The phone started ringing at 8 am. Incessantly. Clients. Clients’ mothers. A million questions I don’t readily have the answers to. “I understand your meeting with the Navajo Human Rights Coalition is Monday, but I do not have a release from the client to participate. … Yes, I understand. Yes, I’m sorry. No, I’ll see what I can do for you.” I hang up. Jesus, lady.
I walk into the kitchen to refill my coffee for the third time, turn around to discover the dog has torn up one of my shoes. My fault for leaving it out. I gather the remnants and then see she has also shredded my favorite book, a catalog, and something else which is no longer recognizable. I pick up the pieces, wonder where the rest is, and thank God for coffee.
The phone rings again. “I have asked to be removed from your call list. This is the third phone call from your organization today. Remove. My. Number.” It is 8:35 am and my daily allotment of grace appears to be spent.
Exasperated, I step outside onto the patio, phone in hand, to sneak a cigarette. It has started raining again, so I stand against the wall, hoping for shelter.
The icon on my phone shows “Your TimeHop is ready!” TimeHop pulls your old Facebook posts from one year ago, two years ago, etc so you can “Share your memories!” I click over and scroll through photos of a holiday party we called Cheesemas two years ago, a quote I shared three years ago that is actually really stupid now that I look at it, and then— “Oh.” The link to my father’s obituary.
I hadn’t realized it was the anniversary of his passing. The thought never occurred to me as I walked through the past couple of days.
To say the relationship with my father was complicated is to presume that there was a relationship. At the time of his death, I hadn’t spoken to my father in twelve years. I would publicly and loudly announce that was a damn fine start.
My father was older when I came into the world, almost 50. My mother was his first marriage, in his mid 40’s. The prevailing opinion is that he married her when his mother was failing because otherwise, who would cook for him and do his laundry? He was ultra-conservative, believed “traditional” gender roles were too liberal, and almost certainly did not believe women should have the right to vote. His opinion of women (and any other minority for that matter) was beyond low; it was so low it was nothing. He proudly compared himself to Archie Bunker of All in the Family. He had no clue that television show was satire. He thought it was brilliant.
The arrival of a baby girl who would be useless to his farm was not celebrated. It is recorded in my baby book that upon my birth when he was informed it was a girl that his response was, “Are you sure? Okay.” My mother swears he said nothing else. For days. My earliest memories are of him saying, “If you were a boy, then …” It was clear to me that I wasn’t a part of anything he did because I wasn’t a boy. I quickly came to welcome this.
He largely ignored my mother and I. To say he was distant isn’t accurate. He was stonily silent, but loud in his presence. I’m convinced his steel grey eyes were a direct reflection of his character. He rarely spoke. He also rarely slept. He would be on the couch in the living room all night, with his headphones on, watching television and reading the newspapers, dozing occasionally. He roamed. He wandered. His presence was heavy. And constant.
My father was a farmer, a cunning politician, and a true chameleon. He had a photographic memory that could repeat back to you the movement of almost any stock over a period of years from reading the Wall Street Journal. He was some sort of a savant, and truly missed his calling on Wall Street. Instead he used this ability to his own gain, entirely indifferent to who he may be taking advantage of in the process. His temper was notorious. I believe that to this day, he remains the only multi-million dollar client to be fired from the brokerage in the nearest city. A showing of his temper was like a nuclear implosion. It decimated anyone and anything in his path. It was exceptionally infrequent, but always, always right under the surface. I went to extreme lengths to be sure I never saw it. Silence was good for that.
The year I was fifteen, I decided to keep a word count when he actually spoke in my presence that was directed at me. I finally had to amend that to even remotely directed toward me because the number stayed at zero for several months. Twenty-three words. The year I was 15, living in his house, in his constant presence, he spoke twenty-three words that were remotely directed at me. Although a major portion of that twenty-three was the remark to my mother, “How many goddamn diet cokes can that kid drink? Jesus Christ.” That one sentence accounts for nearly half. This was not an atypical year.
My senior year of high school, the serious plotting began. The day after my high school graduation, my mother and I were out. She had met with a lawyer, had the papers ready, an apartment in town rented. All throughout the month of May, we had covertly been carrying things out of the house. My father was so oblivious to us, outside of the fact of any of “his” money we may have been spending, he never noticed. We hauled carloads out to her new apartment in town. He never noticed. I prepared to leave for the University of Wisconsin at Madison a week after.
