The phone rang not long after the game was over.
It was my mom.
“He’s gone, son. I’ve got some paperwork to sign but I’ll be home real soon.”
Technically, those were my mom’s first words to me after my dad died but those were over the phone. The real first words that meant the most came in-person about an hour later when the house had filled up with the people who fill up a house when the type of people who fill up a house are needed:
“Brent, your daddy would’ve been real proud of those Auburn Tigers today.”
She cried. She hugged me. Then she got lost in a sea of the type of folks who fill up a house and say things because the silence kills them even though it would be the best thing for you.
If you’re not from Alabama those words might seem like you’re avoiding the issue at-hand. Those peculiar words might’ve been the most perfect thing she ever said to me. I mean, what are you going to say to your kid who has been aware of his dad’s impending death all week?
My dad died on a Saturday in November of 1979 but from what I gather he was on life support after a heart attack on Monday.
This is where the story is a reverb/distortion/feedback of notes gleaned from my mom’s mythology and third-party perceptions of folks looking from various angles and distances. My higher-order life-living younger sister has done some investigation among living witnesses whereas I accepted that I’ll never get much closer to the truth that I am.
See, my mom’s narrative was laced with a high degree of protecting her children from the demons that may (or may not) have chased my father. There was a story of diagnosis with narcolepsy that led to some type of treatment with amphetamines. Keep in mind I was 13 and wouldn’t have known if this was true or not. Dial-up modems and AOL or Netscape would’ve been seen as witchcraft in the seventies. Not that the internet would’ve necessarily helped find the truth of my mom’s stories, but I might’ve fact checked in the moment rather than just accepting things and moving on.
Subsequent discussions led us down paths of possible alcoholism. Maybe a mix of that abuse and the amphetamines? Other stories have led us down paths of friends who might’ve procured prescription meds for my dad based on some sort of undiagnosed depression. My sister’s research has uncovered all sorts of interesting data regarding job promotions or lack thereof, anecdotes of car wrecks, fishing stories…all of which leave me with more questions. My guess is that if she were to blog, it would be much more interesting than my account. We’ve never really compared notes, but we’ve shared discoveries here and there.
At issue is the reality that the key eye witness, my mother, stuck to her guns even as we became adults with mortgages and kids of our own, and even while in hospice care…when I was sure she’d fess up. Southern women can be (in the words of my oldest daughter, and professional writer) “unreliable narrators.” While they might have the best stories they are agenda driven, and my mom’s agenda was protecting her husband’s legacy. The lack of discovery wasn’t for lack of trying on my part, I assure you. But the truth of the matter is somewhere between a normal 36-year-old guy having a heart attack and an alcoholic pill-popper punishing his body. It isn’t much for you, patrons, but I’m no doctor. What I do know is my dad had a heart attack and died.
So, Monday was the heart attack. This caused the domino effect of all the actual causes (like “renal failure”) I’d read on the death certificate as “cause of death” that I came across in the documents file while looking for my birth certificate to sign up for sports.
There was a doctor who lived next door. He was the kind of guy who paid me way too much to babysit his kids that gave me spending money, gave me a condom once (which me and my 8th grade buddies opened not long after because we’d never seen one in person) the summer before I started high school and later let me drive his Porsche 911 and his wife’s Jaguar after I turned 16. I think Mom enlisted him to clue me in on the state of play but I don’t remember anything he said. I just know he came over on Wednesday and sat in my bedroom underneath the poster holy trinity of Farrah, Loni and Jaclyn to tell me that my dad wasn’t going to get better.
Friday night, my mom sent me with a fake aunt (everybody in the South has their mom’s friends from high school who we just called aunts and uncles) and her husband to watch the local high school’s football team in the state playoffs in Huntsville. It was two hours away which meant I was out of the house all Friday after school until after midnight. I’m pretty sure she needed that afternoon for all sorts of arrangements future widows have to make. I’ll never forget walking into my den at around one in the morning and my mom telling me that “we’re going to have to let him go.”
This was polite. From where I am now in life, I’m staggered by what my mom was going through at age 36 with a 13-year old son and 8-year-old daughter. She was making a decision to end life support for her high school sweetheart and love of her life. I. Can. Not. Imagine.
Saturday morning, my great aunts, Aunt Nonie (who always smelled like her husband’s cigars) and Aunt Annie (who had a pool that me and my real cousins used whenever we could) took me to buy a suit. Apparently, this was going to be a necessity for upcoming events. So we went to the anchor tenant of a local mall and purchased the clothes I’d wear to the funeral.
I was taken back to my grandmother’s house and Charlie Mae, our family’s housekeeper (Please don’t ask. I can’t explain Southern social “norms” of the day) fed me. I was alone as the rest of my family was at the hospital in a hopeless vigil. My mom never let me go to the hospital to see him or say goodbye. She said she didn’t want me to remember him that way…I didn’t argue. I still don’t.
At 1:30pm I turned on the radio to listen to the Auburn Radio Network. Muscle memory, I suppose. Football Saturday at 1:30pm you turned on the radio if you didn’t have tickets or yardwork to do. I had neither but even during the week I was well aware that the heavily favored Georgia Bulldogs had a shot to win the SEC and the only folks standing in their way were my beloved Auburn Tigers.
I was listening while on the couch in the dark in my grandparent’s converted garage “playroom” and heard Paul Ellen describe the tackle of the Bulldog quarterback (Buck Belue, which might be one of the greatest quarterback names ever) in the end zone for a safety on the first play of the game. Their starter broke his ankle on the play but the favored UGA team had the lead at halftime 10-9…
…and then the underdog Tigers took control of the 2nd half, scoring 24 points and holding the Dawgs to a field goal to upset Georgia 33-13.
Then the phone call and the people.
We buried my father a few days later…and in retrospect I may have overdone the background on “how” I began to fear abandonment. On Wednesday we’ll start digging around a little on “why” I still fear being abandoned.
In other words…the last three entries are all prelude, and thanks for giving me the space to give such a lengthy backstory.