An original memoir written in CW 352: Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Spring 2010
I have never seen my father cry. I have seen him bury his older brother, who was also his best friend, and his father less than two years apart. I even spoke to him less than an hour after he found his mother’s lifeless body in her bed next to her hopelessly faithful, but hopelessly dim-witted dog, Scully. But not once did I see him cry. I never heard instability in his voice when he toasted them in following yearly ritual. I never spoke to him about these things because honestly, in my naïve mind, it seemed like he was “okay.” My older sister, Colleen, envies both my little sister and me for being at home watching television under my aunt’s supervision the day my uncle Chris died. She told me that if I had been at the hospital that day I would have witnessed my father ripping apart a hospital room with the force of a tornado in seconds before being restrained by three large orderlies. My sister does not scare easily. She has had a fear of him since that day. That certain breed of fear that made her more nervous than Erin or I when he got mad at us. Almost like she had seen a moment when he half-consciously unleashed something dark inside him for a brief but terrifying moment.
I always liked that story.
It made me understand myself much better. It made me feel like I really was his son. I had always identified much more with my mother; she was calm, collected, and intelligent without ever sounding condescending. Her selflessness was the same that I prided myself on, a trait in myself that I would come to resent more and more as I got older. My father and I had always seemed like a different species before hearing this story. My species would have been weaker, only in appearance not in intellect; and his would have been strong, athletic, and aggressive species. This forced me to live in a fear of my father only because he was not of my kind, and thereby, unpredictable. My sisters were as much kind as they were kin with my father. They were the ones who got that “killer instinct” that he understood I did not possess, at least not on the surface. Upon hearing this I was in shock. After all, Colleen Marie was at the time, and for the most part still is, as one might say, “not an individual you would ever want to ‘mess’ with.” (Think Julia Styles, 10 Things I Hate About You pissed off and then add in a monthly hormonal cycle that seemed never ending. Also, this was the same sister who once saved my mother a three hundred dollar trip to the dentist when she punched me in the jaw, I remember deserving it, knocking out my front right tooth that the doctor was planning to harvest that weekend.)
Soon after, I began observing him more closely when he started to “lose it,” and noticed a parallel between us that brought me miles closer to him: we never got sad, or upset, we got angry, but restrained ourselves. This awesome power he had dwelling inside him that I identified with always made me afraid of what I was capable- of what my powers were.
I can remember after my grandfather’s passing people made a point to mention to each of the grandchildren that he, “went the best way he could have – peacefully in his sleep.” Despite my understanding of my father’s eruption at my Uncle Chris’ passing, he too shuffled off this mortal coil along the same “ideal route” as my grandfather. This was supposed to be comforting.
I slowly remember beginning to disagree with those people more and more as my hand began to chafe from the overzealous handshakes of the hundreds that attended his wake. But, let me clarify: I didn’t just think that they were wrong; I thought that none of them had seriously posited the question to themselves before expressing a supposed consensus. Moreover, while standing in this line returning looks of reverence with half-hearted smiles, I answered the question that they seemingly ignored. I decided that if I had the choice, I would want to die saving someone’s life. Alas this rather bold statement requires further explanation, my apologies.
All my life I wanted to be a superhero; and, truth be told, it is still my “reach” occupation. It was a career I idolized so dearly that even by the age of 7 it had not completely left my bloodstream to consider this a viable option in my life. As a child, everyday before and after school I watched any and every “hero-cartoon” that basic cable could offer. My father encouraged me and gave me my first nickname, Raphael, after the red Ninja Turtle. He was the Turtle who had a temper, and the one who would always have to hold back from going too far against a criminal or villain. I think now that this splitting of identity together with my father taught me many of the lessons about the type of person he was without stating them explicitly. These heroes wore masks. These masks hid not only their identity, but hid the person as well. Similarly, the same traits I idolized in my superheroes I would come to identify with my father. My father had an alter ego that he hid behind a mask. In the same way that Dr. Jekyll feared losing his resolve long enough to succumb to the let me out whispers of Mr. Hyde. I’ve never seen him take off this mask, and Colleen only saw it for a second. It was his way of protecting the world from that power inside him. He did it to protect the innocent, no matter how it hurt him. I aspired to this life of sacrifice without gratitude, of separation and solitude. And I grew up believing that this was the life I was born to pursue. My father was, my hero. I even know what emblem would be inscribed on his costume: just “g.”
