On Monday morning, I called Dad to wish him a happy birthday. His wife, Vicki, answered and said she was about to go looking for him. She was worried. Dad is always working on something in the basement or the yard or the woods behind the house, but since he is now experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s his wandering can be dangerous. Twenty minutes later, on the verge of a panic attack, she finally found him quietly reading in their bedroom and had him call me.
“Hiya! I’m here. I’m always right here. I keep telling them.”
“I know, Dad. Happy birthday! What are you up to?”
“Oh, I’m moving the stones around. There are so many stones! These stones are thousands of years old and it’s just tremendous what people can do with them!”
“That’s awesome. Are you building something?”
“Well, I don’t know. The person that knows more about it is the person that I love the most and she’s sitting right next to me.”
“That’s sweet, Dad. Vicki is really great.”
“Yes, she is. And I’m wonderful. Tell me that I’m wonderful.”
“You are wonderful, Dad,” I laughed.
The conversation was funny, but it makes more sense than you might think. Dad really has spent most of his life doing archaeology and teaching kids at the state museum. Sometimes he was invited to my school where he passed around birds and chipmunks that he had stuffed himself. He has always spoken the language of leaves and earth and rivers and since his retirement, he’s been building furniture out of fallen branches. He started by leaving miniature handmade chairs outside of bookstores and Home Depots with little notes attached, saying “I’m an orphan chair, please take me home.” It’s no surprise that, even as he loses his memory, he’d be out gathering stones.
But it’s not just the Alzheimer’s. Dad has always had trouble remembering things, especially names. Growing up, when knowing who called me ranked up there with the importance of food and water, he could never take accurate messages. “Melissa called for you. Or Meghan. Do you know a Melanie?”
“Did they call today, Dad?”
“Today or yesterday. You know I don’t like to answer the phone!”
“Why did you answer the phone?”
“To make it stop ringing.”
I used to think it was the effects of his previous alcohol abuse, back before he married Mom and adopted me. Or damage from the electric shock treatment they gave him in jail after he was arrested for stealing a Greyhound bus and plunging it into a lake. He was drunk then, but the stunt also had some larger social context. At least he said so in the book of poems he later wrote about it.
Whatever it is, Dad has always had trouble keeping things straight. Not baseball game scores or Native American history or what time to leave for work. Just certain things. One weekend in junior high, my friends and I were waiting outside of a fun park where Dad was supposed to pick us up. When he didn’t show, we called my Mom who told us that he had just returned home from attempting to pick us up at a skating arena in another town. Maybe he confused roller coasters with roller skates. Maybe he just had more important things on his mind.
Later that year, he staged a protest by burning the American flag outside the Albany courthouse. Well, he tried to burn it, but the flame wouldn’t catch. Still, it was enough to get him chased by angry veterans, his picture on the news, hate mail and phone calls and slashed tires. And it was enough to get me some hate speech of my own at school, from a few of my more conservative classmates. Dad wrote poetry about the flag burning too, featuring his persona, White Boy.
If he wasn’t at work, Dad could usually be found on the living room floor, leaning back against the couch with legs outstretched, cutting, folding and stapling his tiny booklets together. He wore t-shirts and Levi’s (which he called dungarees), and his brown curls had a spirit as wild as his own — he had no use for combs. His blue eyes glanced up from time to time to catch the baseball game on TV. When he got up, he left behind an outline of pastel paper slivers in the shape of his body. I didn’t get it at the time, but he was a giant of the underground press, self publishing and distributing more than 160 thousand pamphlets, in addition to his other writing. He sent out submissions constantly, each one with a self addressed stamped envelope. Our mailbox was always jammed full of fan letters, acceptance letters and, no doubt, plenty of rejections.
Between Dad’s exploits and Mom’s confrontational artwork (our dining room boasted an oil painting of Dad with the text Good Fuck), I was growing accustomed to not being understood by my peers. So I did what any self-respecting 13-year-old would do. I threw a keg party. It had all the requisite characteristics of an out of control bash — loud music, drunken breakups, uninvited guests, a visit from the police, and pizza deliveries that no one admitted to ordering. It also had some unique characteristics like our electric toothbrush being planted in the garden, the microwave being filled with dish soap, and the dirt from two broken houseplants somehow ending up in the piano. To top it off, a tape of the party was stuck in the video camera. (We got it out, but I lost track of that tape — if anyone reading this has it, please get in touch.)
Mom and Dad were in New York for the weekend, but Dad returned the next afternoon, earlier than expected. There I was, with a half-cleaned house trying to glue a broken leg back onto a chair. Afraid to face him, I hid in the study, where my “friends” had ransacked his papers. Pamphlets were strewn everywhere, ripped, crumpled, and missing. The following week, the pamphlets made their way around school along with stories of the party. Everyone knew my Dad was the infamous White Boy. And of course, I was in trouble. Not that much though. My parents were never great at punishment.
I don’t remember talking to Dad about what happened, the loss of his work, or my feelings about being the daughter of White Girl and White Boy. He just kept on writing, submitting and teaching. He kept on getting tattoos, performing his poetry in the nude and pitching for five softball teams every summer. And he kept on forgetting. But one of the things that remains constant, even as Dad’s memory gets cloudy and his ability to express himself erodes, is his enthusiasm. Last year, at his 70th birthday party, he gave an impromptu, five-minute speech about how beautiful we all were. Someone gave him a rainstick as a gift and he walked around the room showing it to each and every person. Dad’s excitement has always had a childlike quality and when you talk to him, it’s difficult not to get excited too. Even about stones.
So, here’s to you, Dad. You drove me crazy growing up, but I think I’m starting to get it. The world is crazy. You actually make a whole lot of sense. Happy birthday.
Please visit my facebook page for the musical pairing to this post, dedicated to Dad, who — you’ll be shocked to find out — is not on facebook. He’s in the garage.
Poet of the Hard Pavement Returns to the City Mission, 1988
SEEING RED, WHITE AND BLUE – FLAG BURNING ANGERS VETERANS, 1989
Nary A Spark, No Flags Burned in Park, 1990
Teaching’s Easier Through A Thick Skull, 1994
Underground Press Conference, 1995
Just Because I Didn’t Leave The Driving To Us I Got Jailed And Juiced Good
It’s A Table, It’s A Bench… It’s A Dutch Throwback, 2003
Fan Is At Home With His Favorite Team, 2003
Taking A Seat, 2005
The Albany Poetry scenes, as seen through Dan Wilcox’s lens, 2008
Freedom of the Press: Artists Publish on the American Presidency, 2009