You were an easy birth. This is the gospel truth.
My mom, my dad, decades estranged, and still their narratives merge here, like separate scriptures relaying the same story. They are only different in the small details.
Cannon: they say it was hot out for mid-June and Northern Michigan. The lights were off. The delivery room of the small rural health center was warm and dark. It was different, everyone recalled from the birth of my brother, Beaux, just two years before.
He had not come easy into this world.
You rolled right out. My mom and my dad both agree on this.
Like a bowling ball, my mom said, nearly two weeks past due, twelve pounds, red faced, with a plump head covered in thick, dark hair. My grandmother had come and gone already, having waited, and waited for my arrival.
A lifelong worrier, it was the first and last time I would ever really be late to anything.
Everyone tells me I was a pretty baby, a dark skinned baby. They didn’t think you were mine. They thought you were a Mexican, my mom never forgot to say.
This was an important detail to her, and I think, just maybe, she wanted to believe it. There weren’t any other babies, though, not that day, not in that middle-of-nowhere place, but it was always possible her real beautiful and smart daughter had been stolen, swapped out for someone else’s inferior and rebellious spawn. Though my skin eventually settled on fair, and I grew to look something like my mom, I think we both long harbored the same hope that this scenario could be true.
You rolled right out, and I cut the cord, and I held you in my arms, my dad says. It was 1977.
That is the end of his story.
My dad’s narratives have a peculiar framework and a cadence that makes it hard to tell sometimes where they begin and where they end. There are no highs, no lows – just a monotone line of sound, moving straight, moving forward. Ask a question, and he answers, as if viewing and describing a series of images in detail outside himself.
And then, and then, and then…
My dad is schizoaffective, and I suspect the way he tells a story and his flat affect has something to do with the disorder and its treatment. He is nearly deaf, too, from a round of infections to his eardrums, which were ruptured by artillery fire in Vietnam.
He wears hearing aids in both ears. He has had them as long as I can remember.
I can hear my dad’s voice over the phone, and I think of the clear plastic molds, yellow from sitting in a bed of wax inside his ears, the rubbery tubes that wrap behind the helix, and attach to flesh colored cases with their on/off and volume control switches. The hearing aids are always turned all the way up, so loud that when my dad tips his head, they emit a distracting high pitched screech that causes anyone nearby to cringe. He pretends not to notice, or maybe he doesn’t. I do not know.
Your ears are making that noise again, I say.
Yes, I feel fine today, he says. A little cold here.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with my dad.
We speak most Sundays anyway, by phone, long distance. It just seems like the right thing to do. He drones on and on about nothing. It’s irritating. It’s disconnecting. I pace through my apartment. I feel the floor with my feet. I look out the window. It’s sunny outside. The sky is blue. I sit in the chair and get up again. I wonder how long it will last? Maybe I can make an excuse to end the call early.
I feel like a horrible person. Sometimes when I finish a call with him, I feel the urge to hurt myself: a slap to the face, a punch to the gut, a kick in the ribs.
Listening to my dad’s colorless voice, it is hard to believe that he ever accomplished anything. It is hard to believe he was capable of having once gone to college or having held a job or of finding a wife to bear his children. It is hard to believe he did cut the umbilical cords that tied us to our mom or that he ever held us in his arms.
I have a few pictures to prove this is true. There’s one of us together in 1978. I’m about one year old. My dad is already in his late thirties. We’re standing on the Northwest shoreline of Lake Huron, and he’s got me tucked under one arm and Beaux under the other. He does not seem like a person burdened by mental illness.
My dad looks just like just your typical granola hippie, thin, with a thick beard, gold-rimmed sunglasses, a beret, chamois, worn out jeans. And his children, me, my brother, we are smiling.
We don’t know there is anything different about him.
The wind is blowing, my hair, my blankie all caught up, and his face is pressed against mine. Beaux, now estranged from our dad, holds tight to him with one hand, and Apple Bear, his favorite stuffed toy, with the other.
We’re all smiling like there’s a light glowing inside each of us. The story I tell myself when I look at this picture is: it doesn’t matter what I know about him now. It mattered most what I did not know or understand then.
How did you meet my mom? I ask.
We usually stick to the topic of my dad: his collection of coins and Christmas ornaments and cacti, the money he is putting away for us kids, how his VA psychiatrist canceled another appointment, so he ran out of this med or that med, how the roof or floor of the trailer needed replacing and his brother, who cares for him, did not chip in, how the postal carrier quit the mail route, so he filed an official complaint with the government.
My dad sometimes keeps a written list of topics to discuss if nothing interesting has happened to him in the past week. This helps prolong the call. Topics can consist of national news or the weather. My dad always inquires about gas prices – I think all old men everywhere are interested in this.
