for Joyce fans (all 5 of us) it is interesting, sort of like peeking through his scrap pile to see what did or did not make the final cut. I have one copy I've carried for years, occasionally pulling it out and trying to find some gems in the uncorrected text.

It's a good lesson in humility for anyone putting words to paper (or blog, I suppose), an aside to a young writer taking himself FAR too seriously (Joyce to Joyce, not to mention Joyce to most of his readers):
"Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep; copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries in the world, including Alexandria."
A scream, no? I was sitting on the subway and a woman sat next to me, knocking over the book with her bag. She saw the cover and said "Stephen Hero? Somebody you know that you're trying to impress?"

"Not now," I said. "In university, maybe. I'm just a Joyce fan."

"Really," she said, "I'm a former lit student. Not a fan."

Wondering if at 36 I can read 'Stephen Hero' on the subway and not look like a subplot cut from a Seinfeld episode. And it has nothing to do with the post father's day blast, but it happened and float in my brain late on a Friday night, arriving here.

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