Friday, October 06, 2006

Grandpa Jim has a stroke

I’ve been really caught up in “For Better or For Worse” the past few weeks. FBorFW is a secret vice of mine. I read it every day and can’t start my day without it. It’s about this family in Canada.

It’s not quite as queer as “Family Circus,” which I can’t look at without imagining an obscene punch line. The other day Billy was holding a broom and all I could think of was him shoving the broom stick up Mommy’s ass. I also like to wear Christmas sweaters, the more garish, the better.

Last week, Grandpa Jim had a stroke. Grandpa Jim has been having a lot of health problems the past few years, like Alzheimer’s. He’s also recently taken to riding a mobility scooter.

A few weeks ago Grandpa Jim and his numero uno lady, Iris, who he shacks up with in their assisted living community, went to Target. Iris was piling all kinds of shit on top of Grandpa Jim in his scooter, like towels and pillow cases. Another old codger on a mobility scooter was shopping with his wife. Pretty soon, Iris was piling shit up on the wrong husband. It was funny.

I would love to have one of those mobility scooters and am always tempted to rent one at Wal-Mart. It’s been a secret dream of mine for a long time. I don’t shop at Wal-Mart anymore because I think it’s the most fascist corporation in the entire world. But I’d love to rent one of Wal-Mart’s mobility scooters and ram into the store displays and managers.

Last week, Elly showed up at Grandpa Jim’s apartment with some prime rib, seconds after Iris found Grandpa Jim staring blankly into space and slumped over in a chair. The next day, Grandpa Jim was in the hospital getting tests. Elly’s dentist husband, John, was there, along with their youngest daughter, April.

I’m scared about this recent plot twist in FBorFW, because I think it’s going to be a drawn out, life lesson. I don’t need my favorite comic to emulate real life, because frankly I’ve been living the drama of caring for a fucked up, elderly parent for the past four years. I want sight gags about Grandpa Jim forgetting where he left his false teeth, and mobility scooters. That’s humor.

The past few days, April, who is fifteen, has been seeking solace in her developmentally disabled friend, Shannon. Shannon is in special education at their high school. Today, Shannon told April how awesome therapists were, and now April feels a little better about Grandpa Jim drooling in a stroke-ridden state in the hospital.

I’m really afraid that Grandpa Jim isn’t going to pull through. At least the Pattersons have Canada’s national health care system working for them. They don’t have to worry about losing all their assets putting Grandpa Jim in a decent nursing home, or hiding money from Medicaid like you have to do in the United States. I’m sure that Grandpa Jim will receive the finest care socialist medicine has to offer.

I think we should start a prayer circle for Grandpa Jim.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Mircale of the Big O

I don’t often watch Oprah, but the past few times that I’ve caught her show, it seems like one big product placement or another commercial for one of her many media companies, like her XM satellite “Oprah and Friends” radio gig.

For example, she mentions Kodak, Chevy Impala and XM Radio every three seconds during her road trip with her best friend, Gayle King. We get the fucking picture, Oprah.

I guess Oprah had to create some kind of job for Gayle. She can’t go on being Dino to Oprah’s Frank, forever. I recall reading in the National Enquirer after Gayle’s divorce that her husband got sick of her friendship with Oprah and Oprah’s incessant phone calls.

Over the Labor Day weekend, I caught the 11 p.m. repeat of the day’s Oprah telecast. Oprah trotted out all of her buddies – Bob Greene, Dr. Robin Smith, Nate Berkus, Jean Chatzky and Dr. Mehmet Oz. (Did you ever notice that except for Gayle, all of Oprah’s friends are white?) Anyway, this crew is better than some of the other media tyrants she’s created, like Dr. Phil.

Dr. Oz was my favorite. He spent a lot of talking about poo. I have a lot of poo issues myself, dating back to when I was four years old and my father caught me running into my bedroom from the bathroom after I had just hidden one of my turds in a plastic toy teapot. I just wanted to see what it was made of, but my father, sensing that I was up to something, immediately looked inside my little teapot and flung it into the garbage.

Oprah said she didn’t need therapy because she’s talked to Gayle every night for like the past 20 years. I can see why Gayle’s husband dumped her. Oprah said she was going to tape these conversations with Gayle and replay them on “Oprah and Friends.” Gee, thanks for the warning.

Through the miracle of wire tapping, courtesy of Condoleezza Rice and the National Security Administration, here is a transcript of one of Oprah’s and Gayle’s nightly phone calls.

Ring, ring.

