By William Simonsen
They were so much larger than life.
They won the war.
My father and my uncles got richer than Midas after they conquered the world.
They paid their dues and felt entitled to everything they could get. Never did they suffer an instant of guilt for their successes.
We were just a bunch of smartass stupid punk kids with loud mouths. And by the time we turned 10 we knew there was no way we could ever equal their achievements.
Not even in a million years of trying.
My father stood six-foot even, weighed an honest 200, had a ruddy complexion from his constant high blood pressure and was strong as an ox. And he had a bad temper that would sometimes crack like a whip.
He alternately controlled and terrorized his family with his temper. We never managed to get through a dinner without an angry, lunatic outburst of some kind from him, or my sister (a budding young lunatic in her own right). Or both of them. Back and forth yelling at each other like they were possessed by demons.
I spent most of every family dinner sitting on the floor under the kitchen table to escape the yelling and screaming. I became adept at using the seat of my chair as my dinner table. Until the age of eight I ate dinner with my dog, who took refuge under the table with me. I gave him my scraps and we pretended the people at the table were all strangers.
When I was 17, I went away to college. I made great efforts to lose track of every single one of my family members. I was successful. I have not seen, heard of, or spoken with most of them in decades. I do not know which of the dozens of cousins, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles are living or dead. It does not concern me. I left them all behind at the state line.
I turned my back on my family.
I am no good.
I still have nightmares about the Thanksgiving and Easter dinners, the Christmas Eve celebrations crowded with smiling people who, beneath their good cheer, hated my father for his success and likewise hated me because I was his son. I still have nightmares when I awake in a sweat, out of breath, filled with panic, trying to escape from the room full of noise and Sunday-best-dressed foolishness.
I have made a success of my life without all of those people who liked few things better than to hate me.
The last few times I saw Dad, I went to see him without being asked, just because I wanted to see him. He even flew the thousands of miles to see me a couple of times. He thought my crappy old house out in the woods a hundred miles from the nearest airport was a sure sign of madness.
But he was kind about it. He understood that I was living my life as wild as the wind. I think deep inside he was perhaps envious. My grandfather had died too young and thrust my father into crushing responsibility. Then he had married the wrong woman too young, and he had grown old entirely too young.
The last time I saw him I was pushing 35 and still made no plans more than a couple of hours in advance. I did not think about saving for college tuition for my children, buying a new house or starting a retirement fund.
I was much more interested in flyfishing and smoking dope. I knew that sure as hell, the rest of my life was there, lurking in a dark corner, waiting to ambush me, to turn my life into one like his.
I was doing everything I could imagine to hide from it as long as I could.
While he was in town, my daughter was still very young. In diapers. She had some kind of infant upset that was far from serious, but it made her most smelly and unpleasant to be around. She and my wife did not get to go out to dinner with him. We had a great time. I got piss drunk. We ate way too much steak.
On the long drive back to the house, he told me, for what seemed like the hundredth time, the few things he wanted me to do after his death.
My mother had been clinically insane for years. And she had been slipping into further dementia for the decade after her first stroke and could no longer be left alone. He did not have it in his heart to place her in a home. So I would have to be the hatchet man.
He did not have the heart to sell the family farm. So it would fall to me to burn those memories. The old place was too large a part of his life for him to sell.
And then he told me to sell his last horse. He always had at least one horse as long as I could remember and said he had every intention of keeping one until the day he died.
He sat forward in the passenger seat of my pickup as I drove the country road and leaned toward me in the dark.
“You have to promise me you will do these three things,” he said.
“Use all the money. Take care of these things.”
“Do whatever you have to do.”
I felt the good scotch turn sour in my stomach. I wanted to pull the truck over and puke up the overpriced roadhouse steak.
Instead I promised.
I saw at that instant I would never have peace again, or a happy family, or a mother, or a sibling, or any other relative who would speak to me, by the time it was over. I’d already lost them all anyway
So I promised.
He was my dad, I had no choice.
No choice at all.
It did not matter when he died. It only mattered that he died. It was over in a horrific hour.
I got a phone call.
I was on a plane before dawn the next day.
The family insanity was in full swing by the time I got there. Everyone wanted to be hugged.
“It will be alright,” I said to them all, knowing I was a lying and, further, that I was the person who would make sure it would not ever be the same. It would never be alright.
By the time I climbed on another plane a week later, I had all the powers of attorney, wills, certificates and control I needed to carry out his wishes.
The battle was over before anyone knew it had started. It took them a decade to figure out how quickly I had grabbed power.
Yet no one knew why and I never told them.
It was between my dad and me. I would never tell them I was doing his bidding, especially as their confusion and emotions made them hate me more than ever before.
That was the way he wanted it.
If he had wanted the rest of the family to know his wishes, he would have taken care of these things long ago and fought the ugly fights himself.
He was too tired out from fighting to finish these battles himself.
Or maybe he was desperate.
Or maybe he simply had no one else to ask.
Maybe he felt I was perfect for the job. Everyone already hated me and I had learned to live with it.
And they were already convinced I was a no good.
By the time I had completed his tasks, I understood why he did not do them himself. Too many 24-hour long snow-delayed airplane rides. Crappy road food. Sleepless nights without end.
Dancing the jig, convincing bankers and lawyers and other pompous assholes that I would do as I pleased so it was useless to try to stop me.
My mother was nursed along for a decade before she succumbed to a painless end.
I went to her funeral alone. I did not take my wife and children to the service.
I had nursed the real estate and investments along carefully long enough to pay for her care.
No one in my old home town ever asked me over for dinner or tried to be my friend during my dozens of trips.
I had turned my back on my family.
I hid behind increasingly more expensive business suits and talked less in meetings.
On every long flight across the Great Plains I thought about the number of ways I was no good as I gulped gin and tonics, then abandoned all hope and smoked weed in airport bathrooms.
Because I was no good.
A week or so after the funeral I went flyfishing. It was almost winter, long past prime fishing weather. Ice formed on the eyelets of my rod as I cast into the current.
I did not care.
When a big trout ran downstream with my fly, he made the reel spin like a prayer wheel for the lost and no good.
Standing in the middle of the cold, clean river I realized I would never have to try to live up to my father again.
Not even in a million years.
© 2012 William Simonsen. All rights reserved.