(Originally written on March 23, 2011.)
I came to a somewhat startling conclusion today. I’ll have to give you some back story before we can get there, and honestly, this is going to take a long time, so if you need to use the bathroom or grab a cold one before we begin, I can wait.
Go ahead. I’m serious. I’ll wait.
All right, now that we’re all settled in, except for that jackass that finally got up to go grab a drink, I’ll begin. It’s going to be a long, twisty ride. Do try to keep up.
For those of you who have never dated me (especially my guy friends), this may not even seem like it’s ever been a concern in my world, but I guarantee you that it has not only been a concern, but it has interfered with a lot of my life for the last ten years or so. I’ve spent countless hours in therapy trying to deal with it. I’ve broken things, destroyed things, thrown massive fits, yelled at people, and even bled from trying to deal with it. I’m speaking, of course, of my father’s death.
My father, James P. Sabata, died at the ripe old age of 54 in 2001. He was a heavy smoker. He didn’t eat healthy at all. He also did not take the fact that he was on a road to death very seriously at all, unless things were happening that caused him to actually look it in the eye and deal with it. In 1992, he had a six valve bypass. That means they replaced six valves in his heart, because they were too blocked to get any blood through. Humans have eight valves. So 3/4 of his were useless. The other two weren’t exactly a blood flow super highway. When he got out, he promised to stop smoking. He quit about nine years later, ten days before he died. Even then, it wasn’t really by choice.
I was fourteen years old when he had the six valve bypass. I clearly remember a doctor telling me my father would not make it through the night and that I needed to say goodbye to him. I remember bawling in the waiting room of St. Elizabeth’s while people stared at me, having no idea what to do for me.
He pulled through. My next memory is sitting in a waiting room with my Aunt Judy. I remember the announcer paging “Dr. Kruger.” Freddy was coming for me. Judy sat me down and told me she was going to take me to see my dad, but that he didn’t look like himself and that it was going to be scary. I agreed, having no idea what awaited me. The yellow man on the bed was not my father. My father was human. My father did not have a giant scar from neck to belly button. My father did not look dead. This man was not my father. So I did what any kid would do. I screamed, started crying, and ran down the hall.
The thing I remember after that is my Uncle Guy (one of the most fun Uncles in the whole world) hanging out with me in the hallway of the hospital. He got us two wheelchairs and taught me how to race them down the hallway. My dad eventually got out of the hospital, but I couldn’t tell you when or how or what else happened. I remember my mom and grandmother deep cleaning the house to get the smoke out of it, thinking that would keep him from wanting a cigarette. Guess how well that worked. 😉
I spent the next nine years waiting for him to die. We fought constantly. I thought he didn’t understand me. I thought he didn’t care. I thought I was a huge fucking disappointment to him. I didn’t play sports. I wasn’t successful at anything other than picking up girls, and I wasn’t even good at that until I was eighteen or so. My friends were losers. (Sorry guys, but face it, we played Nintendo at Kevin’s house during prom. Don’t argue with me on this one.) My father and I had things in common, but I didn’t think we did. We would travel a lot together. He would annoy me by telling me pointless stories or, god forbid, singing along with the radio in the car. He only listened to AM stations, which made it so much worse. I hate the sound of static. The only time we got along when the radio was on was when Paul Harvey prepared to tell us “the rest of the story.” We would try to guess the answer and celebrate if we were closer, or, on those rare occasions, actually got the answer right. Then it was right back to Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings and their duets with my father, as I stared out the window, watching trees fly by and wishing I could turn the channel or at least make him stop.
We both loved football. He was a 49ers fan and a Green Bay Packers fan. He was a Huskers fan. As such, I was a Dallas Cowboys fan, a Minnesota Vikings fan, and an “Anyone playing against the Huskers” fan. It never dawned on me that we could like the same team, cheer for them together and bond. Oh no. It had to be a fist fight. It had to be bragging rights. The joke’s on me. I am engaged to a 49ers fan. Brett Favre (my father’s favorite player after Joe Montana) went to my beloved New York Jets and then the Minnesota Vikings. And I’ve come to secretly enjoy watching the Huskers on television just to get glimpses of my hometown. When the Jets played the Packers this year, I bawled, wishing I could watch the game with my father. Not to fight over it, but just to enjoy a fucking game with him. When the Jets lost 9-0, I swear to God I heard my father’s laughter.
