“Stop Being A Goddamn Pussy”
I was 21 years old when my father sat me down on my grandfathers patio and told me he was going to die.
I don’t mean in the poetic sense that we are all going to die someday, I mean in the sense that he was going to die within the next 8-10 months. At this point in my life, both emotionally and financially I was struggling with the terms of being an adult and what that means (and still am). I was working at a crappy burger franchise in New Jersey, struggling to make ends meet in a cave cricket infested basement apartment and commuting into New York City to do open mics. I had not really spoken to my father in months instead resorting to hanging up on him angrily and being a generally angst ridden melancholy mess. But when I received a troubling voicemail that I needed to make the trek back to Pennsylvania to my grandfather’s house to be told something strictly in person by my father, I was a little concerned. I could hear a strangeness in his voice that seemed alien to me; sincerity. And considering my father only seemed capable of expressing cynicism and anger, I was intrigued to say the least.
At 21 years old most people aren’t concerned with mortality. But I was obsessed with it. I think it all started when my maternal grandmother, after battling a long line of health issues and eventually becoming a double amputee, passed away from an infection that caused liver failure. I can remember being forced by my mother to kiss her cold mannequin forehead by my mother. That side of the family always made us do this as funerals. Kiss the forehead of the dead. I can remember the wetness of my lips wiping away her makeup to reveal that her skin had almost turned a sickening black. This awakened a strange morbid curiosity deep within me as a young man. I immediately began researching the possibilities of the paranormal and particularly of ghosts. I became fascinated in watching specials about plagues and archaic torture devices. This digressed in age with me engaging in what my friends referred to as Old Jewish Mother conversations.
“Who died this week? How? Ah, figures. Sad bastard.”
When I arrived at my dad’s parents house in Newtown (where he was living), my father was hesitant to talk about what was bothering him. In fact everybody at the house was. My dad’s mother well into her bout with Alzheimer resorted to laying on the couch and babbling to herself while my grandfather read the paper over a cup of tea. My father for once in my life seemed more interested in talking about what was going on in my life, which to me came as a surprise. He asked about the novel I was working on at the time, and after reading him a lengthy passage, he actually told me for one of the few times in my life that maybe I had a future in writing. Well, he didn’t actually say that word for word. I think what he actually said was something along the lines of –
“I think you got something there son.”
After much annoyance at small talk and prodding, my father took me outside to the patio and forced me to sit down for the news. He confessed to me that he had seen a doctor after feeling weak. After some tests, he was told that he had severe liver cirrhosis of 76% (so exact!) and that he had roughly 8-10 months to live. I was floored but after seeing him it began to make sense. My father was a severe alcoholic and since the last time I had seen him he had lost about forty pounds. His skin and eyes had turned an odd tint of yellow. As he lit a cigarette and deeply exhaled, I began to see my father for what he actually was. No longer was he this barbaric savage man I had known but instead a weathered and meager one. He grabbed me roughly and made promise not to tell anyone of his little secret. The family didn’t need to worry about him. Not quite knowing how to react to this or knowing what to say I suggested we grab lunch somewhere close by.
My father took me to his favorite pub. We begrudgingly sat at the bar and after much convincing he forced me to order a pint of beer over a hearty fattening beef sandwich. Not feeling too hungry himself, my father didn’t order any food but instead choose to order over the course of lunch 4 double vodka sodas. Which unsurprisingly to me he was able to finish before I even finished my pint. I begged him not to drink around me especially given the circumstances but all my father could say was –
“What difference does it make now?”
Welp, I guess he was right. Bottoms up.
At one point he stopped the bartender, a very cute brunette girl around my age, and told her of his strapping handsome boy who was a big shot comedian in New York City (which was false on both accounts). I was surprised. My father was not well known for dishing out compliments.
Truth be told my father was never a compassionate man growing up. Upon coming home from work my fathers favorite passtime activities usually consisted of shouting obscenities at the TV during a hockey game or toiling away on some remote controlled toy in his shed away from the family. This man talking me up at the bar was the same man who once pulled me aside in my bedroom as an awkward teenager and confessed to me that my problems didn’t really matter as I didn’t have a mortgage yet. This was also the same man who used a straight razor and a mirror to cut out his hemorrhoids himself when he was my age. So the fact that he even went to a doctor for feeling weak baffled me to no end.
Feeling uncomfortable sitting in a bar knowing he was about to kick the bucket from years of sitting in bars, I suggested we do something else. Since my father instilled in me a love of comic books and cartoons, we decided to go the movie theater down the street to see The Amazing Spiderman. I had to drive his iconic black 2002 Dodge Dakota as he was too drunk.
The theater itself was considered one of the oldest in the country and was preserved by the historical society of Newtown. It didn’t have a sprawling concession stand or a massive screen and it sure as hell didn’t seat 500 people. It sat maybe fifty, and one guy gave you a small bag of popcorn and a can of coke. His name was Steve. The theater was old and simple, not unlike my father.