Oprah: Hello, girlfriend.

Gayle: Hmmm, hmmm.

Oprah: Ooo, girl, I took myself a big ol’ dump this morning.

Gayle: I did too, except it was one of those toothpaste dumps, you know, like Dr. Oz says with the jagged ends. I think I might have polyps.

Oprah: Mine was a big ol’ cobra coil, like the poisonous snakes Steve Irwin used to rassle with on "Crocodile Hunter," God rest his soul.

Gayle: Girl, do you think you could loan me some money so I can get a colonoscopy?

Oprah: I’m already puttin’ your shorties through college. What do you do with all the money I give you?

Gayle: I’ve been eating fiber and every thing. Every morning I get up and eat a big bowl of grits, and still, I keep makin’ all these toothpaste dumps.

Oprah: Mine was shaped like a “C.” Dr. Oz says I’m doing real good.

Gayle: He’s so fine.

Oprah: Except both ends joined and formed an “O” in the toilet. It was a revelation.

Gayle: I think it’s a sign that “Oprah and Friends” is going to be a huge success, just like all your other media ventures.

Oprah: I made Stedman come in and look at it. I recorded it in my gratitude journal.

Gayle: It’s too bad that when we got home from our road trip you caught Stedman in bed with that other woman.

Oprah: I wonder how the National Enquirer found out about it.

Gayle: Isn’t that a funny word, polyps? POLLLLLYYYYPPPPSSSS.

Oprah: Stop it girl, you’re makin’ me wet myself.


Oprah: I love you, Gayle. I’m jumpin’ on my sofa right now.

Gayle: I love you too, O. I live in your light.

It’s enough to make you want to dump Sirius and Howard Stern and sign up for XM.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Lucille Ball and the war on drugs

Hey, if TV sitcoms can take a hiatus, so can I. I'm back, tan, rested and relaxed for a new fall season in one of life's longest-running sitcoms, even longer than "My Three Fucking Sons," the "Life With Rainy Show."

Speaking of comebacks, September 20 marks the 20th anniversay of the debut of Lucille Ball's last sitcom, "Life With Lucy." Fresh from her triumph in "Stone Pillow," where Ball portrayed a cranky, elderly bag lady trying to survive on the streets, people were so happy to see their beloved Lucy back on the boob-tube, that Ball signed on for a series comeback.

I remember the fall of 1986 being particularly gloomy for me and my friend David. We moved into an apartment in Rogers Park the weekend President Reagan officially declared America's war on drugs on national television, with his lovely First Lady by his side. The electricity in our apartment had been shut off after the previous tenant moved, and somehow we had managed to break into the empty apartment across the hall and run an extension cord through the kitchen into David's bedroom, where we alternated between plugginng in a lamp or the television. It was pretty pathetic, the two of us sitting in David's bedroom watching the president speak on television using stolen electricity. We were just the sort of degenarates that the president was warning all the good Americans about.

I recall the president making particular note of "reports of marijuana shortages on the streets," as he warned freaks everywhere of a big police crackdown. The president wasn't kidding either. We were in the middle of one of the worst dry spells for weed in the history of Chicago, if not America itself. Nobody had weed, and we were trying not to climb the walls as we unpacked dishes and dreaded returning to our shitty, office-temp jobs on Monday morning, after spending an exhausting weeked moving our garbage-picked furniture, milk crates and 300-pound boxes of albums into our new pad in the middle of gangbanger land.

Outside, it was as if the entire country heaved a collective sigh, as the president outlined his plans for stiffer penalities for selling and possessing illegal drugs, and urine testing for federal jobs. Everyone was complaining about the weed shortage, so David and I resorted to drinking a lot of beer and watching "The PTL Club" on UHF television. After five, non-stop nights of wathing Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, along their teenage, gospel-singing sensation daughter, Tammy Sue, I was feeling especially attuned to God. We both became obsessed with watching Jim and Tammy Faye, and as long as we had our quart bottles of malt liquor, we no longer cared that we didn't have electricity in our apartment or the war on drugs.

One Friday evening as I was parking my Maverick, which I eventually donated to the City of Chicago, on Jarvis Street, I noticed a baggie containing a leafy, green substance lying in the street next to my car. I couldn't really tell what it was because it was dark outside, so I picked the baggie up and brought it to show David. "I think I found a bag of weed in the street," I told him, hardly able to contain my good fortune.