It was the same even with Professional Wrestling. My dad loved Hulk Hogan. So I loved Andre the Giant… then Savage… Then Sgt Slaughter… and so on and so forth. To this day, I love bad guys in wrestling. My dad would never admit he liked watching wrestling, but those are some of my favorite memories of spending time with him. Luckily for me, the bad guys tend to win a lot on TV. 😉
The thing we had in common, more than anything else – the one time we would totally agree on something and love doing it… the one thing I wanted him to teach me… was playing pool. I insisted on churching it up and calling it, “billiards” and he would roll his eyes and scoff at me. But damn if we didn’t have some great games down in the basement. My father’s pool table is a beautiful regulation size green felt table. They tell me it took six men to get it into the basement. My mom has always told me it will stay with the house when she sells it/dies. I disagree. If I have ANYTHING to do with it, that table will end up somewhere safe. Not because I need a pool table, but because of the security I feel when I touch it. It took me a long time to play pool with anyone other than my father after he died. I would hang out at the bar and watch my friends. Sometimes, I would wear my sunglasses so they couldn’t see me tearing up. When I finally did, it was for a girl. I was on a date. She and I were competitive, but in a fun, relaxed way. She whipped my ass at a video game. I killed her at darts. Then she said, “I guess that just leaves the pool table.” I wanted to forfeit. I wanted to tell her I don’t touch those things. I wanted to say, “It’s sacred to me. The last game I played was with my father before he died, and I want it to stay that way forever. I’m retired.” But she looked so fucking good in those cutoffs. I think my dad would agree I made the right choice. I won, by the way. With a behind the back shot my father had taught me when I was eight. I suppose that counts as honoring him or something, right? 😉
Between football, wrestling, and even pool, I came to believe we disliked spending time together. We were always griping at each other. I look back now and I see that was just how we interacted. At the time, I took it as he didn’t like me. Fighting controlled every aspect of our lives. He would ask “too many questions” and I wouldn’t answer and we would fight. He’d walk in on me with some girl and we’d have to “have a little talk”. I always thought he was an overbearing ass, but in reality, he was more my friend than my parent. He could have been way more strict. He was, instead, easy with the cash and gave me a ton of freedom. Probably too much freedom. I don’t think he really had any clue how to raise a child and was just trying to fly by the seat of his pants. Some days it worked. Some days it didn’t.
Flash forward to Christmas, 1999. I had moved out of the house. I was living with my friend, Scott. I was all excited, because back then, I was immature enough to think that having a place with four other guys made me a man. I couldn’t be bothered to come to Christmas at my mom’s house. Oh, fuck no. I was a man now. They needed to come to me. My father was getting weaker every day. At the time, he didn’t know why, but there was already a giant tumor growing in his chest, sucking out his life. He actually made the trip to my house, on the other side of Lincoln. He and my mother came to the house. My roommates had all gone home to other states for Christmas, and I was alone. My dad made my mom promise not to tell me how much pain he was in. He came into the house and leaned up against the couch. I asked if he wanted a tour of the house and he said, “We can just sit in here and talk.” And we did. He didn’t want to see my room. He didn’t want a tour. He didn’t even ask where the bathroom was. I was pissed as shit when they left. I didn’t understand why he was so closed off to seeing where I lived. I took it as a personal insult, thinking he was mad that I had left the house. I was so incredibly stupid and stubborn back then. I still am, but not as much on either account.
The following April, I received a phone call that my father was at a doctor’s appointment and my mother thought I should go. I arrived and was shown to his room. My father filled me in on what was going on. He had a tumor in his lung that was larger than a golf ball. He showed me the xrays and explained the prognosis. He handled it really professionally, and honestly, it made it less real to me. I still broke down. I still thought he’d be dead within a week. I called my newest girlfriend, who was living in South Dakota and she skipped work and came down to be with me in my time of need. Do you think I was there for my father that night? Hell no. It was all about me, like it’s always been. I should have been at their house. I should have been discussing what needed to happen or even how long he thought he had. But no. I was at my house, watching a movie with my future first wife. That year is a blur for me, but there are a few moments that truly stick out. The most important being the time we thought Naomi was pregnant. It took me two days to figure out how to tell my parents. I knew exactly how they would feel about it, since we weren’t married. When we told them, my father just said, “Fucking kids these days.” and walked away from me. He didn’t speak to me the rest of the time that I was at his house. Less than a week later, Naomi started spotting and ended up in the hospital. My dad was having chemo on the other side of the hospital. When he found out, he walked all the way across St. Elizabeth’s hospital (no small feat). It was so soon after chemo he was probably still radiating the rest of us (just kidding). He made it to where we were and just grabbed me and hugged me. Then he said, “I just needed to be here.” At the time, I was like, “Oh, cool. My dad’s here.” But I really didn’t understand how big of a deal it was that he had come that far so quickly after chemo. I look back now, and I’d like to bitch him out for endangering himself by walking that far. But I’d also like to have my hug back. Naomi and I eventually had three of the coolest kids on the planet, but my father did not live long enough to meet any of them.
