My father died 10 years ago today, on 04/04/04. I sometimes like to think he chose that day to help me remember the date, knowing what a terrible memory I have. The thought may have crossed his mind, because that’s the sort of person he was inside.
Dad had the misfortune of being born at the wrong time. A basically kind and gentle person, he grew up during the Depression and came of age just before WWII. Society expected him to be someone he wasn’t. He did his best to fit in to a culture that lionised actors like John Wayne and that, I think, was his fatal mistake. I blamed him for it for a long time, but that was my mistake. It was much easier for me to buck the system when I was coming of age in the 60s.
Dad was a staunch Republican and patriot. One of my earliest memories of watching our first black and white TV is of him gritting his teeth and saying America should wipe the Soviet Union “off the face of the earth” when Walter Cronkite reported on the evil Nikita Khrushchev and his Communist Party cohorts. I couldn’t have been older than about eight or nine at the time, but even then, he seemed so out of character, it made me laugh.
My mother was Canadian and couldn’t have cared less who ran for President until Kennedy came on the scene. She voted for Kennedy and became a conspiracy theorist after his assassination.
My parents’ diametrically opposed political views weren’t enough to split them apart, though. Their relationship began to unravel after Dad lost his job as an accountant at a manufacturing company. I never knew why until just before he died. Apparently they decided they needed a college graduate to do their books for them. A CPA just wouldn’t do in the fast-paced world of the 1960s.
I was never closer to him than at that time. Dad had a creative streak in him and invented a clothes hanger that could neatly hang five pairs of pants on one hanger. I loved hanging out with him in the garage, watching him tinker with his invention and got to help him package his samples. He called it “Mr. Valet” and even got someone to draw a cartoon of a smiling valet to complete the picture. The May Company wanted to buy them from him, but he couldn’t find a backer to start serious production, so he dropped the idea and set up a little one-man CPA business instead.
I was too young then to be aware of what was happening beneath the surface in our family. To my eyes, we had effortlessly moved up the ladder from a small two bedroom house, to a larger 3 bedroom house and finally to a house on “Snob Hill” with an ocean view. My parents used the collateral on that house to buy a lovely Spanish style 12 unit apartment complex half a block from the beach. For all I knew, we were set up for life. I had no idea how much money it took to support such a lifestyle.
My mother got a job as a bank teller to help make ends meet. Then she started working as the South Bay’s first real estate saleswoman and took to drinking with her boss. Arguments ensued. Finally, Dad moved out, my parents divorced (almost unheard of in our town), and things continued downhill from there.
By the time I started my first family, my relationship with my Dad was down to yearly Christmas cards. I’m not sure he even met my kids until he visited us in Australia sometime in the late 1980s. If he did, the fact that I don’t remember speaks volumes in itself.
One day in January of 2004, I got a phone call. It was from a real estate agent who managed Dad’s little properties in Victorville, California. He had been taking Dad to his weekly doctor appointments and overheard the doctor mention the “C” word. Dad had stomach cancer and only had a few months to live. I dropped everything and flew to LA. That was when I finally got to know my Dad.
My father’s first name was Emerson. His mother, a Christian Scientist, gave him that name. I’m not sure why, but I like to believe she named him after Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the few Americans I admire. At any rate, that’s what I’ve always believed and I occasionally got glimpses of the “Emerson” inside him over the years. Unfortunately, Dad was ashamed of his unusual name, just as he seemed ashamed of the gentle side of his personality. He called himself “Ed” and signed everything E.J. Schneider instead of using his full name.
One day while I was rummaging through the stacks of stuff in his garage, I came across a black and white photograph of him sitting opposite a beautiful young woman at a fancy restaurant. I took it to the hospice I’d found for him and asked him who she was.
“That’s Ginny,” he said with a wistful smile. “She was the love of my life.”
“Why didn’t you marry her?” I asked. He and my mother were the most mismatched couple in history and I had no idea how they ended up together.
“I always believed I would die young and your mother was a strong woman. I thought she would be a better mother for my kids after I died.”
Later, the real estate agent who called me in Australia (sorry! I’ve forgotten your name) told me how much he admired Dad. He knew he was timid, but he was brave enough to stand up at a town meeting and speak out about his concerns for children from underprivileged families.
Dad had admirers all over Victorville. Everyone saw him as a kind man who cared for others. I finally learned just how kind he was the day before he died.
I spent three months in Victorville. After I found the hospice, he started having me run around town setting his affairs in order. First we found the man who was executor of his Will and had him sign it over to me. After that, I had to go to the five banks where he kept bits and pieces of his savings and change them over to our joint names. Then we had to transfer ownership of his properties to me. Dad wanted to be sure neither a lawyer nor the government got the bulk of his assets. Lucky for us we found a lawyer who thought as highly about his profession as we did. He was a great guy and helped us through the legal maze.
Dad grew up during the Depression and spent the rest of his life terrified that another depression was just around the corner. He reckoned if he had his savings in five banks, at least one or two of them would survive the coming crash. A lot of people grew up during the Depression, including his brothers and my mother. Why it haunted Dad so much is beyond me, but when it came to money, he was the most fearful person I’ve ever known.
Had I not known these were his dying wishes, I might have argued or even just walked away, because money had always been a sore point between us. But he was dying and this was my last chance to bridge the distance between us, so I grit my teeth and did as instructed — fortunately for me. If I’d done my usual and let things take care of themselves, banks, lawyers and the government would have ended up with most of my father’s modest savings.
Finally, everything was in order. I had legal access to his bank accounts, so there wouldn’t be any lawyers or taxes to worry about after he died. His properties were in my name, so I was free to keep them or sell them without hassles or unnecessary expenses. I was the executor of his Will, so he was confident 50% of his modest estate would go to me and 50% to my sister’s kids, who had had a rough time since Laraine’s untimely death at the age of 51.
I sat down with him and we went through everything one more time. Yes, everything was in order.
“So I can go now?” Dad asked with a smile.
I smiled back. “Yes, Dad, if you want to.”
As if on cue, a nurse walked into the room.
“I have to take your pulse now, Mr. Schneider,” she said.
“Zero!” he laughed. It was the heartiest laugh I can remember ever coming from him; as if the burden of living was finally over and something better lay ahead. The nurse didn’t get it, but I did, and laughed with him. Then she told me it was past curfew and time for me to go.
“See you tomorrow, Dad,” I said, still smiling; not really believing he was going to die.
At 4:00 a.m. the next morning, the night nurse called and told me Dad had died peacefully in his sleep. I went straight there to give him my final regards in person. He looked so peaceful, my heart overflowed with love for him. I felt a touch of awe, too, as I realised he had kept himself alive just until he had made sure what was left of his family would get what he had sacrificed so many comforts to save for them.
Dad wanted to be buried, so I made the arrangements and invited my relatives to come to his funeral. My aunt and her daughter flew in from Wisconsin; my uncle and cousins came over the hill from LA; and a few of Dad’s friends attended, too. I gave a little speech and still wonder if they thought poorly of me for not feeling sad. The fact is, I was on a high. I had finally reconciled with my father and knew he had died happy. What was there to feel sad about?
Emerson. My Dad’s name is Emerson. He was the kindest person I’ve ever known.