I Wore Chains to My Father’s Funeral
I lay on my steel bunk in the dark of my prison cell, staring at the ceiling, thinking about the phone conversation I’d had with my mother a few hours before. She’d just gotten home from University Community Hospital, where she and my brothers held vigil over my father. She was exhausted.
“How’s Daddy doing, Mama?”
“Every day he dies a little more, son, and every day a little piece of me dies with him,” she said, voice quaking.
Tears pooled in my eyes, ran down my cheeks, and flowed into my pillow. My mother’s words haunted me. It seemed like a claw penetrated my chest and clasped my heart. Time passed in the dark.
The sleeping building around me was quiet. I heard leather soles slapping down the hallway, toward my cell door.
“Norman, you awake?” a young guard spoke through the window slot.
“I’m awake.” I couldn’t sleep.
“Get dressed. Lieutenant Barber wants to see you downstairs.”
“I’m dressed.” I’d never undressed.
He opened the door, and I walked quickly to the stairwell.
Lieutenant Barber met me at the foot of the stairs. He had a strained, uncomfortable expression on his face. He didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news. You never know how people will react in prison.
“Norman, call your brother at home.”
I walked over to the pay phone on the wall. We could only make collect calls. I dialed my brother’s number. The lieutenant stepped away, gave me space, but remained within earshot. He was doing his job. I didn’t begrudge him that. My brother, Danny, picked up on the first ring.
“Charles.” Everyone called me Charlie, but from the time he could say my name, Dan had always called me Charles.
“Charles, Daddy’s dead.”
“I know.” How could I tell him I felt it?
“I just got home from the hospital.”
“Does Mama know?”
“I called her first.”
“I want to go to the funeral.”
“You’re going to have to call the sheriff.”
“I’ll do it first thing in the morning.”
“Don’t take no for an answer.”
“It’s going to cost some money.”
“I don’t care.”
“Are you all right?”
The line was silent for a moment. I heard a sob.
“Daddy’s dead, Charles.” His voice was anguished. I was the big brother. I had to be strong for both of us, for all of us.
“I know, Dan. It’s okay. He’s in a better place. He’s not suffering any more.”
“But dammit, why did he have to die now?” He was fifty-six years old. How could I explain it? I didn’t understand it either. I was thirty-six, twenty years younger.
“I don’t know, Dan.”
I heard him blow his nose. “I’m okay. Call me in the morning.”
I hung up the phone and turned back to the lieutenant.
“You okay, Norman?”
“Yes sir. We’ve been expecting it for awhile. He was a fighter.”
“You need to talk to someone, the chaplain will be here in the morning.”
“I’ll be all right.”
Sunday morning I am standing on the front porch of the chapel with several fellow prisoners, waiting for them to call me. Through the double fences ringing the prison I see a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s car turn into the parking lot from Highway 301 and approach the sallyport entrance gate. Two uniformed deputies take out their sidearms and other weapons, locking them in gun boxes on the wall by the gatehouse. A squawking P.A. speaker on a light pole orders me to report to the gatehouse immediately. A guard hands me a garment bag containing a suit of clothes. I go into the bathroom to change.
In her grief, my mother bought pants the same size as I wore in high school, forgetting that I had added thirty pounds in the past eighteen years, but I made do. In the mirror I adjusted my tie and stared at the well-dressed stranger who stared back at me. Who was that man? I folded up my prison blues and went back out.
Two young deputies stood there holding handfuls of chains. First they put on the handcuffs in front of me, double-locked them, then did the same thing with the ankle chains. They threaded a chain through my belt loops, padlocked both ends to the handcuffs, then did the same thing with a chain connected to the leg irons. I rattled the chains. So this was how Houdini felt.
One deputy held a file folder open, looked at it, then looked at me.
“Your name Charles P. Norman?”
“Yes, it is.”
“You born nine-four-forty-nine?”
“Let’s do this.”
I shuffled my feet six inches forward at a time, the limit of the tight chains, tiny steps, but eventually we got to the deputy car parked inside the sallyport. I heard my name called, looked back toward the chapel, and saw perhaps fifty prisoners on the front porch watching me. Some waved. I couldn’t wave back, with my wrists chained at the waist. The deputy opened the rear door, and I struggled to flop onto the seat, scoot over, and sit up. With the security screen separating the front and back seats, there was no leg room. I adjusted the best I could.