When I decided to marry Naomi, as wrong as it is, I did it for the worst reasons ever. I wish I could apologize to her for it. I wish I could explain it to her. I’m not sure anyone other than me fully understands it. I knew my father was dying. It was one month short of a year of the day I found out about his tumor. I knew he didn’t have much longer. He was looking like shit. He dropped a ton of weight. He lost the majority of his hair. Between chemo and diabetes, his arms and legs were covered in sores. It didn’t take a med student to see where the fuck this was heading. I thought, for some unknown reason, that if I got married, he would see that I was no longer a little fuck up. That it somehow equaled being a grown up. That it would somehow show him I was going to be okay without him. As most of you know, my marriage not only ended, but the entire things served to show I was a huge fuck up. That I was not a grown up in the slightest bit. And let’s be honest, I was not okay without him. But with all the heartache and insanity, my marriage did give me three wonderful boys who were cheated out of one of the best grandparents that would have ever existed. Anyone who ever met my father can tell you how much he would have loved my kids and how he would have let them walk all over him.
*Off topic, sort of, when my oldest son, Kaleb, was barely old enough to talk, he would always go over to my father’s picture on the wall and say, “Papa!” We never called him that. Only Kaleb did. Kaleb would laugh and smile whenever he saw the picture. He cried one time when I took the picture away from him. There were a couple of nights when I found Kaleb in his crib, giggling. He would say, “Papa,” like I was just supposed to understand. To this day, it makes me smile. You may not believe it’s possible, but I will always hold out hope that it is.*
On my wedding day, we had a very small ceremony. I was so excited to have my dad be there… but he didn’t make it. He had to have chemo that day. While most couples sneak off to have their first married sex or start a honeymoon, Naomi and I went to my father’s house. He broke down crying, telling me how upset he was that he couldn’t be there and how he thought he failed at something he should have been doing. It was the third time in my life that I had seen him cry. The first was when his mother died of cancer. The second was when the decision was made to put his father into a home. I remember him standing on the patio in the backyard at my aunt’s house in Raymond, trying so hard not to let the others see him cry. I just stood there, unsure of what to do. I felt that way again on my wedding day. I wasn’t mad that he wasn’t there. I was mad at the cancer.
I had always expected it to be cancer. Either cancer or another heart attack. The guy smoked three packs a day. Cancer seemed like the likely winner. I spent my teenage years leaving him horrible notes in his cigarette packs like, “Quit already,” or “Why do you choose cigarettes over me?” and my personal favorite, “When you die, I won’t be at your funeral.” He never did quit. He wasn’t choosing an addiction over me, he just couldn’t beat it. And I was most certainly at his funeral.
I hated my father for a long time for not dying. That sounds so horrible, but it’s so true. I was accepted to Hawaii Pacific University for their Advertising/Public Relations program. I didn’t go, because I didn’t want to be that far away when he croaked. I went to Southeast Community College in Beatrice instead. Then one day, he had to have heart surgery, and I came back. I made up a lot of excuses as to why I wasn’t going back, but in reality, it was that I didn’t want to be gone when he died. There were several times I wanted to do strange things, like join the National Guard (really. Can you picture me there? But I almost did it) and I didn’t, because I didn’t want to be gone when he died. And wouldn’t you know it? He just kept living. LOL. (Trust me, he would find that really funny.)
In July, 2001, my co-worker/friend, shot and killed himself. I went to my father, because I didn’t know who else to turn to. It really fucked with my head. My friend had never seemed the type and it threw me for a loop. The previous October, another friend was killed in a car accident. I remember telling my father that I felt like everyone around me was dying. And he just stared at me. He finally spoke and told me he was coming to the end of his road. He said there were days he thought about selling the two million pills he was on because they weren’t doing him any good and with the street value, he could actually leave my mother and me some cash. He told me there were days he thought about getting into his minivan and driving down the interstate. When he came to one of those bridges, he would slam the accelerator down and slam into the concrete wall. He just wanted it to be over, but he had to tough it out so we would get the insurance money. He had to know we were taken care of. It was in that moment that I saw it in his eyes and I knew it wouldn’t be long. I didn’t know that I only had nine days at that time, though.
