Thomas Dale Kirk: In Memoriam

My dad… Where to start?

Without painting a caricature of him, I’ll just say that he was well liked by everyone he knew. He always smiled around people, and he always laughed at the jokes that were told. Maybe that came from his father: that man could tell a bad joke or two.

He grew up in the suburbs north of Atlanta, and he was a talented high school athlete, lettering in baseball, track, and football. When he graduated, the newspaper said he was one of the best wide receivers to ever come out of the area.

He went to college to play football, but didn’t last quite a year before dropping out and joining the naval air reserves, eventually going to Vietnam, serving as a flagger on the USS I Can’t Remember.

He and my mom got together while he was still in high school, though. She was attracted to his personality and the fact that he was a little older. She came from a religious farming-family, and his suburban ways and secular ways probably intrigued her. Not quite a danger, he was an easy-going, athletic charmer who pushed all of her buttons. He didn’t drink around her at first, but during one of their many break-ups, she spotted him passed out in his car outside of a Dairy Queen. In hindsight, she probably should have recognized the warning signs of potential alcoholism, but on some deep level, she probably thought that she could change him, make him better.

They got married right before he left for basic training, spending the vast majority of their first four years together apart. There were bits of selfishness shining through, even in their honeymoon period. The military offered an allotment pay, where they would match the money that a serviceman sent home to a spouse. To my mom, it sounded like free money, but for some reason or another, he never sent the first one, forcing her to pay for rent and bills on her own. His visits were far from the idyllic mini-vacations that they probably should’ve been. He would frequently spend money they didn’t have, even buying a car once, leaving mom to pay for it.

There might have been a potentially unhealthy relationship with his parents after the marriage, because when he was home on leave, they would give him money (which he would pocket without sharing it with mom), and then they’d have to take him back to the airport, not letting the young couple be independent. Even after she told them that she felt like it was time for them to stand on their own feet as a couple, he still secretly took money from his parents when visiting.

In pictures, he was always smiling, even when on duty, but that’s the wonderful thing about pictures, isn’t it? They always seem to capture the smiling-moments. Who knows what went on when the cameras weren’t around… For my mom, these were hard years—husband gone, not sharing the money, and basically being forced to fend for herself, which she did, all the while not questioning her lot in life. A favorite saying of hers that reflected her outlook at this time was, “If you make your bed hard, you still have to sleep in it.”

He was honorably discharged after receiving a purple heart. The details around it are a little vague in the family, as he didn’t like to talk about his time in ‘Nam. He once told my brother that he got it for rescuing some marines when salvaging parts off of a crashed helicopter. If that’s not the real story, I probably don’t want to know the real one. The picture in my head of it plays like a movie. “Paint it Black” playing in the background, gunfire erupting all around as my dad heroically rescues an injured marine…

When he got back to the states in ‘72, they started a real family, my brother being born later that year. One of his first jobs after returning was working as a draftsman for Western Electric, drawing up drafts and grids for phone lines and such. He and my mom worked for the same company at first, in the same building, within eyeshot of each other. My mom was a clerk, and she would get a phone call from him whenever someone came up to her desk (which happened a lot, because she was in charge of handing out pens, paper, and paper clips). He always wanted to know what they wanted and why they were talking to her. It drove her crazy, and she eventually applied to be transferred to another department so she wouldn’t have to be harassed by her husband at work. Soon after the transfer went through, he quit anyway.

He bounced around from job to job, serving as a police officer for Atlanta before transferring to Fulton County, putting him a little closer to the family. Later, he went to work for the Roswell police department, each time leaving before he could build up any seniority.

That would be a frequent occurrence, and after 14 years of marriage, he had managed to rack up 11 different jobs. At one point, he had even become the store manager of an auto parts store, but when his parents’ neighbor, who was a big shot with the company, called him out on his job-hopping, he quit, leaving behind yet another burned bridge in his wake.

It was as if he could stay at a job only as long as everything was going smoothly. As soon as someone challenged him or critiqued him in some way or another, he’d get pissed off and quit. He never went without work for long, though, as he was always able to land another job without much trouble.

Easy come, easy go.

