I'm sitting in my office at home this afternoon, looking at a photo from my sister's wedding ten years ago. Tammy was all of 17, three months pregnant with her oldest son, Caleb, and embarking on an uncertain future with her husband Nathan. My brother Chris was nowhere to be found, and I made the trip to Warren, Illinois with hesitation and a promise wrangled from my mother that I would not be judgmental to anyone that day. Not that I was in such a position, having been evicted from my apartment and a couple months away from being kicked out of my friend Jade's place.
The photo shows my sister, nervous in her wedding dress, holding a small bridal bouquet, her eyes focused on something to her right outside the view of the lens. Standing next to her is my stepfather, natty in all black. He looks just as uncomfortable as Tammy. He always was uncomfortable in a crowd, as hard and unforgiving as the red Tennessee Valley clay he called home. When we were kids, the old man would drink himself blind, figuring that since he already had a hard time fitting in, he might as well not remember it. I thought he was on his best behavior that day, as well. In fact, the opposite was true, as he was embarking on an uncertain future of his own: one of sobriety and honorable living.
One of the reasons we kids all left home at 16 was because of the old man's drinking and his actions when he was drunk. Jerry could be a violent drunk whose favored cocktails were cheap beer and Seven-and-7. When the whisky ran through his system and he got riled up - which wasn't hard - he had both a devastating right cross and could catch you with a belt buckle, vacuum cleaner cord or a switch cut from a tree on parts of the body in which those were not meant to make contact. I started to grow and fight back, until Mom asked my Uncle Stu to take me in. If Stu hadn't done that, I'm not sure how my life would have turned out. In that regard I was lucky; I at least had some positive role model to look up to. Chris and Tammy had to grow up on the fly.
I digress. Even when he was a drunk, the old man kept up his appearances. Regardless of the family's financial situation, he'd be damned if he left the house with a hair out of place, dirty clothes and having not bathed. He favored musky colognes that reeked of sandalwood and leather, the kind of scents that blended favorably with cigarette smoke and a couple rounds of 7 Crown. He had a sly, dangerous gleam in his eyes that drew women to him when he was younger. If there was a stereotype for manly, overtly macho behavior, he was the poster child. I could see why Mom was attracted to him, even if I never agreed with her choice in men.
But he did rehabilitate himself. He was as doting a grandparent as he was as bad a parent. The final half of his and Mom's marriage was one filled with him never taking her for granted. Faced with the consequences of his actions when drinking, he took responsibility and vowed never to do them again. Even he and I made some peace with each other, and the respect was mutual and hard-earned.
When he was diagnosed with lung cancer a few years back and had half a lung removed, things slowed down considerably for him. The old man was used to keeping busy, working on something to keep from having idle hands. He never came to terms with his diminished lung capacity and the accompanying lethargy. But he did as Mom asked, went in for his checkups, and tried to adjust. Four months ago, a routine checkup found spots on his good lung. Rather than go in for a biopsy, he cut his losses and opted to live what days he had left with no compromise. Mom raised her objections to him, but I think she realized that he'd rather die on his own terms. A man's man to the end.
What none of us expected was the massive heart attack he had Wednesday. Mom gave the DNR request the next day; when I spoke with her she seemed at peace with what had come. At 8:10 p.m. last night, he finally passed on. Tammy is angry at him for leaving her, Mom for being comfortable with the decision, and Chris and myself for not being there as much as we should. She's had the biggest burden of all of us kids, and as the strongest constitution. I fear this might be too much.
I went up to Wisconsin Saturday to make sure Mom was alright and to pay final respects. I'm not religious by any stretch, but after Mom and Tammy left, I stayed behind in the room with him for another hour. I just wanted to let him know one more time that bygones were bygones, and that if he had some notion that he couldn't move on without hearing from me, he needn't have worried.