After they’d retrieved their nine millimeters, their ankle guns, their Buck knives, canisters of pepper spray, police batons, and twelve gauge shotgun from the trunk, the car backed out, and we were on our way.
My mind swirled with thoughts of my father. He and my mother were teenagers when they married. My mother turned twenty just twelve days before my birth. I used to tell people that I’d known my parents since they were kids, and we’d grown up together. I was fourteen months old when my grandmother, Memaw, gave birth to Cherry, my youngest aunt. Memaw was just thirty-nine. Cherry and I grew up together, more like brother and sister than nephew and aunt, and maintained that closeness until she died.
When we were both babies, my father once held each of us in his arms while my mother and Memaw bought groceries at the Piggly Wiggly store in Texarkana. Approaching the checkout stand, a woman came up to my father, admiring the babies. He must have seemed young to have two children.
“Are those your babies?” she asked.
Looking at each of us in turn, my father answered the lady, “This is my sister-in-law, and this is my son.” Upon re-telling the story at later times, he said the lady walked away with a confused look on her face, as if she was trying to figure out the relationship.
My earliest memories of my father must have been some time near three years old, perhaps a little younger. Early Sunday mornings were a special time. My father was home, not working, as he was the rest of the week. By the time I woke up in the mornings during the weekdays, my father would be long gone. But Sundays he stayed home.
It would scarcely be daylight when he’d bring in the Sunday newspaper, The Texarkana Gazette. He’d take off the rubber band, take out the Sunday comics, spread them open on the wood floor, lie down, prop himself up on his elbows, and read each one aloud. I’d lie beside him in the same pose, my finger pointing to each comic pane as he read it, and we’d both laugh at Mutt and Jeff, Joe Palooka, Alley Oop, and Tarzan of the Apes. He’d slowly read each comic to me, then I’d beg him to read them just once more. By then the smells of biscuits, bacon, and eggs would be emanating from the kitchen, and my mother would call us in for breakfast.
It was just the three of us. All was good in the world. I had no concept of rent, grocery bills, car payments, or the impending job market crash as the Korean War was shutting down, causing the heavily defense-oriented industries of East Texas to lay off thousands of workers. I had no idea how complicated life could be for a struggling young married couple with a child, and two more on the way.
One morning I couldn’t get my father out of bed. He’d worked late Saturday night at another job, earning extra money, and was too exhausted to get up and go out for the Sunday paper. I couldn’t wait to see how my friends, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Nancy, and the others were doing, so I toddled out the front door, down the steps, out to the road, and brought the newspaper in myself.
I finally got the rubber band off and separated the comics. I lay there on the floor, sprawled out on my stomach, propped up on my elbows, knees bent, feet wiggling in the air. My finger pointed at the individual words, and I pronounced under my breath the ones I’d memorized, watching as my father had read to me each week. It took me awhile, but I understood, and laughed.
My father stood in the doorway between the kitchen and living room watching me while my mother cooked breakfast.
“Lucille, look here,” he said. My mother joined him in the doorway, watching me as I slowly traced the words with my finger, moving my lips, pronouncing them to myself, then laughing as I understood the punchlines.
“I’d swear it looks like that boy is reading those funnies.”
“I am reading them,” I said. “You wouldn’t get up.”
He plopped down beside me and watched me move my finger from word to word.
“Show me, “ he said.
“I carefully spoke each word that I knew. I struggled with one, and he said it for me. He shook his head, smiled, and asked my mother what she made of that. She shook her head, too.
“I don’t know. He’s not even four years old.”
What could I say? I wanted to read, so I did.
On Sunday afternoons, my father would lie down on the wood floor and doze off. I’d doze off with him. What he did, I did. I lay my head on his stomach and listened to the noises inside him. The various rumbles and squeaks sounded so strange to me.
“Daddy, what’s the sounds in your belly?”
“That’s my guts growling.”
“Why are they growling?”
