On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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Each year on April 25 my mother calls to remind me that it’s the anniversary of my father’s death, so I should take a moment to think about him.
My father, George Francis Witte Sr., was born in 1933 on a farm just outside De Soto, Missouri, a small town south of St. Louis. He was the sixth of seven children. He never talked much about life on the farm. The stories that have stuck with me are about deprivation — such as the one about bath day, when his siblings and he shared the same hot water, and if he wasn’t among the first to bathe, the water would be cold by the time he got in. Or how his family’s toilet was in an outhouse full of spiders, and instead of toilet paper they had a stack of Sears, Roebuck catalogs: you ripped out a page, tore it in half, and rubbed it against itself to make it softer and more pliable.
We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, but it’s hard to feel poor when your father has just told you how he wiped his ass with a catalog when he was your age.
After high school my father joined the Navy. He was stationed in Hawaii during the Korean War and saw no combat. He told few stories about his time in the military. I recall one about how he had to peel an unbelievable quantity of potatoes. He told this story in our kitchen as he used a utility knife to peel a bag of russet potatoes for his eight children. One by one he sliced off the skins, expertly stopping the blade against the meat of his thumb. The whole time I was afraid he was going to slice his finger.
Before he met my mother but after he left the Navy, my father earned an accounting degree from Saint Louis University and got a job in Chicago with Sears, Roebuck. At the age of thirty-four he was working the door at a Catholic singles’ dance when my mother walked in. He said he would let her in under one condition: that she save him a dance. My mother told me she was taken by his charm and good looks, but I’m sure his bullish confidence appealed to her, too.
They danced that night, and he took her phone number but never called. He was probably busy with his work as store comptroller for Sears and in his role as president of the Catholic Alumni Club of Greater Chicago. It’s also possible he was seeing other women. Years later he claimed that he had simply lost her number.
I have two children: a four-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy. I often wonder how in the world my parents raised seven sons and a daughter.
The second time my father and mother met was at a picnic, also sponsored by the Catholic singles’ group. My mother says he ate twelve ears of corn in front of her, as though it were normal behavior.
My father took my mother’s number again at the picnic. This time he called.
Recently I made corn on the cob. “Yummy,” my daughter said, expressing rare enthusiasm for a vegetable. To encourage her, I told her about her grandfather’s impressive act of eating.
“Wow,” my daughter said. “That’s really silly. I bet Grandpa Witte could die from eating that much corn, just like he already died.”
Some of my father’s masculine characteristics:
He smelled of Old Spice aftershave.
He had a barrel chest and a hard, round belly.
He had long, thick fingers and muscular hands.
He had red hair everywhere: on his arms, legs, chest, and back.
He greeted everyone with a bearhug.
In the late 1970s my father bought a scratch-off lottery ticket and won ten thousand dollars. He put some of the winnings toward the mortgage, gave a significant chunk to his parish, and took my mother to Europe with the rest. They saw Paris and the Vatican.
I’ve never won more than twenty dollars on a lottery ticket, but I’ve bought them since the day I turned eighteen, always hoping to channel my father’s luck. I don’t think about the odds. I think about the newspaper clipping in my keepsakes box: an article about my father’s big win, with a photo of him wearing a suit and tie, holding an oversized check, and smiling.
My father was passionate about the St. Louis Cardinals. I’m sure anyone who grew up near St. Louis in the 1940s, when the city’s team won three World Series titles, was a fan, but how many would threaten to hit their own offspring for talking smack about their beloved team?
At Sunday Mass my family would take up nearly an entire pew. During the service my father loudly sang hymns off-key and was always the first to stand from a sitting position or kneel from a standing one, as if it were a competition. And if one of his children nodded off, he’d deliver a quick slap to the back of the head.
I have never been a man of faith like my father, but every time I hear “Amazing Grace,” I tear up.
One way I am like my father is that I am bullish: when I see something I want, I go after it. I dated my wife for less than a year before I proposed. She wondered if I was moving too fast. “Aren’t you a bulldog,” she said.
My father proposed to my mother less than a year after they started dating.
I’m a stay-at-home father. I cook. I clean. I do laundry. I think of myself as a modern man. Still, I was affected by growing up in a family and a culture that defined a man’s role differently. I often wonder: What would my father think of my life?
In 1983 Sears, my father’s employer of twenty-five years, told him his position was being eliminated. There had been a recession, and the company was more concerned with the bottom line than with loyalty to a longtime employee. They gave him one year’s salary and a pitiful pension. He was nearly fifty years old with eight children at home.
For the next seven years my father tried to reinvent himself. He held positions as a real-estate agent, a salesman for a chemical company, a manager for clothing retailer Spiegel, and a manager for Enchanted Castle, a pizza, entertainment, and party establishment. None of those jobs lasted.
