Three Thanksgivings – Part I
It’s not really about the football, but football was nearby.
The call wasn’t really a surprise.
I have developed a feeling for how long I can go before I talk to my Mother on the phone. It is a complicated equation that has to factor in not only the light-years (in her belief) between conversations, but also the gravitational pull of holidays and family events. I try to take the initiative and call her without her having left a message first, but these days, between 11-hour teaching days, and the fact that I can’t get both of my children to sleep before my Mother’s bedtime… well, honestly I’m usually calling her back… a few days after she wants me to.
So, it wasn’t a surprise when my Mother called. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and when I saw her name on the caller ID, I figured that she was sneaking in a bonus call before I fulfilled my familial duties on Turkey Day proper. I was wrong.
It wasn’t a shock that she called. Frankly, what she had to say wasn’t really a shock either.
Doesn’t mean I was ready for it.
I have a complicated relationship with my Father, and right now it is… polite. The kind of polite that has an unacknowledged frustration, at least on my part. A low-level strain that isn’t talked about because, though it is strong enough to be felt, it isn’t so pronounced that it can be named without making of it more than it is.
I think my Dad should be nicer to my Mom.
I wanted to be my Dad when I grew up. Not the vocation. Nor the appearance. But he was funny and sharp and when he was around I hung upon his every word.
I don’t know if his humor has changed, or if I can hear better the assumptions in his sarcasm, now that I’ve grown older. Probably a little of both, but now, I grow increasingly aware that Dad is getting kind of mean. His body is breaking and his pain curdles the wit that I remember as charming and self-deprecating, turning outward, into a bitterness that can find derisive fault with the whole of the world. And right now, my Mom is the one that populates my Dad’s world. She’s pretty much alone.
My Father was drafted into the United States Army in 1971. My mother was pregnant with my older brother, and my Dad had to go off to basic and learn how to defend Freedom and Democracy. She wouldn’t get her husband back for decades.
Growing up, it seemed to me that they had a happy marriage, but she was on her own a lot. She gave birth to my brother while my Dad was three states away grunting through push-ups and haircuts. Two years later, she was seven months pregnant with me when she toted my brother through the major airports of Europe to catch up with Dad’s first duty assignment in Berlin. We bounced from Virginia to California, from Texas to Germany at the whim of the Pentagon, and each time Dad would have to report long before dependent housing was worked out. My Mom would stay behind, or bring my sibling and I squabbling to her parents’ house, while we waited the three, six, nine months it would take for the Army to catch up on finding a place for Sgt. Flipteach’s wife and children. Army slang has a term for the soldier whose family hasn’t caught up with his relocation orders. Dad was a “geographic bachelor.” Mom was functionally a single mother. Sometimes it was to finish a school year, sometimes it was waiting for German housing, sometimes it was just that he was in the field, but Mom was alone with her sons. Often.
This isn’t to say that Dad deliberately shirked his responsibilities. He drove me to soccer games. He paid for my braces. Ours was very much the “wait til your Father gets home” school of discipline, and he tried his best to instruct my brother and I in the responsibilities of a man. And he worked. Hard. The Army really does accomplish more before 9am than most people do all day, what they don’t tell you is that the Sergeant falls asleep in his recliner before the ten o'clock news.
Dad’s last assignment was to go back to San Angelo, and twenty years - retirement - was a light on the horizon. My parents decided they wanted to settle in Austin, having never been there before. They packed my brother off to college, looked into schools for me, picked a house for my mom. My Dad commuted from San Angelo, Texas to Austin every weekend for two and a half years, while the Army and he finished with each other.
Whenever I look back on my childhood, and am tempted to dwell on the petty resentments all children sometimes have towards their parents, whenever I start to think that my Dad wasn’t able to maintain a Huxtable level of fatherly perfection, I remember that the man drove over 200 miles every Friday night just to spend Saturday with my Mother and me. After church on Sunday, he’d load up the station wagon and drive 200 miles back. The cliché of the American male is that he can’t express emotion. I call “bullshit.” If driving eight hours a week through the likes of Brady and Llano isn’t the definition of Love, then I don’t know that there are enough sonnets to make up for the lack of one.
The other consequence of my Dad’s commute was that my Mother got me through High School pretty much on her own. I was the “man of the house” as, by that time, my brother was off learning to quote Barry Goldwater studying poli-sci in Lubbock. I was just as obnoxious as the next teenager, but I did take my responsibility to protect my Mother seriously.
Dad graduated from the Army the same year I graduated from High School. He finally drove back to Austin, and got a job with the State of Texas, helping disabled vets like him find work. I went to the University of Texas, at Austin. Hook ‘em.
