Saying goodbye to a father who was never there

Just one of the guys, he had his faults. And yet, like it or not, his story has become part of my own.

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Jack Horton, in 1940 at age 22

Just one of the guys, he had his faults. And yet, like it or not, his story has become part of my own.

The date on my father's death certificate is March 9, 1999, the night his body was found, and the Cause of Death box says “cardiac arrest.”

Dad would have wanted to argue with the coroner. He had emphysema from a lifetime of smoking and was nearly blind, but he was proud of his heart. “This old pump's strong as a horse,” he'd wheeze, knocking his breastbone with his knuckles, oblivious to the mea culpa implied by the gesture. “Only thing wrong with me is my eyes and my lungs.” I flew down to Playa del Rey from Seattle the morning after an LAPD officer phoned from Dad's apartment, where he'd been found on the bathroom floor.

My father had wanted a party thrown in his honor after he died. Part of his small life insurance policy was earmarked to pay for a secular sendoff, one that would reflect his rejection of social and religious conventions. His favorite Sinatra ballad was (you guessed it) “My Way.” Behind Sinatra's boast is a certain faith, of course: that the paths the individual takes along "each and ev'ry highway" are free choices. Such freedom would be logically possible only if the highways he traveled along had never been built.

My father’s faith reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s remark that people who don't believe in God will believe in anything. This would include a belief in the inherent originality of non-religious funeral observances.

The celebration for my father was, I concede, unusual in that it was held at the Prince O'Whales bar, with one or two uninvited customers wandering in and out, as people had wandered in and out of his drinking days. But refreshments were served, and there was a book for guests to sign. My younger brother, who like me had forgiven our father's tendency to forget — for decades at a time — that his six offspring existed, had flown to California for the occasion. So had our Uncle Herb, who kicked off a round of amusing anecdotes about his brother Jack.

Then Charlie Q and Charlie, the two men who had helped my father most during his last years, told how Jack in his prime backed his car into the carved mahogany door of an upscale Marina del Rey restaurant after breakfast and then drove away. It had been too early in the day for inebriation; he was just so preoccupied with ideas for a new invention that he didn’t realize he'd knocked the door off its hinges.

Despite his sometimes damaging recklessness, my father inspired gentleness in others. During the previous decade Charlie and Charlie Q had taken turns writing checks for my father, driving him to doctors' appointments, finding items he'd lost somewhere in his one-room apartment, and taking him golfing after he could no longer see the ball. Charlie Q is built on a massive scale — a well-dressed oak stump comes to mind — but watching him with my father on a few occasions I had witnessed extraordinary tenderness.

Still, at this commemoration nobody cried. We ate and talked, and we downed a lot of booze.

My father didn't believe in a life after death. But like all of our lives, his developed an arc, a trajectory, a path in time and space from birth to maturity and old age. In describing this path we turn it into a story, and it's when a person's story becomes part of a larger narrative that the individual life can take on meaning. The larger story may be about the family or clan. Or it may be a religious story, as when the patrons who commissioned a painting for an Italian church during the Renaissance appear kneeling in the foreground of the work, making themselves part of the story of Christ's birth or death, or when you sit in a basilica frescoed with scenes from the life of St. Francis and your story is pulled into his.

My father didn't want to be pulled into a narrative that might have given his life meanings over which he felt no personal control. He got good at things he chose to be good at: golf, fishing, dreaming up absurd inventions, gambling, drinking, theorizing, womanizing, and attracting admirers into his orbit. He’d spend occasional time with “the guys,” but not with children, or with women unless romantically. His was a loner's story, really.

So I'm folding my father's death into my own story. Of course I can't call mine a larger story. It consists, like his, of unremarkable moments, and of as many questions as answers.

From LAX I took a cab to the mortuary that had picked up Dad's body at his apartment and had saved him from an overnight stay in the county morgue. His cremation was scheduled for later that afternoon and the farewell party for a couple of days later. But the mortuary director was taking no chances that the daughter of an impoverished deceased might fly in for the purpose of paying last respects, then fly out without paying the tab: Only after handing over my credit card was I led into a bare room and allowed to see the human shape that was my father lying on a metal gurney.

