by Joe Clifford
In the introduction for his brilliant collection of short stories, The Angel on the Roof, author Russell Banks writes, “The death of a parent [when we are an adult] is a terrible thing, but because our parents usually have not been a part of our daily lives for years, most of us do not really miss them when they die.” That’s a harsh statement, and many, no doubt, will take exception, seeing it as uncaring, perhaps even callous, if not disagree outright. But, for me, Banks is a writer with an unflinching ability to strip away superfluous, polite layers to get to the heart of human motivation, regardless of how ugly that motivation can sometimes be. Burying both my mother and father in 2004, I was forced to face some of that ugliness.
When my parents passed away, I had not lived with either for a long time, and I am forced to admit that my sorrow and grief, while not insufficient, did not directly relate to my missing their company. It brought up issues of my own mortality, sure, but mostly I was struck by the finality of it all: I would have no more chances to set the ship straight; they would have no more chances to see me shine. As a result, I felt more of an emptiness than anything; although in each individual case, I experienced this numbing sensation for entirely different reasons.
My mother was a sweet-natured woman who suffered beyond comprehension before she passed. Diagnosed with scleroderma in 1994, she had lost circulation to her extremities, saddled with hands and fingers and feet that were all but useless. Scleroderma is a disease in which one’s own immune system turns on its owner. As a result, the collagen under her skin hardened a rock-like state, leaving gnarled, contorted parts. When I returned from San Francisco in the spring of 2000, my mother was very ill. But because we had remained close throughout the years, even through my various trials, she and I were able to set aside many of our differences. We made our peace; she loved me and I loved her. I did not want to see her suffer any longer. In the end, I was able accept her passing much more readily than that of my father.
My father died from complications of primary myelofibrosis on July 16, 2004. A tenth grade dropout, he’d spent his entire career working with big machines and explosives in the wild of Connecticut’s rocky outdoors. At 6’4”, two hundred and forty pounds, he was a daunting presence, with arms carved from grueling physical labor and an angular disposition to match. He was the angriest man I’ve ever met. I’ve spent most of my life hating him.
When he died, he was barely 180 lbs., his skin dark yellow due to liver failure and a stem cell transplant that never quite took. He’d lost most of his hair, only a sparse downy gray remaining on his pate. Far from the strapping, imposing figure I’d feared as a child, my father, in his last days, had wasted away to nothing more than slack skin hanging off the bone, hooked up to various machines, keeping his mind occupied in his hospital room by assembling Lego figurines. He did not raise his voice and he did not curse. The last week of his life, he’d taken to delusional rants about beating the devil in a game of chance. He was 56 years old.
To say that my father and I were never close is an understatement. In fact, our relationship could be, at best, described as cantankerous. From 1991 until the two months before he passed, we rarely spoke, going years without a single word exchanged. Still, I was there those last two months, making the half-hour trip to Yale New Haven Hospital, watching him wither, helping wash and bathe him because, well, he was my father. And though he told me, in one of his last moments of lucidity, that he was proud of me for my having turned my life around, the first such instance I can ever recall those words being uttered, I received no comfort from that correspondence, no warmth of any reconciliation; there was no sense of closure for me. Too many years had passed without his having been “a part of my daily life”; there was too much bad blood between us for me to take any solace from his memory.
I moved to San Francisco in the summer of 1992, and it was shortly thereafter that I became addicted to heroin and an assortment of other drugs, including, but not limited to, methamphetamine, cocaine, barbiturates, and alcohol. This is not an essay, however, exploring my drug addiction. It is only as a vital detail, one impossible to overlook when assessing what went wrong between my father and me. That is not to suggest I pin my addiction on my father. To do so would not only be foolish and irresponsible, it is blatantly untrue. Nobody but I put that first spike in my arm. Still, the part my father played in my becoming who I am, my troubles, my addiction, my second chance, cannot be overlooked.
It is a story with roots in the Bible, and in all likelihood it probably existed long before that. Fathers and Sons. I have encountered many troubled men throughout the years, and if there is one common thread that seems to tie us all together it is this battered dichotomy.
As I have written, my father was an angry man, given to otherworldly fits of rage, and he was violent, especially toward my mother. There was the time he threw her down a flight of stairs, breaking her leg, and many less egregious outbursts. But it was not the physical violence, which caused my feelings toward him. It was the rage constantly brewing beneath the surface, a rage I inherited.
I recall a friend I had in San Francisco saying to me once, over drinks, “The harder I try not to end up like my old man, the more I end up just like him.” Like Banks’s, those words still pierce. When we are boys, our fathers are pictures of what men should be. To my delicate artistic sensibilities, my father’s diesel smell and stilted education were crass, his methods of intimidation and bullying repulsive. But he was never scared, and I found that fascinating.
Hatred and anger are their own drug. Ugly emotions, they stem from an absence of compassion, are selfish in nature and virtually indivisible from one another. Together they serve as a very good defense mechanism. I learned to wear that hatred and anger like a badge. During my teens, to cope with the strangeness of my home life, the injustices of the world I saw taking shape around me, I grew angrier, hated more, until, like my father, I became impossible to be around for very long. Friends, girlfriends, co-workers would come and go.
There was a certain inflection in my father’s voice when he screamed, a particular timbre he copped when he wanted to let his victims know that he’d had enough. When you heard this, you shut up. I learned to imitate him, that voice, especially with women.
With each passing year, his blood pumping through my veins, I felt more wronged, blamed him more, and did more harm to myself. It is a twisted pathology of the addict that to lash out against the ones we want to harm, we, instead, hurt ourselves. And that is what I did for close to a decade. I never resorted to physical violence against women the way he had, but that isn’t to say I didn’t have it in me. And I certainly used physical intimidation to my benefit. And then there was that dank San Francisco night when, in the basement of a speed dealer’s home, I attacked a friend with a four-foot metal pole for screwing around with my wife. I broke the bones in his hand and cracked his ribs. I had swung for his head.
I’ve heard from assorted doctors over the years that addiction is a bio/psycho/social problem. Despite my penchant for finding fault with the denizens of AA-based recovery, I am not tempted to argue with that assessment. The story of my getting clean is a long, convoluted one, involving multiple overdoses, trips to jails, rehabs, mental hospitals, suicide attempts, and a very long time locked up. But the key to it all, I believe, was getting over the hatred I felt for my father, getting rid of the anger I felt coursing through me. I worked with countless doctors, therapists, and counselors, over the course of many years, in trying to attain that goal. I’m not sure I was ever entirely successful. But enough that I was able to move on.
Emerging from my ten-year hiatus, I moved back home to Connecticut. Six months to the day after my mother, Toni, died, my father, Neil, also passed away. Concerning his death, I do not believe the word forgiveness is appropriate. While there was no great love between us when he died, I don’t think I hated him.
I do not believe my father was an evil man. One of the benefits of getting straight has been my acceptance just about everyone in this life does his or her best. My father married my mother when he was nineteen, became a father a couple years later. I can’t imagine the pressure of trying to care for a child or provide for a household at that age. Looking back, I don’t believe my father possessed the requisite skills for dealing with such circumstance. And just as I often pined for the father I never had, I like to believe that he, too, in his own way, pined for the son he never had.
Russell Banks also wrote another book, Affliction. It was made into a remarkable film of same name staring Nick Nolte, and featuring a lacerating performance by James Coburn in the role of his embittered, alcoholic father. While the film is good, the book, as is so often the case, is unforgettable. Set in the rural Northeast, Affliction is the story of a father’s rage and the devastating affliction he passes onto his son, who, in turn, passes it on to those “unfortunate enough to love [him].” I would like to believe in my case that affliction ends here.