At home, though, things were getting a little more tense. My mom always worked, and he never contributed to their monthly financial responsibilities, leaving her to take care of rent, bills, and groceries; his money was his money, and she never saw any of it. Times were different then, as women didn’t question their husbands as readily as they do these days.

To make matters worse, if they went out with friends for dinner or something (which didn’t happen a lot; for the most part, they lived a date-less marriage, devoid of romance), he would feel the need to be the bigshot and pay for everyone’s dinner, even though they didn’t have the money. Basically they lived off of mom’s paychecks, even though he made more money, because no one but him ever saw that money, nor does anyone know what he did with it.

I don’t really remember the full family unit that much. I search through the memories, and I find glimpses of things, him laughing at the television, sitting in his chair, smoking a cigar. But that’s pretty much it. I vaguely remember a story about him peeing in a closet, only later realizing that it was because he was too drunk to realize where he was pissing. There are other little images here and there—nothing of substance—but I do remember the night that they told us they were getting a divorce, not because I was traumatized from it—I started crying because my brother was crying, not because I knew what was happening—but because I would re-live that night over and over through the following years, trying to find some bit of information or missing detail that I had not noticed at the time.

After that, things seemed to settle down a bit. I’m not one of those people who cry about having divorced parents; I don’t really have a frame of reference for it, as it happened young enough for me not to really know any real difference between that and a “normal” family. I know that my mom gave and gave and gave, as one would have to being married to my dad. He was selfish, to be sure, and by her own words, she felt like it was something deeply ingrained in his entire being. Fourteen years is an eternity to be in a one-sided relationship, so on some level, it seemed like a necessary eventuality for everyone involved.

My mom got the house and the kids, and by her own admission, she could provide better for us by herself than with him, so our every-other-weekend relationship started with our dad.

He bounced around houses like he bounced around jobs, living in a woman’s basement apartment, his dad’s basement, a trailer in Jasper, a home in Kennesaw, a home in Alpharetta, and back to his dad’s basement. Through most of that time, he worked for Lockhead Martin, but he changed jobs within the company fairly frequently.

I loved our weekends with dad. They were like vacation: we stayed up late, ate pizza, watched scary movies, and my brother and I played. There wasn’t much more that a kid could ask for, really, well except for a relationship with dad. Most of the weekends were spent with us sitting in front of the television as we filled our stomachs with pizza, popcorn, Little Debbies, and all the soda we could drink. We over-indulged in entertainment, giving my brother and me our own language built from 80’s comedies and horror stories. Most nights ended the same way: our bellies full of junk and our dad passed-out drunk in his chair, ashtray over-full of cigar ashes.

I got to experience a unique form of jealousy, as he remarried a couple more times, both times marrying someone with kids.

His first remarriage was to a younger woman who had a preschool-aged daughter. I thought she was fun, even though she was spoiled in my pre-teen eyes. I remember calculating the size and approximate value of our Christmas-present piles the Christmas we spent together, and I didn’t like what I saw. Never mind the fact that I had two piles (one from my dad, and one from my mom), as that didn’t make it into my pre-pubescent math equations.

They didn’t last much longer than six months together, and before too long, he had married again, this time to a widow who had been friends with my parents from back in the day. She had three kids: a son and two daughters, and I loved them. The son was in between the ages of my brother and I, and he was an athletic kid who had his own lawn care business. He let me help him a couple of times, even throwing me a few of his well-earned bucks. The younger daughter was my age, and we played together a lot when we came to visit. The oldest daughter was off at college, and I remember only hanging out with her a handful of times during their marriage.

Both my dad and his wife, Demetra, smoked, so the entire first floor of the house would be full of coarse clouds, a mixture of menthol and cigar. I didn’t mind, though, as we spent most of our time either upstairs in one of the kids’ rooms or outside on their awesome trampoline.

I had never seen Christmas piles as huge as theirs; they were like department store displays, full of professionally-wrapped presents haphazardly ripped apart, their contents sitting among the wreckage on Christmas afternoons when my brother and I would finally show up. I remember not being jealous, though—their father had died, so I cut them a lot of slack in the my-dad-loves-me-more department.

