At the end of summer in 2010, my father was delivered to heaven by Jesus, but not the one you’re thinking about. My two brothers and I had driven almost a thousand miles to see Dad’s body. The whole thing started when a Mexican prostitute I’d never spoke to called to tell me she found him dead and naked on her living room floor when she came home from work one morning.
I blamed Dad for so many things missing in my life and so many things lacking in myself. I felt if I had a regular father and a regular family like other children my social skills and ability to form relationships wouldn’t have been handicapped. I thought that If he would have spent time raising me like a regular father should maybe I’d have a fully formed sense of worth and some self-confidence.
I fell apart after getting home from the war, and I blamed him for me hitting bottom, for my alcoholism, for my inability to control my emotions. The reason I married young and had children was to get the family I never had with him, and he was the reason that marriage was doomed to fail.
My father was a product of the Me Generation and while I think the 70s were a great time to be born, it proved a very bad time for a nineteen-year-old kid to become a parent. He was young, living in San Francisco during a decade full of all types of brand new drugs. Alcoholism was almost a rite of passage and narcissism was the zeitgeist. My parents fumbled at marriage long enough to have my brothers. Then the drinking and drugs got out of control. Keith and I were left with our paternal grandparents up in the mountains of Oregon and our littlest brother Vince stayed with mom until, after another year, Mom gave him up as well.
We didn’t see Dad again until he drunkenly crashed through the front door of his parent’s single-wide trailer years later and he took us to pan for gold for the rest of our lives. That lasted until he was buckshot in the ass for sleeping with some pot farmer’s wife. He left for a while but when his mother called him to settle down and raise his boys, he did.
Will Jesus give him points for that? Does he get points for going out and marrying the first woman he could find that would be okay with staying at home with his three boys while he blistered his hands and feet working a chainsaw in the wet forests of the Cascade Mountains? I would like to give him some, but he was an abusive drunk.
My brothers and I would go to school on several occasions with black eyes, swells, and bruises and had to make up stories about how we got them. I left home at fifteen and by sixteen lived on my own. For years I’d go to high school all day and work as a night stocker at our local supermarket. Will Jesus give Dad credit for making me independent?
After graduating high school I was just another poor, uneducated kid without any job prospects living from couch to couch, so I joined the army. In my twelve and a half year career, I was deployed to a revolution, a war, and a few natural disasters and I know I saved lives in all of these places. Does Jesus give Dad points for creating a life where I saw no other option than joining the military? How much credit does he get for those people I saved?
I don’t know, but I do know Dad tried, not too hard, but he tried. I had visited him a few months before he died, and at that time he was still with the woman he married to raise my brothers and me. He shared secret plans to leave her for his Mexican prostitute. His new drug of choice came from hospitals in little orange bottles. He didn’t care what they’re names were or their intended purpose. He’d throw a bunch down his throat just to see what they’d do. I wanted my wife to meet him before he was gone. I can’t say why, maybe he had built up enough points at least for that.
The night I found out he died I called my brothers. The next day we drove the length of Oregon and most of California to Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery. After telling the lady at the front desk who we were, a tall skinny man with an fresh haircut and a seriously expensive pinstriped suit was called. This man blushed when he explained to us that no one had come to sign papers, visit the deceased, or bring clothes. Dad had been brought straight there so when he opened the door to the dark cremation room there he was, completely naked inside of the most “cost effective” coffin they had, which was made of thick cardboard. In order to “preserve the dignity of the deceased” the tall man told me they had covered his lower body with a translucent plastic “blanket.”
He looked like he was about to be mailed. I couldn’t stifle a low laugh. Keith and Vince laughed too, but also stared at Dad’s face. The way his muscles relaxed in death made him look like a stranger. I didn’t see the dad I knew. It became uncomfortable so I looked away.
The tall, skinny man blushed deeper and awkwardly informed us that he was going to leave us to grieve. He said he’d be back and asked us how much time we would need. None of us were religious and we certainly had no experience in these matters, so I asked him what would be appropriate. He coughed and said he’d be back in ten or fifteen minutes. My brothers and I looked at each other not knowing what to do. My children never knew Dad except for in a couple faded pictures. In the twenty years of my adulthood I’d call him a few times a month and he’d be sober maybe half the time. Sometimes he would speak to my kids and every once in a while he would send them something for the holidays. A few desperate times he sent me money and came through when I really needed help. Did that all add up to a few words being said over his half-wrapped body in a cardboard coffin?
The tall, skinny man with the fresh haircut and expensive pinstriped suit came back in, and this time another man followed. This other man wore a blue jumpsuit and on the chest of this blue collar uniform there was an oval sewn on name tag. This nametag, in cursive letters, read Jesus. Jesus with slicked-back, jet-black hair. Jesus with a handlebar mustache. Jesus with a sugar skull tattoo on his neck. Jesus with callused hands and a long hard life behind him.
I doubt Dad ever cracked a bible open in his life and I never knew him to step into a church, but this was the Jesus Dad would have wanted. This was the Jesus he deserved.
Without saying a word, Dad’s Jesus placed the top on the box. With slow and purposeful motions he went to each corner and gently made sure they fit just right. With well rehearsed movements, he opened the oven door and a warm light fell on me. Then, I don’t know how exactly, but when this Jesus pushed Dad into the flames, somehow it all made sense.
I never learned how Dad died. They don’t do autopsies on maintenance men of high-rise retirement apartments in Koreatown, LA. His wife had left back to Oregon a few weeks before he moved in with the Mexican prostitute. We went to her house and waited in her yard for a few hours but she didn’t show up or answer her phone. When the sun started to set, we smashed one of the windows and broke in. All we took was a few of his personal possessions.
We rented a motel room before heading back the next morning and in the room we went through what he had: a few knives, some shirts, and a big box. In the box we found photos we had no idea he kept. They were photos of us from kids to adults, old photos of him and our mom when they were married, and a few dozen photos of Dad with people none of us had ever seen before.
Somewhere in the middle of reviewing our lives, I stopped blaming him completely. I didn’t need to blame him or give him credit for anything I did. He was only a man.