Financial uncertainty caused my father to turn to his Catholic faith: serving his parish, praying the rosary. He also turned to his first love, baseball — or, more precisely, baseball trading cards.
My brother and I were sorting cards when our father came home from work one day, and we mentioned to him how a certain card was worth more than the cost of a whole pack. Our father verified our claim via the Beckett price guide, and that’s all it took. He started collecting cards in large quantities, sometimes buying several boxes at once. His collection grew and grew, and so did the length of time he spent organizing it.
“I’m doing cards, Beth,” he would say to my mother. In fact, the cards were the main thing he did, his sanctuary from reality. If I wanted to speak to him, chances were I’d find him at the dining table or in his corner of the basement, doing cards.
He became so absorbed that I had to yell, “Dad!” over and over to snap him out of it. Sometimes I had to shake his shoulder, too.
I think my father believed he would make significant money buying and selling baseball cards. He would rent tables at weekend card shows and put his most prized acquisitions up for sale. Occasionally he sold enough to pocket a bit of cash, but other times he made just enough to cover the cost of the table.
My father drove a decade-old Pontiac, a rusted-out clunker with a cracked windshield. Before he turned the key, we’d always say a little prayer that it would start. But I loved to cruise through Chicago’s western suburbs with him, listening to oldies or classic rock.
One afternoon my father, my brother, and I were heading home to our mustard-colored split-level when the Beatles’ hit “Yellow Submarine” came on the radio, and my father began singing the refrain. My brother and I joined in: “We all live in a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine.”
In 1990 we moved to Normal, Illinois, because the cost of living was much lower there. Also my three oldest brothers were all playing football at nearby universities, and my parents wanted to attend their home games. My father, now fifty-seven, applied for a janitorial position in the building-services department at Illinois State University (ISU). Despite being physically robust and getting a high score on the civil-service test, he was not hired. He believed he had been discriminated against, and I always assumed he’d been turned down because of his age. He took a job in the kitchen at McDonald’s instead.
When my fifth-grade teacher asked me in front of the whole class what my father did for a living, I think I said that he was an accountant.
In a 1996 class-action lawsuit, a U.S. District Court determined that ISU had circumvented a civil-service hiring policy designed to benefit veterans like my father. A few years after the court ruling, my father was awarded a janitorial position with seniority.
My father was well-known in the family for his confusion on the telephone. Many of my siblings have a “Dad on the phone” story. Here is an unexaggerated example of a telephone conversation my father and I might have had:
Me: “Hi, Dad, it’s Pete.”
Him: “Pete’s not here right now.”
Me: “No, Dad. This is Pete.”
Me: “Dad! It’s Pete. This is Pete.”
Him: “Pete’s not here.”
Me: “This! Is! Pete! Dad, will you have Mom pick me up? I’m done with basketball practice.”
Him: “That’s right. Pete’s at basketball practice.”
Me: “Dad, please! Have Mom pick me up at school!”
[Silence, and then the sound of the receiver clicking into place.]
Sometimes, for fun, I would call home so my friends could hear me talk to my father. They’d listen in on another line, covering the mouthpiece and laughing. It was inconceivable to them that a man who was not hard of hearing could have such a difficult time conversing on the telephone. It stung to hear them laugh at my father, but I didn’t let on, because my friends found it so funny. I felt embarrassed by my father, and ashamed for being embarrassed.
My father was fiercely competitive. He would come to blows with his own children over a friendly game of darts, horseshoes, or cards. Once, as I laughed over a poker hand I’d just won against him, he knocked me from my chair. “Stop your celebrating,” he said. I was nine.
In junior high and high school I played basketball. My father worked nights and weekends as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant, so he rarely had a chance to attend my games. Sometimes I wished he were there, but mostly I felt fortunate, because his competitiveness could lead him to cause a scene. He believed without a doubt that his son should play, not ride the bench.
One Saturday morning my father didn’t have to work. He was there in the stands, and I didn’t play a second of the game. Afterward I found him fuming in a hallway near the gym. “Your coach is a goddamned idiot,” he said. “I’m going to tell him so myself.” I begged him not to, pulling on his arm as he moved past me toward the coach’s office. I managed to deter him. Thankfully I got to play in every game he attended after that.
One of my father’s dreams was for his children to form a basketball team and play against the Harlem Globetrotters.
Some weeks my father worked more than sixty hours at the restaurant, including the occasional twelve-hour day. When he came home from a dishwashing shift, he always appeared exhausted and distant, as though he were in an alternate universe. He changed from his smelly, tomato-sauce-stained uniform and sat in his office to check the day’s baseball scores. We’d hear “Shit” or “Damn” on nights the Cardinals lost or their rivals, the Cubs, won.