When they divorced, I lost another family that I liked, and the weekends turned a little darker. Around this time, dad got in trouble with the law for the first of several times, and while I didn’t know how to deal with it, I still remember when he told us about it.

One Saturday morning, my dad had come to pick us up after my soccer game. In the car, the kids’ screaming and excited yells trickling in through the cracked windows, he told us that he had gotten in trouble with the law, and that there was a chance that he would have to go away for a while.

We found out soon after that he had gotten in trouble for arson. I didn’t really understand. I knew what arson was, but that was something that bad people do. Criminals. My dad had a purple heart. He smiled when he talked to people. He laughed at jokes. He always said, “I love you” to my brother and me. There was no way that he could have done something as horrible as that.

The following week or so, I remember reading an article in the paper about the heroic man who had recognized a suspicious truck outside of one of the newly built houses that soon afterward was burnt to the ground. I re-read the article, sure that I was missing something. “Heroic”? No, that was my dad. The criminal turned him in.

It was confusing for a fourteen-year-old, but I imagine it was confusing for everyone who knew him, as he was such a nice guy.

He ended up not serving any time for that specific crime. The judge knew the family, as my grandfather had lived in that town since the 1910’s, and my dad got off with just a fine and lengthy probation. The burned-down houses were parts of a newer development; no one had even bought them yet, so it had been an expensive but victimless set of crimes.

His mood had turned darker, more sullen when we visited after that. It coincided with his mom finally succumbing to her decade-long battle with cancer, and it was probably some sort of deep-seated trigger, awakening a demon from within, threatening to consume him. He moved back in with his dad, surely made ever more bitter by the fact that it felt a little emptier in that house without his mom there. I remember that it was a nightly thing, trying desperately to shake him awake as he passed out in his chair, shirt off, a string of drool falling from his lip to his chest.

He would wake for a second, laugh a bit, his eyes unable to focus on his two sons, trying to get him to go to bed, before slumping back down, empty cans of Coors Light sprinkled all around his chair. Some had become makeshift cigar-ashtrays, others slightly crunched from him squeezing them after finishing the last chugs.

Sometimes he’d sleep in the chair, us unable to wake him, other times he would stumble the ten or so steps to his bed, right next to my brother’s bed and mine. He would be slow to wake in the mornings, but the day would start as the previous one ended: movies on the television and junk for food.

During the week, when we weren’t there, he started drinking and driving a little more frequently. Although it had always happened, he had avoided a lot of casualties, save for the time he totaled his VW bug, sending him to the emergency room. He got pulled over for it this time, and got a slap on the wrist. Two more DUIs later, and he had to serve time.

I still didn’t understand exactly why this was happening, and I was confused as to who the good guys were. I knew cops were good, as they were there to protect us, but they were the ones that put him in jail, which is where the bad guys were. My dad wasn’t a bad guy. A sixteen-year-old doesn’t quite have the ability to understand the complexities and shades of gray between right and wrong, good and bad. Those were issues that I would try to deal with much later in life.

We wrote letters back and forth, and around the time that he got out, I was at the age where I didn’t have to visit him on the weekends if I didn’t want to. I was busy with school stuff—going to debate tournaments on the weekends conflicted with our visiting schedule—so I decided to stop going. I can picture him now, hearing over the phone for the first time that his youngest son wasn’t going to be coming every other weekend, the sadness gnawing at him as he drank more and more. He would call, slurring his words, tongue two sizes too big, saying that he was sorry and that he loved me. I never questioned that. And I never will. Selfish people can still love others; it’s just hard to see it, and often it’s impossible to feel it.

He moved away for a while, saying that he was living near Lake Lanier, and then later, saying that he was living near the ocean. He never did move to the ocean, but in some way, I felt that he was trying to impress us, and maybe on a deeper level, he was trying to impress himself.

A little later, after another round of DUIs, he was arrested again and shipped to South Georgia to serve time. We wrote back and forth, and I remember talking with him through those letters, along with the occasional phone call, about finally being done with drinking. I don’t demonize alcohol, fermented beverages aren’t evil per se, but for him, it was destructive. He had no way to control it. It consumed him from the inside out, taking his personality, his smile, his genuine humanity. He swore up and down that he was done this time, and even though we all had heard it before, I believed him.

