When I was a teen, I didn't know my father. He was always in the family I just had my own take on who he was. It turned out that I was wrong. Like so many men of his generation he was bound by society to be a "man". He fought not only as a soldier in Europe during the second world war but as a 16 year old he lied about his age and joined the merchant marine and served in the Pacific theater as well. He was the youngest of 8 siblings. He was always trying to make himself into what the family wanted to be. He had dreams and desires that never saw the light of day. He gave them all up to have the family that I grew up in.
We were a pretty large group ourselves. Five of us, well six, if you count the sister who died at age one. He was one generation removed from a family that set out from Ireland to America in 1885 to join relatives in Kentucky. My grandfather, Charles was by birth a dirt farmer who hated the dark, damp, and deadly coal mines in this new land. When the Oklahoma land rush was announced in 1889 he took his Kentucky bride and set out for the territory. His plot was in Washita County, near the town of Cloud Chief. The family began to grow. Drought changed him from farmer to rancher and the growing family decided in 1905 that they just weren't going to make it in Oklahoma. They sold the farm and moved here to southern Illinois. He went back to the coal mines to support his brood. More children came and in 1927 the last was born, that was my father.
He grew up poor. Ten years younger than his nearest brother. He spent more time with his nephews than his brothers and sisters. My grandfather was strict and harsh. I know him only by legend, he died long before I was born. I know that he was a tough man, like all good Irishmen he loved his drink and a fight. I know now that the failure in Oklahoma changed him from a happy and hardworking man to a depressed and stand offish loner who would fight with his wife and his children at the drop of a hat. He would dissapear after working ten hours in the mines to a bar and come home drunk and mean.
Pop spent the first part of his childhood trying to get acceptance and the second part he spent by rebelling. He got in trouble and ran with the tough crowd. The most common form of punishment he got was a strapping. I think he hated it, and in time the man who administered it. In 1941, while walking home from a downtown bar, my grandfather was struck and killed by a hit and run driver. The driver was never caught and my Pop was, I think, tormented by his own hatred and the truth that while he hated his father, he also loved him. He ran as far as he could from his family. He went to San Francisco and joined the merchant navy.
He ran from California to the end of the supply lines in the South Pacific. For three years he did this and on his eighteenth birthday he got a letter that all young men got. He was drafted and upon completing his basic training he was shipped to Germany for the last few weeks of the war. He spent two years as part of the occupation force and was finally released from active duty. He came back to the family home and there he met and married my mother. She was ten years his junior and she dropped out of high school at 16 to marry him. His sister lived in Kankakee and she helped him find a job at Fischer Body. He and my mother moved there to start a new life away from the pain and hardship of their youth. They did well for a while. In 1955 my sister was born, two years later I followed, a year past that my other sister was born. A recession in 1959 brought layoffs to the auto industry and he took a job with Gould Battery. Early in that year my mother went to check on my younger sister and found her dead. I can't even begin to imagine the horror of finding my child dead. He took it hard and turned to alcohol for solace, it cost him his job and very nearly his wife.
After a year, he took a job in construction. He had to travel and spent weeks on the road building grain dryers. My mother grew homesick and decided that if he wasn't going to be around to help she wanted to move back to southern Illinois to be close to family that could. She found that she was pregnant again and in 1961 my first brother was born, followed in another year by my next. They were trying for another girl and the last attempt resulted in my youngest brother in 1964. During this time a lot of jobs came and went. He continued to drink and my mother was forced by the economy and circumstance to look for work herself. It's hard to raise five kids on one income and we became latchkey children. My older sister and myself generally left to care for the three younger ones for an hour or two a day during the week.
In 1967 he turned forty. At thst time he felt as though his life had slipped through his fingers and he was crushed that he couldn't seem to provide support for his family. He drank more and was cold and distant, except when he was drunk. To this day I cringe when someone who's breath that smells of alcohol says they love me. What I didn't know then was that he was desperately trying to validate his own childhood by trying to be the man his father was. He wanted me to be that same tough hard drinking, hard fighting, Irishman that he was supposed to be. I wasn't.
It was about this time that I started to think that he hated me. I was wrong. It wasn't me that he hated, it was what he had become. He had become his father and he hated himself for it. I don't think he knew it then. The world was rapidly changing and the way he was raised wasn't the current way to do it anymore. The more he hated himself the more he drank, the more he drank the more like his father he became, the more like his father he became the more he hated himself. All I could think of was to stay as far from him as I could. The more I distanced myself from him the more he hated what was happening and the only thing he could think of to do was be more like his father. I grew into a longhaired rebellious young man and mostly ran my own life. I had no idea of the misery that this must have caused him and my mother. At 14 I spent a lot of time with campus radicals and anti-war protesters. By 15 I was hitchhiking around the country. I came back mostly for school and when I got just plain hungry. We had no relationship by then. He didn't understand me and I didn't understand him.
In 1977 he started to have serious health problems and I was in the Navy. I heard from my mom that he was no longer able to work and so I sent what I could from my pay home. When I came home on leave he was a different man. He turned to the church and he found some peace. He had bone spurs and congestive heart failure. He was physically weak and unable to fish or hunt. He had stopped binging on alcohol. He became much less cold to me. I started to learn a lot from him. I think that at some point when he became ill he finally saw himself in me. He knew that he had needed the respect and love of his father to ease his pain and decied that he wasn't going to deny me what he felt he had been denied from his father.
We had found a bit of common ground and found that we had a lot of common opinions. The fall of 1983 brought more bad news. He had been having difficulty swallowing and had a persistant sore throat, he was diagnosed with esophogeal cancer. It was aggressive and malignant. He had a radical sugery to remove the tumor that required that his esophogas be replaced with a section of his small intestine. He lost over 100 pounds. He had to stretch this out by swallowing progresssively larger diameter boluses. He underwent chemo and frequent exams to make sure that the cancer hadn't returned. The overall survival rate for 5 years is less than 16%. He was miserable, but alive. He told me that he didn't want to go through that again. He was adamant. He was barely sixty years old.
In the late summer of 1989, I had a motorcycle accident. It wasn't life threatening but it put me in the hospital for a couple of days. It was while I was hospitalized thet he went for a routine screening. They found a large mass in his colon and that it had metatstised to his liver and his lungs. His prognosis was obviously bad. He voiced his objection to treatment and the doctors told him if he didn't submit that he would not last six months. They used fear tactics on my mother until she finally got him to agree to not just surgery but extremly aggressive chemo. I knew he didn't want this and in conversation he told me that my mom was scared and they wouldn't listen to him. He made me promise to not let him die in the hospital.
The surgery was hard on him, the chemo was brutal. After the first round he asked if it was doing any good. The doctors said not yet. He said he was done with it. The second round all but stripped him of his humanity. It left him unable to do anything. He lived on compazine, Ensure, and Demerol. Still the doctors insisted that he undergo another round of chemo,even though by then they had all but admitted that it would do little good.
The cancer was discovered in August, he had the surgery in September, in November he had round one, in December round two, in February of 1990 he had Round three. By then the cancer was on his heart and in his brain. He never came back from round three. He was only rarely semi-concious. He never went home again. Late one night in March, he summoned the last bit of strength he had and tried to escape. He made it out of bed but fell and struck his head on the door to his room. We knew it was almost over. The last lucid thing my father said to me was "Get me the hell out of here boy". He died on Sunday April 15th 1990 in a hospital bed. The one place he didn't want to be.