When I was in high school, my father could often be found watching television or reading the newspaper in a chair next to the kitchen. From this spot he could monitor my trips to the refrigerator. “Drinking milk again, Pete?” he would say. “Why don’t you drink water?” It was as if he were guarding the food, trying to make it last longer.
At eighteen I got a tattoo on my upper left arm of a basketball with my jersey number across it. When my mother saw it, she started crying. I walked into my father’s office, interrupting a baseball game to show him.
“That’s not real,” he said.
“Yes, it is.”
He reached out and touched it. “How much did it cost?” he asked.
He turned back to the TV. “Boy,” he said, “you’re an idiot.”
At nineteen I was walking down the sidewalk toward Avanti’s, the restaurant where my father worked. It was early evening, and my father’s shift was ending. I knew this because I had checked the schedule on our refrigerator, which he wrote out by hand, pressing the pen into the paper with a strange intensity. I figured I would intercept him along the way, say hello, see how he was. Halfway there I saw him coming down the sidewalk. “Dad. Hey, Dad,” I said as he approached. He looked at me but kept walking. I stood in his path. “Dad, it’s Pete.” He stepped around me and moved right past, not saying a word.
I believed my father was distracted and distant because of his financial stress, coupled with the long hours of washing dishes at the restaurant and the chaos in our loud and crowded home. The only way he could deal with it all was by tuning out.
On their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary my parents visited me in Chicago, where I was living on the North Side and working days as a server in Oak Park and occasional nights as a bouncer at a club. I had just dropped out of college for the second time and was spending most nights drinking myself into a stupor at my garden apartment because I couldn’t afford to drink in bars. My relationship with my girlfriend was going south. I felt it was a mistake for my parents to celebrate an anniversary with me, their least stable offspring, but I think they wanted to come to Chicago and see some sights from their dating and newlywed years.
We toured the city, stopping for photos at a Sears store where my father had worked and at numerous tourist attractions: Grant Park, the Sears Tower, St. Peter’s Church. We ended the day over beers and deep-dish pizza at Giordano’s.
My parents finally had an empty nest, and although they owed money on their trailer home in Normal, their financial situation was the best it had been since Sears had downsized my father nearly twenty years earlier. After dinner we went our separate ways, but not before my father handed me seventy dollars, saying, “It’s not much. I wish I could do more.”
I wish I could say I spent that money on something other than booze at the tavern that night.
At the age of seventy my father worked eight-hour shifts as a stocker at Walmart, regularly lifting fifty-pound boxes.
He believed he would live a long life, since his father had lived to be ninety-eight and his mother eighty-six. I believed he would, too.
Three months after my parents’ thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, I was broke. With my last couple of hundred dollars I rented a U-Haul and moved in with my parents. Two months later I was in the kitchen reading the newspaper when my father came in.
“Pete,” he said, “I have Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
More technically known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, Lou Gehrig’s is a progressive degeneration of the central nervous system, leading to a wasting of the muscles and paralysis.
Symptoms of ALS:
A person with ALS often holds cups with two hands because he has lost the strength to hold them with one, even when that hand was previously among the largest and strongest you’ve ever seen.
A person with ALS cannot easily zip his pants up or down due to loss of finger strength, which can lead to the individual wetting himself as he stands in front of the toilet.
A person with ALS loses leg strength, which can lead to his falling down at Mass, causing other parishioners to look on with great concern.
A person with ALS might weep loudly in front of his family while watching Tuesdays with Morrie, a film about a man with ALS.
It soon became clear that my father needed around-the-clock care, so my siblings and I created a “Dad-Time Calendar” and each indicated when we would be able to help our mother or provide care by ourselves.
I was my father’s sole caretaker on Tuesday mornings and afternoons. In jest I called our time together “Tuesdays with Georgie.” I now regret it.
When my father was still mobile, he and I would spend our Tuesdays talking at local coffeehouses. Though the disease had slowed his speech, those conversations were the most memorable I had with him.
He spoke of the pain he’d felt when Sears had fired him and of the disappointment of his other career failures. He spoke of his humiliation when, as a manager at Enchanted Castle, he’d been accused of sexual harassment. (All he’d done was grab the young woman’s shoulder to get her attention in the loud environment, he said, but she claimed he snapped her brassiere strap.) He spoke of his anger and powerlessness when he and my mother had convinced their closest friends and relatives to join them in an investment scheme, and they’d all been swindled out of thousands of dollars. He spoke of how he’d left the building-services department at ISU because his boss had picked on him and a co-worker had verbally abused him over his “unearned seniority.”
He also told me that he felt blessed to have his children and lucky that he’d found my mother, whom he loved deeply. Once, after I had helped him into his chair and as he struggled to hold the coffee mug steady, he said that not all of his body was breaking down: he could still get “it” up.