I had been calling my father “G” for longer than I could remember. It was something that I could call him instead of Dad, which he didn’t seem to mind as much as the other parents did. He always liked that I thought he was “down with it.” Long story short, G stands for Gangster, or Old Gangster, and that is what my father was to me. My father wouldn’t remember the names of my friends he had met ten times before, but he would know if it was the first time by what they called him when they shook his hand. “Mr. Gregus” meant a first-timer, who was probably scared stiff at the sight of him. “G” meant that he knew my father, and he gave him the name more out of respect and less out of familiarity. My father was a large man by any standard. He looked like the kind of person who could withstand a train wreck. He was the symbol of solidarity in my life, he was too strong to budge, so I could build my “life-foundation” on him. It took me a long time to realize that superheroes have weaknesses.
Superman’s was kryptonite. G’s was cancer.
Whenever I think about the summer after high school when my father was diagnosed with cancer, I always wish that it had happened earlier. I wish that it happened when I was younger, maybe eight or nine years old, at a time when the forced smiles and mounds of “how’s your dad doin’?” inquiries would have have been enough to pull some emotion from my heart, maybe even a few tears from my eyes. Instead it happened after eighteen years. After my mask had already hardened to my face. I would encounter situations such as these with an alarming calm that came off as bravery. This was expected around home. Once my father is diagnosed with cancer is no time to up and break down. I had three girls to take care of, no time to be selfish.
The summer dragged slowly. The first surgery removed the smaller of the two tumors in his right lung, and the chemotherapy treatments had started in early August. I had been as strong as I could for my sisters and mother. We spent nights home together after days of sitting in the hospital. Somehow now, when I think of that time, even with my father’s second surgery looming at the beginning of September, he still looked like my father. He still looked like the superhero I had idolized growing up. My father leaving my life never really crossed my mind.
There were instances when I would worry no doubt. My mother is the strongest person I have ever encountered. She runs the wing at her hospital that administers chemotherapy to patients with nearly impossible odds of recovery. Her gift was never bringing this home to us. She transformed the constant presence of pain and hurt in her patients into a constant reminder of the blessings in her life, of us. We are as close as two people can be. In this way, it was impossible for my mother to look me in the eye and tell me news in an optimistic way at times. She was strong for us, but she allowed herself to be most exposed with me. She confirmed many of my fleeting fears, but all of these fears were kept behind my mask. These were evils I could defeat on my own, and I didn’t need to bother anyone else with them. There were people who needed my help. I know my father would be proud of this fact if I ever made him aware to it.
Choosing to actually leave for school in the fall was like choosing to abandon my family, or at least that’s how it felt to me. However, for me this was much more than simply starting a new life. This was starting a new life while keeping another life going at home. This person had to cover up the superhero I was at home to make me seem “normal” to all the people who did not know my alter ego at home.
I entered my freshman year at school with a little over 700 students in my class, most of which didn’t have a clue about my father’s already extensive battle with cancer. There were a few people who I went to high school with, but none I would have called friends at the time. These people merely served as a reminder of my other life in Chicago. I kept my life at home separate from the person I was at school. This made it much easier, in my opinion, to make friends without divulging too much so as to say, “Hey, my name is Neal. I went to Fenwick. Here is my baggage.”
When I think of the first two months of my freshman year, I recall it in with a clear split down the middle like a comic book with two characters: At Marquette, my “Clark Kent” would go out every night, sleep little and study less. Just like all the “normal” people did. He would live this way without a sign to anyone that he was different than any of him or her. But every other weekend, and sometimes two in a row, he would hear the call, jump in his “telephone booth” (which was actually the 342 Hiawatha Service Milwaukee, WI to Chicago, IL-Union Station that took an hour and a half one way), and transforms himself into his superhuman alter ego. He was able to withstand my father’s veins turning black and his hair rotting then falling flying off with a breeze like a dandelion in front of his eyes. He was able to drive his sisters home after his father’s episode of alcohol withdrawal from his first surgery (He didn’t recognize any of us). He is ready to shield those innocent from what they can’t bare, and protect them. The only symbol that I could give to idealized super-hero of mine would have to be a G. Everyday in class to make sure my mind was where it should be, I would tattoo a lowercase cursive “g” at the corner where my index finger and thumb met in the middle of the back of my hand. The ink became so embedded in my skin that some days I would shower and not even need to draw it on in my next class to make it distinguishable.