The weekend before he died, he insisted on going to my grandmother’s house (his mother in law) for a Sunday dinner of chicken. I have often wondered why I wasn’t invited. I don’t know if it’s because I was such an asshole back then, or if I had to work, or if he just wanted to say goodbye to people on his own without worrying about me, or what. He spent several hours that week calling all of his old friends and telling them goodbye. I didn’t know this until the funeral. I’m glad. He called me and insisted on having dinner with me two days before he died. We ended up having an all day event. We had pork chops for lunch and then had Popeye’s that night for supper. Popeye’s was a favorite between my father and I. It was our thing. To this day, when I eat at Popeye’s, I close my eyes and think about the times when he and I would crack open that box and attack the chicken together, smiling, and being pigs. LOL I laugh and I cry at that. I would kill to have those stupid fucking moments back.
That night, the worst part happened. For the first and only time I truly remember in my entire life, my father looked me in the eye and he said, “I know I never say it much, but I hope you know that I love you and I’m proud of you.” He said those exact words. I can see it more clearly than I can see most memories. I remember the towels in the closet behind him, that memory is so clear. I don’t like sharing it with you people. I like having that memory to myself, but I think it needs to be acknowledged that it happened. And dad, if you’re reading this, I love you, too.
I went home that night. My mother was out of town. My grandmother, who should have never been left alone with him, was left alone with him. Why the hell I wasn’t man enough to stay at the house, I don’t know. I got a call around 2 in the morning that my grandmother needed me at the house. She said his breathing was really shallow and he didn’t seem like he would make it through the night. I arrived and went into his room. He was on oxygen at that point. Had been for months. Still, he sounded like he was gasping for air. I knew the tank was the only thing keeping him alive. I also knew that he didn’t look like he wanted to be alive anymore. I sent Naomi and my grandmother out of the room. I stood there for a long time, staring at him, and I moved my hand to the power button. I left it there for what seemed like an eternity, wondering if I should flip the switch and let him die or not. I thought about what he said about slamming the van into the cement. I thought about how he said he didn’t want to be there anymore. I cannot tell you how close I came to killing my father that night.
I finally walked out of the room and Naomi said that the paramedics were on their way. My uncle, Alvin, arrived. He is my dad’s brother and a good man. I think he would have kicked the living shit out of me for even considering ending my father’s life. I wish I felt the same way. Part of me will always think I should have eased his suffering that night. Most of me is really glad I didn’t. I really don’t think I could have lived with the guilt. I fear what I would have done to myself if I had flipped that switch that night.
I remember sitting in the passenger seat of the ambulance, trying to ignore everything going on around me. I remember looking back at my father. (Piece of advice, if you’re ever in this situation, don’t look back.) I remember what I saw, but I’ll never describe it for anyone. I remember looking forward. The lights of the ambulance were so bright. I looked at the ambulance driver and said, “Do the lights ever bug you? They’re so bright.” He smiled, as if I’d said the strangest thing ever and replied, “They did. I’m pretty used to them now.”
The very next thing I remember was over four hours later. It’s like a suddenly wake up in the waiting room of the hospital. My father had been asking for me. I went in there. He asked about my mom. I told him she was driving back from Minnesota. He told me things to tell her if she didn’t make it in time. Luckily she did, because I don’t remember them.
The next thing I remember, he was in the room where he would die. Room 423, Oncology Dept, Bryan LGH East. I was in the chapel, praying. I knelt down and I prayed and I prayed for him. I told God that I just wanted my father to stay alive long enough to talk to my mother. I swore that if they got to say goodbye to one another, that I wouldn’t be mad when my dad died. That would I accept it like a man.
My mom arrived and closed the door and spoke to my father alone for over an hour. I took this opportunity to run to ShopKo, where I picked out a dalmatian stuffed animal. When I came back, I gave my father the dalmatian The dog had a little red bow tie, and I thought it was a classy touch. My dad took the dog and insisted that we talk. Alone. I closed the door and we had the best/worst conversation I’ve had with anyone in my entire life. I will never share most of what was said. That is the only part of my father that I know I have that no one else has… unless you count some DNA. But here’s the most important part. When we were done, he held out his hand to me and he said, “Thank you for being my friend.” I fucking lost it. I’m losing it right now.