When the day of reckoning came, my father was outside, doing whatever it was that he did, out where the equipment was stored. At this point, my much older brother Jeff’s, my boyfriend’s, my mother’s, and my cars were stuffed to capacity. The four of us had been “moving” all day. While he was probably a hundred or so feet away, he never noticed. My mother finally decided she would have to go out there and talk to him because it had become clear he wasn’t coming up to the house any time soon. My boyfriend, Jeff, and I wisely pulled up to the gas tanks on the farm to refill all of our tanks. A final little dig, I guess. She handed him the papers, said she was moving to town, and his only response was, “I guess the kid is going with you?” She swears she replied, “Duh.” He apparently didn’t say another word.
I left for college a week later and was never intentionally in his immediate presence again.
But I was in his presence plenty.
My father became obsessed. He would call me and hang up. Constantly. He showed up in Madison, 700 miles from the farm, at my apartment. He manipulated the accounts that paid for my education so that there was always some “problem” I would have to contact him about as the administrator of my education trust. Once the divorce was final, he began paying himself back from my education trust for the money my mother “stole” from him in the divorce. I eventually sued him for mismanagement of the trust fund and won. His behavior immediately became more and more strange. When I would go home to my mother’s house for holidays or school breaks, he would drive by her house repeatedly, occasionally just parking on the street, watching the house. For hours. Calling the police was pointless. He wasn’t breaking the law, he was just parked there. One Christmas break, we found boot marks in the snow up to her back patio window. You could see the tracks through the trees, meandering up to the door, and then two solid prints at the door. And a smudge on the glass where he had gotten closer to peer into the darkness. Without any doubt, I know it was him. It was beyond frightening. Although he wasn’t a physical threat at his age, it was extremely disturbing. There is no way of knowing what someone who has become unhinged may do. This pattern of stalking continued for several years.
Eventually, I finished law school, got married, moved to Arizona, and somewhere in there, the behavior just stopped. He had remarried and I now know that he was probably already ill by this time. Once I landed in Arizona in 2001, I never spoke to him or heard from him again.
On November 30th, 2010, I received a phone call from a South Dakota number. On the other end of the phone is an elderly woman. “Can I help you?” “It’s Adeline. Adeline? I’m Gene’s wife?” My father’s wife whom I had never met. “My daughter insisted I call you. Gene is in the nursing home. He has Alzheimer’s and he probably won’t make it through the night.” “Oh, okay.” I’ve never spoken to this woman. I don’t have a clue what to say to her. I call my brother Jeff and tell him. His reply, “The old fucker is finally giving up, huh? It’s almost over Jules.”
On December 1st, Adeline called again to say he was gone. The funeral would be a few days later. The following morning, my father’s lawyer called very early. He had heard on the radio that morning on his way into the office he had died. He knew I was a lawyer, that I was in Arizona, and he had looked me up on the State Bar website. He didn’t believe that anyone would have called to tell me.
For reasons I still don’t entirely understand, I bought myself a very expensive plane ticket to fly to South Dakota for the funeral. My brother drove in from Wyoming to meet me there. My father was his step-father, Jeff was sixteen when I was born, so he had had very little to do with him. Jeff opted out much sooner than anyone else could, but had experienced my father’s wrath first-hand, far more than once. I guess maybe we both just needed to see it to believe it.
On a snowy afternoon, we prepared to go to the viewing. Jeff and I each smoked another cigarette in the cab of his truck in the parking lot and then with a “Let’s get this fucking over with,” we walked into the vestibule of the funeral home. The people I had formerly known as my family were gathered near the front. It had been at least fifteen years since I had seen any of them, or they had seen me, and I frankly, only even recognized a couple of them. My Aunt Jane, now quite frail. The bald guy must be my cousin Donny, although I suppose he goes by Don now. I stick out like a sore thumb with my long blonde hair, black nail polish, short black leather jacket, and completely inappropriate black stiletto knee-high boots, especially in the snow, but I’ve been in Arizona too long to remember what winter-appropriate clothes are.
Jeff and I make our way up the side, avoiding the main aisle and any eye contact, to the casket. He mutters under his breath, “He looks like shit.” He did. He was maybe a hundred pounds and would have turned 82 in a few days. Jeff and I stand there, just staring, for maybe 45 seconds. The most silent 45 seconds that room has maybe ever seen, as my former family has now figured out who the young blonde with the 6’2 guy in a construction jacket are. I mutter back to Jeff, “I believe it now. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
I turn on my stiletto and walk straight out down the center aisle. Straight past Aunt Jane, past Cousin Donny… Don, whatever. Straight past whoever those other people are. And for a moment, I had my father’s same stony silence, his same unseeing steel grey eyes. For a moment, I understood him.
Julia Cassels is a recovering attorney, author, yoga addict, and general bad-ass, living in San Diego, California. She has recently started a new business called Rehab for Your Life. Julia can be followed on Twitter @julia_b_cassels.
Featured image courtesy of Thomas Leuthard.