You Take What You Need From Your Father
Father’s Day has never been a big deal at my house. My dad hates celebrations. He goes through the motions for Christmas because it means a lot to my mom. He’ll put up with Easter because it means he gets to eat ham. “You can pretty much get to do whatever you want if you give me ham,” he’s said many times in my life. But Father’s Day is technically his holiday, and therefore he feels he has the right to squash it in our house.
“Anyone can fucking procreate, and most eventually do. I refuse to celebrate a statistical probability,” he announced on Father’s Day when I was seventeen.
I was about to graduate from high school, and my relationship with my dad during the last year had been rocky. Everything we did seemed to annoy one another. I dealt with the friction by avoiding being in the house while he was there, and he dealt with it by repeating the phrase, “You mind? I’m watching the fucking Nature Channel.”
So when he told me on the morning of Father’s Day that year that he would not partake in a celebration, frankly, I was fine with it. But my mother was not. That night I sat on my bed reading a brochure from San Diego State University, where I was heading in the fall, when the door to my room opened and my father entered.
“Sorry to interrupt whatever it is you’re doing,” he said.
“I’m just looking at some of the classes they have at State,” I said.
“Oh yeah? Like what?”
“You want to know?”
“Ah, fuck it, not really. Listen, your mother thinks you’re going to go off to college and hate me and then we’re not going to be friends again until I’m dying and I got a wad of shit in my pants. That’s bullshit right?”
“Ah – “
“So, look, I’m not an easy guy to get along with. I know that. But you know I would murder another human being for you if it came down to it. Murder. Fucking homicide. If it came down to it.”
“Why would you need to do that for me?” I said.
“I don’t know. Maybe you get mixed up in some gambling shit or you screw some guy’s wife or – don’t matter. Not my point. My point is: I may seem like an asshole, but I mean well. And I want to tell you a story,” he said, taking a seat on the foot of my bed before quickly jumping up.
“Your bed smells like shit. Where can I sit that doesn’t smell like shit?”
I pointed to my desk chair, which was covered with dirty clothes. He brushed the clothes onto the ground and collapsed in the chair.
“Just for your information, this chair also smells like shit. This isn’t a non-‐shit-‐smelling option. In case a girl comes over or something.”
“What’s your story, Dad?” I snapped.
“I ever tell you how I mangled my arm?” he asked, pointing to the large, white crescent-‐shaped scar that practically circled his entire elbow.
“Yeah, lots of times. You were, like, ten and you were on the farm and you fell off a tobacco wagon, then the wagon rolled over it.”
“Right. But I ever tell you what happened after the wagon rolled over it?”
He leaned back in the chair. “I was laying on the ground, bones poking through my skin. Your Aunt Debbie is just going ape-‐shit. They pop me in our car, and we drive forty-‐five minutes to Lexington to the doctor’s. This is 1946 Kentucky, and my town was a shit stain on a map so we had to drive to the city. So the doc sees me, dresses the wounds best he can, and puts me up in the hospital bed. At this point I’m about to pass out on account of the pain.”
“I almost had that happen once,” I interrupted.
No you didn’t. So anyway, I’m lying in my hospital bed when your Grandpa gets there. And your Grandpa was a tough son of a bitch. He wasn’t like how you knew him; he softened up in his nineties. So Grandpa grabs the doc, and your Aunt Debbie and the two of them go outside my room. I can hear them talking, but they don’t know that. The doc tells your Grandpa that they think there’s a good chance that an infection has already taken hold in my arm. And Grandpa, in that scratchy voice he’s got, asks what that means. And the doc tells him it means they have some medicine they can give me that might kill the infection, but it might not, and if it doesn’t, I’ll die.”
“You heard the doctor say that?”
“What’d you do?”
“What do you mean? I had fucking bones coming out of my elbow. I didn’t do shit. So the doc tells Grandpa that there’s a 50/50 chance the medicine works. But then he says there’s another option. He tells Grandpa if they amputate my arm at the elbow, there’s a 100 percent chance that I’ll live.”
“What did Grandpa say?” I asked, inching toward the edge of the bed.
“He said, ‘Give him the medicine.’ And the doc says, ‘But there’s a 50 percent chance he’ll die.’ Then it’s quiet for a bit. Nobody making a fucking peep. Then I hear Grandpa clear his throat and say, ‘Then let him die. There ain’t no room in this world for a one-‐armed farmer.”
My dad fell silent and leaned back in the chair, stretching his legs out.
My dad hadn’t told me many stories about his father at this point, and I wasn’t quite sure how he felt about the man. This was the first time I had gotten a glimpse.
“Man, I’m really sorry, Dad.”
“Sorry for what?” he asked, his face morphing into a look of confusion as he sat up straight in the chair.
“Well, that’s, I don’t know, that’s really… messed up. I can’t believe Grandpa did that.”
“What in the fuck are you talking about? The man saved my arm! They were going to cut off my arm and he saved it. That’s my point: Grandpa could be an asshole sometimes but when it came down to it he was there for me.”
“That’s what you took from that?”
“Hell yes. I don’t know what else you were expecting me to take. Imagine me with one goddamned arm. Be a fucking disaster. Anyway, just like Grandpa cared about me, I care about you and I don’t want you out there hating me, cause I don’t hate you. I love the shit out of you.”
He stood up, ironing his pants’ front with his hands.
“Jesus H. Christ, do something about the fucking smell in this room.”
Fourteen years later, on this Father’s Day, despite his reluctance to celebrate the holiday, I’d like to thank my dad for everything he’s done for me and advise him: If a wagon ever crushes me, let’s not roll the dice. Cut off my arm, Dad. There’s more than enough room in this world for a one-‐armed writer.
~Justin Halpern June 2011