It turned out to be a full quarter-ounce of pot. At first, we were afraid to smoke it. What if it was laced with poison, set out by the DEA to kill some harmless freaks or had some type of wire-tapping device hidden inside it What if it was laced with LSD? We decided to try smoking some then, so I rolled us a joint and soon we had forgetten all about just saying no, and turned on Jim and Tammy Faye.

"Praise the Lord."

"It's a fucking miracle."

"I love you, God, I love you, Jesus. I love you, Jim and Tammy Faye."

The next night, still marveling at my wondrous find and our Lord's infinite mysteries, David and I watched the premiere of "Life with Lucy." The first episode went beyond gory-hit-and-run-accident where there is a lump and a blanket lying in the middle of some intersection. It was as if we were watching the aging Ball taking a dump in her Depends as she went through her tired shtick dating back to "I Love Lucy," playing "Glow Worm" on the saxophone and getting on Gale Gordon's nerves.

Unfortunately, "Life With Lucy" bombed after eight episodes, only three of which actually aired. Ball had ruined her health during filming of "Stone Pillow," which was shot in the middle of summer on location in New York City. Ball lost 23 pounds and had to be hospitalized for dehydration from wearing heavy winter coats and other bag lady winter accessories. She died a few years later, and no one can ever say that Lucille Ball didn't go out like a pro.

As for David and I, life infinitely improved when ComEd finally got around to turning the electric power back on in our apartment. We had light and television again, and our miracle bag of weed.

Friday, June 30, 2006

So long to Aunt Flow

After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on sanitary napkins, tampons and Midol, my Aunt Flow failed to show up at the Greyhound bus station for her monthly visit, as she has done every month for the past 38 years, sometimes twice a month.

At age 49, I am officially in menopause. How do I know? Maybe the many mornings this past year when I woke up drenched in sweat as if I had participated in an all-night aerobics workout, the insomnia and the hot flashes that have me turning the air-conditioning in my house down to 55 degrees. And those pre-uterine contractions that felt like someone was wringing my uterus like a dish rag were a blast.

Aunt Flow's first surprise visit came during a Chicago Cubs-Montreal Expos game at Wrigley Field in June 1969. It was bat day, and I sat holding my Louiseville phallic symbol when I suddenly felt something amiss between my legs. I was 12-years-old and had been prepared for Aunt Flow, thanks to the many Disney sex education films starring animated, jiggerbugging sperm and eggs that the girls watched in school while the boys played kickball on the playground for two hours.

But I wasn't prepared for Aunt Flow's arrival at Wrigley Field. I remember going into the upper grandstand Ladies Room - the one with P.K. Wrigley's wicker veranda furniture from his summer home in Lake Geneva - and stuffing my pants with toilet paper to catch Aunt Flow. I couldn't exactly tell my father that my period had started, so I didn't say anything. The next morning, my mother noticed blood on my pajamas and bed sheets. She went to Jewel's and even called me from a pay phone to ask if there was anything that I needed from the store, but I was too embarrassed to confess that Aunt Flow was paying me a visit.

My mother came home from Jewel's with a gigantic box of sanitary napkins, each with its own adorable disposal bag, and a sanitary belt. I don't know who the misogynistic bastard was who invented the sanitary belt, probably the same asshole who invented women's swimming caps. For those chicks who are old enough to remember sanitary belts, it was impossible to wear one without the buckle digging into your tail bone. I still have the permanent indentation.

You wove the ends of the sanitary napkin into each buckle. The sanitary belts were not made for little girls to sit on hard chairs of school desks, church pews or the back of a Plymouth Fury station wagon zomming across South Dakota on a family vacation. I used to try padding the buckles with toilet paper, but somehow the padding always had a way of slipping off. Finally, I resorted to safety-pinning the sanitary napkins into my underwear, thinking how marvelous it would be if someone invented sanitary napkins that you could directly affix to your panties with adhesive.

My Aunt Flow wasn't some dainty broad that beat it after a few days either. No, she weighed about 400 pounds and would hang around an entire week, demanding super-plus-size accommodations. Very often she brought along her boyfriend, Uncle Cramps. When Aunt Flow first started visiting me, I used to complain about her to my mother. She told me to get used to her because, "You'll be having your period for the next 30 or 40 years."

At first my mother was sympathetic, but eventually she made me ride my bike to the convenience store to buy my own giant box of sanitary napkins. This was terribly embarrassing, because there was usually some old man at the cash register. I'd end up buying butter and French bread, so it wouldn't look like I was coming into the store just to buy sanitary napkins.

