Ninety," I said to nobody in particular, as though saying it out loud would somehow make it more believable. It didn't. "Ninety," I said again, and actually reached for the calculator, just in case. I punched in the numbers: 2017 minus 1927 equals, um, 90.

It didn't seem that weird, really: his forebears in the Georgia woods routinely seemed to make it past 80, and Uncle Pete, after whom my brother James was named — one of the great mysteries of life — always seemed like he was already rolling over his seventies to the big eight-oh. I didn't ask, because I figured it was none of my beeswax. And my dad never did quite hit 80, though 79 seems like a pretty long time in its own right.

The old man and me, circa 1955I do remember there was a period when I had hair and he didn't, and I think he was amused when I found my own first bare spot. I was about twenty-five at the time. I don't know exactly when he lost his, though 25 seems reasonable enough and I wasn't around in 1952 to take notes. I do know that it never bothered him: "What happened to your hair?" "Started falling out," he said tersely. "Never grew back." And the subject was officially closed.

I think he saw his job as Protector of the Family as something he did because he was supposed to do it, and that was that; he definitely saw our more mundane tasks as being perhaps less important in the grand scheme of things, but just as urgent. This was not a man to whom you could make up stories about why you weren't doing your homework. And his definition of untoward behavior was relatively strict by the standards of those days. I was coming to the dinner table one evening, singing a Supremes tune, and it rubbed him the wrong way when I got to Diana's spoken "There ain't nothing I can do about it": for some reason, he read that as rebellion, as though I'd said there ain't nothing he could do about whatever. He was only slightly mollifed by the presentation of the actual record; he wasn't going to listen to the damn thing. And shock value was a useful tool to him. One day, having caught me exploring the nose-to-mouth-via-index finger interface, he presented me with something else to eat: "After all, you've already eaten this once." I don't know anyone else who would have gone to the trouble of hanging a day-old turd off of a safety pin.

Other times, though, he felt that dead silence was the proper response. One night after dinner, I took off for points north, and didn't much care where I wound up. About ten miles away and several hours of darkness later, the police, assuming I was drugged out of my tiny little mind, found me a holding cell for the evening. He retrieved me the next morning with a look on his face that said "Let us never speak of this sgain." And we never did; he wasn't the sort to bring up old woes when there were newer ones to deal with.

Three packs of Camels a day, eventually scaled back to three packs of Camel Filters a day, had the expected effect, and once they threatened him with an oxygen machine, he finally gave them up. The machine came anyway: by then he was too far gone. Around 1999, when he was seventy-two, they told him "You have six months to go, maybe." I wasn't there, but I can imagine him snapping "We'll damn well see about that." As usual, he got his way: the last time I saw him was Christmas 2006, and I was utterly shocked that the Big Man of my youth had shrunk so. I stayed for about an hour; I don't think he heard a word I said. I'm guessing he heard a more important call. And the next morning, he was gone.

"Gone," of course, is a relative term. Once in a while, if I'm not actually hearing his voice, and I assume I'm not, I nonetheless feel like I should acknowledge his presence: of his five kids, two still live, and he wasn't one to abandon a responsibility.

The Vent

  17 June 2017

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