My senior year, he was released, and my brother and I went to pick him up. We stayed the night before in a hotel, just outside of town, and it felt good to go on a trip with my big brother.

He had had his own run-ins with the alcoholic version of dad over the years, and he had seen how much power and shame it had created in him. When he had visited him at college one weekend, his friends had told him that he seemed drunk, and after a drive out to his hotel, noticed that dad had tried to hide a six-pack from him. On some level, he knew that it was bad for him, not because of what it did to him—I don’t think he had internalized it to that level—but because he felt the need to keep it secret. The user had become the used, and I can only estimate the level of shame that helped fuel the cycle.

Needless to say, after years of uncomfortable meetings with our dad, it was weird to be about to get him after his release from jail. When we got up the next morning from a semi-restful night on too-firm mattresses from a cheap hotel, I was nervous. At seventeen, I didn’t know my dad. I knew of him, his habits, the things that made him laugh, the movies that made him cry, but I didn’t know this man that we were picking up from the penitentiary.

The drive to get him was nerve-wracking, and seeing this gray-haired man walk over to us was a truly bizarre sight. Older, much more so than he probably should have been, he smiled as he walked toward us. We hugged and got in the car.

The first stop was the convenience store so he could buy cigarettes. Georgia had recently passed a state law that government facilities—even prisons—were to be smoke-free, so he was itching for a smoke. Standing outside with him as he smoked, I lit up, trying to show him that I was cool, too. His Winstons weren’t as cool as my Camels, but still. Even after all that we had gone through, after all the disappointments that maybe would’ve mattered to some, I was still trying desperately to impress my dad.

The second stop was a Waffle House so he could enjoy some real food, and he insisted on leaving the tip. I didn’t really know where he had gotten the money, because he had asked me for money from time to time while in prison, so maybe on some level, I left the tip, too. He gave the waitress a five and told her that he was just released and that he was happy to be out. I remembered being totally embarrassed. Not because of what he was saying necessarily, but the fact that he was proud of something that I didn’t feel he should ever be proud of. Jail was something to keep hidden, safely under the rug, and certainly not something to throw around to some waitress that he’d never see again.

After that, he moved back into his father’s house, ready to start getting his life back together. I went back home, ready to put all of the jail-nonsense behind us.

He came up for graduation, and the pictures from it show a happy man, smiling big for the camera as he watched his youngest graduate. I was smiling, too, ready to get on with the next stage of my life.

We talked on the phone occasionally when I was in college, but it wasn’t long before he started drinking heavily again, moving from his dad’s house to somewhere unknown to the family. His phone calls became infrequent, but he once again told me about the sounds of the ocean outside his window, the smell of the salt air, and his tan. I was happy for him, and happy for myself, too, because I got all confused whenever we talked, as I didn’t know who he was, who he really was. It felt oddly comforting and normal for him to be in an unknown location, far from me. I pictured him as a man with close-cut gray hair, lean and tan, doing odd jobs in some ocean-town hours and hours away.

In my fourth year of college, he told me that he had moved up to Lake Lanier, and he’d like to see me. He gave me an address, and since it was only an hour or so away, I agreed, curious to see what kind of man he was becoming.

I was living in a house off campus with three other guys who all had their own girlfriends and semi-permanent residences that were in other places, so I knew we’d have pretty much the whole house to ourselves, which meant that I wouldn’t have to be embarrassed of him.

I picked him up, and he brought a can of beer with him, along with a backpack filled with clothes. He opened the beer about halfway on the trip, telling me to not worry about it. We got to the house, after making a stop for a case of beer, and I left him alone to go to work.

When I got back from work, he was passed out on the couch, Star Wars playing on repeat on the television, the surround sound system cranked up. My dog was lying on the floor next to him, and he jumped up when I walked in, wagging his tail in that excited way that meant he needed to go potty.

I tried to wake dad up, but he was too passed out, so I left him there and went to bed.

