Monday, July 14, 2008

The death of a stranger

They buried my father today.

It was our last chance to be there for one another, and this time I was absent. I was in San Diego, preparing to fly home after researching a travel feature.

I could have rearranged my flights, with some expense and some damage to my research. But I didn't. I didn't really want to be there.

I'm not sure how old he was. I hear he died of a heart attack. I have only seen him a few times since my teen years, when my sisters and I gave up on trying to meet with him.

It's a long story. You don't want to hear it.

The son who never really knew his father is, obviously, not a dependable source of information about the man. He had a second family, and I understand he was there for them. I am sure they mourn their loss. They have my condolences, vague as condolences for strangers are and must be.

My wife sent flowers to the dead man's mother, my grandmother. I also have not seen her for many years. My sisters and I gave up on her, too, when she wouldn't give up on trying to convince us we should keep seeing our father, long after we had given up on each other.

This is all very sad and very typically American. Americans have a lot to learn about family from the rest of the world. Unfortunately, they have been learning from us for the past half-century or so.

Now, I guess we'll all be learning from China. We'll see how that goes. It can't be any worse than the American way, the way of my family.

An old friend abruptly popped back into my life the day I heard my father had died, only minutes after I was told he was dead. It somehow makes sense that I first shared news of my father's death with someone I had not seen in many years and had never known all that well.

This old friend (I always knew him as The Pope) cautioned me. He said he didn't know his dad all that well, either, but when the old man died, he was hurt and hurt badly.

He said the old pain is never as distant as you think it is. I understood his point, but I had a point to make of my own.

The Pope fixes airplanes for a living. This is more valuable work, in many respects, than making art, as I have always done, but making art does have advantages, and I explained them to The Pope.

I told him my pain was never distant. It was always with me. My pain over my family and my father has always been my most basic material as an artist. I have taught it to write stories, essays, poems, songs and novels. I have taught it to make a movie.

When you go to work, I told The Pope, your material is an aircraft. My material is my pain. I'm not saying I'm over it. I'm just saying I have not forgotten it. There is no way it can sneak up upon me. It's been sitting on my worktable all my life. It's footnoted, chorded out, filmboarded, recorded, mastered.

I can thank my father for half of my life, for half of my pain, for half of my art. Here is one of the things I taught his share of pain to do.


I burned GI Joe to a crisp, ignorant
of napalm, made at home.
My Joe was no soldier,
he was Henke or Hanson,
any boy with big fists
and bad blood. My dad.

GI Joe always acted
any part I wanted –
fell down, killed
or died, depending on me. Play
death is like dying in a dream;
you live to die and kill again.

But not after I torched him.
I wanted to see his whiskers melt.
His face poured fire
that stunk, bad. I was always the boy
with all the best action toys,
but that was over, now. I was alone

with smoking Joe and my dad,
who still had his beard, distant, black
whiskers on a big, red, mean face.

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