Memories Of My Father
A Memorial To A Memorable Man
It doesn't matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.
Knowing that today was approaching, I debated about whether or not I should write on my father. If I were to write about him, what would I say? When do I cross the line from what I want to say and what I’m allowed to/should say? At this point, does it even matter?
My father died six years ago today of a heart attack. It was the Tuesday of my college spring break. I spent the day working on a class project. I wanted to complete my work early in the week so I could socialize and do what I really wanted to do for the remainder of my break. I sat at my computer, right next to the phone. This was the last time I sat there. I don’t know why I sat there in the first place. I detest having to answer the phone. Even with caller id, you never know what version of the caller you’re going to get. Anyway, I answered the phone and it was my Uncle Brian. From the sound of his voice, I knew something was wrong. As my father’s mother wasn’t in the best of health (or so I believed), I assumed it was her. He asked to speak with my mother and I handed over the phone as if it was a piece of hot coal. I will never forget the way she said “John? My John? He’s dead?” I looked at my grandmother who was looking up at my mom. I stared at them for the longest minute of my life. She said we would be up there (at my Nana’s house) within the hour and to not let them take him before we got to see him.
On the ride there, I kept remembering things about him. How large his hands were. How I loved watching him shave. I tried to remember the last thing we had said to each other. I watched the car clock, praying that cars would make way for us. Every second dropped from the clock like a coin in a bucket.
John Graeme Walsh was born on October 29, 1946 in Montreal. He was a mischievous kid. I’ve always had this vision of him climbing trees at his aunt’s farm, hiding from his many brothers and sisters, teasing them from his safe haven in the tree. My dad’s aunt told my mother at one point that my dad’s personality suddenly changed at twelve. He had become quiet and nervous, the man I always knew. His family came to Tewksbury, Massachusetts when he was in his teens. When I was little, my Nana told me that he and his oldest brother traveled in a pickup truck from Canada to the US with all of the family’s belongings. It sounds exciting and nothing like the guy who got so grumpy when he went on family road trips. He enlisted in the Army shortly after coming here, serving proudly for the last portion of the Vietnam War. He met my mom when he was in his late twenties, marrying her on August 26, 1976. He became a father in 1979 when my oldest brother, Joel, was born. The following year, Steven, the middle son, was born. I came along in 1984.
My Dad worked as a cook in a local hospital for as long as I could remember. I was told he was a good cook, but I only infrequently got to sample his cooking. He felt my mom to be a better cook. I will say he made a great bowl of shredded wheat and a mean cup of tea.
When I was twelve, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a serious mental illness characterized mainly by having delusions and hallucinations. Though my family had always suspected something was wrong, it took his work to get him to see a doctor. At twelve, you already are backing away from your parents, trying to become your own individual, being too embarrassed to acknowledge the people who created you. When you add an unfriendly diagnosis into the mix, it doesn’t bode well. In hindsight, none of us dealt with this well. At the time, mental illness still had a stigma. My mom told us not to tell anyone because no one would understand. Already a private and guarded young woman, this made me even more so. For anyone who knows me personally, it becomes clear immediately how closed off I am.
We all silently wondered why this had happened. How could a man so outwardly healthy be so ill? His therapist offered little help. His illness could’ve been traced back to serving in Vietnam. His illness could’ve been entirely genetic. When something like this happens, everyone points a finger. Our already strained relationship with his family became even more so. They blamed his illness on my mom and she threw it right back at them. My father became increasingly more distant, retreating into his music, books and movies. We all retreated into ourselves, not wanting to break our promise to each other, not even with each other. His diagnosis changed everything.
When I was little, I would watch him shave, wishing I could grow facial hair so I could be like him. I would wake up very early so I could sit with him while he ate his breakfast. He’d make me a bowl of shredded wheat and we’d whisper as not to wake my mother up. I’d tell him about school or my dolls or something else that only a child would find important and he’d listen to me, impressed. I’d go back to bed and be lulled back to sleep by the sound of his morning routine and his boots on the stairs. When we’d go to church, he’d hold me and I’d touch his face. My mother tells me all of the time that I’d say, “Isn’t he the most handsomest man in the world?” He really was handsome too. I just stopped allowing myself to see the beauty in him after a certain again.
