In the end it wasn’t the booze and drugs—or even a loaded gun—that did Dad in: it was the cigarettes. He was certainly much weakened by the diabetes and the stroke, the years of imbibing, ingesting, inhaling, and injecting most substances under the sun, legal or illegal, but it was the cigarette smoking and emphysema that finally left him breathless. All I can say is watching your dad unable to even sit up in bed without painfully gasping for air like the sky’s cracked open and space air is sucking out all the earth air—well, that makes you want to light up the world. Of course, Dad had been an addict since he was a teen, and he knew he had a genetic predisposition to emphysema years before when the disease also took his mother’s life. That’s not much consolation. It’s a horrible form of suffering.
William Brennan died in Boston in September of 2008, just weeks before his fifty-seventh birthday. Coincidentally, I was in New York City on a business trip when it happened. I’d been in the city for a couple of days, going to meetings. The trip had already been dramatic: I’d gone down to Wall Street with my boss the day after Lehman Brothers was allowed to collapse and “too big to fail” entered our national lexicon. In fact, while having a beer downtown with my boss, who was fairly conservative when it came to economic politics, I invoked Dad, saying fuck those people, referring to the glum, presumably now unemployed bankers quietly getting drunk in some booths on the other side of the bar. It was hard not to feel anything but contempt for these speculators, people who got rich off other people’s work rather than creating anything themselves, something Dad had often argued back in the dusty mountains of Southern California, albeit in a simpler way (men who don’t actually make or do something real are scum, was pretty much his viewpoint). But these things are never so simple, and I had little understanding of the true magnitude of the damage that had been done, the coming Great Recession.
My cell phone rang early Friday morning, just after dawn. It was Dad’s sister Cathy. Dad had been moved to a nursing home near her in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood in Boston. They had been estranged for years and now, with his illness and her retirement, she was there to spend time with him. She enjoyed reconnecting with her little brother. Your dad passed during the night, she said. Cathy is something of a Buddhist, with a soft but firm manner of speaking. She explained that he’d died of heart failure in his sleep, without pain. After all the years of illness, of his near-death surgeries and just generally seeming like he was trading jokes with the ever-present Grim Reaper, I never thought I’d cry when he died. I was wrong about that. I dropped the phone on the floor, like something I’d just disgorged. I heard Cathy faintly asking me if I was still there. Was I still there? It took me some moments to compose myself. I retrieved the phone and we talked a bit before I said I would call back. I needed to not be on the phone.
After I gathered myself, I spoke to Trina, then Mom. I had to get out of my small Midtown hotel room, so I walked up to Central Park, a beautiful September day. It was surreal, seeing the great mass of life and vitality, the sunshine and smiles, compared to the conflicted dark mass that was in the center of me. In proper homage to Dad circa the seventies, I got good and fucked up that day. I don’t remember much, only that my friends were worried about me when I called from Alphabet City in the East Village later that night, not sure where I was or what I was doing, and hardly capable of articulating either.
The next day I made arrangements to rent a car and go up to northern Vermont, not far from the Canadian border. After much back and forth, the final plan was to have Dad cremated and spread his ashes in two locations: near his hometown, along the Mamaroneck River, and up behind his sister’s property in Vermont, which was located not far from where Mom, John, Trina, and Trina’s kids now lived, and not far from where Dad had spent a couple of years after his stroke at an assisted living home in St. Johnsbury. We’d have a small ceremony there in Vermont. His brother and sister would spread the remaining ashes at a later date. I rented a car and drove up alone. The colors of the New England autumn were beautiful, but I didn’t feel any beauty. I didn’t feel nostalgia. I was confused, disoriented, but something more. It was not anger. It wasn’t even rage. It was still simmering, and I didn’t really understand it yet, but I was feeling the desperate compulsion to destroy.
Up until I left home, there were times when I loved Dad, times when I hated him, times when I wished him dead, or wished he’d finally do what he’d periodically threated to do and turn his beloved fucking handgun on himself, but the one constant that never really stopped, even after illness had greatly weakened him, was, quite simply, that I was afraid of him. It was a powerful, corrosive fear. I recalled the time he threatened my own life. It was in my senior year, when I was living with him and Arlene over by Snow Summit. They went out of town to visit Arlene’s sister in Fresno, leaving me alone with the house. Before going, Dad had given strict instructions: don’t drive my Jeep, and it’s okay to have a couple of friends over, but no parties. I don’t recall intending to throw a party, but it just kind of happened: in Big Bear teenagers were just looking for a place to go and party. Even then, before cell phones and social network updates, news traveled fast. And . . . what . . . ? Are you going to tell a bunch of cute girls with four-packs of Bartles and Jaymes peach wine coolers they can’t come and hang out? And I guess their brother and his friends can come. And you can’t leave out so-and-so—remember he once threw the party that you had so much fun at, even if you did start cutting a peace sign in your chest. The party at Arlene and Dad’s was a rager. It got somewhat out of hand. There were teens all over the place. Someone even managed to find a porn VHS and that was a big hit—more among the wine cooler–buzzed girls, in fact.
I tried to clean up the best I could. A couple of days after Dad and Arlene returned, Dad asked me if I’d driven his Jeep or had a bunch of people over. I said no on both accounts. (I’d also driven the Jeep to a girl’s house; she was crazy but cute, a future born-again Christian who would later lament that I was destined to burn in Hell for eternity because I wouldn’t take Jesus Christ into my heart.) They were direct lies. I knew how bent out of shape Dad could get when I lied, so I tried to avoid it, and I almost never unambiguously violated a direct command. But in this situation I was afraid because I knew I had done precisely what he’d told me not to do. I didn’t know how he’d react. After he calmly allowed me to lie—being Dad, he wanted the sadistic pleasure of witnessing me lying, seeing me dig myself deeper and deeper into that hole, or is it a grave? something he’d always done, to teach me a lesson—Arlene, who was bloodshot red, explained that the neighbors had seen the party (how could they not?), that Dad had taken down the mileage, they’d found a condom beside their bed, etc.
