Archive for January, 2014

A story about a lie

Monday, January 27th, 2014

I want to tell you about the time that I lied to my father. Now, I know that isn’t specific enough. We have all lied to our parents. That’s probably how we learned to lie. And there’s a sliding scale to that. The story I’m about to tell isn’t about the first time I lied to my dad. I don’t think it’s even about the worst lie I ever told him. I don’t recall a lie quite as deliberate as this, though. At least, not until that point in my life.

I was 16 years old. I had just obtained my driver’s license. I went the traditional route in learning to drive. Driver’s Ed on Saturday mornings with a guy I was sort-of friends with. It’s odd, those years when you phase through friendships, Venn diagrams of shifting alliances and connections. Tony was a tangential friend, but, for a brief window, he was part of the computer club, somewhere within the nerd core back when the nerd timeline was in a gutter of disrespect and invisibility. During our driving classes, though, Tony and I didn’t talk. I think he had already shifted into another tangent (he later became a lead artist for the Mortal Kombat games, which is pretty cool).

Anyway, prior to Driver’s Ed, my dad had taken the time to teach me the ropes. My father had started servicing and driving semi-trucks when he was in his early teens. Later, when I was a few years old, our family car was a ’69 Plymouth Roadrunner that he took onto the drag strip on weekends. The man knew how the drive. So he took me out in his pickup, onto the highway, and attempted to show me (a) steering, (b) acceleration and braking, (c) traffic navigation and highway merger, and (d) manual-transmission shifting, all in a single glorious composite. It didn’t work out so well (the truck remained unscathed).

After my “panic on the entrance ramp” moment, we down-shifted to a friendlier method. I drove the family 1977 Pontiac Grand Prix (two-door) around the cemetery. Slow turns, no traffic and, as my parents joked, everyone was already dead. There was some sort of “break, break, break!” moment, but, again, no actual vehicular damage.

Not yet.

My dad was pretty amazing at keeping his vehicles in great condition. In fact, I think he might have spent as much time teaching me how to wash and wax a car as teaching me how to drive it. He had his method of keeping the car always-wet while he soaped up various zones, so that this massive 1977 beast would be spotless and gleaming by the end. He also had his methods for mowing the lawn and shoveling the driveway. Washing the house. Cleaning the gutters. Wiping down the shower. Folding clothes. Kicking ass at Monopoly.

His truck, a 1976 Chevy, was in even better condition than the Grand Prix. Meticulously maintained, back in the days when a person could keep it all together without having to rely on a mysterious chip. By the time he graduated to modern models, with anti-lock brakes and computer-monitored everything, he stopped tweaking every little aspect, and actually took his cars to the shops for repairs and such. He still changed his own oil, though. Kept doing that until he got sick.

So my “panic” moment when he took that first stab at teaching me how to drive wasn’t purely rooted in stimuli-saturation. Beyond all of that, I didn’t want to scratch his cherry ride, grind his freaking immaculate gears or, really, appear incompetent in front of someone who could probably drive backwards-donuts while reclined into a full sleep. “Driving the truck” was secondary to all that shit floating through my head.

I obtained my license during the same period that I obtained some pretty serious friendships. There was a core group. We called ourselves “The Psycho 6.” Sometimes there were additional members, or splinter factions. At this point, a week or so after being an official driver, our group was solid. And we were starting to gender-diversify, sprinkling sexual tension across the entire dynamic. Okay, it was really pre-sexual tension. There was mixing and matching of who was holding who’s hand, test-driving crushes and nebulous attractions. I was never an advanced or rambunctious teenager, and still remain a bit of an oblivious idiot.

We had just started to gravitate to K’s house. It was going to be a landing pad for the next few months, watching cartoons and John Hughes movies and eating her family’s food as we shifted structure. I was one of the few with access to wheels, and I had a large enough car to fit all six of the Psychos (or suitable proxies).

We stopped by to pick her up.

For some reason I had decided to “drive crazy” as we waited for her to emerge from her front door. I don’t know why I flipped into that. We all have our goofy moods, right? Moments that we don’t recognize as “moments” until we are knee-deep in them. I have flushed into plenty of “temporary insanity” escapades throughout my life. Back when I was a teenager, it was just a way to show off or entertain or feel out the boundaries. Later, deep into adulthood, they became less temporary, I guess. Less communal.