For the most part, Aunt Flow has been a real bitch, but she came in handy during high school, especially when we had swimming in P.E. Aunt Flow was always good for sitting out swimming on the life guard chair for three or four days, thus sparing me the embarrassment of having to don an oversized, black tank suit. Of course, my gym teacher, one of several lesbians at my school who taught P.E., would admonish us by saying that "if you were modern girls, you wouldn't have to miss swimming." These were the same bitches who warned us that we'd experience a lot of pain during childbirth if we didn't physically exert ourselves in gym class by getting smacked in the face with a volley ball.

I don't know how I feel about Aunt Flow not coming around anymore. I've often lamented that "I'm so sick of my fucking period" while scrubbing stains out of my pants at midnight, but I never really meant it. I feel like a dried-up, menopausal, old hag. I never had children so for most part these long monthly visits from Aunt Flow have been a waste of time. I'm going to miss her and my days of being a young woman.

Of course, just when you think Aunt Flow is gone forever, she has a habit of reappearing with a vengence. My aunt was 45 when her Aunt Flow stopped visiting, but she ended up attending her oldest son's high school graduation seven months' pregnant. (I am definitely not pregnant.)

I don't think I'm ready to bid goodbye to Aunt Flow, even though she wrecked a lot of birthdays, plus I'm stuck with all these pairs of period-panties. But I knew that this day was coming some time. All I can tell Aunt Flow is to be kind to the eleven-year-olds out there who are greeting her for the first time.

Don't worry, girls, 49 will be here before you know it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Judy's Rainbow connection

This story originally appeared in the Pioneer Press, June 23, 2005. It has been revised for publication in “The Power Dump Diaries” and is dedicated to my many wonderful friends in the GLBT community. Happy Pride Week!

It has been said that when the news broke across the Atlantic of legendary star Judy Garland’s death from an accidental drug overdose at age 47 in a London apartment on June 22, 1969, that the flags on Fire Island, a popular summer spot for Manhattan’s gay and lesbian community, were immediately lowered to half mast.

Garland enjoyed a particularly large following of gay men who were attracted to her big, belting voice and whose turbulent private life and melodramatic persona had turned her into a camp icon.

Her poignant “Over the Rainbow” from the classic 1939 MGM musical “The Wizard of Oz” had also become an anthem of sexual freedom – a place where if one had heart, courage and brains, gays and lesbians could live in a spirit of tolerance and acceptance.

At the height of Garland’s career in the 1940s and 1950s, the catchphrase, “Are you a friend of Dorothy’s” had become a code among closeted gay men, which meant, “Are you one of us?”

Garland’s death was also to spark the beginning of the Gay Liberation Movement. As 22,000 fans filed past the singer’s open casket at Campbell’s Funeral Home in New York City, more than half of them were said to be gay men.

The evening after Garland’s funeral on June 27, many of those who had traveled to New York City to pay homage to the singer had gathered at the Stonewall Inn, a popular, Greenwich Village gay bar that was owned by the mafia. Like other gay bars across the country, the Stonewall Inn was frequently raided by police who busted patrons in transgender dress or for same-sex, public displays of affection.

In the early morning hours of June 28, police raided the Stonewall that touched off three nights of rioting in New York. According to legend, a drag queen started swinging at a police officer. A lesbian patron who was being carried out to a squad car had also put up such a struggle that it encouraged gathering crowds to do the same. The crowds quickly overtook the police, using a parking meter as a battering ram to drive them off, until stunned police retreated back into the Stonewall.

“It was a hot night and people just got fed up with being pushed around,” says Suki de La Croix who has written extensively on gay Chicago history. “There was that whole thing of rebellion going on. You had Vietnam, women’s liberation, everyone was rebelling against everything.”

A year after the raid on the Stonewall Inn, gays and lesbians in cities throughout the country organized anniversary observances. Chicago’s gay and lesbian community declared June 21-28 Gay Pride Week, with the first gay pride march taking place on June 29, 1970. Some 200 people gathered in Bughouse Square across from the Newberry Library, carrying signs proclaiming “Gay Power.”

“After listening to speeches, the group marched along the sidewalks down Dearborn Street to Chicago Avenue, then east to the Water Tower, then down Michigan Avenue to the Civic Center (Richard J. Daley Plaza), where there were more speeches and some dancing,” de La Croix says.

The second anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Chicago’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community held a parade instead of a march, comprised of various GLBT-oriented civic and political groups, and a marching kazoo band.