Though unable to put my finger on the exact point, I know my view of him started to change even before his diagnosis. I became all about my mother, her word becoming the only law. I grew up and pulled away from him with a sharp tug. After he was diagnosed, unable to understand this new information, I became flat out cold. I couldn’t be in the same room as him. I couldn’t say one kind thing about him. When he needed love the most, I shut myself off.
After he moved out and they got a divorce, I wrote to him on the holidays. He tried to maintain more of a relationship with me, but I wouldn’t allow it. When he’d visit, I’d say hello and retreat to my room. I was too full of pain and anger to attempt to speak to him. When he died and my Nana allowed us to take the items of his that she saw no use for, I saw that he had saved every piece of mail I had sent him. I, on the other hand, tossed out the bulk of his cards. To have his words lying around meant I was allowing him back into my life. Though I’d give anything to have those cards back, at the time, keeping them beyond a first read was unthinkable.
As we pulled in front of my Nana’s house that night, I remembered all of the Saturdays that Steven and I would accompany my Dad on visits. We’d sit in one of the backrooms, watching my cousin play Nintendo, hoping the visit would end soon. I don’t know about Steven, but I went with my Dad for the car rides to and from her house. My Dad owned the cool car. He listened to the cool music. He let me eat candy. Watching him drive was the best part though. He seemed so in control and strong. I felt safe and taken care of with him at the wheel. We stopped visiting on Saturdays by the time I was in the fourth grade.
When we entered the house, it was too quiet. Two of my uncles were there talking, but I didn’t hear them. Dreamlike, I walked to the room where my father lay “sleeping.” He looked peaceful. Were he snoring, the scene could’ve been any night of week while I was growing up. I wasn’t alone with him for long. When your father has just died, no one seems to want to leave you alone. People have to check on you. People have to tell you how much of a good man he was. You don’t get a chance to formulate your own thoughts until a while later.
The wake and funeral are a blur. They went by too quickly, sucked up by conversations had with family members and family friends I barely knew. The general consensus was that he was a kind, intelligent, religious man who loved his children and his family very much. The priest at his funeral added that he was a proud American who served his country proudly, changing my dad’s blue burial suit to red, white and blue. Everyone seemed to have a different perspective on him none of which mirrored my own.
My father was the type of man you’d want to sit next to at a dinner. He was shy and charming, opinionated, but not pushy. He loved my mom very much, speaking of her with such love and respect until the day he died. He believed my brothers and I were capable of anything though he credited my mom with all of our good traits. He had enough knowledge about the world to fill a series of encyclopedias, but you’d never know this because he was too shy to spout anything off. He had a warm smile and a distinct laugh that made you feel like a winner if you could elicit either from him. He had an unwavering belief in God and wished he could’ve instilled it in his children. He was a true gentleman who never swore in front of us and always held doors. He was as tall and sturdy as a tower, but gentle as a summer breeze. Though I never acknowledged it before, he was an amazing father.
People say that when someone dies all of your bad memories of them fade away and you are left with an inaccurate vision of them. While the past six years have given me enough time to work through many of my “father issues”, he was not a perfect father. His flaws have not faded away. He should’ve taken his medicine, side effects and all, to show that he loved me and was willing to put in the effort to make things work. Unfortunately, his illness was too severe for that to happen. He should’ve been more of a father to his children, making himself more available to us than to his nephews. I understand that they needed a “father figure”, but it was just ridiculous. He should’ve been more open and told us that he loved us instead of sending the message through our mom. However, my last complaint is true of many fathers so to place it entirely on him is wrong of me.
Today, as my family encourages me to remember his death, I prefer to remember his life. He will ever remain a mystery to me. My list of questions for him will continue to grow, remaining unanswered and yellowing over time. Still, piecing together what I know personally, have heard second hand and imagine, I feel like I have a good idea of who this John G. Walsh character was. He was/is my Dad, one half of what makes me "me.