The shape was covered by a sheet with a wide blue stripe along its length that said “Angela's Linen Service — Rental Only — Never Sold.” This was as close to an angel, I thought to myself, as he was likely to get.

The mortuary director pulled back the sheet. Dad was unshaven and unwashed, his clothing rumpled, his collar awry — it was clearly the mortuary's Economy Package — but his eyes and mouth had been closed and his hands folded. Through my tears I could see that his shirt was a loud purple polyester number I didn't recognize. Without thinking, I asked the mortuary director if he had dressed my father in the shirt. The man stared at me as if I were crazy to imagine he'd have put anything so wild on a customer. Then I remembered that purple was my father's health color, a notion he had acquired from a certain Dr. Tony (described in these pages about a year ago).

Dad's expression as he lay there was surprised and a little vexed. He looked normal, in other words, except for a bruise on the cheekbone from his fall in his bathroom. The skin around his eyelids appeared stretched with effort, as if tightly shut eyes are unnatural on the human face, and his body was cold from spending the night in the refrigerator. His hatred of being cold was one reason why he'd refused to come live in Seattle with me and my husband. “The climate would kill me,” Dad used to say. I pointed out the irony to him as he lay there, which wasn't exactly fair since he couldn't talk back.

When the director saw I wasn't going to faint, he patted my shoulder and whispered that most people couldn't stand to see a person who had “passed” unless the body had been groomed, made up, and pillowed in a coffin. “That's why businesses like ours survive,” he confided as if to a colleague, then glided out and left me alone with my father.

He lay so still. What stories do we tell ourselves when we know someday we’ll be a hunk of meat on a wheeled table? I couldn't see in Dad the little kid he had once been, launched on his life journey by the stroke that disabled his mother so severely his father had to farm their two sons out to separate families. They flipped a coin, and Jack got the foster mom who was “a cold fish,” according to my aunt. What were the stories the boy came to believe about how the world worked? How did he imagine himself entering into its workings?

I wanted to wash Dad's face and hair but could only brush away lint that had caught on his whisker stubble and comb his hair with my fingers. Still, I was glad he hadn't been gussied up. He looked worn and crumpled and aged, as he had looked on Valentine’s Day, the last time I saw him vertical. The cardigans he was wearing over his purple shirt were different shades of purple. He would sometimes accidentally button his outermost cardigan onto a few buttons of the one beneath, which caused the outside row of buttons to change color halfway down and part of the sweater to flap loose on one side all day.

I kept expecting his eyelids to flutter or his hands to move. But after a couple hours of patting him and talking to him and crying I began to realize that he wasn't there, that the presence called Jack or Dad had left the flesh that had kept him in this world and had first made him real to me. So I could start to let him go.

Joy, the mortuary's beautiful young embalmer, dropped me at my father's apartment in Playa del Rey. The LAPD officer had told me in his call to Seattle the night before that he worried about leaving my father's wallet in the deserted apartment with $500 in it. Dad must have cashed his whole Social Security payment for the month. He liked to carry currency, when he could get hold of any, in case he wanted to buy drinks for his buddies. I'd told Office Loomis to hide the wallet in one of the shoes in my father's closet, where a couple dozen pairs would be piled up and dusty. Sure enough, the wallet was inside an old golf shoe and still full of bills. Dad would have liked that part of the story, even if he himself might not have missed a chance to pocket an easy $500.

What he would not have liked was for his life story to acquire meaning by being drawn into the ongoing epic of ordinary people, like Officer Loomis and Charlie Q, who try to do good unto others. Rather than do good, my father tried to do well.

Yet he would also have rejected the notion that his story was a version of the same American Dream narrative that still captivates people around the world. He believed that his own personal ambition was original, just as he believed his personal concept of a posthumous celebration was unique.

Dad would not have liked it, either, that in folding his story into my own I’ve made him just one of the guys — another guy (less honorable than most) who tried and died. He had wanted so badly to be a famous success. Still, he might have appreciated one meaning of the story: that this guy had a daughter who came to enjoy and care about him, despite his faults, in something like the way she used to wish he was there for her when she was a child.


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