By Joey Kennedy
Straight up, I’m not crazy about June. Too many bad memories.
My late mother’s birthday is June 12, and I miss her terribly. She died much too young, at age 63, a victim of cancer and a health insurance industry that refused, despite her ability to pay, to offer her the coverage she needed and deserved. Those were the days of being denied health insurance because of “pre-existing conditions.”
Father’s Day also falls in June (June 21 this year). Unlike so many who will celebrate their fathers, both living and gone, I can’t say I miss my father. I didn’t really know him, and Father’s Day is a hard reminder of that.
My sisters and I realized how little we knew my dad at his memorial service in 2009. Both my parents gave their bodies to medical research, so there are no graves to visit. That’s how they wanted it, and we’re OK with that. Unlike at my mother’s memorial service, I wasn’t asked to speak at my father’s, and that’s just as well. My eulogy would have been much different than what took place.
My eulogy would have been a downer.
I wasn’t very good at visiting my father when he was alive, and that’s on me. If I had visited more, perhaps I could have learned to know him better. Instead, I know him bitter.
Dad was an alcoholic. Alcoholism destroyed his marriage to my mother, after more than 20 years. It destroyed his relationship with his children. It destroyed his health. It destroyed his other two marriages. It got him shot. But Dad was a tough man. He lived almost 79 years before surrendering to pneumonia.
My broken relationship with my father was the subject of my master’s thesis at UAB. Several of the stories from that collection have been published in literary journals and magazines. Perhaps one day, the entire collection will be published. I’m proud of that memoir, but it’s not kind to my father—or me. As I was writing it in 2003, I thought it would be cathartic. It wasn’t.
My father suffered a brain-stem stroke in 1988. One of the first questions the doctor asked me when I arrived at the hospital was how long had my father been an alcoholic. The doctor said he could see the evidence on Dad’s CAT scan. If that kind of stroke doesn’t kill you, the doctor said, a strong recovery could be expected. But my father refused physical therapy. For him, the stroke was a godsend because it allowed him to get disability, which, in turn, allowed him to keep enough beer and liquor on hand to feed his habit. Dad spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
In January of 1995, after an evening of drinking and arguing in their tacky, government-subsidized apartment in Dayton, Texas, my father’s third wife shot him in the chest because he wouldn’t get up and walk. The bullet glanced off Dad’s breastbone, clipped the top of his right lung and exited under his right arm. He was flown to Hermann Hospital in Houston, where his life was saved. “Half an inch, and your father would be dead,” the doctor told me.
As fate would have it, my father’s three children ended up caring for him. He lived with Veronica and me in Birmingham for 11 months, and then moved on to south Louisiana where his care was transferred to my sisters. These were not happy times; these were not times of reconciliation. This was duty. My father was difficult and demanding and complained constantly. He wasn’t drinking anymore, but he was still a drunk. From what we saw, he wasn’t social and rarely left his apartment, despite our encouragement. I had never known my father to be racist, yet he would use the N-word around me and Veronica regularly, I think because he knew it would upset us.
One of the last face-to-face conversations I had with my father was in 2008, when he forbade me to vote for that N-word for president. I told him he couldn’t tell me who to vote for and stormed out of his apartment. He apologized the next day, but, really, we were far beyond apologies. After he died in 2009, there was a small memorial service at a Baptist church in Houma, Louisiana. Our family, of course, attended, but we were simply spectators. And though it was a small gathering, we were surprised by those who spoke of my father.
Former coworkers and friends from his apartment complex talked about a man we didn’t know, a man who was there when they needed him. They talked about a kind and generous man who was always grateful for their help and their visits. They talked about a man they could depend on to come through when it counted. My sisters and I looked at each other, questioning our ears. Afterward, people came up to us, hugging us, offering condolences for this stranger who had been in our midst. We nodded at them, hugged them back, and left the church baffled.
Our father was gone, and we knew him not. I don’t know how unique our experience is; I simply know it was our experience. Father’s Day is rightfully a time for folks to honor their fathers, living and dead. To honor them as they see fit.
Still, my sisters and I remain baffled.