Part Three | Larger than Life
““Every child grows up thinking their father is a hero or villain until they are old enough to realize he is just a man”
My father was 6’4″ and a BIG man—in every sense of the word. Rotund, handsome, smart, funny, fearless—and a scamp. For the better part of his adult life he was a car salesman. My mother said he could sell ice to the Eskimos.
He was wicked smart and well-read which belied his sixth grade education. In spite of my grandmother’s strong moral compass, Dad had his own directional system. Informed and erudite, he dressed in custom tailored shirts and suits, silk ties, and hand-knit argyle socks. Dapper.
Dad was a staunch Republican, an inveterate coffee drinker and smoker. He was not impressed by possessions or social climbers, two of the many issues he had with my mom. He also had a penchant for Havana cigars—until they were too expensive and difficult to get post-Castro. He taught me how to light a cigar, a talent that came in handy during my waitressing years.
His pitch to the last of his six wives, while she was married to someone else, was, “Have you ever been with a fat man?” It worked. She left her husband of twenty-five years and married my dad. Sweet talker.
He had bright blue eyes, filled with mischief. If you asked him how he was, he’d say, “I’ve never had a sick day in my life.” Once his health deteriorated, he ruled the roost from a hospital bed in his living room, still making the same claim about not being sick as he removed the oxygen mask to take a drag of his cigarette. I chided him, knowing that I was going to find the converted garage in Compton blown to smithereens on one of my weekly visits.
Dad spoke in a Runyonesque vernacular. I’ve kicked myself for not recording his raucous tales of selling goods on the black market in Alaska during WWII; of he and a friend jumping off of a gambling boat in San Pedro Harbor during a police raid and swimming to shore under the moonlight; of Vegas in the early 50s and the wise guys turning the desert into an untamed oasis.
I remember Dad trying to lure Mom and my stepdad into investing in a planned community with some guy named Del Webb (yes, that one). He had blueprints and glossy print mock-ups, one with three cows—pink, brown and white. I giggled when Dad told me that they produced regular milk as well as strawberry and chocolate. My mother’s harshest admonition to me was, “You’re a dreamer, just like your father.” Needless to say, they did not invest in what Mom called “Bill’s Folly.”
For most of my life, Dad was an absent father who had a contentious relationship with my mother. When I was young, the weekends I spent with Grandma were more often than not supposed to be my weekends with Dad.
Mabel could barely contain her jealousy of my five-year old self, so I was left with Grandma while Dad worked. When he got home to the converted garage behind Grandma’s house, I would be invited back for an hour—or two—if I was lucky. I was never allowed to sleep in their apartment, even though the converted garage was twice the size of the main house and better appointed. Dad and I would share a can of Vienna sausages while he scoffed at my growth and teased that he was going to put me under the coffee table to keep me small.
When I was about five, my step-cousins got a pre-fab playhouse. I desperately pleaded for a “home of my own.” Mom must have suggested that this frivolous desire would make the perfect Christmas present.
The pre-fab houses weren’t good enough for my dad (or maybe, as I write this—his daughter). He had one custom-built from redwood planks with a real shake roof, a Dutch-door, and louvered windows. While my house was being built offsite, Mom and my stepdad sectioned off a corner of our backyard. They had a concrete slab laid and a half cinder wall built that matched our retaining wall. My beautiful house arrived on a flat-bed truck and I soon had my very own real estate. Mom laid actual carpet, hung drapes, and furnished the place. It would serve as a haven in the rocky years that lay ahead—and for many years, after it was relocated to Compton—it served as Dad’s home office.
Although Dad had set up accounts for me at the Children’s Bootery in Beverly Hills, the Snip ‘N Curl next door, and a department store for school clothes, Dad and Mom’s relationship became even more acrimonious as I got older, the war raging over money. At the time, I didn’t understand his mistrust of my spendthrift Mother, or his ongoing resistance to child support payments. He had set up the charge accounts to sidestep my mom and ensure that I was the recipient of his largesse.
At thirteen, as my mother’s drinking and anger escalated, I asked him if I could come live with he and Mabel. He explained how that wasn’t feasible. I didn’t see him or speak to him for the next three years.
