I just found out that fifty years ago, while my father was being buried, I was in the Britton Plaza theater in Tampa watching Gidget Goes to Rome. This wasn’t even a Sally Field or Sandra Dee Gidget or a Deborah Walley Gidget. It was a Cindy Carol Gidget, probably the least known Gidget of the Gidget franchise. A movie so bad that Netflix doesn’t even offer it. They never even bothered putting it on VHS or Betamax, much less a DVD. I was watching the lousiest Gidget movie ever made while the rest of my family was sobbing over my father’s casket at a cemetery across the bridge in St. Petersburg.
The 50th anniversary of my father’s death was last week , and it started a seemingly endless stream of e-mails back and forth between my sister and me, and, as it turns out, almost everything I remember about that day for the last fifty years has been wrong. Two things I got right: our mother told us in the den of our house, and after we all finished crying until we had no tears left, and after my fears of having to move to the Poor House were put on hold, my mother’s best friend was waiting for us in the kitchen with big glasses of Coca-Cola with ice she crushed with a rolling pin.
As my sister and I swapped e-mails last week, I learned that everything else was wrong. I thought we stayed with our next door neighbors during the funeral. I have to believe my sister, because she was 9 and I was 6, so her brain was (and still is) more developed than mine. All I got right is that I learned my dad was dead and I was sadder than I had ever been in those short six years.
I found this realization quite unnerving. I got through the anniversary day fine, but when I learned the rest of this yesterday, I had to leave my desk at work, go out in my tinted-window car and just lose it, sobbing into a rag made out of a returned polo shirt from a police officer.
When a six year old boy loses his daddy, it is something he does not get over. Ever.
Of course with the passing of time, life gets easier. You learn to adjust with just one parent, something I like to refer to as “making do.” As decades pass, you lose all memory of what his voice sounded like, and from time to time, you sit at your desk at a job you’re not all that thrilled with and stare out the window if you’re lucky enough to have one and fantasize about what might have been different had your dad lived. Would he have influenced me and helped me decide on a career that I never ended up having? Would he have pulled strings and gotten me jobs I loved like so many other of the boys I went to school with? Would I have been a happier person? Or maybe I would have grown to dislike him and rebel against him as I did my mother. I know I still would have been gay, because I knew that before he died. How would he have dealt with that? Would I still be taking antidepressants to curb my obsessive compulsive disorder? Probably not, because I wouldn’t be sitting at my office window obsessing over questions I’ll never be able to get answers to, like I am now.
The subject of death in 1963 was something that wasn’t talked about. It was like some dirty little secret that got swept under the rug and ignored. This was before Elisabeth Kubler-Ross formulated the processes and emotions involved in death and dying decades later when people started to treat death as a part of life. It wasn’t until about 15 years ago that I found out the effect his death had on my Dad’s mother and sisters, and I only found out about that through some letters that my grandmother wrote to my Aunt Kay that I got only after she died. And just a few days ago my cousin told me where she was and how she reacted when she was told about his death. She was working in a bakery and fell apart all over the manager.
So now I’m curious, and I’m going to query the remaining members of my family, of whom there are damned few, to find out where they were and how they reacted. Because back then, we were alone in our grief. We grieved silently and in solitary. Maybe people were given instructions not to say anything so as not to upset those poor 6 and 9 year old Wiley children. Instead, all I felt was isolation and that nobody really cared or was as upset as I was. And that is something that affects you for the rest of your life, or at least it has for me. I don’t have any close friends, because I spent my life pretending that people who call yourself your friends don’t really give a shit about you, even though they truly, earnestly do.
When a boy loses his Daddy at age 6, it’s not uncommon for him to be seated in a restaurant and watch a father and son sitting across from each other in booths, blowing straw wrappers at each other or playing “football” with a piece of notebook paper folded up into a thick, taught triangle. And you get a little weepy eyed and blot your tears in a napkin that you pull from a chrome napkin dispenser. And when your partner asks what’s wrong, you just say you’re having a moment, because if you tell him the real reason you might lose it completely, looking silly as a weeping 40 year old inside a Denny’s restaurant, and a waitress might come over and say, “What’s the matter, hon, are your waffles cold?”
I’ve spent plenty of time in therapy with different therapists. I am pushing 60 years old, so this is the way I am. This is the way I feel, and I’m not going to change. This old dog doesn’t have the energy to learn new tricks. And I’m not wallowing in self-pity. For the most part, my adult life has been terrific. And I am one of the fortunate few people I know who even at this point of his life, knows what it’s like to be genuinely, unconditionally loved.
And that is almost as good as having your father alive.
After all, who else is going to recognize the absurdity of life and maybe write to Turner Classic Movies to see if they’ll broadcast Gidget Goes to Rome?
I’m not optimistic. I’m kind of hoping all the celluloid copies of that film have rotted in their cans.
billwiley.blogspot.com by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.