Amounting to Something
In honor of Father’s Day, I’m republishing a post I put up last August. This essay was originally written in 2000. I haven’t edited it. I want to leave it as it was : a moment of remembrance.
Amounting to Something
My father died a little over two months ago. He never thought he would live to see his seventieth birthday. His father died at sixty-nine you see. Cancer of the pancreas. I never took him that seriously when he’d say he would die just like Grandpa. I realize now that Dad was sincere in this prophecy. On the twenty-first of September in this first year of the new century, my dad passed away at the age of seventy-two. Radiation and chemo therapy had given him a couple extra years, but Dad was right. The cancer that started as a group of small tumors in his neck eventually spread to his lungs and then to his brain killing him. He died in his Grandfather’s brass bed at home surrounded by his wife and children.
I was five when Grandpa died. I can vaguely remember him. Mostly it’s his presence I recall: the warmth and security one feels around ones grandparents. But I do possess two more solid memories of Grandpa. One is of my second birthday, when I received a cowboy outfit as one of my birthday presents. I don’t know if I got this gift from Grandma and Grandpa (who were also my godparents) but I can remember the happiness of showing off my black, pointy-toed boots and the light blue shirt with the pearly white snaps to Grandpa. His hug smelled of tobacco and aftershave.
The other vivid memory I have of him is coming into his death room. I remember that their house was crowded. People I didn’t know were sitting and standing around the living room of my grandparent’s house moving in and out of the kitchen. I walked down the shadowed hallway to the back bedroom which was where Grandpa was lying in a hospital bed that had been brought into the house along with a nurse that stood nearby. More people I didn’t recognize were milling about his room, but I only saw them as towering shadows. Adults to me at the age of five were long legs with deep voices that blew over my head like breezes blowing the branches of the willow trees in my grandparent’s yard. They were pillars of blurry flesh that I wandered through to see my grandfather.
I remember that someone was holding my hand at the time, but I don’t recall who it was. It may have been my mother, but as I said I don’t recall. When we reached Grandpa, whoever it was leading me told the old man in the bed that Paddy was here. I don’t know if he recognized me or said anything to me because the memory then jumps to me standing outside the house watching white clouds race across a blue sky, the leaves on the willows flashing green and white in the wind.
It’s a hard thing to watch your father die. When Grandpa died, I heard Dad got drunk with his cousin Davey and our Polish neighbor Matt. Grandpa had said he wanted an Irish funeral even though he was Swiss. Grandma was the one in the family with the pure Irish blood, but I guess that if you’re married to an Irish woman some of that blarney stone rubs off on you over time. The story goes that they had to carry Dad in from the garden; he was so bad off. If his condition was solely due to the drink, I’m not so sure now.
During the War my dad kept a victory garden which supplied the family with fresh vegetables. This wasn’t an alleyway victory garden either. He had to ride his bike to somewhere near thirtieth and Howard Avenue, (a distance of twenty or so odd miles as the crow flies) where there was a large area of land where people could lay claim to a squared off section of soil for a small fee and grow what they wished. If this was the origin of my dad’s green thumb or Grandpa already had it before him it doesn’t matter, a dream was planted.
One summer Grandpa and Grandma rented a cottage on Lake Denoon, a quiet bowl shaped lake on the borders of Racine and Milwaukee County. I think they must have liked the area because not long after that they sold their Mitchell Street house in West Milwaukee and moved out to Wind Lake where they bought seven acres of farmland alongside Long Lake.
Thomas Jefferson talked about his vision of an agrarian America and lived it too. So did my grandfather and my dad. They bought a tractor, a horse, a wagon, a plow, a dozen or two chickens and ducks, built a small barn around the horse, got their hands dirty, and with the help of their new neighbor Matthew Wysocki learned what the land has taught man since he sowed that first seed eons ago: to be self-sufficient you must work with nature not against her, and she will provide all that you need.
Much of farming on a small scale is practical stuff. A lot more of it is menial. I can remember long hours under a hot sun weeding row after row of young bean sprouts or feathery carrot shoots just barely broken free of the soil. For a young child this is not necessarily an enjoyable experience. Especially if your friends are down by the lake hunting bullfrogs or chasing dragonflies. But this was one of our chores. To even think of not performing your responsibilities was anathema. You did it because Mom or Dad had told you to do it. This may seem cruel or even sound like a case for the child labor people, but to me it was never that bad. Yes, I would complain, (I’m sure of it) but there was always something hypnotic and mysterious about the garden. Millions of children who have planted a seed in a Styrofoam cup for a school project, eagerly watching it germinate and grow into a healthy flower or plant can attest to this spellbinding phenomenon. The smell of the soil, the greenness of the plants, the heat rising from the ground, the sky overhead—it was all about life.