“They growl when you’re hungry, calling for food, and they growl when you’re full, telling you not to eat any more.”
“Oh.” That explained it.
Life went on. I gained two little brothers, Dan and Tom. Times were hard, though I never realized it. Friday evenings were always a thrill, waiting for Daddy to come home from work. I had little concept of time, but when that big red orb of the sun got down low and touched the trees to the west, I knew Daddy would be home soon.
What was so exciting about Fridays was the surprise—wondering what kind of car Daddy would be driving home this time. Not every week, but fairly frequently, a strange car would slow down on the highway and turn in at our house. The car would stop, Daddy would get out, and I’d run to him, begging him to take me for a ride in the new car. My mother would be standing in the doorway holding the baby, a frown on her face.
I didn’t know until years later that when he couldn’t make the weekly payment, the used car lot would repossess the car he had, and he’d have to go to another used car dealer to get another one on a weekly payment plan. All I knew was that on Friday evenings, Daddy would take me for a ride to the store for an ice cream in his new car, and he’d let me sit in his lap and steer, or at least pretend to.
Early one Sunday morning, I went out to get the Sunday paper while my parents slept. Across the road, a herd of deer grazed on the other side of the barbed wire in a clearing that was part of U.S. Army reservation land. Miles away was Lone Star Ordnance Plant, where Daddy worked, and a bombing range, from where sounds like distant thunder often came. I crept back inside quietly and shook my father awake.
“Daddy, there’s some deer across the road.”
He jumped up, pulled on his khaki trousers, grabbed his .22 rifle from the closet, and looked out the front door. A dozen or more deer nonchalantly grazed a hundred yards away. It wasn’t hunting season, he didn’t have a hunting license, but times were hard, and he had a wife and three boys to feed.
My father propped the rifle on the car’s fender, took careful aim, and fired one shot. Across the road a deer jumped straight into the air. To my young eyes it seemed like he jumped a hundred feet into the air. It was much less than that, of course, but when the deer fell to the ground without moving he was alone. In that second the herd had disappeared into the woods in a flash. The only evidence they left was a faint cloud of dust settling to the ground. I hadn’t heard a sound.
He left the deer where it lay, drove to my grandfather’s, Bebaw’s, house, and came back with Bebaw and my Uncle David to help him. Bebaw was the expert at skinning and cleaning a deer.
Bebaw sent David across the road and through the fence to retrieve the deer. He was a scaredy-cat. He got the deer by the hind leg and dragged it to the fence, looking every which way, although everything was quiet and no cars were to be seen in either direction. David tried to slip between the barbed wires and drag the deer under the fence at the same time, but only succeeded in hopelessly snagging himself on the barbs. He cussed, struggled, only got more tangled, and Bebaw and Daddy had to help get him loose from the fence. Good thing no one was coming, or he’d have been caught.
Bebaw butchered the deer in the barn, cut it up into pieces, which were then shared with all the relatives, which were many. Everyone ate venison steaks and venison stew. All that fresh meat was a godsend. I felt good that I’d seen the deer, not spooked them, told Daddy, and helped contribute in a small way to feeding our family.
When I was nine years old, we packed up, left Texas, and moved to Florida. There was no work in Texas, and my Uncle Rufus in Dade City told Daddy that there were plenty of jobs in Tampa for a young man willing to work hard. That described my father.
I hated it. I didn’t want to leave Texas. How could we just leave Memaw and Bebaw, Cherry and Alice and Pat, Junior, all my aunts and cousins, Uncle Albert, Aunt Bonnie, Linda and Paulette? How could I live a thousand miles away? I cried, Cherry cried, and Bebaw cried. He was so soft-hearted, they’d say. Memaw was the strong one, always keeping it inside. She hugged me and patted my back. She called me “Pakick,” from my middle name, Patrick, the only person who ever called me that, her special name for me.
“You be a good boy, my Pakick. It’ll be okay. You’ll be back to see us, and we’ll come see you in Florida some time,” she said.
“I promise.” She gave me a silver dollar from a jar she collected coins in, told me to keep it to remember her. I did.
So began my trip to Florida, Land of Sunshine, where nineteen years later that little boy would be accused of murder and wind up in prison serving life.