This moment is the beginning of the problem which (ten years later) has led to the realization I had today. Yeah, that’s right. You’re on page six of this damn thing and I’m finally to the START of my problem. Don’t you hate writers?
Until that moment, I had assumed he didn’t like me. Not that he didn’t love me, mind you. Just that he didn’t like me. It had never once occurred to me that we were friends. But in that moment, I saw it. I realized all of my anger was for nothing. All the times I thought he wanted me gone or out of the way were imaginary. It was right then that I realized I was a fucking asshole. I had squandered all my time with my father on an imaginary fight. In the coming years, I got the biggest guilt complex ever out of this moment.
It is this nonstop guilt with which I have struggled for the last ten years, since he passed. I have beaten myself up so many times. I have pointed out to myself so many moments where I was a horrible son and have gone off on myself for not being better. I should have done this. I should have done that. I should have been at his house for Christmas. I should have spent the night when he found out he had cancer. I should have been there for him every day. I should have listened to more of his stories. I should have… whatever else I can think of.
The fact remains that I didn’t. Should I have? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in therapy dealing with my hatred of my father. I hated him for living. I hated him for dying. I hated him for “choosing cigarettes over me.” I hated him for leaving my mother alone. I hated him for all the times we fought. But each of these actually came back to me hating me, not him. I hated myself for every single fuck up in my life. I hated myself for my divorce, for losing my kids, for not being a better father, for trying to kill myself repeatedly through alcohol, for hurting people, for hooking up with any woman who moved as I tried to find a place in this world. People often look for a drug to get them through pain. My drugs have always been of the blonde, brunette, and redheaded varieties or the kind that come in a shot glass… or fifteen shot glasses.
I went to some very dark places on my road of guilt. I cost myself a marriage, a lot of friends, and a hell of a lot of good days by concentrating solely on what was lost in my life and not what I had. And yet, no matter how much therapy I sat through, I could not get past my guilt with my father.
Today, I realized that it was never about him. I’ve spent ten years trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. I am over my father’s death. I have let go. I miss him with all my heart, but god damn it, I’m alive. I would not want my children to waste ten years of their lives thinking about what they should have done differently for me. There’s no way in hell that’s what he wanted of me. It’s about me. It’s about the pressure I’ve put on myself about the son I should have been. That doesn’t even make sense. I’m judging who I should have been on criteria that weren’t in place when I had the chance to be that person. And the worst part is he never cared about that shit anyway.
Today, I’m putting my guilt away. I wasn’t the best son, but I was a son. He wasn’t the best dad, but he was a dad. There are a thousand things we probably each wanted to do differently and a million things we said that we shouldn’t have said, but he loved me and I loved him. So what the fuck is my problem? What the hell have I been so mad at all of these years? It’s time to let that negativity go and celebrate the man who was here instead of the negative emotion I’ve used to symbolize him all this time.
I’ve spent ten years thinking he would think I was a fuck up. But you know what? He wanted very few things out of me. I put the rest there and used him as an obstacle. He wanted me to get a college degree. I got two. He wanted me to follow my dreams. I’m writing almost every day. That is my dream. CHECK. He wanted me to have a better life than he had. I’m not sure if I’ve accomplished that one, but I’m going to damn sure spend my life trying. He wanted me to have a job that I felt was right for me. I do. I hate that he never got to meet my children (that I can prove), but I know they would have been the light of his life. I hate that he never met Lynda, but I know he would have approved. He would have also checked out her butt occasionally. God I love that man. LOL
I will always miss him and wish he was at certain events or that I could get a call making fun of me when the Packers win the Superbowl and the Jets don’t even get there. I’d love to hear his voice. I’d love to shake his hand. I’d love to shake his hand and tell him “Thank you, for being my friend.” I’d kill to tell him what a great father he was, and how much he influenced my life. He’d probably make fun of me for sleeping with a dalmatian with a red bow tie. He’d probably tell me I need to move to Fargo and be closer to my kids. He’s almost assuredly tell me he was proud of me for getting my MA. But I’d trade all of that for listening to him sing along with Waylon as I sit in the passenger seat and watch the world fly by.