Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Jack-A-Palooza

(With Dad's birthday just passed, and Father's Day not far away, heading into this three-day weekend, I wanted to share this, which I wrote for the memoir class I took recently with Sara Benincasa.)

Catharine & Jack, Christmas, 1995
My father was born in Texas in 1929, and died in California in 2007.  I believe he was rather startled by both events.

Dad was one of those people who always seemed a little puzzled by life in general.  He did achieve a considerable success as a writer for television series and movies-of-the-week, and a single feature film that managed to do exceedingly well at the box office, and in fact lives on, on cable television, premium movie channels, and video-on-demand. 

Still, my father never quite mastered success. He never fully embraced it.  He was never really gracious or elegant at it.  He treated success and professional praise as if he was being stalked by a woman he picked up in a bar one night, that wouldn't take "no" for an answer in the bright light of day. 

He somehow managed to snag my mother at a party one night, though what, exactly she saw in him, I still cannot image. I cannot help but believed liquor was involved.  My father was, it is true, charming, witty, and intelligent.  But he wasn’t really “a catch”.  He was a less-than-tall, less-than-employed actor, attractive in a rather ordinary way. My mother was a beautiful and successful theater actress. She had ridden into to town on the wings of a Broadway touring company. She was beautiful and brilliant, if a bit spoiled and petulant. She had run away from an impetuous marriage to a New York business man who wanted nothing more than to make her happy. 

My father, on the other hand, did not want to make my mother happy. His attitude toward being loved was similar to his attitude toward being successful. He was unable to accept either. So he ended their affair, with me already on the way.  The idea of “doing the right thing” by his pregnant ex-girlfriend was not something my father was even prepared to entertain.  He’d already moved on, was sleeping with my mother’s former best friend (though she would go to her grave not knowing this, as he chose only to confide to me in adulthood), and had no intention of going back, baby or no baby. 

Rules didn’t apply to him. Social boundaries didn’t apply to him. Things like mores and standards didn’t apply to him. Being proper and manners didn’t apply. I’ve no doubt his mother taught him all of these things, the way she did with her other children.  I’m just pretty sure he didn’t think she was talking to him. 

Growing up, we would sit around the table and listen to the adults tell the most horrible jokes – offensive, racist, awful, vicious – some of them about real people. My mother, for all her sarcasm and sly wit, would have cringed at that kind of inappropriateness.  But when you’re immersed in it, you become desensitized, inured, immune.  Years late, my half-sisters and I would construct the Sowards family motto, which my father quickly embraced, once he’d heard it – “If it gets a laugh, it’s not in bad taste.” 

My father used to tell us all the time that he was going to be the only person to “get out of this alive”.  Meaning life.  He also told us that, if he did go, he was “taking it all” with him.  But I think he truly believed that somehow, when the time came, he would find a loophole or a backdoor or a cheat code that would get him an extra life, like in Donkey Kong.

After all, this was the man who invented the Kobayashi Maru test – an unwinnable test that, regardless of what decision you make, what path you take, you and your entire crew are destined to die.  Except one guy actually beat the test.  He did it by cheating. And he was the hero of the movie.  People sat in the movie theatre, watching “Wrath of Khan”, thinking it was a clever little plot twist, designed to show us Kirk’s bad-boy nature and to reveal a part of his character we have heretofore only suspected.  My sisters and I sat in the theatre and saw it for what it was – an escape plan.  Somewhere in his mind, my father was pretty sure that, if he could just get in there and invert that fly wheel, he’d figure out a way to cheat the test.

So when he got the diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), he was a little shocked. When the doctor gave him the period at the end of the sentence – “terminal” – he was dumbfounded.  Not one to entirely give up on a legacy, he said that, henceforth, ALS would no longer be called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but rather, Jack Sowards’ Disease.  When I asked him how he figured he’d warranted that, his reasoning was pretty simple:

      “Finders, keepers.”


Hard to argue with that kind of perfect logic. 

My father had always said he wanted to die suddenly, of a heart attack, in bed with a beautiful woman.  He died in bed, but it wasn’t quick, and it wasn’t during coitus.  He was in a coma – had been for days – during the first week in July, 2007.  My sister, who was now his full-time caregiver, had had his bed moved into the living room, because it was cooler than the bedroom, where the windows faced full west.  In the end, the closest he got to a party was when, on the Fourth of July, a small group of family and very close friends arrived with steaks and beer and some sparklers and ice cream. We sat on the screen porch, ten feet away from my dying father, broiled steaks, drinking beer, talking about the best memories, the funniest, most inappropriate jokes, and doing “Dad” impressions all day.  There were so many Dad impressions, in fact, that we began referring to the event as “Jack-a-palooza”.  Every few minutes, someone would spontaneously yell out, “Gahhhd-DAMM-it!”, in the same sing-song-y intonation Dad had used to say it.

Maybe we were hoping we could mock him out of the coma.  My father was never one to let a straight line go, or even a punch line, without trying to top it.  But he didn’t try to top it this time.  He let our jokes lie on their own. My sister spent time between Dad jokes, alternately slipping spoonsful of liquid morphine and chocolate sorbet – first, a teaspoon of one, then a teaspoon of the other -- carefully into his slack mouth, trying to stay ahead of the painful cramps that go along with ALS, 1while ensuring that the last thing he tasted would be the thing he loved most – chocolate.
Is it you?

He died four days later, on the 8th, after my sister had sent all the vigil-keepers home.  Once we’d all cleared from the house, he let go and slipped away. Maybe the audience had to leave before he could wrap up the performance.  Still, I think somewhere inside, he was still a little perplexed – by his life, by his death, by his children, by the women in his life who chose to love him.  It was all a mystery to him, one he never figured out. 

I’m a firm believer in reincarnation, and I do wonder if my father is slated for a comeback. Surely, he didn’t master what he came here to learn, unless telling off color jokes and mastering a pithy one-liner can be considered a spiritual dharma. I look at my grandson, born three years and one day after his great-grandfather’s death, and wonder to myself, “Is it you?” Sylas is also puzzled by life, but then again, he’s four.  The kid can’t tie his shoes yet. 

Still, he is inordinately fond of chocolate.


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