My father died on this date, forty years ago. 31 years old.
It was fucking pancreatic cancer, and it lingered for months. He started feeling ill during Labor Day weekend, while working on our new house in Marietta, Georgia. He died April 14, a Sunday. Easter Sunday, in fact.
Dad had just taken a promotion, one that moved us from Louisville, Kentucky, down to Georgia. He and my mom had grown tired of moving. (In my first five years, I lived in four different places.) So he had his sights on his next promotion, and he had some options to choose from: stay in the Atlanta area permanently, move to the D.C. area and stay there, or move out to Seattle. My mom said they were sort of leaning toward D.C., but they had only just started to seriously discuss it when he fell ill.
Dad was a hotshot auditor for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. As I wrote here two years ago, he investigated development projects that took public funds, to ensure the funds were being used efficiently and honestly. He uncovered a few cases of fraud during his time in Kentucky, and he saved the government so much money as a result that HUD kept kicking him higher up the ladder. He was rising quickly in HUD, and it’s sometimes hard to imagine what might have happened had he lived–how far he might have gone, what our lives would have been like in Atlanta, Seattle, or D.C.
I don’t mean to dwell on the tragedy of it all. My father famously didn’t get along with his parents, and he wasn’t terribly fond of my mother’s mother either. (My mother’s dad, on the other hand, thought of my dad as the son he never had.) He left home the first chance he had, to attend Bellarmine College, a Catholic liberal-arts school in Louisville. (He was the proverbial first-in-his-family-to-attend-college type.)
He visited his family often enough (he was close to his siblings) that on one trip, he met my mother, and it didn’t take them long to decide to marry. I came along in 1968; my sister, in 1970. By 1974, they were looking to plant new roots somewhere.
Just not in southwestern Indiana. Not near “those bitches,” as he called both my grandmothers. (I remember them both well; they were … difficult.)
So had he lived, we wouldn’t have seen the extended family much, probably just on holidays. The strange truth of his death is that my mom moved us back “home,” so she’d have help from the family in raising her kids. I grew far closer to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins than I ever would have had my dad lived. So when I say I don’t want to dwell on the tragedy, that’s what I mean. Moving back to Indiana had its benefits.
But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I left Indiana nearly 12 years ago and have no desire to move back. I get along well with my mother, but I think my dad left for reasons other than his family; I think he wanted a bigger world than southwestern Indiana provided at the time. (Even into the 1980s, Evansville was an insular place. My dad’s very small town was even more cut off; I think they got phone service some time in the 1950s.)
I think there’s something in his fierce independence that leads me to sit now in Brooklyn, writing about a childhood in Louisville and Marietta. I’ve recently returned from Mexico, and I’m about to leave on another trip–ironically perhaps–to Louisville.
On this 40th anniversary of his death, I want to get some words out about his life and attempt to understand how he continues to influence me, all these decades later. My children will never know this man, except through me, and to some extent, through my mother.
I wish we still owned that necktie, and I can’t tell you how pleased and amused I am that spectacles like his are back in style.