Tuesday, November 19, 2013
How I Killed My Father or Why Some Family Stories Deserve to Die
My father died when I was 19. I'd only been out of the hospital and back at college a couple of weeks when a late-night knock on my dorm room door delivered the news. That same January while I spent a month in a Minneapolis hospital, my niece found out she had cancer and was given 6 months to live. "Don't cry," my mother told me when she showed me the letter.
The first time I heard the story--that my father's worry over my and my niece's health was the catalyst for his heart attack might have been as we stood in the cold February drizzle watching as his coffin was lowered into the grave. Or it might have been in the restaurant where the post-funeral meal was served. "It was just too much for him,"someone said. I'm not even sure who said it first, but after the words were uttered, they entered the ether of family lore--a sort of poisonous cloud that hovers over us swirling with a myriad of un-truths and half-truths that can be uttered by anyone at anytime.
You don't know the half of it, my younger self would think when anyone re-accused me of my father's death. You think the worry over my surgery killed him? Ha! What no one but my parents knew was that I'd had a secret pregnancy the summer after my high school graduation. My secret was found out with barely enough time to hustle me into the Iowa countryside where I hid out with a foster family before giving the baby up for adoption. That ought to be worth a coffin nail or two. I trudged around with the mantle of guilt for a decades silently bowed by its weight while simultaneously shouting "Bullshit!" inside my bursting head. Like many family stories, this one was grossly oversimplified. There was never any mention of my father's troubled business dealings, his high blood pressure, the fact that he was 73 and still responsible for a young family.
This past Sunday evening--our dining table graced with the presence of the man who loves me, M, and her girlfriend--my mother hauled out the story for another go around while I waited for the punch line. "It was just too much for him," she said.
"Yup, Mom," I said. "Sorry. I killed him." Given the state of my mom's hearing aids, and her imperviousness to irony these days, I'm not sure that, in her estimation, I acquitted myself. But now I'm on a mission to listen more closely to the stories I tell. Family life is never simple. The stories we tell about our big events and about one another ought to reflect the complexities in which the conspiracy of genetics and fate have bound us to one another.
Do you have a family myth, dear reader, that deserves the death sentence?