This year, while you’re watching your own city's pride parade, you may want to think back on those brave drag queens and lesbians at the Stonewall Inn who might not have had the courage to stand up for their rights, had it not been for a little girl who sang “Over the Rainbow.”

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Fighting over the potatoes

There is something about planning a funeral that reduces everyone to their former rank in the family hierarchy, no matter how accomplished or successful they’ve become. When my dad passed away earlier this month, I immediately assumed my position on the lowest rung of the family ladder.

My three brothers and I immediately squared off and started arguing five minutes after my dad died. The first fight was over the choice of potatoes for my dad’s post-funeral luncheon. My dad had always been very frugal, so after finding $1,200 hidden in his sock drawer, my younger brother, Romberg, and I headed over to the nicest restaurant in town.

We immediately selected the most expensive things on the menu – prime rib, chicken Wellington, green bean almondine, chocolate mousse and twice-baked potatoes. The catering manager let us go right ahead, failing to inform either of us that the restaurant had a special discount menu for funerals, which included such typical cheap-ass selections as Salisbury steak.

My father had pre-paid for his and my mother’s funerals. Every time we drove by the place, he would point it out saying, “That’s where our funeral are being held.” When we arrived at the funeral home, my brother Garfield was there waiting for us. All we had to do was fill in the blanks. (I highly recommend pre-paid funerals.)

God forbid that my brother Garfield should not be the center of attention. He was already distraught and hysterical when we arrived, even though he had openly despised my father when he was alive for raising him badly or some shit like that. As a recovering alcoholic, Garfield has gone through the 12-step program like a million times over the past 20 years, although I don't recall him ever apologizing to me for being a misogynist.

Romberg and I asked the funeral director if the home could provide a vodka fountain, my father’s favorite beverage. Then we both thought it would be funny if we could play the theme song from “M*A*S*H” as people filed by his casket at the end of the funeral service.

During the last years of his life, my dad was obsessed with the TV series “M*A*S*H.” He loved those whacky doctors Hawkeye, Trapper John, BJ Honeycutt and Henry Blake. The show came on in Chicago every afternoon at 4 o’clock. The station would air four episodes in a row, and my father would set his VCR so he could watch it in the evenings. (“There’s nothing but crap on at night,” he would remind us again and again.)

The day before he died, he was enraged when I couldn’t find “M*A*S*H” on the television set in his hospital room, which only carried six Espanol channels and a Jesus station. “C’mon, I’m missing it,” he screamed. When I informed him that I didn’t think the channel was available in the hospital, he yelled, “I’m never staying at this goddamn hotel again!”

Given the murky details of my dad’s death, which was more or less suicide by alcohol poisoning, Garfield put his foot down and told us he thought the song was in bad taste. “It’s about suicide for Christ’s sake,” he said, breaking into another round of gut-wrenching sobs.

I suggested “The Navy Hymn,” which was played at President Kennedy’s funeral. I wanted my dad’s funeral to be as Kennedy-esque as possible, and drove to like six Border’s the next day before I finally found the CD.

The funeral director asked us if we would be holding a luncheon after the funeral. Romberg and I proudly told him how we had already made arrangements and of our menu selections that would clog the arteries of an elephant. It was then that the funeral director informed us of the pre-arranged, discounted, funeral luncheon menu that the home had worked out with the restaurant. “Really, I’m surprised they didn’t tell you about it,” he said.

Garfield demanded to see the funeral menu. It didn’t have any of the items that Romberg and I had selected. For Christ’s sake, we might as well have invited everyone back to my dad’s house and microwaved some Healthy Choice dinners because that’s how cheap it was.

My father was 80 years old, so we weren’t expecting a huge crowd at the funeral (although more than a hundred came to the wake, including several neighbors from his retirement community who immediately went downstairs and ate all the finger sandwiches).

“We already ordered the lunch,” I told Garfield.

Garfield wanted us to change it, so we got into a huge argument in the funeral director’s office.

“I want the oven-roasted potatoes,” he said.

“Those taste like shit,” I shot back.

Finally the funeral director calmly said, “Guys, c’mon.”

We ended up sticking with the original menu. Then we began fighting over the photos we wanted displayed in the room. My dad had given me a whole box of his childhood photos a few months before he died. There were pictures that we had never seen before. I wanted to put together some foam boards with old family photos.

“It’s going to look like a fifth-grade science project,” Garfield said.

“Who died and made you the queen,” I asked.