I have a complicated relationship with UT Football, and right now it is… enthusiastic. The kind of enthusiastic that causes a grown man to place his Saturday afternoon in the care of 19 year olds who wear funny hats with silhouettes of a cow on the side. A polite obsession that causes a man to stay up way past his family’s bedtime to lurk on internet sites and read about the addition of sweep action misdirection to the pin ‘n pull (Hi, Nobis).
I have to admit though, that I am a late convert.
I wasn’t a football player growing up. There wasn’t American Football in Germany for kids in 6th through 9th grades. And when I came to Austin to finish High School, I was 6’ 2” and 147 pounds of awkward. So I didn’t play. I did watch, but my football viewing was defined by my Father’s growing up in Virginia. We watched the NFL, and rooted for the team from Washington DC with the viciously racist name.
We didn’t have a connection to UT other than it was a good school that gave me a scholarship that allowed me to avoid ROTC and the GI Bill. My brother and I are the two extremes of Army Brat cliché. He went to school on an ROTC scholarship, and two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan later, he’s the kind of corporate lawyer that votes for Alan Keyes or Rick Santorum in the Republican primary. I studied art. Which means that going to school at 23rd and San Jacinto in the Mackovic era, football was mostly the reason that I couldn’t park near the Art Building on Saturdays. It was nice, and I wanted us to win, but I wasn't in the cult.
My love for UT Football started with the arrival of Mack Brown. Partly because of him. Partly because of Ricky. Mostly because of New York City. I went off to grad school and encountered that special kind of east-coast bigotry - the kind of snobbery that caused one of my museum professors to refer to Houston as “a small-market town.” The kind of racism that in spite of the most separate-but-unequal social construction I have ever seen, painted everything from Texas with the brush of Vidor and the Klan. The kind of anti-intellectual assumption of anti-intellectualism that makes a kid who feels like the education he stumbled into at UT was vastly more challenging, inspiring and rigorous than anything he was getting at the grad school that cost per credit hour what he paid per semester in Austin to say “screw y’all I’m from Texas” and embrace the burnt orange bovine like never before.
When I was a child, my Dad was employed by the United States Army. But to hear him tell it, his real job was to "drive and pay."
My parents took it upon themselves to augment my brother's and my education by turning into lemonade the various relocation lemons that the Pentagon would present my Dad. Every time we would move, they would scour the map for every point of potential educational interest. This is how we wound up moving from California to Texas -- by driving through Wyoming.
On these educational trips, my mother handled the geology ("look at the mountains, boys") and the biology ("look at the cows, boys"). My Dad would teach my brother and me about geography and economics -- he would drive and pay.
After he retired from the Army, my Dad began the second phase of his professional career by joining the Texas Workforce Commission. But at home, his primary responsibilities remained unchanged. His job was to drive and pay.
By this time, my brother and I were old enough to have moved away (which involved driving) to attend college (which involved, from my Dad's perspective, a good deal of paying).
During Dad’s stint at TWC, my brother and I completed college and started careers of our own -- and Dad's true calling has remained unchanged. His job is to drive and pay. In fact, the first thing he said to me when I told him of my taking a position in Colorado was "that's 1200 miles away!" That's Dad -- still teaching geography... somehow, he left off the economics...
My Dad retired from serving the public and the state of Texas, but I have to say I'm not quite sure what the big deal about retirement is. From what I can tell, at least as far as the family is concerned, not that much changed. I mean, after all, if they do all the fun things that my Mother dreams about, then my Dad's responsibilities will stay the same. His job is to drive and pay. Happy "retirement," Dad.
When my Mother retired she started calling in the middle of the day. My teaching schedule changes a little every semester, and she doesn’t keep track. So she just calls whenever she wants. She thinks of it as her right as a Mother, she didn’t realize that every time she calls at some random hour, I think it’s because she’s calling to tell me that Dad is in the hospital.
Dad has entered the slow entropy of old men who’ve worked too hard (and ate too much). He used to be my height, but now his back won’t straighten that much, and he’s three of me wide. The Army worked his back enough to qualify him as a disabled vet. The arthritis came from wherever pain for the weary originates. The diabetes, sedentary obesity, sleep apnea, forty years of smoking (he has quit), salsa induced ulcers and countless other maladies big and small – those are mostly self-inflicted.
I went off to college, got married, got a job where I could, and moved away. I packed up the family and brought them back to Austin at least once a year, usually more, to see my in-laws and my parents. Every time I saw Dad he was in noticeably worse shape. Not “if you’re looking for it, you can see it” worse off, but “what happened to you?” worse off.
