Gifts from My Father

“Even in this most extreme of living states, close to death, he maintained the tough, ironic Texas grit that marked his whole life.”

About eighteen months ago, my father learned he had a rare kidney disease that would progressively, inevitably so wreck the various organs of his body that one of them—heart, liver, lungs, brain, blood vessels, skin, the kidneys themselves—would fail, and he would die. Intellectually, he accepted the fact he was going to die. He did not rage against the dying of the light—rage is not his style—but neither did he offer to help reduce the wattage. He prepared for death in a way I found completely characteristic. He seemed to take some pleasure in the fact that only two other people in South Texas had his disease, and that the doctors had told him it was completely unrelated to the two packs of cigarettes he had smoked every day for 57 years. The powerful combination of drugs he took every morning made him feel, by his own account, like he had “just drunk a quart of cheap whiskey and was trying to drive uphill on a bad road in an overloaded Model T truck with no muffler.” Still, he kept on driving. By summer he had a little collection of adding-machine tapes indicating how much and how long the payments would be for the sale of his business, how much various men owed him, what the interest ought to be on his certificates of deposit, how much stock he had in the Tri-Country Farmer’s Co-Op, and how much it would be worth when he died.

All his life he had driven modest cars, lest he offend the farmers with whom he had worked. Now, he drove to San Antonio and paid cash for a fully equipped, top-of-the-line maroon Lincoln Continental. A few days later, when I rushed to his hospital bed to be present when he died, wondering what blessing he would bestow upon me, what his last words of advice or caution or love might be, he opened his eyes and said, each word slow, labored, and barely audible, “Did… you…see…my…car?”

I spent much of the next several weeks with him in that hospital room, thinking about what it means to have a parent die. I realized, as I had at the birth of my oldest child, that it was not the first time this had happened, which diminished its importance just a bit. But I also knew I was experiencing the universal, which ennobled the event immeasurably.

I thought about what it had meant to be his son. I don’t know whether our relationship was anything extraordinary or not. I remember wishing he would play with me more, much as I suppose my children wish I had played with them more. He always worked hard, but sometimes in the summer he took me on business trips and, after a day of sitting in a sweltering car of a cluttered, dusty office in a grain mill or a warehouse or a fertilizer plant, he would buy me a hot roast beef sandwich and take me to see a movie starring Francis the Talking Mule or Eddie Bracken or Leo Gorcey and the Bowery Boys. In the fall, we always managed to see several Southwest Conference football games, and at least twice he took me to the Sate Fair. He made me believe it was important to shake hands firmly, to remember names, and to look people in the eye when I talked to them. He tried to make me believe it was important to wear a hat and lace-up shoes. I knew he was smart and honest, and it pleased me that, when it came time to build a new high school or recruit a new doctor for the town, he was always one of the three or four men everybody knew would have to be in on it. Not everything I heard or knew about him was good, but the balance was clearly in that direction.

I was pretty sure he was proud of me, but learned not to expect him to say much about it. I was also pretty sure he thought it was something of a waste of talent for me to become a preacher or a teacher or a writer instead of going into a field with more substance to it—like the agriculture business. As recently as three years ago he suggested I come to Pearsall for a couple of months and learn about what he did, in case I ever had to take over. When I suggested he come to Houston for a couple of months and explain it to me, he was incredulous; after all, he had a regular job. On the other hand, when I overheard him talking about “that boy of mine that went to Harvard and teaches over at Rice,” or when I met someone whose only impression of me had come through him, I could tell he wasn’t entirely disappointed.

It was not a simple matter to fasten these strands of memory that trailed across my mind to this deteriorating figure in a hospital bed. The legs that had stepped off fields in a strong, measured stride were now white and hairless and thin, except for water-filled knees. The wrinkled feet were like balloons that had been inflated to capacity and allowed to go down. The swollen stomach summoned images of starving children. The organ that had propelled half of me into existence and that had first represented “man genitals” to me was now virtually useless even for its most basic task, unable to contain the involuntary flow. To compound the sense of strangeness, his charts and nametags listed his first name as “Lowell,” and the doctors and nurses called him that, even though an injury he had sustained as a teenage left him a nickname—“Peggie” (short for “peg leg”)—that was a permanent and natural as his slight limp and as unfeminine as his Stetsons.

As I looked at him for days, it became more difficult to remember how he had looked when he was well than to imagine

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