It was a really mean thing to say, because Garfield is gay and has been in the closet for most of his adult life, even though we all know about it. My father never cared that Garfield was gay because he just wanted him to be happy. Within the first five minutes of our meeting with the funeral director, Garfield mentioned that he was a gay, recovering alcoholic. Like the guy really needed to know that.

Our oldest brother, Frazier, was flying in from out of state the next evening. Frazier had missed most of the fun of caring for our elderly parents, until I rued the day that I didn’t get the hell out of Chicago 30 years ago while I still had the chance. Instead, I stuck it out as an adult caregiver, which has pretty much been my job for the last couple of years.

Frazier was all bouncy and energetic. The rest of us were exhausted from fighting with my dad’s worthless piece of shit doctor, who I fired after he yelled at me in the hospital, and making funeral arrangements. He tried to take over everything, and I wondered where the hell he was when we were driving 30 miles to my parents’ house during blizzards or cleaning my mother’s poo when she started going down the tubes from Parkinson’s.

Frazier thought we shouldn’t tell my mother, who lives in a nursing home and has dementia, that my father died. Even though my mother doesn’t recognize us anymore and sleeps most of the day, the three of us thought we should tell her at some point that my dad had passed away.

Then we started arguing about what to put into my dad’s casket. My dad had like 30 television remotes, so we decided to put one of them into the coffin, along with his U.S.S. Rockbridge hat, his windbreaker, and picture of him and my mother. I wanted to include a pair of my father’s lineman’s pliers. Garfield told me that the pliers would make the casket too heavy.

For the rest of the week, two or three of us would get together and talk about another sibling behind his or her back. We’d complain about each other, then break off into new pairs or groups and complain about the one we were just with. I’m sure they were calling me a sociopathic bitch behind my back.

I was up until three o’clock in the morning putting the foam boards together the night before my father's wake. Other than my grandmothers, it was the first funeral that I was semi responsible for arranging. I gathered all my dad’s favorite CDs, including his Dean Martin and Gene Autry records, to play during the wake.

Usually I’m the last person to show up at family functions. I try to time my arrival until about three minutes before Thanksgiving dinner is served, because I have to get really stoned before I can be with my family. But on the day of my father's wake, I showed up at the funeral home about 45 minutes early. I couldn’t believe I was the first person there.

The funeral director asked me if I wanted to wait until my brothers came. I said hell, no. I put all my stuff down, told him to put Gene Autry on the stereo, and then went over to the open casket. I thought I would freak out seeing my father dead, but it was really okay. He looked really peaceful, like he had fallen asleep in his La-Z Boy recliner watching “M*A*S*H.” I shed a few tears, then turned back to the funeral director and told him I needed every easel they had for the foam boards.

I was moving vases and shit off the tables and organ so we could put up the framed photos that we had taken from my dad’s house, in addition to the foam boards. By the time we got all the pictures and artifacts displayed, the room looked like one of those Princess Diana shrines. It looked great.

Tons of people came to the wake. I saw cousins that I hadn’t seen since the last funeral. Something about death makes you really hungry, and I ate about 20 finger sandwiches and cookies dowstairs in the basement of the funeral home. People seemed to enjoy the foam boards. My boyfriend looked at the pictures of me from ten years ago and commented on how thin I was.

“That’s it, you’re going to Curves,” he told me.

People commented that it was one of the nicest wakes they had ever been too. After the wake, we went over to Romberg’s house and ate more finger sandwiches. The next morning, I told my boyfriend that he didn't have to come to the funeral because there would be too much going on dealing with my family. He seemed relieved.

The funeral went well. My dad wasn’t religious, so we had the home arrange for a retired Catholic priest to preside over the service, even though we aren’t Catholic. The priest had a round head like a beach ball, and a gin blossom nose. He was used to being called in to do funeral services for the unchurched.

The entire service lasted about 15 minutes. My best friend came and all I could think about was smoking a joint afterward. The priest did a brilliant job adlibbing the service. I thought about writing something for him to read about my father, but frankly, I’d rather share my private thoughts with perfect strangers on a blog than with my family.

The priest was sharing some of his favorite bible passages while I was staring at a snapshot of my dad when he was three years old, dressed in a sailor suit. Just as he mentioned how the dead could become present merely by mentioning their names or remembering them, the picture I had been staring at floated off the foam board and landed on the floor.

I looked over at my sister-in-law. She also saw the picture come off the board, and we both looked at each other, like “he’s here with us.” It was something my dad would have done, and I can just imagine him flicking his finger and knocking the picture off. It was very comforting, like a little signal that he was sending to me, his “favorite daughter.”