And death. Though as a child, I didn’t think of death like I do now. Death was something intangible and distant, not a thing I could pluck from the ground with my fingers like the stumps of quack grass choking the rows of vegetables. I was killing the weeds, yes, but to me this wasn’t death; I was helping to keep the garden growing. And when Matt came to gather blood for Czernina or blood soup, and he bent the duck’s bills to their necks in his large hands slicing quickly through the white feathers with a thin, silver knife, the gouts of blood pouring into the green Tupperware container wedged between his legs, to me this wasn’t death. The bird was dead, but each season we’d have new ducklings breaking out from beneath their mother’s downy bellies. There was always more life, even after death. So when I think of my dad mourning Grandpa, drunk to almost unconsciousness, I can easily understand why he would go to the garden to honor his father. It’s a hard thing to watch your father die.
I came to their house right after work. Mom had called that morning saying that she thought this was IT. That I’d better come over that day. When I got there, my wife, Linda was already there. Two of my sisters, Lynn and Jean, were in the living room talking quietly. Mom was sitting by Dad’s head. Linda and my other sister, Tina, were sitting near the foot of the bed. My brother Jack was on his way back over. I gave Mom a hug and she told me to sit down telling Dad that Paddy was there.
It was a long afternoon and evening. The longest I can remember. Afterwards someone said that it felt like they had run a marathon. I agreed. It was good that all of the family got a chance to see Dad.
As the evening came and the normal sounds of day—the song of chickadees, a pair of neighborhood crows marking trespassers, a solitary blue jay crying out, a distant lawn mower humming, people in cars driving home from work (Mom and Dad sold the land in Wind Lake over a decade ago and moved to Hales Corners—a busy suburb south of Milwaukee) turned to those of the night; a pair of mourning doves sighing, a solitary call of a whippoorwill, the distant sound of television sets—a sense of peace overcame me. I was back in the garden immersed in the overwhelming mystery of life once again.
The angled light of the setting sun came in through the window casting a warm glow about the room. Linda had gone home, as well as my brother’s wife and his children. It was just Dad and Mom and us five kids. We sat on the extra bed in the room and on chairs brought in from the kitchen talking about what we remembered about Dad and growing up as kids. We laughed and cried and loved Dad.
As the night got darker, Dad’s breathing got more difficult. He would take seven quick breaths and then one slow one that tapered off, a sharp rattling sound coming from deep inside his chest. Each time he stopped we waited anxiously expecting that to be his last breath. If only we were so lucky. This went on for a couple hours. The length of time when he stopped breathing increased. We made Mom rest in her room for awhile, since she’d been up all the night before. She hadn’t been asleep for more than an hour when there was a change for the worse in Dad. I was on the phone updating Linda and checking on my own kids, when I heard one of my sisters ask if we should wake up Mom. I told Linda I had to go and hurried to Dad’s bedroom. Dad’s breathing had gotten worse. It sounded like he was the one running a marathon. I went to wake up Mom. She was disoriented and confused at first, but I helped her back to Dad’s side.
I stayed by Mom rubbing her back, while Jack and Tina and Lynn went to either side of Dad offering him comfort and words of love and thanks. My younger sister, Jean, the baby of the family stood on the other side of Mom. Dad’s breathing grew harsh. The rasping noise got louder with each gasping breath, booming from his chest like a broken drum.
In the movies, people always seem to die quietly. Dad fought till the end. I could tell that each breath he took was a colossal effort on his body’s part. The breathing got harsher and quicker, but he kept going. When his body couldn’t take any more, he let out a long, loud sigh. I knew then my father was dead, but unbelievably his body continued to breath slowly and shallowly for several more minutes until one final thin sigh escaped his lips. His heart beat for a few minutes after that, but it too ceased. It’s hard to watch your father die.
Whenever I’d drive someplace with Dad, he’d always tell stories about when he was a kid or when he was in the service. He and my grandmother were natural storytellers. I’m not very good at telling stories, but I was always a good listener. I will always treasure his tales. After finishing a story he would often be quiet for awhile. He’d occasionally break the silence with a question, “So are you ever going to amount to anything, or are you going to be a bum like your old man?”
I never knew how to take this question. Did my dad think he was a bum? What did he mean by “amounting to something?” I don’t think I ever answered him. How could I?
When I was driving Dad to the hospital for the radiation treatments for the brain cancer, I wanted to ask him what he meant by that often repeated question. I never did. I couldn’t. We invariably talked about everyday things; jobs, families, sports, etc. (I have always had a hard time talking about the serious stuff with my parents. I think I know where I learned that from.)
In the weeks before his death, I thought about that question a lot. I eventually came to the conclusion that Dad had just rephrased those age old questions—Who am I? Why am I here?—into his own words. Do I think my father was a bum? No. Do I think he amounted to anything? Yes. I saw a man who worked hard to support his family. He may not have told us that he loved us with words, but he did show us love through his actions. I saw a man who chased after his dreams and fulfilled them the best way he could. Do I know what he thought of himself? No. I don’t think anyone can ever really know what another person thinks and feels. Do I think I will ever amount to anything? If I’m anything like my father, I most definitely will.