“Charlie Norman! Charlie Norman! I can’t believe it.”
I snapped out of my reverie. I was in the back seat of a sheriff’s car. We were passing Hillsborough River State Park, where my family had held many picnics, and I’d camped out often with my Boy Scout troop years before. The younger deputy, the passenger, had turned in his seat and was speaking to me
“Excuse me. I missed that. What did you say?”
“Charlie Norman!” He was grinning broadly at me. He looked over to his partner, who was staring straight ahead at the highway.
“When I was a little kid, I used to watch Charlie Norman fight. I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t even in first grade yet.” He turned back to me. “You don’t know who I am, do you?”
“No, sorry.” To my knowledge, I’d never seen him before in my life.
“You went to junior high school with my sister.” Benjamin Franklin—toughest junior high in Tampa in the 1960’s.
He told me her name. I’d known her for years. She was a nice girl, shy, who’d gotten pregnant in tenth grade, dropped out, gotten married, had three children, was an old woman before her time. Her younger brother had become a major dope dealer in Tampa years later. This one must have been the baby. Weird, I thought, one of them a drug king, another a deputy.
He looked back to his partner. “One time I saw Charlie Norman at the bus stop get in a fight with three boys, all older and bigger than him. You should have seen it. Those guys were all over him, fists flying and punching, you couldn’t even see Charlie Norman under all those guys. I thought they were going to kill him. Everybody just watched. Nobody helped him. Hell, I was just a little kid, but I never forgot it.” He spoke as though I wasn’t there.
“What happened?” his partner asked.
“He wouldn’t go down. He was throwing fists, and turning and ducking and taking punches and kicking and in about a minute one of them went down, and then the second, then the third one just stopped and looked at him. Charlie’s nose was bleeding and his lip was split, his shirt was hanging half off of him. He lit into that guy, knocked him down, he didn’t get up. The school bus came, Charlie got on, my sister and the other kids had to step over them to get on the bus. The driver shut the door, and they went to school. I walked home. He beat the shit out of those boys. It was three to one.”
“That was the Wechsler brothers,” I said. “Victor was my age. He spit on my shoe and laughed.”
“I bet he never did it again, did he?”
“You were my hero when I was a kid. I took boxing lessons when I was a little older. I went to your karate school for awhile. I wanted to learn how to fight like that.”
“I don’t remember you.”
“I was a kid then. I was in high school when you were on trial. I went a couple of times.”
“Yeah. I never thought I’d meet you like this.” Me neither.
We were approaching Highway 579. My mother’s house was less than a mile off 579 in Thonotosassa. I hadn’t seen it in years, and might not get another chance.
“Since we go so far back and all that, why don’t we take a little detour down 579, cut over to Grovewood, through the old neighborhood, loop right to Main Street? Won’t take an extra two minutes.”
The silly grin on the young deputy’s face vanished. He looked to the driver, who glanced toward him then faced front to the highway.
“We can’t make any, uh, detours. Sorry.”
They both looked nervous, uneasy. The younger deputy suddenly became interested in the double-yellow center line whisking past us and behind.
“Can’t or won’t?” I wasn’t going to let it go. It had been over seven years since I’d left my family home that fateful day after visiting my father. He’d been sick that day, too, but not nearly as sick as he would become. Neither of them responded. If I didn’t see our home, the yard, the huge hickory tree shading the front, the sycamore trees in the back I’d planted sixteen years before now, I might never see them again.
“Do you know how much my family’s paying for this taxi ride?”
The driver answered. “Six hundred and fifty-one dollars.”
“Six hundred and fifty-one dollars!” I whistled. “For a twenty-five mile trip each way? What’s that, thirteen dollars a mile, more or less?”
“More or less.”
“It’s hardly a mile detour—nobody’s at home, everyone’s at the funeral home, why don’t we just tack on an extra twenty, pay for you guys’ lunch when you leave, call it even?”
Silence. Not a word. Eyes front. No more youthful reminiscences. I watched 579 recede to the left, Spanish Main Campground bustling on a Sunday morning.