These are things that require no interaction, no call and response. He talks. I listen. He feels listened to. I feel as if I’m emptying. Completely.
It was after the war.
I’m surprised, honestly, to hear that he has heard me, and his voice comes through the line like a faucet on a steady flow.
This is the beginning of his story.
It’s not uncommon to hear that the day a person forgives her parents their wrongs, is the day she realizes her parents are human just like her. They suffer, as she does. They are lonely like all humans. They are faulty like all humans. They are selfish; they are dumb; they make mistakes. These are the conditions of life and all who live and breathe are subject to them.
Our parents are not heroes; they are not heroines.
Once we accept this as a basic fact, it should be easy to forgive them, to see them as no different than our all-together or all-broken or somewhere-in-between selves. Our parents become us: small, meaningless, pushing hard up against the cosmos. And here is where we can learn to feel compassion for them, where we can forgive them, because they become a mirror to us: us, us, us, all the way down, all the way down.
Lately, an uncle has been sharing photos of my grandparents and my aunts and uncles as young people, as children. In them, I see myself. I see my sister. I see my brother. I see my cousins. There are images of my mom so stunning, so incredibly like my sister, or sometimes like me, it is clear I couldn’t belong to anyone else. There is something of her in me, and as I make mistakes, wring my hands, get lost on this path or that, I should see that she only did the same, and my dad, too.
I remember, once, attending a family reunion with a good friend, J. We drove all night to New Jersey, stopping only briefly to sleep at a truck stop before moving on. We could do this because we were young. We were stupid; we were reckless, and we didn’t see how anyone could ever live in any other way.
At the Statue of Liberty, J’s dad bought a souvenir mug, and he was so excited, and then, he dropped it between the benches of the ferry.
This moment was so profound for J, when we reached shore she started crying. Her dad had never been clumsy. He had always been made of something unfragile and comfortingly unnameable. She cried, and I put my arm around her. Her dad had become a human. He had become real, and if reality was like anything that she or I felt inside it was a terrible and terrifying place. She could not imagine him ever having felt or having to feel those things.
In him, she saw the very realness of life. This. This is life. Life is suffering, and suffering is our human communion.
J’s dad was normal; he was unextraordinary. He was unsteady. He was thinning everywhere but his middle. He was balding. He was growing old and gray. This is something many people experience at some point. This is the knowledge, the wisdom of Eden, perhaps. This is the apple: we are just…we are…we are.
But what if a person’s parents are the most faulty of humans, physically or mentally sick, addicted to drugs, addicted to alcohol, addicted to men, addicted to women? What if they are stupid? What if they spend money unwisely? What if they lack empathy, or have no conscience? What if they are broken? What if they are beyond broken? What if they are mean or horrible or abusive?
Because these people exist, and these people are parents, too. Are their crimes as forgivable when their children realize they are just humans in the long continuum of humans?
How did you meet my mom?
It was after the war…
Almost forty years ago, my parents met in Adrian, Michigan in a bar.
It was called Lucy’s Love Palace, my mom says.
My dad says, I don’t remember the name. I just remember it was popular with the hippies, and that it burnt down.
It was 1974.
I imagine my mom. She was twenty-one at the time, and striking, but not beautiful. Her hair was long, straight, and black. Her eyes were blue, obscured though, by thick glasses. If she wore makeup, her eyes shadow would have been deep blue, her lipstick bright red, and between her lips, a lit menthol cigarette would have dangled, perpetually.
In the low-lit bar, after a few drinks, my mom likely saw my dad, an older man, a Vietnam vet – returned soldiers have that look about them – thin, with a small belly from drinking beer to get to sleep at night, a head of coarse curly brown hair, a beard and mustache, less than kempt, sitting on a stool at the bar nursing a cheap everyman lager by himself. He was a stranger to her, though the bartender seemed to know him well enough.
Knowing vets usually had something coming in — even if that something was barely anything, it was more than she had — my mom would have taken a seat next to my dad. She would have asked my dad for a cigarette, maybe to start the conversation, maybe because she was the type of woman that believed if a man had something that she wanted, then he was obligated to share it with her.
In any case, she would have leaned in, taken a light and a long drag. She would have let the smoke linger in her lungs a moment before letting it out. The silver bracelets on her arm would have made a musical sound, and perhaps she would have let off a shiver, like a horse anticipating a free run.
I don’t know what she would have said. I don’t know what he would have said. All words from either, strung together into long or short sentences could have been anything. I wish I had a better feel for the times. I wish I had just one picture of them together.
I think two lost people who are lost together are not so lonely, and that is all either of them needed. The words didn’t matter.