When I was sixteen, my mother and I had a terrible fight. She called my dad to make me his problem for the summer. I told Mom that it was like phoning a stranger and asking him to take me away. She was unmoved.
Dad visited and told me that Mike Salta Pontiac had given him the option of opening a new dealership in either Connecticut or Honolulu. He used his best sales tactics to convince me that this would be fun. I was angry with both of my parents, so I was unswayed, but had no say in the matter.
He phoned a few days later to say that he and Mabel were packing and heading to Honolulu. A few weeks later I was winging my way to join them. The plane followed a majestic sunset for three hours across the Pacific, until the sun finally sunk into the ocean. I cried the entire time, thinking about my eight-year old sister clinging to my leg in the terminal, sobbing, “Don’t go! Who will take care of me?” as Mom wrestled with her to keep her from reattaching.
Dad worked 16-hour days preparing to open the new dealership. I was held captive and tortured (slight hyperbole) by Mabel who watched old-people soap operas all afternoon and rationed the best pineapple. I could have lived on that sweet juicy goodness, but it was meted out like we were in Siberia instead of paradise. I had a “meeting” with my dad in Waikiki and told him just how unhappy I was and that I wanted to see more of him. He assured me he would make more time. Nothing changed. I was sixteen—what did I understand about the demands of real life? All I knew was that I was miserable and felt unwanted by both of my parents.
I was supposed to stay three months, enjoying a carefree Polynesian summer. I lasted three weeks in which I lost 15 pounds and conquered my bug phobia, expeditiously smashing three-inch tropical cockroaches that loitered in my shower every day.
I wouldn’t see my dad again until I was 26.
By 1979, I had learned that Dad was back in California. Without notice, I drove to the dealership where he was employed and asked if I could borrow $1000 to put Mom in a rehabilitation hospital to try to break her downward spiral into a bottle. He said, “If it’s to help your mother, no.” I drove away angry and hurt. It would be another seven years before we spoke.
In 1986, after undergoing two weeks of severe abdominal pain, after a barrage of inconclusive tests, after two days of being in and out of the ER, I had the doctors stymied. I had a low-grade fever, a marginally elevated white count, and conflicting results from myriad tests. In the span of five days, I had been subjected to 13 pelvic and 12 rectal exams. As I was placed in the stirrups for that final indelicacy, I said to the surgeon, “I am beginning to feel promiscuous—and nobody has even kissed me yet.” Dr. Kobayashi blushed. I was scheduled for exploratory surgery at 7:00 pm that night. Mom fretted until the orderly wheeled me off to the OR. She went home to get a good night’s sleep—so she could go to work the next day.
I had been prepped for surgery in a shared room and woke up in a private room after a four-hour surgery. There was a skull and crossbones on the door, cautioning visitors that they were entering a hot zone. It turned out that my appendix had ruptured two weeks prior, but my body had walled off the infection—which was the only reason I wasn’t dead. When the surgeons punctured the infectious sac, the sepsis spread through me attempting to finish the job.
Visitors had to don surgical scrubs and masks before entering. I had a 10” open abdominal incision packed with gauze and a second incision below for the surgical tubes draining the infection from my worn and battered body. In my experience, facing death erodes anger and resentment in a jiffy. I asked my mom to call my dad to tell him I loved him—just in case I wasn’t able to ever tell him myself.
Dad called frequently during my 14 days in the hospital. I could hear the love in his voice. I surmised the worry from his upbeat daily calls.
Flagyl had failed to kill the infection, so I was being sent home with an open wound, the drainage tubes still in place. I had to learn how to “dress” the wound myself for the long road ahead. My college roommate stood by as she was also being instructed on how to open the packaging so I could remain “sterile” during the dressing changes.
The nurse removed the ABD pads covering the main incision. It was the first time I had actually seen the huge hole in my stomach. Seen the blood. Seen the inside of my body, splayed open like a fish. As the nurse pulled the bloody gauze from my gut, her hand disappeared inside the incision up to her wrist. I started crying. “I can’t do this,” I sputtered, convulsing from shock.
“You won’t be released from the hospital until you can,” she said firmly, shoving the opened package of surgical gloves at me. Shaking and crying, I started packing the wound with fresh gauze as I watched my own hand disappear into the wound, my stunned roommate looking on in horror. I am sure she was thinking “What have I gotten myself into?”