And my Mom would call at these incredibly random, unpredictable times to talk about nothing. And every time, I’d think that she was calling to say that Dad was in the hospital. But he wasn’t. She’d call and talk about the flowers at church, or the crazy thing the Governor did now, or the weather (lots of heat, lots of dry), but never to call for help because my Dad had left her alone in a hospital waiting room.
Until she did.
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, 2009.
The sound of something …people talking? …machines beeping? In the background, but it doesn’t register that it isn’t the stillness of her living room perch.
“Hey, Mom. What’s up? Are you starting the Brunswick stew for Thanksgiving? I’m sitting here at the table, just trying to plow through some grading, what are you…”
A little shaky. A little rushed.
“Mom?” Sitting up straighter now, hearing the hesitation in her voice.
“Paul… Tommy’s in the hospital. We’re at Seton. Seton Northwest. [long pause, deep breath. I can hear her hand shaking the cell phone. She never calls Dad “Tommy” to me.] He… he was having really strong pains in his chest. Said it started last night. Didn’t say anything until this morning, but he wasn’t right. He couldn’t… he… it was so bad. You know how he is, wants to be so big and strong, like nothing affects him, but I could tell. I made him let me drive him to the hospital.”
“Good.” Me. Out loud. She doesn’t hear. She’s started now, and the dam has burst.
“And they took him and hooked him up to the machine, with the beeping, his heart and the paper read out and they said it wasn’t a heart attack, but that it was a ‘cardiac event…’ I don’t know what that means, but then… then… [“Mom, are you ok?” Then her, in a single breath that uses all of the air she’s ever held] They gave him a shot, I think for the pain, and he had, I don’t know, he had a seizure, he got all stiff, no shaky, no, a, I guess, reaction and they laid the bed flat and one climbed on top and the others put on a mask thing, ventilator and they got him back and he’s… they took him. They took him into surgery, and I’m here alone. And I don’t know anything.
“Mom, ok. How, when did they take him back to surgery? How long?”
“Um, I don’t know. They… He’s… I…”
“It’s ok, Mom. I’ll...”
I’ll what, exactly?
“The doctor, a doctor is coming… [not to me] Uh-huh, I am… [to me] I’ll call you when I know…”
“OK, Mom, I’ll…” but I’m talking to a phone that’s gone silent. Little blinking time stamp that fades to nothing.
So I do what any reasonable man does in this situation. I call my Mother in Law.
She lives in Round Rock, and she does what Family does. She doesn’t hesitate; she’s probably driving to the hospital before I end the call with “Thank you. I really don’t want my mother to have to be alone.” That’s when I lose it. Nana tells my sob that she’ll be there soon, and will call me when she’s found my mother.
I call my wife while I’m digging the suitcase out of the basement closet. I’m packing I don’t know what, when the phone calls start coming faster. Dad’s out of surgery. Not his heart. Ruptured ulcer. Allergic reaction to some chemical I’ve never heard of. Stable, but serious. ICU. Nana’s there. Mom’s not alone.
The negotiations start. I’m coming home. You don’t have to… Mom, what the Fuck!?! [not out loud, but the tone is legible]. Just an ulcer… We’re coming. My wife, bless her, has already checked the internet for flights, didn’t need to ask. But… It’s Thanksgiving week. Nothing today, all booked. He’s stable… By the time you’d get to Denver. Too late. Wednesday flights pretty full too. Hundreds, no, thousands of dollars. “We could drive. It would take two days, but still get you there just as soon. All three of us could go, and stay at my mother’s house.” The degree to which my wife is a better person than me cannot be measured by science. My daughter gets off the school bus and into the car. Packed and ready, didn’t even know she was going.
As an aside, I may have killed a chubacabra in the middle of nowhere in Kansas. I don’t know what it was – too big to be a possum, too low to the ground to be a coyote. Skinny and pale and bald looking. (Nice hat) Hit that motherfucker going at least 75 in pitch-black-nothing-for-miles-wasteland. Bought a roll of duct tape at a truck stop, taped the fender up to keep it from flapping, and drove on. Ain’t got time for mythical beasts; my Mom’s not going to be alone.
We got to Austin. My Mom had calmed down to her “I got this” usual self. Dad was improving – no more reactions, stitches healing, very weak, but making lame jokes with the nursing staff. I meet Mom at the hospital first thing on Thanksgiving Day – God apparently likes to remind us every now and then.
