Editor’s Note: a compilation of various things I have written in the past mixed with new material, this is posted here today in honor of what would have been my dad’s 70th birthday.
The coroner said his heart was 65% scar tissue†. It wasn’t his first heart attack.
I often start this story with the chirping of a cricket and a quickened pace down a dormitory hallway. The scar tissue though, it tells a different story.
Maybe the story starts down in the maple lined field with an old red, FarmAll tractor, its giant, rusty, rear mounted blade, whirling hungrily, cutting logs to stove length in the summer dusk. Or possibly sitting uncomfortably in the town’s board room debating the removal of a fire chief for potential misconduct. The story could have started with the stress of retiring, leaving Southern New Hampshire’s rat race, moving his family to a small town in the Great North Woods, putting his wife to work, and opening a bed and breakfast. Or maybe while sitting in a blue, overstuffed chair, leaning forward, lighting another long, white cigarette, watching Jeopardy!. It also could have started lumbering his stout frame up another rocky, mountain trail on a four thousand foot peak with me, his back laden with ten days of food and supplies. Or maybe it happened on the weekend working at the dump, or the school night working as a janitor, or on a Tuesday evening stuffing inserts into the local paper. Maybe it happened at one of my soccer games, standing on the sidelines, by himself, catching a short bit of action before work. Or maybe the story started digging his dirty fingernail underneath the metal tab on the top of a can of Mountain Dew, prying it upward, then tipping can and head back to slake his thirst. It sure could’ve started while digging out a cellar by hand through the stone riddled New England soil with shovel and wheel barrow. Or It could have happened opening another credit card bill and watching the numbers continue to grow. Maybe he was holding the blue Makita Sawzall, cutting a hole in the roof for a dormer or while hauling rocks out of the river to build a fieldstone fireplace, chimney, and patio. It could’ve started when the 170 pound St Bernard came barreling down the house to greet him. Maybe it started when he was sitting on an inner tube in the river, white t-shirt, cutoff jeans, and his twin brother and niece floating along with him.
But it sure as hell didn’t happen at the doctors or while eating a salad or exercising. And it sure didn’t start with the cricket, that is just when my life changed.
November 7,1996–Walking down the hall of Eastview’s first floor at Unity College I hear the chirp of a cricket. There is only one cricket in Eastview and it lives in room 116. I move faster with a skip, shuffling into a jog as I make my way toward my room and the ringing telephone. It might be Jessica, I’ve thinking about going home this weekend and maybe seeing her. She’s probably calling to make plans. I push through the doorway. “Hello?” I answer, anticipating her voice.
“Jared, it’s mom, your father just died.”
“That is what your brother said too.”
I remember the last time I saw my father. He and my mother had driven to Unity and we had gone up to Bangor and spent the day together. I bought a new pair of Adidas athletic shoes and a few posters for my dorm room. We went out to eat at Arby’s. The sauce from a roast beef sandwich had dripped onto my white shirt and I got mad. When he left we shook hands. It was one of the first times I felt like he treated me like a man, almost as an equal. It wasn’t said, but I could feel that he was proud of me.
In that moment I knew I loved my dad. Feeling and recognizing that love manifested itself in more frequent midday calls home. Calls when I knew he would be the one to answer the phone. Then came the call; this new found connection and feeling was ripped away.
We buried him high on the mountain, overlooking the house, the covered bridge, and the church. The hearse, a ’53 Chevy station wagon. Two cousins, my brother, and I sat on the tailgate and sang a rendition of Good Ol’ Boys; we laughed and cried while his twin brother drove. The casket, a custom made pine box. It was simple and clean, made by a neighbor who hand burned the hinges to make them blacker when he couldn’t find what he wanted. Victor didn’t have a will but we all knew he wanted to be buried in a pine box. Turns out you can’t buy one. Nothing cheap and simple is for sale at a funeral parlor.
In the days following his death and funeral, I tried to do one thing he was good at: take care of my mother and the house. Daily routines involved his old boots, his thin wale cords and flannel shirts, and thick leather belt, creased and worn, holding me together, holding him close to me; I pulled the belt off his body before they closed the casket. Hammers, saws, and an old 1800s farm house provided the canvas for the routine. Peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, the store brand thin sliced potato chips, layered in to add crunch. Nail by nail and board by board I slowly finished the residing he was doing. I drove his Jeep, the one that saw his last breath, probably saw him grab his chest, gasp for breath, and, in pain and agony, alone on a Thursday night, stall out when his foot came off the clutch backing into the driveway. The cigarettes from the store run on the dash; I never moved them. The routine involved letting go of nothing, ever, and wrapping myself in all that I thought he was.