The next morning, I got up to find him sitting up, watching Star Wars, an open beer next to the overfilled ashtray. It was ten o’clock in the morning, and the beers had already started. We hung out for a while, just chatting about nothing and watching the entire trilogy before I had to go to work again. He had six of his beers left, plus six of my own in the fridge.

In the middle of the dinner rush, I was busily making salads as fast as I could when my manager came running over to me. He said that there was a phone call for me and that it was an emergency.

As I ran back to the office, my manager stepped in, gloved up, and started making salads as tickets flew out of the printer, typical of a Saturday night at the steakhouse. I frantically ran back, worrying that something had happened. Was it my dog? Did dad try to walk somewhere and get hit? Did he pass out and leave a cigarette on the floor, burning down the house?

When I picked up the phone, a thick-tongued voice was on the other line. It was dad, asking if I could pick up some beer on the way home, because there was no more in the house. I told him that it was ridiculous to call me at work about beer, and he said in his guilt-tripping, passive-aggressive way that he was sorry to have bothered me and that I shouldn’t worry about my poor dad. Then he hung up the phone without saying goodbye.

Livid, I finished my shift and went home, but not before first enabling his further improper behavior by stopping at the gas station and getting a twelve pack. When I walked in, he ran up to me, liberating the twelve pack from my hands and tearing it open as he plopped back down on the couch, setting the twelve pack on the floor instead of in the fridge. On the television was Star Wars. Again.

My heart sank. My dog, an extremely social and friendly dog, who usually only liked to sit on people’s feet, was in my room when I walked in, and he came up to me, head down like he was in trouble. I patted him and sat down, grabbing a beer from the carton.

I drank two of them, and by the time dad passed out, there were only four remaining, bringing his two-day total to 37 beers. The next morning, he polished off two more before I took him to my work for lunch on our way out of town. He drank two 24-ounce steiners, even prompting the server to say that he had never seen someone drink one as fast as he did.

I paid and we left.

I probably sped the whole way to his house, anxious to get back to my own life, free from this man who was content to drink his way to oblivion. I couldn’t watch anyone do that to themselves, much less my own father. We stopped at the gas station down the street from his place, and he came back out with two twelve packs.

I hugged him as we said goodbye, his eyes clouding with tears as he tried to tell me how much he loved me. I heard the words, but they meant nothing to me—too much embarrassment and disappointment clogged the distance between us. They mean something now, but I’m far removed from that place. Sympathy was getting all used up, and like my mom years before, I couldn’t watch him do that to himself anymore.

I stopped calling him, and I stopped answering unknown callers. It would have either been him or a credit card collection agency, anyway, and I had no desire to talk to either.

Around this time, unable to deal with family issues, a slipping GPA, and a growing drug habit, my own life started to spiral. The more my own life went out of control, the more anger I felt toward my dad. I didn’t blame him; I didn’t pity him; I didn’t feel sorry for him. I judged him, reflecting all those qualities back into myself, letting that toxic feedback loop intensify my own shame, guilt, and depression.

Over the course of that spring, my life changed directions. I got a phone call from the university, informing me that I wouldn’t be able to take out anymore student loans, as I had dropped too many classes, and my GPA wasn’t high enough to continue with government assistance. Soon after that phone call, I slept through my alarm and showed up for work a half an hour late. It was my third strike, and even though my general manager hated to do it, he let me go. With no job and no school, I was falling into my own self-loathing despair, mirroring the very qualities I so despised in my dad.

The next few months were hard. I lived out my lease, saying good-bye to my home, and I moved in with my big brother, once again mimicking my dad’s ability to get himself into situations where the only way out was back.

I fell into the same types of self-destructive patterns as before, and it wasn’t long until I had to move in with my dad’s dad, further completing the circle.

Like father like son.

I got a job at a corporate restaurant, and I worked hard, working my way up from server to bartender quicker than most, and I was making really good money, more money than I could’ve hoped to make with my abandoned degree. I didn’t save any money, instead I spent it as fast as it came in, buying people’s rounds, expensive strains of pot and mushrooms, and little nerd-trinkets, subconsciously reaching for some past that was long gone. I ran errands for my grandfather during the days, as his health was fading fast, and because of his random seizures, he couldn’t drive himself anymore.

