Stuff I Write, Stuff I Like

Stuff I Write: On Veteran’s Day, Secrets, Mall Food Courts, and Writing To Find Out Everything I’ll Never Know

In Uncategorized on November 11, 2013 at 5:35 pm

My father, like many people’s fathers, was a veteran. Today I think someone — a stranger — will put a tiny dime-store flag on his grave in the Braddock cemetery.

 

I should go there. I won’t. I don’t go often enough.

I’d say my father wouldn’t approve. I’d say he’d want me to be a good daughter and keep his grave clean, but I don’t know that.

There are so many things I don’t know about my father still. I think that’s why I write about him so much. I’m trying to reassemble him. Writing for me is always that — reassembling, trying to make life hold still, trying to find out everything I didn’t pay attention to the first time, everything I’ll never know.

If I were to guess, I think my father would tell me I should be doing better things than hanging around all sad-sacked at his grave. I think he’d say Veteran’s Day is just another excuse for politicians to get paid to not work and for stores to pretend they’re not jacking up prices on everything no one needs.

I think he’d say let the dead be dead and the living live.

He wasn’t much for visiting graves himself.

Here’s one of the last moments between my father and me. Today this is what I’m trying to make hold still. Reassembling.

****

It’s a month, maybe, before he’ll die. My father wants to go to the mall food court. He wants Chik-fil-a. This is before Chik-fil-A announces it hates gay people. It’s before my mother is sick. This is before the insurance company delivers the hospital bed and oxygen tanks and walker to my parents’ home and my father asks the delivery guy exactly how long people live after he delivers things like that.

“On average,” my father says to the guy, who’s a kid really, who looks like he wants to run. “I mean, a week, two, tops? How long do you think I have here?”
My father is angry. He knows what he’s doing.

“I just bring what’s on the form, sir,” the delivery kid says. He looks like he wants to jump through a window. He looks like he might throw up.
I don’t know how many people ask him things like that. Not many, I hope. Not many people are like my father. I imagine most people sit back and stare, like he’s wheeling in their coffins before they’re dead. Maybe they say thank you. Maybe they tell him to have a nice day.

I’m home on leave from my job. I work for the airlines, where I don’t have to deal with any one person for very long. Everything is temporary. Welcome aboard, would you like a beverage, sit down please, fasten your seat belts, tray tables up, cell phones off, thank you, goodbye. In ways the job is a good fit, transient, like me.

But now I’m home to help my mother take care of my father, who is angry because he’s dying. His cancer was in remission and now it’s not. He thought he’d been saved. He told the waitress at Red Lobster he’d been saved. He told the organist at church. He told the mailman and the UPS guy. He told the oxygen/hospital bed guy, but then explained how he figured he’d been duped and all. He’d been praying. He carried a blue prayer book in his chest pocket. He thought it was working. It was the happiest and most hopeful I’d ever see my father. At Red Lobster, he ordered dessert, a chocolate volcano cake.

“I have a lot to celebrate,” he told the waitress. “This bastard doctor said I was going to die and I prayed and prayed and God answered, so now I’m not dying.”

But the prayer book and God both quit.

It must have been something he’d done, my father figured. Something he hadn’t counted on.

It’s hot in the food court. The mall’s dry heat is cranked up. It’s late January, but not snowing. My father wears his heavy knit cap, the one he used when he was in the Navy. He’d been in World War II, on an aircraft carrier. He’d seen people die. Plenty of people. He’d been to Hiroshima after the bomb. He gave a woman there his cigarettes and his shoes. One man in a bunk near his died when a kamikaze hit the side of the ship. They’d both been sleeping. The man died. My father did not. These are the kinds of details he gave. Cigarettes, shoes, a bunk mate with shit luck. Nothing about what he saw, really. Nothing about what he felt. Nothing about how close his bunk mate’s sleeping body may have been to his own.

It has never occurred to me how little I know about my father. I could list the intimate things I know. It isn’t a long list. He liked to sing and then gave up singing, he drove a beer truck when he was 14, his father once beat him for ruining his shoes in the rain, he believed in God and the Pennsylvania lottery and when he was 12 he got in a fist fight with Vincent of the famous Vincent’s Pizza in Pittsburgh – who had something to do with the shoes my father ruined in the rain and took a beating for — and my father won and that he was proud of this and that he believed it meant something, even though Vincent went on to become a multi-millionaire and Vincent’s Pizza is the most famous pie in Pittsburgh, weighs ten pounds counting toppings and grease, and my father retired from the mills and had to sell the house in Florida he’d spent all his savings on because his wife ended up with a bad heart and couldn’t take the heat.

“They have a C rating from the Health Department,” my mother says about Vincent’s Pizza, in loyalty to my father, who says, “I wouldn’t let my dog eat pizza from that bastard. My dog’s ass is cleaner than the pizza from that shithole.”

After my father dies, I’ll find a box of his war medals. I’ll find yellowed baggies filled with Japanese yen, the Emperor’s face on the bills. I’ll find a picture of my father in his sailor uniform, his arm around another sailor whose name I’ll never know. Maybe this was his dead bunk mate. Maybe this man was a friend. I’ll find my father’s uniform and, years after that, my son will try it on. My son will be 12 years old when he tries this. He won’t be able to fit his arms through the sleeves.

I try to get my father situated at a table in the middle of the food court. It’s hard for him to be comfortable. The chairs are hard wood. Everything hurts. He’s wearing a sweatsuit my mother got him a few weeks back. It fit then. Now he looks like a child who’s raided the adult section. Under the knit cap, his face is grey. His cheeks are sharp and angled. If I didn’t know this was my father, I wouldn’t recognize him.

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