Present Day–Over the years my time has always been the same. Never secretive, but usually alone. It feels better that way. In the same way we shared mid-day telephone calls so I could have him to myself. In the same way we wandered to and fro across mountains, him building me. It was my time. It was our time. It’s the same now. Late autumn’s hard crunch of frozen leaves, mud and grass all brown, faded color lost to time. Fallen needles carpet the mosses and long ago shed leaves of maples pile high. Today I carry a rake, something to fill the time, to give purpose, to do a job, as if I need an excuse to go. It has become ritual: mornings, late fall/early winter, by myself.
The air is cold, the mercury hovering well below the freezing mark and my breath comes in grey clouds. It hangs in the air like the cigarette smoke of my youth, coalescing around my face, offering comfort. I walk around the headstone and make a circle or two before busying myself with the rake. Tears come easy as I stand there moving leaves and talking to a stone. Somedays tears don’t come at all. Today they flow freely, more so than they have in a long time. But it’s cold and they don’t make it down my cheeks. They are thick and heavyset and freeze to my beard in small droplets while my shoulders heave violently with uncontrollable, unreasonable sobs, my head tilted back, choking, standing, with a rake in my hand. Despite it being decades ago, right here, right now, it feels like yesterday.
I don’t want control. I don’t want to get myself together. I let it come and let it go; finally I can keep raking. I move leaves back and forth, clearing as he would have it, ending by the rock. My mother calls it hers, but I think over the years many of us have sat there. “This is where I sit and talk to your father” she told me once. I imagine as way moves on to way, it is where I will sit and talk with her one day too. I lean the rake against her rock and take a seat. It is cold; I don’t sit long in the morning’s sub-freezing temperatures.
I stand and try to walk out, but can’t. I turn, wander back, pulled by guilt or maybe duty; I know I haven’t spent enough time here over the years. Once again I am pacing and lapping the stone, before finally pausing at the plaque, flat and grey, etched with a name and dates. Burried next to it a small, yellow Tupperware cup from years ago acts as an ornamental vase for a long dried, cellophane wrapped, bouquet of flowers. I look upward, from the plaque and vase, through the trees. I see the home I was raised in, the one in the decades since, my mother has worked so hard to keep, the one they worked so hard to build.
In the bitter, grey air I think of the words we never said. Despite never hearing them myself, I now remember them, implicit in the scratch of his mustache and unshaven cheeks as he tucked me in and kissed me goodnight and the leathery toughness of his weather beaten skin and callused hands. And I know it in the memories of a glistening brow and farmer tanned arms ripping at a Fruit of the Loom, pocket t-shirt while moving rocks, splitting wood, pounding nails or hiking trails.
It’s implicit in all he did, but for him, he didn’t stay around long enough for me to grow up and say it. When I finally did, those words fell unheard onto cold, frozen dirt; onto a monument of granite.
Turns out, heart disease runs in the family. Both sides. Triple bypasses, heart attacks, deaths, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, medications, diets, lifestyle, exercise.
The scar tissue runs deep too, passed down from father to son. Passed down on long nights in rickety, mouse ridden shelters on Maine’s Appalachian Trail and Vermont’s Long Trail, passed down in the gaiters he bought for me, but hid on Christmas morning, wanting to see me pout; passed down in driving with me to visit colleges; and passed down in a picture he gave me of me climbing a mountain, one of the most cherished item I have in my house. Maybe it was passed on in the working himself to death so I could have a better life than he did. Maybe it was passed along in a drop of alcohol never touching his lips, lest he turn into his angry, raging, abusive father. Maybe that scar tissue was passed along in the thick leather belt I still wear. Or in the look in his eye when he last shook my hand.
When my father died, his heart was over 65% scar tissue. I can relate, I can feel it; not all scar tissue is bad.
† this is an estimated percentage, potentially low, on my part; just what an 18 year old hears and remembers.