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>Dad, Death, and Grieving

December 27, 2009

> These first few posts outline the events that, ultimately, led Mom to move us to Mexico. This one gives some background on Dad and my relationship with him. Next week, I’ll do the same with Mom. Please let me know your thoughts in the Comments box. And, if you’re having trouble with the comments, email me at



A combination of things drove Dad to suicide. First, he contracted TB for the third time and would have to go to a sanitarium. The disease went undetected by his doctor, even though he went in every two weeks for a shot of air under one of his mostly-destroyed lungs. I wanted to ask why he needed the shot but I didn’t know if I wanted to hear the explanation; I hated shots and couldn’t stand even to think about getting one like that. Mom and Dad had explained to me that TB ate away your lungs so I simply imagined an air bubble holding up what was left of one of his.

SNAPSHOT: That’s Dad, sprawled unconscious on the white-speckled-with-red-and-blue linoleum of the kitchen floor. Mom is kneeling next to him. The late morning sunshine streams through the windows, falling on Dad’s face.

A second cause had to be Dad’s addiction to barbiturates and painkillers, particularly codeine. He was getting prescriptions from his doctor and there was always a bottle of Empirin with codeine in our medicine chest. Mom once referred to Dad as a “codeine-head.” I came into the kitchen one morning and found Dad collapsed on the floor. Mom was on the floor next to him, cradling his head in her lap, dabbing at his brow with a wet cloth.

I froze. “What happened to Dad?” My voice quivered.

“He took too many pills.” She glared at me. “Don’t you ever say anything to the neighbors about this! If anyone ever mentions it, your Dad was picking up something from the floor, stood up and banged his head into an open cabinet door, knocking him out. Understand?” I nodded. I knew why she wanted me to do this but I was vaguely uneasy about telling the lie. I also wondered how anyone would ever find out.

Dad had a high-paying, high-profile job at the time. He was LA’s top newscaster, delivering twice-nightly fifteen-minute newscasts on channel 9, KHJ, the “Alka-Seltzer Newspaper of the Air.” His addiction progressed to the point where it began to interfere with his job. He was talked to. He was warned. He was reprimanded. He was fired.

A marriage that was coming apart at the seams also helped push him over the edge. There was increasing tension between Mom and Dad, leading to more frequent and increasingly harsh arguments. In 1954, when I was eleven, we were driving back from a weekend trip to San Diego when they began yet another argument, which escalated into a yelling match. All of a sudden Mom screamed at him, “Stop! Right now! I’m getting out! I’m not going another inch with you!”

SNAPSHOT: That’s our car, pulled over to the side of the road. Dad is behind the wheel. I’m in the back seat, on my knees, looking out the rear window. Valerie, my baby sister, is next to me. Mom has just gotten out of the car and is walking away.

Dad didn’t say anything, he just pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. If he thought Mom was bluffing, she wasn’t. She jumped out of the car, slammed the door shut and started walking down the road in the direction we had just come from. She was crying. Dad, again without a word, pulled back onto the road and resumed driving toward Los Angeles, silently, just as if nothing had happened. It was a terrifying silence that screamed at me and I wanted to scream back, scream at Dad not to drive away, scream at Mom to come back. Valerie was too young to understand but I was scared, very scared. I was sure I’d never see Mom again. But when we arrived home, much to my joy, she was already there. I didn’t know how she got home and I didn’t care. It didn’t matter: She was there. But I was still scared.

Dad did the things dads are supposed to do. He played catch with me and took me to ball games. He got involved in Little League, working with me on my skills (for all the good it did; I think that disappointed him) and announced the games over the PA system at our ballpark. One day, he brought home an expensive baseball mitt, a Rawlins. How I loved that glove! I flexed it and oiled it regularly, used it all the time. I remember how distraught I was when I accidentally threw it in the incinerator one day when I took out the trash (all the houses had incinerators behind the garage; it was a time when smog didn’t matter) and it burned. Dad brought home a brand new glove for me that evening, a better one than the one I had lost.

SNAPSHOT: That’s me in bed with my entire collection of stuffed animals, twelve of them. They peek out from the blanket, perch on top of my pillow, rest on my chest and legs. Dad sits on the bed next to me. He’s holding the book he’s going to continue reading to me tonight, The Gnome King of Oz. My stuffed chicken roosts on his lap.

My warmest memory of Dad was him reading to me almost every night. I had a complete collection of the Oz books that he had started collecting when he was a boy and passed on to me. I had all the Baum books, all the Ruth Plumly Thompson books, and books by subsequent authors John R. Neil (the wonderful illustrator of all but the first book) and Jack Snow. Most of the books had color plates which I loved to lose myself in, imagining myself there, part of whatever was happening with the Gnome King or Scraps or Ojo. Not only did Dad read them to me, I read them to myself. At night he might be reading from “The Emerald City of Oz” and during the day I’d be reading “Grampa in Oz”. The Oz books became my closest companions, my best friends, my escape from a sometimes harsh world to one where nothing really bad ever happened. If nothing else, I owe much to my Dad for that, for the time, the love, the experience.

But some of my memories of Dad are very disturbing: I’m standing in Mom and Dad’s bedroom, with Dad. I’m probably eight years old and I’m wearing nothing but a pair of Mom’s panties and I have an erection. Dad laughs and calls out to Mom, who can see us from the kitchen: “Hey, Jeannie, look at this!” I’m embarrassed and confused. Why does he do this? Decades later, I’m still embarrassed and confused. Why did he do that? Why did he yell at me on another occasion, “You’d run around town with your penis hanging out if you could!” just because my zipper was down? I doubt he said that to just anybody whose zipper was down. Why me? What did he mean?

