My father and I on the Snake River in 1980
Seven years ago early in the morning of June 1st, my father’s nurse woke me to say, “Your father has passed.” I sat vigil, alone, at the foot of his bed, periodically glancing at his face, then away, because it was hard to look at. His mouth hung open, perhaps from trying for a last breath that never came.
I finally got a glimpse of him as a person, though that person had departed an hour ago. His face was etched with disappointment – despite his walls plastered with awards, numerous bestsellers, bushels of adoring fan mail and the company of great men, he had died without ever doing what he really wanted, which was to touch another human being.
Some of the obstacles to seeing my father as a person were in me. As a boy my vision was occluded by physical fear. Even when I was grown he was bigger than me. Young all I saw was a giant, one who periodically struck me, and in the striking unleashed his rage.
Just as I became a man myself my father rocketed to international fame. Now he towered over me in the world. All I saw when I looked at him was how much he had achieved and how little I had in comparison.
Just as my father reached the age I am now, 60, the mask of the famous author slipped and I saw a very different face, that of his shadow. It had been stalking him, one step behind the public man all those years.
As all the sordid skeletons clattered from our family closet – my father’s secret lifetime of self-destructive habits, his marriage that was something out of a horror movie – I could only blink with incredulity. How could these two men, these two lives, coexist in one body?
After he died I spent 6 years trying to see him clearly, using his craft, writing. Yet every picture I conjured of him became immediately blurred by its opposite.
Was he the a writer of tireless discipline, who another writer called “a writing machine,” who could work around the clock, who published 18 books, some 1000 pages long? Or the man who was powerless in controlling his addictions?
Was he the man who’d met four presidents, who’d fought Bobby and Jackie Kennedy and won? Or the husband whose wife wouldn’t let him finish a single sentence without interrupting, who finally cowered silent in his chair? Who sat alone in his house because she wouldn’t allow his friends inside, not ever his brother?
Was he the intellectual who assured me as a kid that klutzes like us were better than those football players, who’d end up pumping gas when we went on to better things? Or the guy who wrote his last novel imagining himself that glorious captain of the team. The guy who took me to football games where he cheered the very guys he’d denigrated?
The most jarring question – was he the Marine who received a Navy Cross for grabbing a machine gun and running up a hill into an enemy position? Or was he the person who cowered before his dentist, who was afraid to fire secretaries, who could barely bare to enter a room of strangers?
Eight years before he died his heart was within days of giving out on him. I drove him to the hospital for a quadrupal bypass, keenly aware that these might be our last moments together. I asked him how he felt – to offer comfort, to selfishly get a glimpse of where I’d be headed some day, above all to try to touch that heart just once while it still ticked. He said, “I’m not afraid. I stared death in the face on Okinawa and said, ‘fuck you!’” We rode silently the rest of the way. I thought – Whether he dies today or not, I’m never going to touch him, never see who he really is.
It’s the tough Marine whose picture stares, pipe clenched in his teeth, from the cover of his 1980 memoir of combat, Goodbye Darkness. After he died I found a carrousel of slides a series of outtakes from that photo shoot. It was creepy. He mugs for the camera, donning mask after mask, a range from comic to serious. What stuck with me was the one of him grinning, saturnine, all powerful. But not one of them was really him.
When the mother of my best friend from childhood died, a woman who was dear to everyone in my family, my father delivered the eulogy. He was overcome by tears and could barely finish speaking. I was already close to tears myself, yet sad as the occasion was felt hope surge in me. I had never seen my father cry. Maybe the real person was appearing. But in the car after the funeral he said, “I disgraced myself.”
He was a frail boy, terrible at the sports required to be a member of the tribe of boys. His father beat him, demanding, “Don’t cry.” The jeers of his peers and blows of his father rained down on a person of extraordinary sensitivity. That sensitivity would later prove a valuable asset to the writer he became. But as a youth he could only cover it in thick armor. That armor served him well in literal combat. It also encased his heart so that he couldn’t feel fear or loneliness.
What he felt instead were the highs and low of the vacillations of his self esteem. He’d always suffered those mood swings, but fame and chemicals turned them into a giant roller coaster. He was either on top of the world or at the bottom of the deepest pit, never in between.
I spoke with one of his few surviving Marine buddies, who offered the simple wisdom, “Your father was just a man. A good man, but just a man.”
And there’s the real person that I could never see, that he could never see. Just a man.