My dad came home from Vietnam in 1970. The stories from this time are fragmented. There was a long period spent in the hospital. My dad says it was something like Ron Kovic describes in Born on the Fourth of July. I was ten when the film came out with Tom Cruise playing a paraplegic returnee. My dad took me. Together, we must have seen every war movie that was released in the 1980s and early 1990s.
After he was released from the VA hospital, my dad moved back with his folks in the small farm town of Adrian on the Michigan/Ohio border. That didn’t last long. There was an ache inside of him. He had left the war, but the war had not left him. Vietnam was unpopular. There wasn’t any sympathy in that small town for the men who made it back.
We didn’t get a parade. My dad often laments. They treated us like second class citizens.
Unemployed or unemployable, my dad sat. He drank night after night. He listened to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel. He wondered why he was alive when others were dead. He could remember the faces of these men as kids he had grown up with, boys he played baseball with late into the summer nights in Monument Park and raised racing pigeons with on Maumee street.
There were also the protests; my dad joined the antiwar movement, and he was arrested a couple of times. To stay out of trouble, he managed to get some steady work up north in Tawas City. I think it was social work, something with the State of Michigan, something he was studying before the war. It’s not clear. What is clear is it was damn cold up there. He worked all day. He tended to clients worse off then himself. He drank Lone Star beer by the case.
Frustrated with the season and the climate toward vets, probably suffering from PTSD and untreated schizoaffective disorder, my dad packed his bags and hitched a ride to Florida. He needed to dry out and get some perspective.
He tells me, I found a patch of grass on the beach and set my bags down.
He slept a few nights in the open. Someone held him up at knifepoint in a public restroom in a parking lot and took what little money he had. Then my dad sat out on the beach and waited and watched. The semi-tropical sun made its arc across the sky and spread a red burn on the exposed parts of him.
Not long after, some guy showed up on a flatboat and offered to show my dad around the Everglades, so he went along. It seemed like something to do. They just floated out there for a while, a long, long, long while.
And, for another long while, after, my dad lived alone out there in the swampy wilderness, in a foxhole he had dug for himself. He lived off the land, like he learned to do in basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia. There was something familiar about it. It was not East Asia, but it was not America either.
I have a big imagination. It likes to fill in the gaps with beautiful spiritual, romantic ideas. When I was young I imagined my dad as a man who needed to heal, a man who might find a thin redemption in nature, in solitude and communion with the pit vipers and crocodiles. As an older adult, with eyes of clearer seeing, I understand now, he was a vagrant, homeless and mentally ill. I imagine, if we were not related, if I met him on a hike out in the woods, I would be judgmental and frightened. Maybe some kind of sense of compassion would blossom inside of me. I would wonder what brought him there? I would be grateful it wasn’t me.
I don’t know how long he was there.
The next part of his story is about how he met a dancer in a bar, a go-go dancer. My dad had finished his stint in the swamp and was spending some time relaxing in the Florida Keys. It was a good time for him, I think. He speaks of it often. I wonder if he had come to a sense of peace with himself? Because he doesn’t talk about or express feelings like many people do, but rather describes collections and catalogues of incidents, I can only attempt to translate these still frames of moments into the idea of feelings. I don’t think I can ever be sure.
I know this: my dad met a go-go dancer. She was also from Michigan: Ithaca. They managed to get an old car, and they traveled the deep south together. From time to time they would stop at a Goodwill or Salvation Army, a gospel mission or homeless shelter.
They had a story: He was a vet, of course. She was his wife. And, she was pregnant. They were just trying to get back to their folks in Michigan, but they didn’t have any money. This woman wasn’t really pregnant, but the story garnered sympathy. Each place they stopped it grew more complex; the donations grew more generous. It was exhilarating and easy, and they did this for a long while together.
Eventually, the dancer asked my dad to take her back to Ithaca, and they started north. I’ve always had the impression, that this woman, this person that remains nameless in my dad’s stories but who played such a large role in his life, she would have been my mom had my dad not dropped by Lucy’s Love Palace that night on the way between her folks and his.
As a child I often fantasized about Miss Dancer. She could have walked straight out of an episode of Colombo or Dark Shadows, the perfect vision of a late mid-century woman, heavy makeup, which makes her seem much older than she actually is, short paisley dress, big round bright orange plastic earrings, knee high white patent leather boots. She smells like cacao butter and baby powder and Complice by Coty. There is a little smoke on her lips, sometimes the light smell of alcohol.