This went on for a time, until one day a guy came into the bar, saying that a friend from college had put me down as a reference. He motioned me over to the empty side of the bar so we could talk a little more privately, and I came down, eager to hear about who would’ve thought I would make a good reference.

When I leaned in to hear what he was about to say, he told me that he was with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and that we needed to talk. He suggested we go out to the back dock.

Nervously, I got a coworker to cover the bar as we walked through the prep area, right by my backpack, filled with two ounces of Mexican mushrooms that I had gotten that morning to share with some of my fellow workers.

My life flashed before me right then. Not some kind of cheesy, syncopated Ken Burns-style photo compilation of my past, but a collection of all of the futures that were not going to happen anymore. My job? Gone. My family? Ashamed. My future? Four walls and a bunk.

It was over.

I held my head high as I closed the door to the back dock, sealing me in a fenced-in area, complete with stinking, rotting food scraps and stale, spilt beer.

Fitting.

He did a quick look around, ensuring no one else was out there with us, and he said that he used to work with my dad on the force, back in Atlanta. He saw his name come up, and he picked up the warrant, not wanting someone else to go after him. He was wanted for parole violations and failure to appear in court. With his history, he was going to have to do some time. In a serious penitentiary. But he didn’t know where he was, and he needed help finding him.

I breathed a sigh of relief, hopefully not too obviously, and told him that I didn’t know where he was. At this point, it had been almost a year since I had heard from him, but I knew that he had been near Lake Lanier for a time. He nodded his head, saying that he had checked there. He gave me his card and said to call him if I heard anything, stressing that it would be better for him to find him than some random cop looking to make a point.

I took it and walked back into work, my get out of jail free card probably used up.

My dad turned himself in less than a month later. He had been living just north of the lake; I have no idea what he was doing, or if he was doing anything at all for work. With that, he started his third stint in jail. Only later did I find out that it stretched beyond DUIs and parole violations. There was also check fraud thrown into the mix.

With him safely behind bars, I started writing to him, and occasionally talking to him on the phone. He usually asked for money, which both me and his dad sent. He also asked for money from his sister, telling her that we didn’t send him any money. We made him care packages, and I sent those, too, along with some books that I was reading, helping me move on with my own life. Somewhere in those books, I hoped he would find a way to live a real life after he got out.

His time kept getting reduced, the jail situation in Georgia making that happen: as more and more people were getting locked up, the less violent were released earlier than normal on many occasions.

As his release date approached, I felt the need to get out of town. I was living in the home that he would soon be living in, too, and I had been doing good recently, staying away from hard drugs, keeping my drinking down to an almost nonexistent level, and saving a little money here and there.

A friend of mine and I decided that we were young enough to move to the west coast, and it sounded like a fine idea. I’m not sure if I ever consciously made the connection with the timing of his release, but on some level, I always knew that I was running away. Running away from my dad and my bad habits.

Before I moved, I sent a letter to him, this one almost five pages long, telling him about how important it was that he clean up and take care of his dad. I implored him to be a good son, a responsible son. One that would be there for him, sober, able to take care of him if needed.

It fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t long after he was released that he fell back into the same habits, even stealing checks from the back of my grandfather’s checkbook to buy beer.

I threw myself into my new life, far away from the stress and worry that always accompanied thinking about my dad. I had a good job, a great girlfriend, and life was perfect.

He called infrequently, always trying to mask his slurring. I was polite and cordial, and we very rarely ever got off the phone without saying “I love you,” but it was important and necessary that there was this seemingly insurmountable distance between us. I could deal with him as long as I didn’t have to deal with him.

One morning, approaching the Christmas of ’04, he called to say that he was in Mississippi, driving cross-country to visit us. I panicked. I didn’t want him around my fiancé, and I didn’t want him in my house. I told him to turn around and go back home; my future in-laws were going to be in town, and there wasn’t enough room for everyone. He hung up, no good-bye, no “I love you.”