I don’t remember much of the movie. To be frank it bored me and I was a little too preoccupied to pay attention. I remember it being ungodly cold, despite it being summer and I resorted to pulled my legs up to my chest and shivering. At some point my father disappeared to go to the bathroom. For about forty minutes. When he returned he reeked of Newports and vodka. I’m still now sure where he was able to get more alcohol but at that point I didn’t really mind. I had given up on trying to help him fight his addiction for the evening. Truth be told, at that point in my life anybody could tell you I had my own issues with drinking and abusing substances. Hell, even know I’m writing this in my room smoking from a two foot tall hookah and drinking a twenty ounce sugar free Red Bull.
The only thing I really do remember from the movie was right at the ending. Just as Peter Parker resigns himself to being Spiderman and saving the city, he remembers that iconic speech Uncle Ben gave him. Everybody knows it, the one about how with great responsibility comes great power but this reboot added something a little more. Uncle Ben talked about how Peter had a special gift inside him that he owed the world to express. I immediately began thinking of my father subtly praising my writing and began to get emotional. It was as if the movie was speaking directly to us. I reached my hand over and comfortingly put it on my father’s trembling knee. I looked up at him, and for a brief moment we stared at each other. Just as tears began to well up into my eyes my father said –
“Stop being a goddamn pussy.”
And we both laughed at each other.
We drove home in silence and I helped my stumbling father up the driveway of his father’s house. I tucked him into bed and he confessed that he loved and was actually proud of me.
I told him to stop being a goddamn pussy and he drifted off to sleep.
I returned to New Jersey with this immense secret like bile trying to work its way out of me. I wanted to tell somebody but couldn’t out of respect. I became irritable and isolated at work. It eventually got to the point where I nearly suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be excused to cry in the nearby food court of the mall. I attempted to uneasily stomach some cheap Bourbon chicken while contemplating that this past Father’s Day with my dad might be the last I get. And that I had chosen to work, serving heart clogging burgers and endless fries instead of taking my dad out for a fishing trip. The man had taught me how to gut and clean a fish after all.
I eventually fell into a heavy depression that strained my relationship. My timid sweet girlfriend felt helpless trying to console a moping lug like me who could do nothing but watch the movie Big Fish on loop. The entire situation seemed helpless. Even if my father could find a matching liver donor, nobody in their right mind would donate with his extensive history of alcoholism, multiple DUI’s and stints in rehab.
I had to tell somebody. I didn’t care what he said. I had to. It was driving me insane, but who could I tell? My sister only being ten at the time obviously couldn’t know, and I certainly couldn’t tell my mother. Being consumed in a bitter divorce proceeding, she would use any evidence against him in court to gain leverage. Even this. So, I resorted to telling my younger brother instead.
My brother and my father had a rocky relationship to say the least. They hadn’t had a meaningful conversation in years. They just simply did not get along and the most mundane of conversations ended in a heated debate with name calling. They were fundamentally very different people. My brother was an opinionated liberal and my father was a staunch Republican. My brother was an atheist and my father was a devout Catholic. My brother was openly homosexual and my father was an ignorant asshole. His simple minded 70’s machismo wouldn’t let him validate that lifestyle. Actually it’s no surprise as to why neither my brother nor I got along with him. He wasn’t the most supportive of people.
When I dropped midway out of a biochemistry degree in college to pursue my lifelong dream of writing and stand up comedy my father was less than thrilled to say the least. Often telling me to just give up and work a 9-5 job in a warehouse or garage to help him support the mortgage. Maybe he never dreamed big or maybe he was just a jaded realist, I don’t really know. When my brother got accepted into Columbia University, my father couldn’t even tell you where my brother was living or even what his major was. I’m still not sure he knows exactly where I live.
Regardless I felt like I had to tell somebody. I can distinctly remember shivering on the driveway of my mother’s house one night after dragging my brother outside. I told him everything. The sickness, how he looked and acted, how he actually showed remorse. My brother simply rolled his eyes and proclaimed –
“Well, I bet he has a lot of regrets now, doesn’t he?”
I for once truly believed he did.
Not even two weeks later, my father was driving home from work well into his third plastic pint of vodka when he fell asleep at the wheel. The truck collided with an electric pole knocking it over and careened into a ditch only stopping when it wrapped itself around a hefty tree. The force of the impact caused all of the windows to blow out and the cab of the truck to be blown off. The truck had been completely totaled and when the ambulance arrived my father had to essentially be pulled from the car with the jaws of life. He sustained no injuries with the exception of a bruise and a loose tooth. The luck of a drunk, I suppose.
I had to pick him up from the hospital. I remember pulling a nurse aside to ask her the extent of his injuries. He appeared fine but was there any internal bleeding, broken bones, a strained neck, anything? No, she said. With some strange suspicion building up inside me I had to ask. How is his liver? She said that although no extensive tests had been done, his levels all appeared fine. Had it all been a lie? Was he really as sick as he professed? Or was this some strange ploy to get his children to speak with him again because he felt lonely?
I’m not sure I’ll ever know for sure. But what I do know for sure is that my father almost three years later is still alive. Somehow. Still drinking like a fish. And I still rarely return his phone calls.