The funeral ended with “The Navy Hymn.” It was very beautiful and Garfield broke into loud, choking sobs. He was wailing and practically crawling into the casket with my dad. My best friend, who is a professional actress, remarked afterward that the whole spectacle struck her as being somewhat phony.

One of my father’s most endearing qualities was his loathing of the Republican Party. He particularly disliked the current president. On the wall of his garage, we found a picture of Bush that he had cut out from the newspaper. He had drawn a Hitler mustache and a Swastika on Bush’s forehead, and had written “Oil Company Boss” and “President Rectum” on it.

Romberg had arranged for two sailors in their dress whites to be at the cemetery. They folded the flag while the funeral director played a tinny recording of “Taps.” It was actually quite good. They presented the flag to Romberg "on behalf of the president of the United States and the Secretary of Defense." My dad would have shit. He hated Bush, and I could practically hear him yelling, "Jag him off with a handful of broken glass," which he told bank tellers and grocery store clerks on a regular basis. I like to think that the sailors were thanking my father on behalf of Harry S Truman, my dad's favorite president when he was mustered out of the navy.

We headed over to the restaurant. My friend Karol and I were the only ones who ordered drinks. We ordered huge bloody Mary’s loaded with vodka, since we weren't allowed to have a vodka fountain. Garfield didn’t say anything about the twice-baked potatoes. It was my brothers’ turn to gang up on me after the luncheon. We had decided to go to the nursing home to tell my poor dementiated mother that my father had died.

Frazier was yelling at me that I had better bring the foam boards back to my dad’s house before we headed over to the nursing home. Instead, Karol whisked me to the nursing home which was a beehive of activity. My mother was remarkably awake and somewhat lucid when Karol and I arrived. I sat with her and waited for my brothers to arrive. Finally they showed up. I pretended that I misunderstood their plans, and we all gathered around her bedside.

Frazier started screaming in her face, “DAD IS DEAD.” At first my mother misunderstood him. She thought he was telling her that Carol Burnett had died. We hung around for awhile, explaining to her how we had taken care of the funeral, and that it was okay for her to go, that she didn’t need to hang around in her shell of a body anymore, that our father was waiting for her in heaven, handsome in his navy uniform. She mumbled that he “was with my mother.” Then we all left, en masse.

I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Karol was waiting in the lobby in for me. We went to her house and smoke a joint, then headed over to a Mexican restaurant where I proceeded to get bombed on Marguiritas.

I wish I could say that I felt more grief than relief over my father’s passing. After my initial hyperventilation when I thought I was having a heart attack hearing of his death, I felt incredibly relieved. In early May, I had taken him to an all-day neurological psychiatric evaluation at Northwestern Hospital, where he had been diagnosed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, so his future was dim.

I’m glad that his suffering is over. He would have hated losing even more of his independence being cooped up in an assisted living faclity wearing an ankle bracelet so he couldn't sneak out and buy booze, having to watch Spanish-language television.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Anchors aweigh to an old sailor

It has been quiet around my house. My cell phone isn’t ringing incessantly throughout the day and there are no panicked trips into the night, because my father died June 3 of geriatric alcoholism.

My dad was a good man. He was crazy about my mother, probably a little crazier for her than she was of him. In his prime, he was a stud, sharper than a box of tacks, and highly capable. He supervised dozens of electricians on extremely complex projects that involved some of the tallest skyscrapers in the United States, if not the world.

I never saw my father take a sick day, even when he threw his back out. He worked his ass off as a union electrician, or a “sparky” as they are known around the trades. Whenever I ride into the city, I can pick out a half dozen of his buildings rising from the Chicago skyline.

He had every reason to become one of those drunk, asshole fathers that beat his kids and made life miserable for everyone in the family. His own father was a practicing alcoholic, a taciturn Swede who never became literate in the English language. My dad often remarked that he had to grow up fast. It was his mother – my grandma – and her siblings, who smoothed out the turmoil caused by his father.

As a boy, he was sent up to Wisconsin in the summers, probably to get him away from his father. He stayed with a family friend who owned several cabins which she rented out to tourists. He bunked with the hired hands and did chores. In the afternoons he swam in cold lakes and fished. My grandmother sent him a dollar a week to buy milk and food.