So I drove backwards. No swerving, just pure technique. I had some of that inherited talent in my blood, and I’ve always felt very comfortable driving, in complete control. So I drove past the house, backwards. Turned around and returned, backwards. Whipped this way and that, backwards, and then scooted into her driveway (frontwards). She hopped into the car, and away we went.

That Grand Prix had a bench seat in the front, which meant that three people could sit up there with relative comfort (it also made for some exciting dates). Paul was squeezed into the middle, next to me, the driver. As we pulled away, we continued our “drive crazy” mission. Paul had a two-hand hold on his half of the steering wheel. I had the other half. We wrestled with each other as we rounded the corner, away from K’s house. As we whipped around, I let my grip give. Paul asserted, and we drove the car around the corner, up over the curb, and into a Stop-sign, all while I V8-accelerated with wanton abandon. We flattened the sign and stripped it from the post. It bounced off the hood and flew away into the grass, and, as Paul released his grip, I corrected the car back onto the road and got the hell out of there.

Sort of.

I stopped about a block away, heart exploding. Then I shifted and eased backwards, slowly, an odd counter-effect to the previous “drive crazy” demonstrations. We hopped out to survey the damage. I didn’t notice much about the car. A tiny ding on the hood, near the windshield (the bounce point). Oh, and there was the sign, some feet away. And there was the signpost, flat on the grass, straddled by tire tracks. I felt a little proud of those tracks. The flat post, the tracks, it was a clear visual story. A little sliver of vandal legend, really. I still feel proud of that image. Weird.

I grabbed the sign and threw it into the trunk, and we rendezvoused with the rest of the gang. Yes, I was officially “crazy” and goofy and funny and all that shit. We gave someone the sign to hide away, a trophy or albatross. Then K mentioned that her mom had been standing in the door the entire time, watching us.

I was never worried that her mom was going to report me. I was embarrassed. Yeah, I’m goofy and weird, but I don’t play with my friends’ lives. It was the worst way to make an impression. Some weeks later, I finally met her and she served me pie, didn’t talk about the car thing at all. I don’t remember what kind of pie it was. Don’t remember how it tasted. But it was the best pie. It was the pie of acceptance. The pie of forgiveness. That is the best kind of pie you can give someone, and I’m still thankful to K’s mom.

Thank you for giving me a chance to be better than that idiot.

The next day my dad washed the car. I came outside, and he said he wanted to show me something.

“Look at that on the hood.”


“Have any idea how that got there?”

Um, no.

“There’s a mark on the front bumper too.”

I took a look. He waited. My heart accelerated through its own “drive crazy” zig-zags. I didn’t know what to say, so I clammed up.

“Looks like someone hit it or something, maybe a baseball bat?”

I nodded. Sure. That seemed somewhat plausible. Still, he waited. At the time, I thought I was playing it cool. As cool as a deer in the headlights, I guess. And after his waiting, he just nodded and carried on with the day, touched up the hood (the man was always equipped with exact-matching touch-up paint for his vehicles).

But I didn’t see it for what it was. He was giving me a chance to come clean. He was weighing the options, probably thinking about some of the stupid things he had done when he first learned to drive. I’m not certain why he didn’t press it. Maybe he didn’t feel like being the punisher. I had already been through many phases of punishment, and I’m not sure how many of them really worked. I mean, yes, they worked to the degree that I was scared shitless. One time, when I had gotten caught, um, setting a fire (let’s save that story for another time), my dad was out of town, and I ended up worrying myself into such a frenzy over the idea of him finding out, of implied punishment and disappointment, that, in the end, my parents didn’t really do much about it. I think I freaked them out a bit, folding into a miserable fester of anxiety and panic.

I have a son now. There are plenty of times when I need to be firm, even apply some sort of discipline. Times when I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I don’t want him to be afraid of me. I hate that idea. It sickens me. And I’ll bet that my dad was also sick of it, just tired of being that person in my life.

