My dad died recently. He didn’t like me very much, but it wasn’t personal. He was not a big fan of the human race. My dad was an angry man, and the whole family was subjected to his wrath. His anger, violence, and insults were commonplace, but it was his consistent lack of interest in any of his children that perplexed me the most. When I was 19 years old, I called home to tell my mom I was going to the movies after work with some friends, but my dad answered the phone and said in a calm but angry voice, “Nobody gives a fuck what you do,” and hung up on me. I stood there stunned, staring into space for a few minutes. I already believed this, but hearing it out loud validated what I always knew to be the case: Nobody cared about me.
It would have been wise to realize he was just an angry man and that I called at a bad time, but there was too much truth in that statement for me to let it go. It served as a lubricant on the downward slide of my self-destructive spiral. It became my mantra, and I would actually repeat it to myself as I was sticking needles in my arms to get high. (It’s a lot easier to justify sticking needles in your arm when no one cares what you do.)
When I started living a different kind of life, I made a gallant effort to get to know the man who had never wanted to know me. I would visit my parents and sit on the patio with him and try to engage him in conversation. I figured that it was my fault, that I was guilty of doing the same thing I accused him of doing, not showing an interest. I also believed that my dad might have some good stories to tell if I dug deeply. He grew up in the Deep South; he went to prison when he was 17; he drove a truck all over the country. Surely he must have tales to share?
But I never got one. It became frustrating to learn that he seldom left the freeways or ventured beyond the truck stops, and that he had little curiosity about the world around him. My dad had only a few simple stories, and he repeated them over and over. I gradually learned that his lack of interest in people permeated all areas of his life. Eventually I gave up on finding a connection, a depth, a secret side to this simple man. I realized he lacked passion, and it is baffling that I came from the same gene pool. But he never stopped being capable of saying really mean and hurtful things at random, or revealing his lack of interest by not knowing what my major was when I was in my fourth year of putting myself through college.
But I accepted him and realized this was how he was and that we could never have the close kind of relationship I craved, the kind that required two people in partnership. I accepted the limi-tations of our relationship and took it for what it was. But given my drug history, I figured I at least owed him the decency of showing my face so he could see that I was healthy, happy, and didn’t need money from him. When I became a mother, I gifted him with a beautiful grandson. My dad liked little kids until they were about 7 or 8. He got a kick out of watching my son play with toy trucks at our Huntington Beach home, and I was happy to provide that entertainment for him. But in some ways, this increased the gap in my understanding. As a mom, the idea that someone could not be completely enamored with their own child made him even more remote, even less relatable.
About 10 years ago, I was visiting my parents and my dad picked up a book I left on the coffee table. “Do you see that?” I whispered to my sister. “Dad is reading my book!” He kept reading, and I kept watching. My father was not a reader; I never saw him read a book while I was growing up. He was a guy who liked watching Westerns. “Let’s see if we can find someone getting killed” was his favorite saying while channel surfing. He had no hobbies. He had no interests, except maybe drinking and surviving.
I thought about the book he picked up, “The Tie That Binds” by Kent Haruf. I would never have had the audacity to buy my dad a book, but if forced to, this was a good choice. The language was simple and straightforward, and it was a beautiful narrative, with great character development, set in a small town. My dad read it quickly, and when I asked him about it he said, “I enjoyed it.”
“Well if you like that book, I know another one you would like,” I ventured. And thus began the pattern of me sending him books. Mom was still our primary form of communication, and she would tell me how much he loved the books I sent, how he would go straight from the mailbox to the recliner and read them quickly. He never had any words about the books, but this didn’t surprise me. Eventually he began to ask for books, and I would say, “Yes, I have a good one for you,” or “No, I haven’t come across one lately.”
My mom tried to get in on this new reading passion and started buying Western novels at garage sales, but he never got into them and she couldn’t understand why. I explained, “Mom, I’m not just buying Dad books. I read them first. I usually read about three or four books a month, so that is at least 36 books a year. Of those 36 books, there are usually four or five I know Dad would like.”
One time my mom told me I failed, that I sent my dad a book he thought was weird. “Mom! That book (‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’) wasn’t meant for Dad!” I replied. “I sent that book to Paulette! (My niece was living with them at the time.) Tell Dad to put that book down. I would never send him a book like that.”
We all knew Dad was dying. One of my sisters really put him on the spot for some type of closure, but I knew this was too much to ask. The last time I saw him, he said from across the room full of family, with tears in his eyes, “Well, Donna, you seem happy. I’ve always loved you and if I got mad at you, it didn’t last.” I said I knew that and I loved him, too.
And that was it.
When he died, I asked my mom if I could have all the books back. They are my inheritance, our legacy, the physical evidence of our relationship. I don’t have a single handwritten letter, note, or card, not a single gift, photo, or special memento. Nothing other than 20 really good books that I knew my dad would like, books that I will one day pass on to my son.