Once out of the hospital, I had a long recovery ahead, rife with complications and convolutions. Initially, I was supposed to spend a week at Mom’s, presumably because I needed that “extra-special” motherly love. She picked me up on her lunch break, dropped me off and went back to work. I was left to fend for myself as I tried to figure out how I was supposed to keep things sterile without assistance. The guest bathroom looked like a scene out of Psycho by the time I was finished with my first solo dressing change.
To the average onlooker, I seemed perfectly healthy and normal. No one could see the blood and gore seeping beneath my clothing, or the tubes hanging out of my gut. It was a surreal six months. Facing death, forced me to face life and taught me who had my back.
In his mid-60s, after spending most of his life working for other people, Dad decided he’d rather “sell pencils on the street corner, working for myself.” He opened a small novelty car lot (the first of its kind) in Paramount, California – “Rent-A-Wreck” – where he rented cars for $5 to $10 per day to people who had bad- or no-credit. All you had to do was bring in two recent paystubs, pick your wreck, sign the rental agreement, and Dad handed over the keys to cars that ranged from old Cadillacs to battered Fords.
He gave his customers an option to buy, applying a portion of their rental fees to the purchase price. It was a very egalitarian way of doing business. His lot served as a gathering place for the downtrodden who not only did business with Dad, but would sit for hours “chewing the fat” with my affable and charming father.
Because he was now his own boss, he traded in the suits and silk ties for khakis and an assortment of loud Hawaiian shirts. He held court behind an old metal desk in the disorganized office where a large blackboard tracked the inventory. I don’t remember Dad ever being happier.
After a couple of weeks of recovery, Dad summoned me to his office. I was still using a cane to support my weakened body. Dad was genuinely happy to see me—his one and only whom he’d almost lost. He pointed out some small scribbled signs he’d made and “contracted” me to create more professional signage. He slipped me a check for $700, knowing I was too feeble to work. He would help me for many months during the slow recovery—as long as I made the drive to see him—and the signs. Ever a shrewd businessman.
Before Mabel passed, she had finally started being nice to me. They had been together since I was five. After twenty-six years of marriage, I guess she finally figured out that I wasn’t her rival, merely his only child (why, oh why do women treat children this way?).
By the time Mark and I were planning our wedding, Mabel was gone and Dad had retired, his health starting to deteriorate. He was too feeble to attend, but gave us a check to help cover costs for our small wedding of family and the closest of friends.
We went to visit Dad a few days later with wedding cake and leftovers as I had “catered” my own wedding. At some point, we had another falling out when his memory started failing and he wrongly accused Mark of not fulfilling a promise he had made (and kept). I tried to reason with Dad, but his barbs against my husband escalated, and I said, enough.
After Katie was born, my mom “stole” the baby out to meet her grandfather. In time, he and I made our amends—again. He enjoyed my cooking and was enchanted by his granddaughter. He would ask me to bring the latest Disney video so he and Katie could watch while I ran errands for him.
On our final visit, as I was readying to leave for the grocery store, my three-year old daughter was sitting on a stool beside Dad’s hospital bed. They were holding hands, watching Belle and the Beast fall in love. My heart leapt. When I got back, he said, his eyes gleaming, “She’s such a lovely child. You’re a wonderful mother.” It was the greatest compliment he had ever given me.
In mid-December of 1993, I was navigating morning traffic to pick Kate up from her dad to head out for our weekly visit. I called to tell Dad that traffic was bad and that we were running late. There was no answer. Something told me to phone my answering machine—which I never did. His neighbor had left a message saying they had found Dad unconscious. The paramedics couldn’t revive him. He was on his way to the hospital. Mark told me to leave Kate and I flew out the door. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper L.A. traffic, my imagination ran wild.
By the time I reached the hospital, Dad had already been placed on a breathing tube before the hospital found his DNR order. I phoned my mother, asking her to come to the hospital. She refused, citing the many grievances against my dying father instead. I soldiered alone. I stayed with him for two silent days until I went home long enough to shower and sleep for a few fitful hours.