A mile farther and I saw Fowler Avenue’s turnoff approaching on the right, the orange grove and the little white house on the hill where we’d lived our first ten years in Florida, when we were all so small, it seemed.
My father was a giant in those days, a big man whose height and size seemed unattainable, like a tree. I remembered how as a child I’d examine his worn leather billfold that curved in the shape of his body over the years of twelve-hour workdays stuck in his back pocket.
I especially loved looking at his driver’s license, before they had photos, a piece of paper that described the man I knew as Daddy. Brown eyes, black hair, weight one hundred seventy-nine pounds, five feet eleven and three quarters inches tall Holding onto his pant leg and looking up in the stratosphere to his face, I could never picture myself growing to such an altitude. Imagine my surprise when one day years later, I was walking my father to the exit door of the prison visiting park and realized that I was taller than he, by a small margin, bigger and stronger. He was shrinking before my eyes, and it deeply saddened me. Could this be the same man who used to pick me up and throw me in the air and catch me before I fell?
One of my clearest early memories of my father came from when we went to the circus. I was three and Cherry was two. Although I grew up near Redwater, Texas, with all its connotations of cowboys, cattle, and horses, I rode an elephant before I rode a horse.
The circus had an elephant ride for children. A baby elephant with a blanket on its back grasped its mother’s tail with its trunk, following her around in a circle. Daddy lifted me onto the baby elephant’s back, which was head-high to my father, and Bebaw held Cherry in place next to me. I touched the stiff straw-like hairs that thinly covered the baby elephant, marveling to be sitting up so high.
Cherry began screaming. She wasn’t having any of it. She did not want to be sitting on a baby elephant’s back, and let the entire midway know about it. After the second scream Bebaw handed her off to Memaw, where she quieted down I continued the circuit, my father’s massive hand holding and steadying me. I wasn’t the least bit frightened. I knew I was safe.
The second thing I remember about that night at the circus was the blue helium balloon he bought for me, wrapping the string around my wrist several times so it wouldn’t fly off. When we got home and my mother put me to bed, the balloon hovered against my bedroom ceiling, the string dangling.
The next morning, I couldn’t wait to rush next door to Mrs. Clary’s house, tell her about riding the elephant and show her my blue balloon. I grabbed the string, tugging the balloon behind me, and rushed down the steps outside. No sooner than I’d cleared the door a gust of wind snatched the balloon out of my tiny grip. I stood there and watched the balloon float higher and higher, smaller and smaller, until the blue latex blended into the cerulean sky and disappeared. I cried for what I’d lost.
In silence, we approached Duval Funeral Home on Florida Avenue in North Tampa. As quiet as the two deputies had been, you’d think each of them was alone. The parking lot overflowed with cars. Hearses lined the drive at the front. The deputy drove us around to the back.
The last time I’d been here had been for the funeral of my tenth grade basketball coach, who’d been stricken with stomach cancer toward the end of the school year and was dead in four months. In the fall, just as my junior year began, he died. It seemed like all fifteen hundred students at King High School lined up to enter the funeral chapel, pass by his open casket, and pay their respects. Girls wailed as they neared him. I got closer, saw the tiny shrunken figure lying there in that big box and wondered who it was. Coach had never been a big man, but this couldn’t possibly be him. What happened? Someone nearby mentioned that the stomach cancer had eaten him up, to less than half his healthy size, and I believed it.
Now I dreaded going inside that same building and discovering what ravages death had dealt to my poor father.
The main chapel was crowded with family and friends. Relatives on both sides had come from across Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Texas, and California. Some I recognized, some I didn’t. I noticed men who’d worked for my father, laborers, black and white, solemn, paying their respects. I’d grown up around those men, accompanying my father to work at Booker and Company Warehouses for years, and knew them all. They nodded. I nodded back. I saw an open casket to my right, against the far wall, but too many people filled the area to get a clear look.
When I entered, clanking like Shakespeare’s ghost, deputies on either side of me, all conversation stopped. All eyes turned toward me. The prodigal son had returned. There was no fatted calf, no celebrations. My father was dead, and I was in chains.
My brothers, Dan and Tom, rushed through the crowd over to me. As Dan neared me, one deputy stepped forward, held out his hand, fingers up, in the stop gesture.