It was a long time before we talked again, and I know that I hurt him deeply. He didn’t come out for our wedding, and he wasn’t invited to the reception that we held an hour north of his home. That was a place for friends and family. The ones that exhibited their love instead of just saying it. I saw him after the party, spending a few hours in my grandfather’s smoke-filled house. His eyes were glazed the entire time, that same half-smile on his face—the one that made him look like something was constantly almost, but not quite funny.

When I left, I thought that it would be a long time before I would see him again. I just couldn’t take seeing him that way.

In those pictures from ‘Nam, the ones that are now split between my brother and I, he always looked so youthful and energetic. He was active, and he liked to pose for the camera. That’s how I wanted to remember him. I didn’t like seeing him a sack of skin stretched over bones, almost toothless from years of neglect and self-destruction.

Not quite a year later, I got a phone call late at night from a Georgia area code. It was my brother, saying that something had happened to dad. He had fallen on the carport, hitting his head on some bricks, and he was in serious condition in the hospital. They needed me there.

I flew home almost immediately, friends covering my shifts at work. When we got to the VA hospital, my brother and I went to his room, and there was a pitiful old man, tubes coming out of everywhere, subtly shaking as he lay on the hospital bed. He didn’t look like my dad. He looked older than his dad.

Not only was he in a coma, but his body was going into detox, as he didn’t have any alcohol flowing through his veins. I spent a week there, visiting him daily, and the doctors said that he could be like this for a long time before they knew if he’d recover. With my return flight approaching, the family encouraged me to go home, saying that there wasn’t anything that anyone could do right now.

When I got on the plane, I kept my phone on as long as I could, and as the flight attendants told everyone to turn off their electronic devices, I reluctantly complied.

When we landed in Portland, I turned my phone on and saw that I had a message. His condition had worsened considerably, and my brother had called me mere minutes after I turned my phone off. They needed me to come back; his brain had started swelling, and there was nothing they could do to stop it. It was up to the two of us to execute the living will.

I went to work and talked to my boss, who agreed to give me as much time as I needed, and I bought a plane ticket for the next day. I was not looking forward to this trip, and there were hints of guilt beginning, pointing to some sick part of me that was happy to control dad’s destiny, finally putting him out of his misery.

I took off the next morning, and as my layover turned into an increasingly long one, due to some freak storm that caught the airport by surprise, I was simultaneously grateful for the stay of execution and exhausted from the range of emotions constantly flooding my mind.

I was sad. Sad for my family. Sad for my dad. Sad for his father, who never quite recovered from the loss of his wife twenty years prior. Sad for my brother.

But I also had hints of anger. It was his own fault that he was in this position. He was drunk when he was in the carport, and he was so drunk that after he fell, he told his dad that he was okay and that he just needed to sleep. He had crawled in from outside (the doctors couldn’t even understand how he did that), and hid under the dining room table. My grandfather didn’t even notice him at first when he got up. He had lain there, in a pool of his own blood, and after my 90-year-old grandfather picked him up, he laid down on the couch. The paramedics arrived hours after the fall, hours after they could’ve done something to help him.

And I felt guilt. Guilt for all those times that I didn’t see him. Guilt for all those times that I was embarrassed of him. Guilt for running away to the other side of the country just to get away from him.

As my flight finally took off for my final leg of the trip, dad passed away. It was an act that I believe, in some unrealistic and idealistic part of my being, he did to spare my brother and I the responsibilities of ending his life.

As I made my way off the plane, this new voicemail replaying over and over in my head, a numbness surrounded me. I was grateful to not have to pull the plug, but it meant that I would never see him alive again.

My brother and I went back to pay our final respects, and years of regret and sadness poured out of me. Here was this man, this man that many had loved, but few had really known, finally at peace from the demons that had ensnared him for so long. He was just a shell, but he had been a shell for so long, that there was really only little difference from before. There, leaning on that cot, I cried tears that had wanted out for so long. I cried for his pain. I cried for the sadness that I saw in his own eyes as he talked about regrets. I cried because I knew that when he said “I love you,” he meant it with every fiber of his being. I cried because I lost my dad, even if I had lost him years before. I cried because of the instantaneous forgiveness that came from deep within my body, a forgiveness that was so profound, so sudden, that I didn’t know why it had taken so long to come out.