My father had one of those “Our Gang” comedy kinds of childhoods growing up during the Great Depression. His mother, aunts and uncles were a wild, happy bunch that sang around the piano, took day trips in Model T’s, told fortunes and made bathtub gin. Gathering the pictures for the prerequisite foam boards to place around the funeral home during the wake, there was a massive group photo of my father’s family, where his uncle is hoisting a bottle of Jim Beam, and my dad is holding a gun to his aunt’s head.

He attended five public grammar schools and two high schools on Chicago’s North Side. His family moved about once a year. He told me that his father would stop paying the rent in February, then move out in the middle of the night on May 1 before they were evicted. Everyone did this, and I imagined street cars loaded down with people carrying stoves and furniture moving furtively through the night.

Toward the end my dad’s short-term memory was shot, but he could remember everything that happened to him in the navy during World War II. He was a first electrician’s mate, whatever the hell that is, serving on the U.S.S. Rockbridge. As one of the ship's original crew members he was a “plank owner.” The ship was built and commissioned in 1944 to replace some of those that were blown up in Pearl Harbor.

He volunteered for any war-time fool’s errand that was asked of him, climbing masts during Iwo Jima and typhoons to install signal lights, getting shot at or dangling precariously over a stormy sea. His ship traveled all over the South Pacific and saw a lot of action. He said he got about three hours of sleep during his whole war time experience.

My grandfather died while my dad was still on board the ship. The chaplain told him that his father committed suicide. He was discharged and came home to Chicago, tossing his duffle bag of navy gear into the Chicago River. When he got home he hooked up with some of his crazy bastard friends from high school. They got into two car accidents in one day, the second in which he broke his back.

He was in a body cast for about 10 weeks. When he recovered, he realized that he needed to find some new friends so he wouldn’t become a bum like his father. He met my mother on July 20, 1947 at Good Templar Park in Geneva, Ill., when she was 16. He fell instantly in love. Going through my mother’s old letters and scrap books, he declared his love for her by saying that she made him “the happiest boy in the world.” He must have been terribly lonely, as little boy far away from his home and family sharing a bunk house with farting hired hands, and as a young sailor in the middle of a war.

My parents got married in 1948, when my mother was 18 and my dad was 22. Like thousands of young World War II veterans, my father was able to achieve the American Dream. He provided us with a home, although it always seemed that our cousins had slightly better houses than the modest shacks we lived in. The babies started coming in the 1950s, with my brother Romberg added as a little tagalong in 1963.

As an electrician, he got well-paying, summer construction jobs for his younger cousins as well as my older brother so they could pay their way through college. One of my cousins dedicated his thesis to my father. He hated it when guys drank on the job, and once followed one of his journeymen to a bar during the morning coffee break. My dad tore into the guy and fired him on the spot. My older brother, who was working with my dad, said it was one of the most unpleasant events he ever witnessed.

Growing up, my father used to entertain us at the dinner table with stories of horrific accidents on his work sites, about guys falling off of buildings or impaling themselves on steel. He dislocated his knee, had tinnitus for a year following an explosion when he was inside a tunnel, and once took 220 volts of electricity through his arm.

My father started instituting safety measures on his job sites long before work place safety was regulated by the federal government. His projects boasted such stellar safety records, that he was brought in as a consultant when OSHA was being formed in 1971.

He was a big guy, about six foot four, and didn’t take shit from anybody. I can recall numerous times when some punk with a Napoleon complex would swagger out of a car after some minor traffic incident to take my father on. Inevitably, when my dad would exit his own vehicle, the other guy would get a look at how big my dad was, then jump back into his car and drive off like a little girl. My father didn't even have to open his mouth or swing a fist.

Cleaning out his house, which is staggering in itself, I spend a lot of time looking at his old artifacts and ancient family photos from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. My father lived a whole life before I was even born. It’s comforting to read the cards that people have been sending, mostly from cousins and the children of family friends from my generation. They recall his laughter, power, intelligence and his many talents. I need to have these memories stoked again, to remember him as he was, and not the sad, old depressed man who in many ways became my own little boy these past several years.

On the morning that my father died, his doctor told us he was going through the DTs and would probably end up becoming a vegetable. It’s still not clear to me why he had to be sedated. My brothers were hurrying to the hospital with a copy of his DNR when he died.

A nurse’s aid had been assigned to sit with him in his room because he kept ripping out his IVs. She told my brother that in the end, my father raised his arm as if grabbing something, took his last breath and passed away. Perhaps he was reaching for my grandma who was pulling him over to the other side, or maybe he was just swiping away a giant, DT-induced taradactyl. Anyway, I prefer to think it was the former.