And another unpleasant memory: Jimmy, a boy who lived on the street behind us had come over to play and we got into an argument. It escalated from arguing to yelling to punching each other in the arm, prelude to a fist fight neither of us wanted but neither of us knew how to get out of gracefully. I particularly wanted to avoid fighting because he was taller and a year or two older. Dad could have intervened but, instead, he kept yelling at me to hit him in the face, hit him in the face! I did and Jimmy hit me right back in the face and I ran into the house, crying. As I passed Dad, he looked at me in disgust. “Coward!” he said.

                                            * * * * *

It’s 1955 and Mom and Dad’s marriage is crumbling like a handful of dry autumn leaves. My own guilt was in measure with their anger and bitterness toward each other: I was sure it was all my fault. If I were a better child, or if I loved them more they wouldn’t be fighting.

It culminated with another terrible row one night and Dad stormed out of the house in a rage, the whole house shaking when he slammed the front door. I was more fearful than ever, fearful over what was happening to Mom and Dad, fearful still that I was somehow the cause of their anger and fearful because I realized there was nothing I could do about it. It was the last time I ever saw Dad.

                             Death and Grieving

It’s October, 1955. Three days had gone by and we heard nothing from or about Dad. We moved through the days numbly, feeling that something was terribly wrong, wanting it to be over but dreading to find out. Valerie’s constantly repeated question, “When is Daddy coming back?” took on increased desperation with each repetition, and with each repetition laid bare what Mom and I didn’t want to talk or think about.

It was a Thursday night when we got the word. We were having a silent, tasteless dinner. I didn’t feel like eating or doing my homework but Mom insisted on both. After dinner I flopped on the floor, chin cupped in my hands, watching TV, watching it listlessly, much like I ate my dinner and did my homework. Valerie was already in bed and we could hear her crying. After watching “The Lone Ranger,” I headed to bed.

I’d just barely fallen asleep it seemed when Mom woke me up. The hall light trickled through the open door of my bedroom, throwing a pale yellow beam on the clock. I looked at it. One-thirty. I looked back at Mom. “Your father’s dead, David,” she says. “The police were just here.”

“OK, Mom,” I said, and went back to sleep.

SNAPSHOT: I’m sitting at Adam’s desk, in his bedroom, one very much like my own: desk, chair, lamp, bookcase. The cowboy curtains with their bucking broncos match the bedspread covering his neatly made bed. I’m reading comics. And laughing.

The next morning Mom dropped me off at the house of my best friend, Adam Stallworth, while she went to take care of the multitude of unknowable and unforeseeable details attendant on a death. After Mom left, with Valerie in tow, I followed Claire, Adam’s mom, into the kitchen where she offered me a bowl of cereal and some toast. It tasted no different than last night’s dinner. When I finished I excused myself and went into Adam’s room and went right to the box of comics I knew he had in his closet, taking out several to read. The impact of Dad’s death hadn’t hit me yet and I began to read them. I not only read them, I lost myself in them. The stories were predictable, familiar, comfortable. The characters were my friends and everything here was safe. I laughed at the stories and Claire came into the room, her face and voice betraying anger and confusion. “Don’t you know your father is dead?” she remonstrated. I looked up but didn’t say anything.

Again. “Don’t you know your father is dead?” and the undercurrent of her voice went on silently: “How could you be laughing? Don’t you know my children would never be laughing if their father died? What’s the matter with you?”

I knew I had stepped over some line, transgressed some adult boundary. Truth was, I didn’t know how I could, I just could. I didn’t really believe Dad was dead. He’ll be back, just wait and see. I didn’t need to be sad. He’ll be back. Just wait and see. But Claire wouldn’t have understood.

Looking back on this incident as an adult, I know things now I couldn’t possibly have known at the time. Since then, I’ve grieved over the death of my sister, Valerie, at the age of thirty, over my divorce in 1980, over the estrangement of my son when he turned twenty-one, over the death of Mom. I know now that people handle grief in many ways. This was something I didn’t know at the time and, apparently, neither did Claire. I know now that my method of dealing with grief is to be stoic in public, to cry in private. I didn’t know that at the time, although that’s how I handled it. The only time I remember crying in front of anyone was three months after Dad died. I threw myself into Mom’s arms one Sunday morning and cried, sobbing how much I missed Dad. She said nothing, simply comforted me.

I still grieve, silently, over Valerie’s death, a loss that continues to affect me more deeply than any other. I grieve that I didn’t do more to come to her defense against Mom’s verbal and emotional assaults, to be more accessible and open to her throughout her short life, to more openly return the love and affection she always showed me. She was my little sister but I never was the big brother I should have been.

I have yet to cry over Mom’s death and probably never will, not for any lack of tenderness or lack of sense of loss. But I realized even before she died that that was all she wanted to do, all she was waiting for. It was a relief when it finally came and I didn’t grieve that she wasn’t still here, living a miserably unhappy life.

                      NEXT: Mom’s Decision & A Special Kind of Person

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 28, 2009 4:57 am

    >Wow! This was some tough, honest and concise writing. Since I knew both your mom and Val, it was also hard to come to grips with the darker side of their lives, because I only saw glimpses of that – my memories are mostly happier of them. Keep up the enlightening.Captain B.

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