As we’re riding up the suffocatingly sterile elevator – proportions all wrong in a way I can’t put my finger on until I realize it’s made for beds on wheels – my Mom turns to me and says: “When we get there, let me go in first. He doesn’t know you’re here. I can play a joke.”
“Mom, I don’t know if that’s a good idea…”
“Hush, it’ll be fun.”
“It’ll give him a heart attack.”
“Pish, he’ll think it’s funny.”
We get to his hall. My Mom already knows all the nurses by name. She makes me stand outside the room while she tells my Dad that a strange young man started talking to her in the elevator… and followed her… and now she’s waving me in. I step in and say “Hi, Dad.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Oh, I was just in the neighborhood…” I came to see you, ya putz. And my Mom wasn’t going to be alone.
We sit. We talk. Not really. Partly because we’re men, and we don’t do that. Partly because there are nurses and doctors and my Mom working her hardest to keep everything pleasant for everyone. Partly because he’s not well. Tubes everywhere. Hissing machines. He hasn’t lost weight, but surrounded by so much medical technology that he seems almost small. He’s a color that humans shouldn’t be.
He starts drifting off, and the doctors want him to rest. Before he’s gone, we arrange for me to take my Mom for Thanksgiving lunch. She’ll come back to sit with him for the afternoon. I’ll come back this evening so she can have a break.
“You don’t have to. I’ll be fine…”
“I’m coming, Dad. We’ll watch the Longhorns on your TV. It’ll be fun.”
I take my Mom to lunch at some very Texas restaurant, I can’t remember the name of, that’s actually open. My Mom tells me where she and Dad keep the will. Really casual, like it’s the weather, or the flowers or the stupid Governor. I listen. I talk. I pay for the lunch. Is this what adulthood is now? Drive and Pay, and taking care of those who used to Drive and Pay? I leave the waitress an obnoxiously large tip, because the woman had to work on Thanksgiving.
I sat with my Dad and watched football on Thanksgiving Day.
It was Colt’s senior season, and it had destiny written all over it. In 2008, I’d had a bad feeling about Tech all season, so getting crabtreed at the last second, though frustrating, wasn’t a shock. But this was Colt’s year, and it was preordained.
We sat there, Dad in an inclined bed and a tapestry of tubes, me in a vinyl chair angled to see Dad and the TV bolted to the ceiling. He asked about my daughter, my wife, my job - in that order; I was proud of him. He’s big and loud and scares my kids, but he doesn’t mean to, and he is overt in his affection for them compared to my memories of youth. The machines hissed, a purring noise of air flow and monitoring.
I’ve never really hated the Aggies. Don’t get me wrong, they’re annoying. But that’s just it; they are a minor distraction that you forget about until they do something irritating. Jerrod Johnson was extremely irritating that night, and I mean that as a compliment.
My Dad was fading in and out, and was asleep by the middle of the 3rd quarter. I’d watch over him and listen to the game – watching the replay if it sounded good. Dad’s snore, so much a part of my youth, blended with a football game as it had so many autumns before. This one was different though, as the whispers of the ventilator warned of the coming of winter.
We had a mobile quarterback, but so did they, and he was giving us fits. I wasn’t worried; we had Colt and righteousness on our side. The Aggies made an attempt at glory, pulling to within a field goal with seven minutes to go. Then they kicked off and Marquise Goodwin ran it back all the way. 49-39. Ballgame. The good guys win.
And my Mom wasn’t going to be alone.
My daughter was born in a Seton hospital - the one on 38th St. She was healthy and perfect and came on her due date, because she knows my wife is a planner. But it wasn’t easy. After a long and tense labor, her heart rate plummeted and we rushed down the hall for an emergency c-section. She had gotten the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, so contractions were strangling her. Mrs. Flipteach had a long night of pain and worry that ended in surgery and relief. And precious, beautiful life.
When they sent me and my daughter down the hall to give her a bath while they stitched up my beatific and weary wife, I was alone with my child for the first time. I cleaned her as gently as I could, and held her to keep her warm, and whispered to her “I’d like you to be nicer to your Mother from now on.”
At the end of the Longhorn game on Thanksgiving 2009, I stood up and put on my coat. It was well after visiting hours, but the nurses had managed to avoid noticing me. I looked at my Dad and said “I’d like you to be nicer to my Mother from now on.” He woke up with a “hmm?” I told him that I’d check in on him in the morning, and then I’d spend the afternoon with Mom. I didn’t want her to have to be alone.
Parts 2 & 3 coming soon. I promise they will be shorter. And have more football.
Be excellent to each other.