My Dad died two weeks ago. The doctor waited until my mom (divorced over 30 years) and I arrived at the hospital to take him off the respirator and fill him with morphine so we could watch him fade away. Even after a year of cancer, his body was still impressively large and firm, just as I remembered from childhood. But his hair was sparse and grey, his eyes closed, face saggy, and mouth hanging open in a helpless, hopeless death gasp. As his breathing slowed, his skin first turned pink and then grey. I held his hand and caressed his forehead as he breathed his last. His skin was soft.
We had not been in contact much over the last twenty years. He rarely answered emails or returned phone calls. The last time I saw him, about four years ago when I was attending a conference near his home, I tried to talk about my divorce, and my daughter and about Luna in Thailand. Instead he changed the subject to his eternal problems with computers, attitudes towards tofu and difficulties with the city government—stories almost identical to those I had heard twenty years ago. After that meeting I consciously made few efforts to maintain contact.
He was a hoarder. A serious hoarder. It was not just a few cabinets filled with excessive toiletry supplies and a couple of piles in remote corners of the house. That was how I grew up, when the impulse was held within pretty firm boundaries. No, this was a labyrinth of towering piles blocking doors and windows, with narrow pathways winding between them, and no place to sit and no access to appliances. Over the years he had never tried to hide it from me. He told me about how he could no longer dig through to my old toys on my shelves, about the broken water heater, about which portions of the ceiling had fallen in, about the raccoons living under the bar. But he was my Dad, my childhood model of strength and competence. I assumed he would deal with it if he saw that it was a problem. Over the past twenty years, however, our rare meetings had always been away from the house. He did not want me to visit.
So, even though I knew most of the details I was still unprepared for how I felt when I entered, for how unlivable it was, for how far it had gotten beyond his control. A single trash-strewn pathway wound from a futon on the floor of the living room, through to the functioning bathroom and a single stool by the telephone in the master bedroom, and then on to my old desk in my bedroom at the opposite end of the house, where he kept a laptop computer and towering stacks of bills and bank statements going back twenty years. We found dozens of bottles of mouthwash, a hundred pairs of clean socks, over thirty tubes of anti-fungal medicine, three unopened computers, five weed whackers, hundreds of uneaten cans of food spilling out of the kitchen cupboards and into the sink, copies of Sgt. Pepper’s, Pet Sounds, and Disraeli Gears purchased around the time I was born, all of my old report cards and camp brochures, hundreds of unused paper tablets, two bicycles, several unassembled shelving units, and a cache of Black Sabbath cassettes. Extension cords were threaded throughout the piles leading to the few sockets that still worked. Somewhere underneath it all were the remnants of a different age of accumulatin: a pool table, a massage table, a dinner table, a water bed, a stand-up piano, an old VW bus, a Porsche from the 1950s, and my old shelves still filled with my old toys and books.
But most of all there were books. At the deepest level were bookshelves filled with his old psychology books. And then scattered in piles sometimes 30 to 40 books deep around the house, were more recent books about film criticism, the history of torture and violence, neurophysiology, the history of Christianity, fix-it-yourself skills, photography techniques, estate planning, military history, and expensive volumes of historical pornography and erotic art from around the world.
My dad had been taking classes at the local state college since his retirement in the early 90s. He took classes in nearly every department, but some of his favorites were dancing, theater and art. We, of course, found evidence of this in the house. We found a couple of dozen boxes of unopened clay, thousands of dollars worth of unused camera lenses and lights, two easels, three boxes of acrylic paints, dozens of brushes, subscriptions to several art and photography magazines and, at the very top layer, wood carving tools that suggested the emergence of a new interest.
But he was using these materials, not just accumulating them. While the house was closing in on him, his soul was opening up. He had already sent me two books of photos that he had taken in the surrounding hills. He had converted the front courtyard into a nice little sculpture garden, with his colorful ceramics and a couple of wooden sculptures. The centerpiece was a welcoming penis and pussy on the front porch, each about two feet high. His paintings were the most interesting. There was a lady peeing on a cat with an erection: a vagina dentata (i.e. a fanged pussy: he once elaborated mythologies of the vagina dentata to me in great detail); a pregnant man with headphones touching a woman’s nipples; a man using a chainsaw to cut cocks off of a tree; a man peeing blood into a leaky bucket; a man with an octopus on his head; expressionist images of people exposing their innards; and a crocodile licking a woman’s vagina. The best ones were three three paintings that mixed colors, cock, pussy, nipples and praying hands in a way that was almost spiritual. Some paintings were surreal, some dark and some humorous. Even my mom—who was fairly repulsed by most of the paintings—still chuckled at the walking eyeballs staring at severed nipples. (And, to my surprise, my born-again cousin absolutely loved all of the paintings).
These all reminded me of the father I was so attached to as a child. He was the dad who created a special world for us, who followed his own interests, who encouraged curiosity and tolerated the unusual, who was confident in his own perverse perspectives. It was the dad that made me feel special and amazed at the world. As I learned over the years, he was also the dad who had encouraged my atrocious social skills, my poor grasp of what was socially acceptable, and a tendency towards self-isolation. But at the same time, my willingness to think differently has been the one talent that I have been able to rely on over the years. And these paintings brought me back to the warm space of my childhood, in which a unique and iconoclastic perspective opened the doors to a world of possibilities and shared love.
I don’t have the hoarding impulse—indeed quite the opposite. But as I have gazed at these paintings over the last couple of weeks, I have realized the great extent to which the clutter of his house is an externalized version of the clutter in my own mind: piles and piles of half-digested and inaccessible information, gathered and left lying around for god knows what; cheap food, socks, mouthwash and underwear stored up for emergency, but ultimately betokening a life of mere survival at the expense of pleasure or hospitality; small orderly spaces carved out of the clutter to deal with telephones, bills and the demands of the outside world, but ultimately only papering over an deep indifference to the sustainability of the rotten infrastructure under neath; and somewhere deep underneath a pieces of large expensive furniture and machinery that are evidence of past achievement. And poking through is evidence of a stubborn and idiosyncratic creativity, still struggling to find form, and marked by an unrepentant perversion.
I also have a bit more of a work ethic than my dad. I managed to shoehorn some of that information into two academic books and several articles. But I don’t think that “work ethic” is actually the right word. It was probably more of a compulsion to live out my Dad’s unlived life, to gain his approval. When I was a child, my parents were extremely tolerant about what I wanted to do, except for one consistent message: “School is good, and more school is better.” So that is what I did: I went to school, I went to school more, and I never left. I know my Dad would have loved to have been a university professor. After several years, however, he was barely able to finish his MA degree. Writing extended essays was not one of his talents. So I lived out his dream for him (even marrying a woman who once said she would divorce me if I dropped out of graduate school). And all he ever said about my job was to make cracks about how easy the work load is for professors.
We did not hold a funeral service. I took my dad’s ashes to the top of one of the hills in the book of photos he had sent me, and I scattered them around the bases of the trees. I scattered some money and flowers in the ashes like Luna said I should, to help him on the path to the next life (although Luna said I should have put them in his hand before the cremation, not after it). I thought how much I admired and was attached to him as a child and cried a bit. I said aloud, “I have to break with you now, I have to find my own path,” which made me cry some more. I walked down the hill and put his urn in the trash.