It wasn’t until four weeks had passed that one of my friends asked me why I had been going home so much. This conversation came after a few games of cricket and a few more double vodka tonics (alcohol is not my kryptonite, but it has been found to weaken my powers of defense and distinction in general. I explained the situation as vaguely as I could, and held myself back just enough so my alter ego didn’t reveal my secret identity. But eventually more friends did ask, I assured them everything was fine, and they believed me from my overall blasé attitude towards the situation. This dual persona developed well over time, and gave me time to adjust into two different lives entirely the same, but entirely different.
My father leaving my life never really crossed my mind.
I knew what had happened from the pause in her voice. My little sister Erin didn’t normally pause when she called me. She had a way of making a joke while the phone was still ringing in my pocket so by the time I saw her name and answered the pair of us were laughing hysterically. But not this call. Not this time.
She called and told me that my grandmother had died.
Before this point, I had never been conscious enough in a mature sense to comprehend what it was to truly love a person and then lose that person and the love they empower you with in a single word: died. I was Clark Kent at Marquette when I got the call. I was at the house of an older friend with all of his roommates watching a movie on a rainy Saturday afternoon. I was hung over, and it was one of my best friend’s birthdays. This seemed hardly the appropriate time to receive such news, and because it was so unexpected, what happened to me after that could not have felt more alien, or more painful.
My two worlds collided, and nearly annihilated me.
I was standing when she called, and right after I picked up the phone I hit the ground. My legs gave out and I nearly blacked out from the force of her words. I had never experienced something so powerful in my entire life. It was sublime. My heart immediately felt like it might explode. It was too small to hold all of these whole feelings inside at one time. I didn’t have time to adjust. I found myself in a state of shock as my eyes glazed over with thick scorching tears. I felt them sear lines down my face as every nerve anxiously followed their random downward pattern. The first thought that came to my mind was that I had never felt so free in my entire life. I took the first full breaths I had ever taken in those gasps of hard hot breath. My friend then ran over to pick me up off the ground and take me in the other room so all of his housemates, my friends, wouldn’t have to see what he might have well-known was coming.
Then came the pain.
The first time I had ever been caught so off guard that nothing could contain that terrible emotional hurt that I had avoided my entire life. I didn’t know how to react, what to think. I pushed him off of me and ran outside. I paced back and forth in the rain. The tears falling from my eyes, unstoppable by this point, now mixed with the cold sting of the April rains and made me lose count. I bellowed and cursed in my pitifully human attempt to stop this agony that felt like it was drowning me from the inside. I felt like I knew why people cried. It comes when your heart fills up with something so raw and powerful that a human body can’t cage it in anymore. I was being smothered by the debris of both of my lives. I’d lived a different version of the same lie every day since shaking hands at my grandfather’s funeral. I didn’t know how to start over.
It wasn’t until my grandmother’s wake 3 days later that I would find the inspiration to start over. Colleen went up first of the grandchildren to give a poetic benediction. She was statuesque in presence and poised in delivery (She told me she couldn’t have done it without the hour and half conversation we had the night before over a pack of cigarettes. We talked about how we were lucky to have even heard her sweet voice, and to have felt her warm embrace on many occasion. Erin sat mostly quiet and stared off as we smoked). I was next. I had no idea what I was going to say. And as I walked to the podium, the thought of my father leaving my life finally crossed my mind. I broke down completely. I felt like I had to teach myself to speak in front of the hundreds of people in the church. I finished a rant of heartbroken words, and returned to my seat. As I sat down, Erin stood up and hugged me before she went up. I felt so small in her arms like a newborn child. She held me with the confidence my mother would have if she were the first one in the pew.
I then watched my 18-year-old sister walk up to the podium, and deliver a composed account of our relationship with our grandmother. She made me the kind of proud in that moment I thought I would reserve my son’s first steps, or the first time I hold my daughter.
I pictured myself in her shoes.
I imagined if my father had actually died, and if my life would have came crashing down on me at that podium, or if I would have been able to keep my dual-life intact, to be the hero envisioned. I am not sure if my mask would have come off easily like pulling the wool from my eyes, or if it would have peeled like a scab from my face slowly and painfully. I do not have definite answers to these questions. After my father’s slow and painful recovery, I didn’t really contemplate what could have been. But I know that every time I see a “g” on my hand, to this day, the thought does cross my mind.
—written by Neal T. Gregus