I hugged my brother, not like a typical brother-hug, but one that felt stretched from some primal place to the very edges of reality. I felt all of our sadness. All of our missed happy memories. All of our loss, a loss that started long before his death, and carried with it no real reason.

He was laid to rest in the National Cemetery, a resting place for those that served in the military. The service was quick, and as the men folded the flag and gave it to my brother, I sent my love to my dad. Unabashedly and for the first time in a very long time.

* * * * *

People mourn the loss of loved ones in unique ways. There isn’t a unifying constant when they depart, except maybe for crying. The Irish drink at a wake. That’s the one I’m most familiar with. My brother and I are not Irish, nor would it have been appropriate to act like we were at that time.

After the dust had settled, I still had about a week before my return flight back home, and I decided to spend that time at my grandfather’s house with him and my brother.

When we were younger, we got a Pong system, later upgrading to the Atari 2600, then a Nintendo, and then so on and so on. And even after we went our separate ways, gaming was still a constant in my brother and my relationship. So our wake was gaming.

Sitting on the floor of his room, my brother and I spent the better part of the following week venting our frustrations on the screen, shooting robots, aliens, and each other, switching it up from time to time to Grand Theft Auto, where we would carjack hot rods, outrun the police, and cause virtual mayhem. There weren’t a lot of words exchanged, other than the occasional cuss word, lobbed at the screen or to each other, but for me, it represented a timeless place, one anchored in our past. That past of kids playing games, the happy family sitting behind them, the dad puffing on a pipe, the mom knitting. While that wasn’t our real past, it felt like we were approaching that mythic pseudo-reality as we threw ourselves into the game world.

My grandfather sat in his chair in the living room, the same position that I remember him in for years and years. After he lost his wife, I remember seeing him there, head down in his hands, crying. He told me later that he was done with life. He wanted it over. But he kept on living, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. He had his dark days, much like everyone else does, but in the morning, he would get up, come to the living room, turn on the television, sit in his chair, and start his day.

During one of the breaks from gaming, I sat in there with him, thinking about all of the times I had done just that, sat with him watching television, and I couldn’t help but get a little angry at the way my dad had thrown in the towel.

His suicide wasn’t a typical suicide—a bullet to the head or too many pills—it was a gradual erosion of his humanity, one that took years to culminate in the final act of self-destruction. No matter how much I think about it, it’s hard to find a singular cause to his decades-long suicide. It could have been clinical; it could’ve been PTSD. It could’ve been an undiagnosed bipolar disorder that necessitated, in his mind, constant and thorough over-indulgence in alcohol. It could’ve been alcohol itself, starting the snowball’s descent down his mountainous life. It could’ve been the bubble that surrounded him, insulating him from real connections with those that he loved. I’ve seen him try to poke through that bubble, hearing echoes of regret, and seeing the genuine pain in his eyes as he drunkenly cried as he said that he was sorry for everything.

Sorry for everything. That one phrase was uttered frequently to me, both on the phone and in-person, and I always wondered what “everything” meant to him. Was it that he was sorry for the way his life ended? Or was it that he was sorry that he didn’t know how to spend real time with this kids? For him, spoiling us through watching movies and eating treats was love, and maybe that’s everything.

A picture of him, taken a few months before he passed away, shows a much different man than the one from all of those dusty pictures from ‘Nam. It was of a man, only 60, but aged decades beyond that arbitrary number. The sockets in his eyes were deep, but they didn’t hide that constant sadness that he just couldn’t shake. He wasn’t smiling, self-conscious from his lack of teeth, and he wore a look of moderate confusion.

I can’t help but think that he was trying to make sense of how his life had ended up like this. A promising athlete, gregarious and funny, and yet simultaneously closed-off and emotional to the ones around him, unemployed and living with his father.

He could behave like a child if he didn’t get his way, deftly wielding his tools of guilt-tripping and passive-aggressive rhetoric until yet another person would enable him. His parents did it. My mom did it. My brother did it. And I did it. We all enabled him in some way throughout a major part of our lives. It was hard not to.

He was my dad.

 

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2 thoughts on “Thomas Dale Kirk: In Memoriam

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