Jim, to everyone who knew him.
Six months before I was born, he suffered a stroke that very nearly killed him. Cerebral hemorrhage. He was 29 years old. He collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. A couple of days later he woke up. The good news was that there was no obvious brain damage. The bad news was that all that blood had formed a clot in his brain that would kill him sooner or later if it wasn't removed.
I'm sure if this happened today they would remove the clot with lasers, or send self-replicating nanites in after it, or maybe just use the transporter and beam the sucker out. But we're talking about 1971 here, which means they had just enough medical knowledge to know that this was not a job for blunt tools and fire.
There was no way around it â€" to get the clot out they were going to have to go through some brain tissue. That brain tissue would be destroyed, and he would suffer some level of brain damage. So, the choice was to live with this time-bomb in his head, waiting for it to kill him at any moment, or to go in and destroy parts of his otherwise healthy brain. It wasn't much of a choice. They did the procedure. Afterwards the left side of his body was paralyzed, and he suffered from epilepsy. As a result, he would need to take anti-seizure medication for the rest of his life. He eventually recovered limited use of his left leg, but from that day on his left arm hung limp at his side, and he never made use of it again. When he sat, he’d lift it into his lap with his right arm and drape it over his left leg.
Dad hung around for a couple of years, sired my younger brother, and then split. He went to North Carolina and spent nearly a decade sleeping on the couches of his hippie friends and drinking his life away. He even mentioned being homeless for a stretch. That's not really the trajectory you’d expect from a guy who was basically one credit away from his master's degree. (English Lit.)
It was an odd sort of brain damage. He'd spent all of his twenties in college, and his brain was packed with a vast body of knowledge, most of it revolving around literature and mythology. (Which is probably how I ended up with “Telemachus” as my middle name.) However, after the stroke he had fantastic difficulty learning new things. Since he otherwise seemed like a man of above-average intelligence, it was often infuriating trying to explain things to him. It was hard to reconcile his apparent intelligence with his apparent thick-headedness, and it made the other person feel like he wasn't paying attention, or didn't care. It took me a while to understand that he wasn't being obstinate, he just had a few isolated spots in his brain that no longer worked properly.
Mom never spoke ill of him. She never openly blamed him for leaving. Never explained to us that he’d run off, preferring drunken free-living to his family. He was just gone, and he probably wasn’t coming back. She always explained the divorce in terms of the two of them not getting along, and she never mentioned his alcoholism. This let my brother and I form our own opinions. We never had the angst-fueled rage that some boys experienced towards their absent fathers.
To this day I am filled with sadness when I see a single mom tell her children, “You have your father to thank for this!” whenever something goes wrong. I understand her frustration, and she's probably right, but the damage she's inflicting on her sons is far worse than whatever hardships they might be dealing with at the moment. A woman might spend years telling her boys what an unreliable, lazy, duplicitous slob their father is. Boys tend to be hungry for knowledge of their father â€" good or bad â€" and will take these lessons, and plant them deep. The woman does this because she's angry at her ex-husband, but the damage she inflicts is against her own boys. Young men are often filled with thoughts over how they compare to their fathers. Am I like him? Am I different? Am I just as bad? Better to discover that your father is a bum than to be told so every day.
My father did sober up a decade later, just as Mom remarried. He never said so, but I strongly suspect the two are related. He left us, thinking he just needed to hit pause on his life. He needed to go get his head together, man. Just deal with this whole disability thing, get it out of his system. Then he’d come back and do the whole family thing.
Suddenly a decade had gone by. He was 42, his wife had married someone else, and his boys were nearly grown. He might have paused his own life, but everyone else had kept going.
|Dad, sometime in the mid-90’s.|
He returned and made peace with my brother and I. He joined AA. Straightened his life out. Because Mom hadn’t poisoned the well, we were able to reconcile with him. Yes, my childhood was harder without him around, but he acted out of ignorance, not malice. In truth, he never really understood what he left behind. Having become a successful father, I can see that the greatest damage he did was to himself. My childhood was a pain, but I'd go through it a hundred times over rather than give up a decade with my own children.
He was never a father to us, but he was a friend and we visited him regularly from the time of his recovery in the mid-80’s to his death in 2000. He lived just long enough to meet the first of his grandchildren before cancer took him at 59. At his funeral, a number of people came up to me, shook my hand, and told me that Dad had saved their life through AA. They said this in earnest, and I believe them.
He lost a great deal â€" probably more than he ever understood â€" but he found redemption in the end, and saved others from his fate. Not a bad deal.
Even allegedly smart people can make life-changing blunders that seem very, very obvious in retrospect.
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