“Don’t come any closer,” the deputy said.
If he thought that an armed deputy was going to keep him away from his brother, he didn’t know Dan.
“You listen to me, you son-of-a-bitch. He’s my brother. And that’s our daddy lying dead in that coffin. If you think you can stop me from hugging my brother at our father’s funeral, you’d better pull that pistol and shoot me now.”
He pushed past the deputy’s outstretched arm and embraced me, followed by my youngest brother, Tom. They stepped aside, and my mother stood in front of me. I hadn’t even seen her. We hugged, and I realized she’s so small. How did she ever get so small. She had been a giant, too, in my childhood, but now she looked so frail and light as she held my arms. Emotions washed through me. To this day I can’t remember what either of us said.
Faced with a losing battle and heavily outnumbered, the deputies retreated. Family and friends, cousins, aunts and uncles I haven’t seen since childhood crowded around and hugged me, chains and all. I couldn’t do much myself, trussed up the way I was, but I accepted their embraces, touches and condolences the best I could.
Rufus, my father’s last surviving brother, seven years his elder, came next. “I hate to see you like this, son.”
I saw a flare of that Norman anger, the fury that must have terrified the English at Hastings in 1066, that Uncle Rufus turned on the outmatched deputies.
“What’s wrong with you bastards?” he growled at them. Eyes wide, they each took half a step back.
“What do you think you’re doing, bringing this boy in here like this, chained up like a beast? Don’t you have any respect? Why couldn’t you take all this . . . crap . . . off him before you brought him in here to his mama? You aren’t afraid of him, are you, big, bad deputies, armed to the teeth?”
His face had turned so red, I thought he was going to have a stroke.
“It’s okay, Rufus,” I said. “At least I got to come.” Rufus was always the joker of the family, and at gatherings, he’d keep everyone in stitches with his jokes. I thought I’d take a cue from him and try to defuse the situation. “Besides, when we leave here, they’re going to stop on the Hillsborough River bridge, toss me in the water, and if I can get loose, I’m free to go.”
Everyone laughed. The deputies looked decidedly uneasy.
Then I noticed my father’s two surviving sisters, Frankie Lee, the oldest, and Eloise, the youngest, across the room together looking intently at me. They were crying. I stood where I was as they slowly approached. I hadn’t seen them in twenty years, since a family gathering when I was a teenager.
With the exception of Uncle Rufus, I’d never felt particularly close to or identified with the Norman side of my family. Part of it was that I’d rarely been around most of them but for a day here or a funeral there throughout my youth, and that most of them lived elsewhere. Also, the Normans seemed more emotionally detached, sterner, not like my mother’s family, the Walkers, who were emotional and demonstrative with their love in most cases. I was Memaw’s and Bebaw’s first grandson, had always been special to them, but to the Normans, I was just another cousin. But now, the way Frankie Lee and Eloise were looking at me, I sensed something had changed. They came up to me and Aunt Frankie Lee touched my cheek, tears flowing.
“Charlie, honey,” she said, “When I saw you walk in, my heart stopped for a second.”
“You’re the spitting image of our father when he was a young man. Your grandfather. He’s been gone so long. You look just like him, so handsome. It breaks my heart.” Her words deeply touched me.
She fingered the chains around my wrists. I wanted to hold her, but I couldn’t. I cried instead. Eloise and Frankie Lee hugged me together.
“You do, Charlie,” Eloise said, smiling. “You look just like Daddy. I was just a little girl when he died. I wish I could take you home with me.”
“I do, too.”
My brothers took my arms, and we walked slowly to my father, feet shuffling. Everyone moved back and made room.
It wasn’t him, not the man I knew. I could see little resemblance to my father. He was gone. What was left was little more than artifice.
Cigarettes killed my father. Slowly. Forty-four years, from the age of twelve until his last breath at fifty-six, my father smoked cigarettes. He couldn’t quit, no matter how he tried.
When I was four years old, my mother pregnant with Dan, it was freezing cold in the Texas winter. The only heat in our little house came from the kitchen stove, which my mother wouldn’t turn on till five AM, when she got up to cook breakfast before my father went to work.