Arlene yelled at me. She was nearly as tall as Dad and an intimidating woman in her own right. She also knew how to stick it where it hurt, calling me names, ungrateful, selfish, reminding me of all she’d given me and I just pissed it away, how I had violated their trust and I could never be trusted again. Dad was eerily silent during Arlene’s spitting harangue. He just looked at me with cold hatred. Get out of my sight before I fucking kill you, he finally said. I felt sick. I was terrified. And, to be clear, I completely believed he meant it. Of course this could’ve meant I’ll beat you to death. Which he certainly was capable of doing. Or I’ll stab you to death. A common nightmare I had for years involved Dad pinning me to the ground and slowly gutting me, saying it was for the best, that he loved me, offering the proper perverse intimacy of any effective nightmare. But these were not what I thought of then. I thought of his loaded .357 in the bedroom. I thought of him acting erratically, as I’d seen him do so many times before, and in a heated moment pulling out his proud gleaming hand-cannon and shooting me. Or, falling off the wagon and, after coming back from getting wasted, I’d wake up to find Dad standing over my head with the gun in his hand. It was so easy. It was too easy. Guns, especially handguns, terrify because any person, smart or stupid, criminally motivated or law-abiding, can, in one simple moment of distress or bad judgment—drunk or sober, high or caffeinated, or pissed off because your stepson drove your Jeep and threw a party while you were in Fresno and then lied about it—blow an irreparable hole through what your life might have been.
I had a hard time of it in Vermont during the service. First there was the religious material, Catholic-related reading of psalms and such. I’m an atheist, and the only religion I recall Dad focusing on while growing up was a loose collection of Native American shamanistic, pantheistic ideas. (Back in high school Dad made me a medicine bag, something he’d learned to do while partying on a reservation somewhere down the hill, deciding that my spirit animal was a badger, the natural mortal enemy of the snake, who only struck to kill when cornered or attacked—thanks, Dad!) Cathy and Dad’s brother Tom assured me that he’d gotten more religious near the end, reading the Bible for comfort. Which was fine. But I can’t be expected to participate in something like that as though it makes sense, especially when he and Mom chose to leave religion out of my life entirely. But it was the “he’s in a better place” and “he’s at peace and no longer suffering” sort of sentiments that made me angry. These ideas are born from a belief system that I thoroughly don’t believe in; then, it gets pushed onto you as though it’s supposed to provide solace. Instead, it’s oppressive, even infuriating at times. I’m not a strident atheist, but it’s when the finality of death is truly present, when you are weakened by tangible sadness and pain, that believers are the most aggressive toward you, and consequently when you’d most want to attack. However, like the good son I sometimes try to be, I kept my feelings to myself, even while my inner voice ranted. He’s NOT in some mythical “better place,” and he’s “not suffering” because he’s not anything: HE’S FUCKING DEAD.
The moment when Dad’s ashes were spread something happened, a profound and genuine transformation. How could this man, this giant of a person in my life—strong, funny, mean, with the capacity to build me up and tear me down, full of the substance of life and the misery of decay, brittle and awful—how could he be reduced to these ashes? To that little piece of dusty bone that survived the cremation process? Again I was crying, but it was tears of a consuming fury. Mom and Tom were trying to comfort me, but they didn’t understand. I pushed them away. Get away from me. I wanted to be violent. I felt an overwhelming, barely controllable need to punch, beat, cut, shoot, bomb, and crush. Not just flesh but institutions, states, countries, buildings, trees, the sky. It was all such a mess. It was all so wrong, elbows and knees bending the wrong way. Murderers laughing while they torture and blow someone’s life away. Rapists laughing and joking as they brutalize a young woman. In some bizarre way, I felt like I was fighting for my life. Fighting for my family’s life. I wanted to annihilate. I wanted to kill with pure and total obliteration. Yet it was inward as much as outward. I was turned inside out. And then back again.
The feelings passed, as they do. I calmed down to a more melancholic, contemplative state of mind. I thought of the last time I saw Dad alive, in Boston that previous spring. He was frail and weak. Just trying to get out of bed was an arduous task, and walking to the bathroom six feet away would take several minutes. It was difficult talking to him since, you know, speaking involves breathing. We both knew it was the last time we’d see each other. It was hard to look one other in the eyes. He complained about the food in the facility, so I went down to a neighborhood deli and got him a submarine sandwich. I took him for a wheelchair ride, the oxygen tank attached. The exertion wasn’t good for him, but he wanted to experience the fresh air. He was almost immediately exhausted, so we had to go back to his room. We watched TV, some nature show. It was time for me to go. He struggled mightily just to lean up on his elbow to hug me. He told me he loved me. I remember him looking to the side, up to the wall, probably trying to concentrate on the effort, but it was also a bewildered look: How did this happen? How did I get here? I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t offer reassurances about the afterlife, about the marvelous journey to come. I held his shoulder in an intimate gesture that was entirely beyond what either of us did, had ever done. I said I loved him too. I said, ’Bye. You are small and entirely powerless in the presence of real suffering, actual decay, immoveable death. You can only touch the strange, funny, scary, and unique giant. And then that touch is gone.