So time slipped forward. He never mentioned the mysterious blemishes, and I never drove crazy again. I ended up owning that car. His immaculate truck was totaled when the police chased a criminal into him in excess of 80 mph. He was okay. I think those cops watched the wrong movies.

As far as deliberate lies go, I know that this one is pretty low-end. It isn’t something that haunted me, really. I would think about it, every few years, if only for a moment. I would wonder if we were ever going to debrief each other, hopefully over a drink.

An interesting thing happens when you lose someone. Some little things turn into Unresolved Issues. These don’t all become REGRETS. Most of them, really, are just bittersweet nuggets that season your soul.

My dad was diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer at the very start of 2005. By early 2006 we all knew that he wouldn’t make it. Then it got into his brain, and those last few months became all-encompassing. His personality, his memory, his reasoning – it all slipped away quite quickly. I had already blocked off time to take care of him, and I had imagined some sort of bonding period, maybe getting in a few final games of Monopoly, watching Star Trek together and bringing up a few things that we had never discussed. Instead, I was in the trenches, keeping myself together by a hair. We had very short moments of lucidity together. I was unprepared and couldn’t guide those moments into anything other than color snapshots of a world that no longer existed.

The car incident resurfaced in my mind. I wanted to talk with him. I wanted to clear the air in some way. I needed that, needed to give him a chance to properly react. He could get mad about it, if he wanted. I was already grown and independent. He wasn’t going to screw me up. I wanted to tell him that: He could tell me the things that he might have been holding back.

But he couldn’t. His brain had spoiled. He was full of pain killers, floating between twilight and a semi-lucid frustration of his situation.

He died. I was at work when it happened. Everything after that was a tornado, from the wake to burying him at the very cemetery where I learned to drive (“don’t worry, everyone is already dead”) to selling the house, picking through history and trying to hang on to the things that might have been important to him. Things that are in a few places in my house, mostly packed up and waiting. Things who’s significance was destroyed when his brain collapsed.

So I’m taken back to that moment when he showed me the damage on the car, giving me a chance to confess. He’s standing there, waiting. I don’t know what he’s thinking. Disappointment? Resignation? When he died, my memories of him fragmented and took on independent existences, frozen moments like holographic photographs. He’s waiting, and I’m there, too. Frozen.

There are other fragments, too:

He is telling a story to the family, getting up and pacing about the room like a duck, cracking everyone up.

He is planting flowers in front of the house on a warm Spring day.

He is standing at his dresser, full of cancer, wondering why he didn’t get dressed and go to work.

He is watching the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation with me, when it first aired, both of us really excited that the show is back on the air.

He is eating pizza, sweating.

He is helping me hand-feed raccoons near our campfire at the dunes.

He is lying on the hospice bed, eyes half-open. Dead.

For a good year after he died, that last one was the only thing I had in my head. I couldn’t see around it. Couldn’t remember his voice. Once I had a kid of my own, I found ways to mine the better memories. You can’t be so selective, though. The hard ones sometimes come up as you’re shaping and preserving the tender ones.

So: I’ll never be able to talk with him about the car. He will never have the chance to forgive me for that, as K’s mom had done with that pie. And I’m bringing this up to communicate something important.

It is never too late to have that conversation with someone, to take the time to clear the air. Well, it’s never too late to do that while you are all alive and thinking. I assumed that I would have the chance. Then I lost that chance, and a moment that needed closure has been left adrift. It is attempting to create its own closure, and sometimes, when I am really down on myself, I fill it in with negative extrapolations.

I’ve been very down lately. I am very conscious of using this experience of losing my parent to communicate some other thing, some other regret. Many of my closest friends have lost parents, and, to those people, I know that you’ve been through some of these thoughts, that some of you have dealt with extremes that are far beyond this, having to make decisions that no one else had the strength to make. We go through those times, and then settle into our new lives, for life is never anything close to the same after a parent is gone.

I suppose this story of a lie is a call to harness the moment. To assume that today is the last chance you’ll have to say something. It’s an existentialist cliché, I know. Live life as if you will die tomorrow. On a more granular level, I recognize that we would benefit by living life with the knowledge that nothing will stay the same, that these dependencies that you take for granted can and will shift or disappear. They have to.