I was sleeping soundly under quilts Memaw had made when my father’s coughing woke me. It went on and on.
I climbed out of bed and my bare feet touched the cold wooden floor. I raced to my parents’ bedroom and climbed into bed with them, where it was warm. My father continued hacking.
“Daddy, why are you coughing so much?” I asked. “Are you sick?”
“It’s these damned cigarettes, son. Don’t ever smoke them.” He was just twenty-four at the time.
Thinking back over all those years, I realize that long ago admonition was one of the few pieces of advice my father gave me that I obeyed. I never smoked a cigarette in my life. I never wanted to cough like that. For that I am grateful. I am three years older now than my father was when he died, and my lungs are clear and strong. On the prison tennis court, I wear out players half my age with shots from side-to-side that leave them bent over and gasping. Even at thirty, cigarettes have taken a toll on them, and I gladly collect it.
I begged him to quit for years, as did my mother, but nothing could overcome nicotine’s siren song of death. We feared lung cancer, but emphysema got him first, with complications from lupus. He was in and out of the hospital for a couple of years, but the last time inexorably approached.
His kidneys began shutting down, and they put him on dialysis. That worked for awhile, but other systems began failing. The toxins built up, and his extremities, his hands and feet, began darkening, gangrenous. The poisons climbed higher. My father was in terrible pain, but he fought to live.
He and his doctor were friends. He came to talk to him about his choices. My father couldn’t talk with the respirator helping him to breathe, but he had his mind, and he could nod his head.
“Gene, we’ve been friends for a long time, and I’m not going to sugar-coat it. You don’t like b.s. It’s not good. Your kidneys are failing. I can save you, but it will be drastic. You’re getting gangrene. If I amputate your arms and legs, you will live. I don’t know how long, but it could be awhile. But I know you. I know what kind of man you are, and I don’t think you want to live like that, helpless.”
My father shook his head no.
“You say the word, I’ll do the surgery now. If you say no, I won’t Do you want me to do the surgery?”
My father shook his head no.
The doctor patted his shoulder. “Then this is goodbye, old friend.”
He left. My brothers stood next to my father’s bed. He had been so strong, the toughest man I ever knew. Next to him I was a weakling. He had held out for longer than anyone expected, for whatever reason, but when the doctor gave him his options, it was like my father decided it was time to go. He looked at my brothers, closed his eyes, exhaled, and he was gone. An hour later I was calling my brother, Dan, collect from a prison pay phone in the dark.
There is much I want to say about my relationship with my father, but even all these years later, I realize that the emotions pierce me too deeply. As I write this, tears drop onto the paper and dimple the sheet. Perhaps the cathartic experience of reliving those years as I write them will strengthen me to where I will write again, about things too close to my heart, and get them out in the open, where they belong. But that will be another day.
When the deputies brought me back to Zephyrhills prison and left with all their chains and cuffs, a prisoner friend held out my blues for me to change into. He knew my family well, and offered me his condolences the best he knew how. He had a difficult time sharing his feelings. I knew he wanted to say something, so I stood there, unspeaking, waiting him out.
“Charlie, when I first knew you, and met your family, several years ago, I knew you and your dad had unfinished business.”
“I had unfinished business with my father, too, so I recognized it in the both of you.”
“I admire what you did,” he said. “Over the past few years you spent a lot of time talking with your daddy, healing wounds, I don’t know what they were, but you took it upon yourself to do it, and you and he reconciled whatever it was.”
“I could tell. Even when he was here last time, real sick, I could see that you loved your father, and he loved you. You settled your differences, and that was a good thing.”
“It gave both of you a peace you didn’t have before.”
“I appreciate you saying that, Mario.”
“You see, the reason I’m saying this, is that I didn’t get that chance with my father. There were hard feelings between us. He said things, I said things I’ve always regretted. I wanted to make it up to him, like you did, but he died before I got the chance.”
That big strong man with the bulging muscles broke down, leaned his head on my shoulder and cried like the little boy who still lingered inside. His tears soaked into my suit coat. Unchained now, I patted his shoulder and sobbed with him. It was the least I could do. Even tough guys must sometimes cry.