Miss Dancer never really has anything to say in my imagination. She is just by my dad’s side. She has her own story. Mostly she’s a small town girl who fucked up. She just wants to go home to Ithaca, and wash her face. She wants to put on the pink cotton nightie, still in her pink sateen lined dresser drawer, that she wore at seventeen. She wants to brush her hair out, and go to sleep under the pink coverlet of her matching twin bed. The bed is made perfectly by Miss Dancer’s mom; she has dusted it twice a week since her daughter left home. Miss Dancer wants to be forgiven. She wants to go to church. She wants to sleep and sleep and sleep and wake up the person that she used to be.
My dad is her ticket back to this life.
My mom, by contrast, is a woman with no intention of returning to the past. The 1970’s mom of my imagination is perpetually dressed in the same bell bottom jeans she was proudly expelled from Catholic school for wearing. She has on a peasant blouse and thick framed round glasses with rose colored frames and transition lenses. When night draws in, she pulls on leather jacket given to her by some biker in some commune somewhere between Lenawee County and Saskatchewan. Her hair is long, dark, wild, and natural. It falls straight down her back. Around her face, she’s starting to feather it a bit when she has the opportunity. Sometimes she tucks a red or pink flower behind her ear.
My imaginary mom would rather not wear shoes, but when she has to, they will be heels. They will make her taller; she will feel glamorous even if they are dented or scuffed.
I don’t know the time of year they met. Even the timeline of this story until my birth is shaky. I’ve always imagined it was winter. Outside snow was falling. Inside Lucy’s Love Palace, it was warm and dark like a cave with a sticky floor. It smelled like spilt beer. It smelled like cigarettes and popcorn. Steve Miller is playing just loud enough on the beat up jukebox.
But when my dad tells the story, I realize, it has to be spring, maybe even summer, the time of year when night stretches on forever in southern central Michigan, when it’s warm and moist and sticky inside and outside at all hours and no one ever really sleeps. The whole of the culture exists in a hypomanic summer state, its collective body screaming: Live! Live! Live! – before winter comes again.
We had a few drinks together, then she asked me to take her home, my dad tells me.
This doesn’t shock me. My parents have never been people to think through decisions. If anything, they are about as close to Zen as any two humans can be; they live perpetually in the moment without relying on the past as a guide for wisdom or worrying about the consequences of their present actions on the future.
What happened to the dancer? I ask.
She was home with her parents. So your mom and I got in my car, and we started driving. We drove all the way out into the country, out to Irish Hills and then down a dirt road, in the dark. The road just kept going, and she just kept saying, “We’re almost there. We’re almost there.”
Finally, we were at Lake Leann, and there was a tent out by the water, and your mom said, “We’re here.”
My vagrant dad met my vagrant mom in a bar in Adrian, Michigan in 1974. After a few hours of drinking they spent the night together having sex in a tent on the shores of Lake Leann in Somerset Township, Michigan.
In the morning, I got up, and went back to my folks. I figured, I would never see her again.
In the Michigan of my youth and the time before, the borders were porous. Our folks moved in and out from the US to Canada. My grandma was from Canada. My aunts and uncles and cousins moved lived and worked between the two countries, so it was normal that my mom would be coming home to Adrian on a bus from Toronto just as my dad was boarding another bus to from Adrian to Toronto.
Months after their encounter at Lake Leann, my parents met in a Greyhound station. My mom had spent some time living on the streets, selling flowers on corners, and from what she told me years later, working on an underground newspaper. Of these things, I believe none.
This is because she also told me that she had hoped to marry a Canadian man and have his children, but she didn’t love him. Knowing my mom, the story is skewed. It’s likely she lived with someone for a time, but grew too erratic or drank too much and ended up kicked out. She had to panhandle for money to get back across the border.
My dad was going to Toronto for a job. Beyond that, I don’t know much. He has always seemed liked a small town person to me, but I think, maybe, he has traveled everywhere in North America and East Asia.
What I do know, is that he saw her descending the stairs of the bus, and she saw him. It was as if he had come just for her. When she heard he was leaving, my mom waited with him for his bus to arrive. I don’t know what the words were. I don’t know this story. It feels too intimate for me, too precious to imagine on behalf of someone else.
I do know that a few months later, my dad proposed to my mom on the same park bench my grandfather proposed to my grandmother on.
My mom said, Yes. She told me it was, because I felt sorry for him.
My dad told me, it was between her and the go-go dancer, and she was the one who said, yes.
At no time in the canon, do they use the word love.
There are lots of stories about how they moved Up North. The winters were still and cold. Together, they drank cases of Lone Star Beer. My dad was a caseworker for the state welfare department. My mom wrote testimonials for cigarette companies.
There my brother and I were eventually born, two years apart, in a small rural health center in the middle of nowhere Michigan. My brother’s birth was traumatic, but mine?
Well, you know the story, now.