Later that morning, his long-time doctor convinced me that this was not what Dad wanted. Cheryl, Dad’s step-daughter, had power of attorney, so I phoned her to tell her that the doctor reiterated Dad’s wishes: we should pull the ventilator tube. I also phoned Mark, who worked five minutes away from Cheryl. We had separated a year and a half earlier, but he arrived 20 minutes before Cheryl got there—without a car. He had convinced a co-worker to taxi him to the hospital across town. I forgave my estranged husband a lot of sins that day, sobbing in his arms.
A social worker sat with me, Mark and Cheryl, preparing us for the moments that would follow after the ventilator tube was pulled. My mind ricocheted with the unfairness of losing Dad so quickly after we had finally found our way to one another. His doctor walked back into the “comfort” room and, shaking his head in disbelief, said, “He’s breathing on his own. He’s a fighter.”
I started laughing, convinced that my father—that man who had done things his own way since the very beginning—wasn’t ready to die. Cheryl and Mark left. I sat beside Dad’s bed, regaling him with stories about the life I’d lived between our sporadic visits. I sang Christmas carols to him. I thought maybe I could will him to live so he could see his granddaughter grow up in a way he had missed with me. With every breath he took, I celebrated his strong stubborn will and, finally, saw my reflection in him.
By the following morning, he had started clawing the air. I realized I had to let go. I told him that I would be okay on my own. That the grandchild he had softened to in a way he had never softened to me, would be loved and she would be okay too. I held his hand, clammy, tinged blue, and told him it was okay to go and see Mabel. The monitor kept beeping and the nurse came in and circled the bed, adjusting tubes and cords as I continued to speak softly in Dad’s ear. Finally, the beep turned to a relentless hum as it flatlined. I hate that sound. My Dad, who had been larger than life—and lived a life larger than most—was gone.
I left the hospital in a daze. For the first time in my life, the festive holiday decorations draped across the boulevard made me sad, accentuating the hollowness I felt inside. It was the year I stopped sending Christmas cards, because I couldn’t drum up any holiday goodwill.
I phoned Mark when I got home to tell him Dad had died. Once again, he came to my side to make sure I was okay, this time riding 24 miles on his bicycle from Century City to Glendale. He took me to dinner, made me eat, made me laugh, and stayed the night, sleeping in Kate’s empty room.
The following day I was to meet Cheryl at the mortuary. At 7:30 I was roused from the first real sleep I’d had in a week to the “brrrring” of the phone next to my bed. There was a lot of static and a hollow sound—as if someone was calling from deep inside a tunnel. “Hello,” I croaked. “Hello?” Nothing but crackle. As I came to full consciousness, a chill ran up my spine as I realized that phone’s ringer hadn’t worked in years.
The next day, stoic as my father and grandmother before me, I went to pick up Katie from my cousin who had watched her throughout that horrible week. I tried to explain death to my three-year old. Tears softly falling, I told her that Grandpa had gone to the angels. She took my face in her small hands and said, “Oh, Mommy, we will go to Grandpa’s. You will hold his right hand and I will hold his left hand, and then he will be okay.”
Over the ensuing months, every once in awhile, Katie would look up into the air and say, “Mommy, I see Grandpa,” and then return to play as casually as if she had looked out the window and saw him coming up the walkway for a visit.
In the years that have followed, I have learned that we are certainly comprised of our nurturing (or lack thereof), but I have also learned just how much nature fashions us. At my core, I am so much like this man whom I barely knew. He failed me in a million ways, but I know he loved me. I wish he’d always been able to be the father I so desperately needed and wanted, but he did the best he could. Not having a father in his life, he wasn’t equipped for the attentiveness I had required—he had no role model. He had gotten on with life, and I guess he expected me to do the same. He struggled to show affection, but I witnessed his gentleness toward the little girl he and I both loved so dearly. In the end, I know I made him proud of the woman and mother I had become without any sure-footed parenting of my own to forge the path.
I keep his tortoise-shell glasses on a shelf in my studio—so he can see the day-to-day of my life unfold in a way he never did in life. So he can know that I am a dreamer—just as he was. He and I were different in a thousand important ways. But in the end, as Mom complained many times, I am my father’s daughter. What she never understood is just how proud that makes me.