I have a photo of my parents sitting together on a love seat, each holding a heart-shaped pink pillow. It was taken during the years when overeating and fast food were family habits. My parents had put on a lot of weight, and the camera angle really captures their sizes, but what’s striking about the picture is how they are smiling and staring deep into each other’s eyes.
Four months after he was diagnosed with ALS, my father fell in our living room and ruptured his spleen, which required emergency surgery. Then he stopped walking and lost the ability to tend to his personal hygiene. I recall trimming the hairs in his nose and ears, shaving his face, clipping his nails, and, once, when my mother wasn’t around, wiping his butt. He also lost the ability to swallow and drink, so a feeding tube was inserted in his stomach. Finally he stopped talking. He could only groan, “Mah,” for “Move me,” and make a guttural sound when he needed his tongue moistened, which he did constantly. Until the very end he could communicate by subtly nodding yes or no.
Caring for my father was physically and emotionally exhausting for my siblings and me, but it took the greatest toll on our mother. Around 5 or 6 AM, after a particularly busy night when he’d needed his body adjusted and his tongue moistened many times, she whispered, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
My father was in a hospital bed in the adjacent room. I hoped he was asleep.
The truth is, near the end of his life, I wished my father would just die.
One of our last mornings together was sunny and crisp with a slight breeze, and I took my father for a stroll. I rolled him in his wheelchair down the trailer home’s wooden ramp, through the yard, and along the street. I felt as if we could keep going through the trailer-park community’s main gates, onto the highway, and perhaps all the way to a favorite spot: the off-track betting parlor, Alexander’s Steakhouse, Killarney’s Irish Pub. The world was ours.
We hadn’t been outside for more than a few minutes when he signaled for me to stop. I think the wind was too much. He wanted to return home.
My father died less than a month before my parents’ thirty-sixth wedding anniversary. My mother was seated next to him. They were watching CatholicTV.
The morning my father died, I was passed out drunk after a night of double Jim Beam and Cokes and then beers at the Chicago Bulls playoff game.
My brother woke me to tell me he was dead. At first I felt relief. Then I felt deep shame that I’d ever wished he would die.
Can I forgive myself? Should I?
Material belongings of my father’s that I possess:
A blue-and-green-striped T-shirt that I have worn only a couple of times.
A leather pen-and-pencil holder and a letter opener with a matching leather case. I use the pen-and-pencil holder but not the letter opener because I prefer to tear envelopes open with my finger.
A coffee mug with the image of Saint Francis of Assisi holding two white doves on one side and a quote from the Prayer of Saint Francis on the other. The handle is broken off, but the mug is still usable.
After my father’s death my mother would often start crying for no apparent reason. This went on for four, maybe five years. Even today she might tear up at the mention of his name.
Since my father’s death I have had numerous conversations with my family about his distracted and distant manner, and we’ve tossed around a number of theories about what might have caused it. My older siblings think it started after he was fired from Sears, when the career and financial stress began. (I was too young then to notice.) During neurological testing for his ALS symptoms, the doctor discovered that our father had experienced multiple ministrokes at some point in the past — we don’t know when. It’s possible they changed him in some way. Maybe the ALS began affecting him cognitively far earlier than we’d thought. Or maybe it was just what I’ve believed all along: that he could find peace only inside his head, in his own universe, and when he was there, he didn’t want to leave.
Sometimes I imagine my father sitting in my living room with my son on his lap and my daughter seated next to him, her hands wrapped around his burly arm. He’s not saying much, but he’s smiling, and the children laugh and talk enough for all of us.
Anger is still the most common emotion I feel when I think about losing my father. I am angry that he became ill and died right after he retired from Walmart. I am angry that my mother is lonely. I am angry that I don’t have him in my life, that he never saw me graduate from college or attend graduate school or work a job that did not require physical labor. I am angry that my wife never met him. I am angry that my children will never know their grandfather, aside from the stories I tell them. I realize that this anger is not healthy.
I stopped drinking 938 days ago. I hate to think how poorly I would manage my anger if I were not sober.
I started this essay four years ago but couldn’t finish it. Whenever I read what I’d written, I felt unsatisfied, as if I hadn’t truly captured my father’s life. He kept eluding me. I still feel that way, but now I realize that I’ll always be in pursuit, and he’ll always be walking right past me as I call his name.
I was moved by Peter Witte’s essay about his deceased father [“Enigma,” May 2015], especially when he revealed in his last paragraph that he had begun the essay four years earlier but was unable to finish it because he couldn’t solve the enigma of his father.
I, too, have someone in my life with whom I have a complex relationship and about whom I have tried to write. I am not a writer who typically abandons projects, but this has been the toughest piece I’ve ever undertaken, and after a year and a half, I was considering giving up. I want to thank Witte for reminding me that such stories don’t have expiration dates. In fact, these difficult stories are the most essential for us to tell.